Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Lesson 2: From Courage to Freedom: Slavery's Dehumanizing Effects


The Lesson


One of Douglass's goals in his autobiography is to illustrate beyond doubt that slavery had an insidious, spirit-killing effect on the slaveholder as well as the slave. In other words, in the master-slave relationship both parties suffered, whether it was spiritual corruption, physical pain, or both. Douglass asks his readers to consider the effects of this "peculiar institution" on humanity.

Guiding Questions

  • How does Frederick Douglass's skilled use of language paint a realistic portrait of slavery?
  • According to Douglass, what were some of the effects of slavery upon the slave? Upon the slaveholder?

Learning Objectives

In the process of completing this curriculum unit, students will be able to:

  • Analyzing and understand a specific type of historical and literary primary document, the slave narrative/autobiography.
  • Recognize and explain the use and effectiveness of precise word choice, imagery, irony, and rhetorical appeals.
  • Learn to look for and contrast instances of reality and romanticized myth by using the slave narrative as a source for historical study.
  • Explore Douglass's argument that slavery is not only dehumanizing to the slave but to the slave-owner.

Preparation Instructions

  • Review the Introduction and the Preparing sections of the Curriculum Unit Overview Locate and bookmark suggested materials and other useful websites. If necessary, download and print out any documents you will use and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing.
  • This lesson plan covers Chapter Six and Chapter Seven of Douglass's Narrative.
  • Review persuasive appeals, imagery, irony, repetition, and connotative and denotative language (see Curriculum Unit Overview for more information).
  • Download, duplicate, and pass out copies of the worksheet, available as a PDF document. Alternatively, have students copy the text from Douglass's narrative and paste it into a word processing document, where they can underline or highlight important words and write notes on Douglass's rhetorical appeals.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Chapter Six—The Dehumanizing Effect of Slavery on the Slave Owner

In Chapter Six, Douglass uses the example of his new master and mistress, Mr. Hugh and Sophy Auld, to reveal how slavery dehumanizes the slave owner as well as the slave. Students should focus on the first three paragraphs in particular. Have them underline or note any words that they think help shape Douglass's argument and then have them answer the following questions.

  1. What initially keeps Sophy Auld from treating Douglass as a slave?
  2. Evaluate the last sentences of Douglass's first paragraph. Characterize the underlined words in this passage. How does this word choice help Douglass prove his point that slavery hurts the slave owner? How does Douglass's appearance of concern for Mrs. Auld emphasize slavery's debilitating effects on her/him?
    • Students might note that Douglass describes Mrs. Auld at first as "Her face was made of heavenly smiles, and her voice of tranquil music." He then notes the change in her by writing: "But, alas! This kind heart had but a short time to remain such. The fatal poison of irresponsible power was already in her hands, and soon commenced its infernal work. That cheerful eye, under the influence of slavery, soon became red with rage; that voice, made all of sweet accord, changed to one of harsh and horrid discord; and that angelic face gave place to that of a demon."
  3. In paragraph 3 of Chapter Six, Douglass quotes Mr. Auld forbidding his wife to teach young Frederick how to read: "Now if you teach that nigger how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy."

This passage offers both a portrait in comparison between Mr. Auld and his wife, as well as serves as a turning point in Douglass's life.

  • How does Douglass's quotation of Mr. Auld serve Douglass's own persuasive aims?
  • How does this information prove to be a turning point in Frederick Douglass's life?
  • What revelation occurs to him in this chapter? And what irony is involved in this revelation?
  • Have the students consider the importance of literacy and the effectiveness of using illiteracy as a tool of control. What are some things that they might normally do in the course of an average day that they could not do because they were illiterate? Have the students focus on the ways in which they would be limited and their lives contained.
Activity 2. Chapter Seven—The Courage to be Intellectually Free

In Chapter 7, paragraph 2, Douglass provides more evidence and conviction that slavery corrupts the slave owner or in this case, Mrs. Auld, the slave owner's wife. Keep in mind that 19th century America was also known for its cult of domesticity and sentimentality—the belief that women were the moral standard bearers in American society. What does it say about society if a woman can behave as Mrs. Auld does?

My mistress was, as I have said, a kind and tender-hearted woman; and in the simplicity of her soul she commenced, when I first went to live with her, to treat me as she supposed one human being ought to treat another. In entering upon the duties of a slaveholder, she did not seem to perceive that I sustained to her the relation of a mere chattel, and that for her to treat me as a human being was not only wrong, but dangerously so. Slavery proved as injurious to her as it did to me. When I went there, she was a pious, warm, and tender-hearted woman. There was no sorrow or suffering for which she had not a tear. She had bread for the hungry, clothes for the naked, and comfort for every mourner that came within her reach. Slavery soon proved its ability to divest her of these heavenly qualities. Under its influence, the tender heart became stone, and the lamblike disposition gave way to one of tiger-like fierceness. The first step in her downward course was in her ceasing to instruct me. She now commenced to practise her husband's precepts. She finally became even more violent in her opposition than her husband himself. She was not satisfied with simply doing as well as he had commanded; she seemed anxious to do better. Nothing seemed to make her more angry than to see me with a newspaper. She seemed to think that here lay the danger. I have had her rush at me with a face made all up of fury, and snatch from me a newspaper, in a manner that fully revealed her apprehension. She was an apt woman; and a little experience soon demonstrated, to her satisfaction, that education and slavery were incompatible with each other.

Despite Mrs. Auld's best efforts to shut Frederick up in "mental darkness," he perseveres and learns to read. Have students focus on the following passage and answer the questions:

  1. Whom does Douglass find to teach him?
  2. How does he learn?
  3. How does Douglass use irony to reinforce slavery's dehumanizing influence? See paragraph 4. "The plan which I adopted, and the one by which I was most successful, was that of making friends of all the little white boys whom I met in the street. As many of these as I could, I converted into teachers. With their kindly aid, obtained at different times and in different places, I finally succeeded in learning to read. When t was sent of errands, I always took my book with me, and by doing one part of my errand quickly, I found time to get a lesson before my return. I used also to carry bread with me, enough of which was always in the house, and to which I was always welcome; for I was much better off in this regard than many of the poor white children in our neighborhood. This bread I used to bestow, upon the hungry little urchins, who, in return, would give me that more valuable bread of knowledge. I am strongly tempted to give the names of two or three of those little boys, as a testimonial of the gratitude and affection I bear them; but prudence forbids;--not that it would injure me, but it might embarrass them; for it is almost an unpardonable offence to teach slaves to read in this Christian country. It is enough to say of the dear little fellows, that they lived on Philpot Street, very near Durgin and Bailey's ship-yard. I used to talk this matter of slavery over with them. I would sometimes say to them, I wished I could be as free as they would be when they got to be men. "You will be free as soon as you are twenty-one, but I am a slave for life! Have not I as good a right to be free as you have?" These words used to trouble them; they would express for me the liveliest sympathy, and console me with the hope that something would occur by which I might be free.

Students might consider, for example, Douglass' juxtaposition of the childrens' hunger next to the description of the "unpardonable offense" of teaching slaves to read in this "Christian country." How does the hypocrisy inherent in slavery bleed over in other aspects of daily life?


Have students re-examine these passages and write a short response paper exploring one example of Douglass effectively showing how an opponents' rhetoric is faulty. Possible examples include the misuse of Christianity, Mr. Auld's explanation for the problem with teaching slaves to read, or another situation contained in these two chapters. How does Douglass effectively dispute these claims? What rhetorical devices aid him in this task?

The Basics

Grade Level


Time Required

1-2 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > People > African American
  • Literature and Language Arts > Place > American
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Common Core
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Biography
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Civil Rights
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Essay
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Slavery
  • Compare and contrast
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Discussion
  • Historical analysis
  • Interpretation
  • Literary analysis
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Online research
  • Writing skills
  • Mary Edmonds (AL)