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    Chapter 7

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    Chapter 8
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    I lived in Master Hugh's family about seven years.
    During this time, I succeeded in learning to read and
    write. In accomplishing this, I was compelled to re-
    sort to various stratagems. I had no regular teacher.
    My mistress, who had kindly commenced to instruct
    me, had, in compliance with the advice and direc-
    tion of her husband, not only ceased to instruct, but
    had set her face against my being instructed by any
    one else. It is due, however, to my mistress to say
    of her, that she did not adopt this course of treat-
    ment immediately. She at first lacked the depravity
    indispensable to shutting me up in mental darkness.
    It was at least necessary for her to have some training
    in the exercise of irresponsible power, to make her
    equal to the task of treating me as though I were
    a brute.

    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 sus-
    tained 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 in-
    fluence, 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 be-
    came 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 incom-
    patible with each other.

    From this time I was most narrowly watched. If I
    was in a separate room any considerable length of
    time, I was sure to be suspected of having a book,
    and was at once called to give an account of myself.
    All this, however, was too late. The first step had
    been taken. Mistress, in teaching me the alphabet,
    had given me the ~inch,~ and no precaution could pre-
    vent me from taking the ~ell.~

    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 teach-
    ers. With their kindly aid, obtained at different times
    and in different places, I finally succeeded in learn-
    ing to read. When I was sent of errands, I always
    took my book with me, and by going one part of
    my errand quickly, I found time to get a lesson be-
    fore 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 chil-
    dren in our neighborhood. This bread I used to be-
    stow upon the hungry little urchins, who, in return,
    would give me that more valuable bread of knowl-
    edge. 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 pru-
    dence forbids;--not that it would injure me, but it
    might embarrass them; for it is almost an unpar-
    donable offence to teach slaves to read in this Chris-
    tian 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 con-
    sole me with the hope that something would occur
    by which I might be free.

    I was now about twelve years old, and the thought
    of being ~a slave for life~ began to bear heavily upon
    my heart. Just about this time, I got hold of a book
    entitled "The Columbian Orator." Every opportu-
    nity I got, I used to read this book. Among much of
    other interesting matter, I found in it a dialogue be-
    tween a master and his slave. The slave was repre-
    sented as having run away from his master three
    times. The dialogue represented the conversation
    which took place between them, when the slave was
    retaken the third time. In this dialogue, the whole
    argument in behalf of slavery was brought forward
    by the master, all of which was disposed of by the
    slave. The slave was made to say some very smart as
    well as impressive things in reply to his master--
    things which had the desired though unexpected ef-
    fect; for the conversation resulted in the voluntary
    emancipation of the slave on the part of the master.

    In the same book, I met with one of Sheridan's
    mighty speeches on and in behalf of Catholic eman-
    cipation. These were choice documents to me. I read
    them over and over again with unabated interest.
    They gave tongue to interesting thoughts of my own
    soul, which had frequently flashed through my mind,
    and died away for want of utterance. The moral
    which I gained from the dialogue was the power of
    truth over the conscience of even a slaveholder. What
    I got from Sheridan was a bold denunciation of slav-
    ery, and a powerful vindication of human rights.
    The reading of these documents enabled me to
    utter my thoughts, and to meet the arguments
    brought forward to sustain slavery; but while they
    relieved me of one difficulty, they brought on an-
    other even more painful than the one of which I was
    relieved. The more I read, the more I was led to
    abhor and detest my enslavers. I could regard them
    in no other light than a band of successful robbers,
    who had left their homes, and gone to Africa, and
    stolen us from our homes, and in a strange land
    reduced us to slavery. I loathed them as being the
    meanest as well as the most wicked of men. As I
    read and contemplated the subject, behold! that very
    discontentment which Master Hugh had predicted
    would follow my learning to read had already come,
    to torment and sting my soul to unutterable anguish.
    As I writhed under it, I would at times feel that
    learning to read had been a curse rather than a bless-
    ing. It had given me a view of my wretched condi-
    tion, without the remedy. It opened my eyes to the
    horrible pit, but to no ladder upon which to get out.
    In moments of agony, I envied my fellow-slaves for
    their stupidity. I have often wished myself a beast.
    I preferred the condition of the meanest reptile to
    my own. Any thing, no matter what, to get rid of
    thinking! It was this everlasting thinking of my con-
    dition that tormented me. There was no getting rid
    of it. It was pressed upon me by every object within
    sight or hearing, animate or inanimate. The silver
    trump of freedom had roused my soul to eternal
    wakefulness. Freedom now appeared, to disappear
    no more forever. It was heard in every sound, and
    seen in every thing. It was ever present to torment
    me with a sense of my wretched condition. I saw
    nothing without seeing it, I heard nothing without
    hearing it, and felt nothing without feeling it. It
    looked from every star, it smiled in every calm,
    breathed in every wind, and moved in every storm.

    I often found myself regretting my own existence,
    and wishing myself dead; and but for the hope of
    being free, I have no doubt but that I should have
    killed myself, or done something for which I should
    have been killed. While in this state of mind, I was
    eager to hear any one speak of slavery. I was a ready
    listener. Every little while, I could hear something
    about the abolitionists. It was some time before I
    found what the word meant. It was always used in
    such connections as to make it an interesting word
    to me. If a slave ran away and succeeded in getting
    clear, or if a slave killed his master, set fire to a
    barn, or did any thing very wrong in the mind of a
    slaveholder, it was spoken of as the fruit of ~abolition.~
    Hearing the word in this connection very often, I set
    about learning what it meant. The dictionary af-
    forded me little or no help. I found it was "the act
    of abolishing;" but then I did not know what was
    to be abolished. Here I was perplexed. I did not
    dare to ask any one about its meaning, for I was
    satisfied that it was something they wanted me to
    know very little about. After a patient waiting, I got
    one of our city papers, containing an account of the
    number of petitions from the north, praying for the
    abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia, and
    of the slave trade between the States. From this
    time I understood the words ~abolition~ and ~abolition-
    ist,~ and always drew near when that word was spoken,
    expecting to hear something of importance to my-
    self and fellow-slaves. The light broke in upon me
    by degrees. I went one day down on the wharf of
    Mr. Waters; and seeing two Irishmen unloading a
    scow of stone, I went, unasked, and helped them.
    When we had finished, one of them came to me
    and asked me if I were a slave. I told him I was. He
    asked, "Are ye a slave for life?" I told him that I
    was. The good Irishman seemed to be deeply af-
    fected by the statement. He said to the other that
    it was a pity so fine a little fellow as myself should
    be a slave for life. He said it was a shame to hold
    me. They both advised me to run away to the north;
    that I should find friends there, and that I should
    be free. I pretended not to be interested in what
    they said, and treated them as if I did not under-
    stand them; for I feared they might be treacherous.
    White men have been known to encourage slaves to
    escape, and then, to get the reward, catch them and
    return them to their masters. I was afraid that these
    seemingly good men might use me so; but I never-
    theless remembered their advice, and from that time
    I resolved to run away. I looked forward to a time
    at which it would be safe for me to escape. I was
    too young to think of doing so immediately; besides,
    I wished to learn how to write, as I might have oc-
    casion to write my own pass. I consoled myself with
    the hope that I should one day find a good chance.
    Meanwhile, I would learn to write.

    The idea as to how I might learn to write was
    suggested to me by being in Durgin and Bailey's
    ship-yard, and frequently seeing the ship carpenters,
    after hewing, and getting a piece of timber ready
    for use, write on the timber the name of that part
    of the ship for which it was intended. When a piece
    of timber was intended for the larboard side, it
    would be marked thus--"L." When a piece was for
    the starboard side, it would be marked thus--"S." A
    piece for the larboard side forward, would be marked
    thus--"L. F." When a piece was for starboard side
    forward, it would be marked thus--"S. F." For lar-
    board aft, it would be marked thus--"L. A." For star-
    board aft, it would be marked thus--"S. A." I soon
    learned the names of these letters, and for what
    they were intended when placed upon a piece of
    timber in the ship-yard. I immediately commenced
    copying them, and in a short time was able to make
    the four letters named. After that, when I met with
    any boy who I knew could write, I would tell him
    I could write as well as he. The next word would be,
    "I don't believe you. Let me see you try it." I would
    then make the letters which I had been so fortunate
    as to learn, and ask him to beat that. In this way I
    got a good many lessons in writing, which it is quite
    possible I should never have gotten in any other way.
    During this time, my copy-book was the board fence,
    brick wall, and pavement; my pen and ink was a
    lump of chalk. With these, I learned mainly how to
    write. I then commenced and continued copying the
    Italics in Webster's Spelling Book, until I could make
    them all without looking on the book. By this time,
    my little Master Thomas had gone to school, and
    learned how to write, and had written over a number
    of copy-books. These had been brought home, and
    shown to some of our near neighbors, and then laid
    aside. My mistress used to go to class meeting at
    the Wilk Street meetinghouse every Monday after-
    noon, and leave me to take care of the house. When
    left thus, I used to spend the time in writing in the
    spaces left in Master Thomas's copy-book, copying
    what he had written. I continued to do this until I
    could write a hand very similar to that of Master
    Thomas. Thus, after a long, tedious effort for years,
    I finally succeeded in learning how to write.
    Next Chapter
    Chapter 8
    Previous Chapter
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