Comments on Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

In the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, the slave Douglass searches for a sense of identity on a Maryland plantation. He is unsure of even the most basic things such as his birthday because slaveowners did not want to tell their slaves when their birthdays were. Even as a child this bothers Frederick. He estimates his age as about 27 or 28 years when he’s writing this narrative. Douglass also has a crisis of identity because he is half black and half white. While his mother was black and a slave, his father was white and also very possibly one of his former masters. He suggests that mixed-race children have a particularly difficult time fitting in in 19th-century society. For one thing, their mistresses resent them because they are a constant reminder of their husbands’ unfaithfulness. As a result, few children of slave owners can please their mistresses.

Douglass is also deprived of having a relationship with his mother, which would give him a sense of self. He is separated from her when he is a baby and only sees her a few times in his entire life. As a result, he reacts to his mother’s death the same way that he would react to hearing about the death of the stranger. Cutting family ties was another way that slave owners used to deprive slaves of their identity.

Slaves could not even distinguish themselves through their clothing since they all received the same clothing allowance. As a child Frederick and the other slave children only had two coarse linen shirts each year. When they outgrew them, children went naked until the next allowance came around.

One of the only ways that a slave on the plantation could distinguish him or herself was by being chosen to run an errand at the main building on the plantation. It was called the Great House Farm. Douglass states, “Few privileges were esteemed higher, by the slaves of the out-farms, than that of being selected to do errands at the Great House Farm…A representative could not be prouder of his election to the American Congress than a slave on one of the out-farms would be of his election to do errands at the Great House Farm. They regarded it as evidence of great confidence reposed in them by their overseers; and it was on this account as well as a constant desire to be out of field from under the driver’s lash, that they esteemed it a high privilege, one worth living for.” It’s difficult to imagine feeling one’s life worth living simply to run an errand, but such was the state of slaves on Col. Lloyd’s plantation.


Frederick Douglass, 1856

Slaves were almost always illiterate. They did have other ways of expressing themselves however, particularly through their singing. Douglass notes that slaves did not, as some whites thought, sing because they were happy. In fact, they sang most often when they were unhappy. He writes, “every tone was a testimony against slavery and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains. The hearing of those wild notes always depressed my spirit, and filled me with ineffable sadness.”

At around seven years old, Douglass leaves the Lloyd plantation to live with his master’s son-in-law in Baltimore. He is now a town rather than a plantation slave, which gives him a few more privileges such as additional food. His mistress teaches Douglass his ABC’s and he learns a few short words. She is stopped, however, by her husband, who suggests that Douglass would not be fit to be a slave if he learned to read and write. “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.” Douglass writes, “from that moment I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom.” Douglass understands that he’ll be able to forge a new life and identity for himself if he learns how to read. He can’t use his mistress as a teacher, but he manages to get reading lessons from the poor white children in the city. He had one advantage over them. Bread was given freely to him, and so he exchanged bread for as he calls it the bread of knowledge.

To some extent, his master is right. The ability to read does make Douglass more unhappy as a slave. “It had given me a view of my wretched condition, without the remedy.” He now has knowledge but is powerless to use it just yet. He dreams of escaping from his master but in the meantime determines to learn how to write. Again he uses the boys in the town to help them accomplish this by challenging them to write more words than he can. By the time he is between 10 and 11 years old, Douglass can read and write. He now has two of the tools he’ll need to forge his new identity as an escaped slave.

Future First Lady: Martha Washington’s Childhood

Like most kids, I learned a lot about George Washington in school. He was celebrated as an American hero and someone whose childhood we should all admire. I knew almost nothing about Martha Washington, except that she was a supportive wife to America’s first president.

Of course, when she was born, Martha had a different last name. The first born of nine children, she was named Martha Dandridge, but her family nicknamed her Patsy. She grew up on a plantation near Williamsburg, Virginia. In the 1700s, the word plantation meant property that was devoted to a single crop, not necessarily thousands of acres of land with a mansion. In Virginia, plantation owners like Martha’s father grew tobacco. Martha did not grow up in a fancy home, but it had two stories, two chimneys, and comfortably housed all the Dandridge children.

With a total of eight siblings, Martha learned to care for children at an early age. Her father John Dandridge had slaves who worked in the fields, but could not afford household slaves. As a result, Martha’s mother taught her how to do every necessary chore. With her mother Frances by her side, Martha learned to kill and cook chickens and other fowl, make clothes and bed linens, wash clothes in a big boiling kettle without burning them, and how to preserve food and make home remedies for illnesses. Based on later accounts of her work stitching clothes for U.S. army soldiers, she learned her lessons well.

In addition to chores, Martha learned the skills she needed to be a success in Virginia society. Dancing was an especially important social skill. Dancing masters traveled to various towns to teach young people, boys and girls, to dance. Learning to dance was a break from chores, but some of the dances had such complex steps that practicing them seemed like a chore. Conversation was also considered an art, and Martha took to it easily. She genuinely enjoyed other people and cared about them—an asset that served her well as First Lady.

Although Martha did not have the same academic education as some young women from New England, she learned to read and enjoyed books all her life. Her grammar and spelling were inconsistent, but she got her point across in letters. She did better in math, which came in handy when she had to manage the business accounts of her first husband, Daniel Custis.

At seventeen, Martha was considered an adult, and she became secretly engaged to Daniel Custis, a wealthy man twenty years older than Martha.  Though it seems strange to us that a young girl would marry someone so much older, young girls often got engaged to older men in the 1700s. Martha and Daniel also genuinely liked each other, which was probably less common.

According to a family account, even as a teenager Martha “excelled in personal charms, which with pleasing manners, and a general amiability of demeanor, caused her to be distinguished amid the fair ones who usually assembled at the court of Williamsburg.” She was not beautiful, but she was pretty and good-natured and conversed easily with everyone. Her charm also won over her future father-in-law John Custis, who originally objected to the match.

After she became a wife, mother, and then a widow, she was courted by George Washington.