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.

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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.

After Dallas: Searching for Peace in a Violent World

In the wake of the Dallas shootings and others across the United States this week, I have felt at a loss for words. This is not a good feeling for a writer, but so much senseless violence, whether motivated by racism or fear or just hate has made me stuck.

I did find this quote from Shakespeare, however.

“How oft the sight of means to do ill deeds / Make deeds ill done!” –Shakespeare, King John.

We need to make it more difficult for people to do ill deeds. I believe that people have a right to own guns to protect themselves and their families from people who would harm them. However, I don’t think the Founding Fathers could have envisioned semi-automatic weapons or rogue police officers. The proliferation and misuse of weapons isn’t our only problem, though.

We also have racism.

The Founding Fathers didn’t envision a society where people who did not look exactly like them would rightfully demand equal rights under the law. All men are created equal? The fine words of the U.S. Constitution didn’t remotely ring true in the 18th century. This week’s events, among others, has made it clear that we still fall short of thinking that everyone is equal.

Many of the Founding Fathers committed “ill deeds” by owning slaves. Sometimes the slaves escaped or even managed to revolt and use weapons against their masters. In many ways, our country still suffers from the evils of slavery.

White and black people too often look at each other with distrust. And when a gun is handy for either side, the results are often disastrous.

Babies aren’t naturally born with a racist gene. They have to be taught to distrust someone who looks different from them. Laws that limit the sale of weapons that only need to be used in war and require background checks are all well and good. However, if children continue to be taught by their families or by their everyday experiences to hate people who are not just like them, ill deeds will be perpetuated.

Moving Toward Civil War: The Presidency of Franklin Pierce

As a young congressman, Franklin Pierce was fond of socializing and drank heavily. To please his wife who hated both Washington, D.C. and his drinking, he agreed to go back to his law practice in New Hampshire. He displeased her when he signed up for the Mexican War. Pierce wanted to serve his country but was a terrible general who suffered from multiple injuries and fainted often.

Portrait of Franklin Pierce

Portrait of Franklin Pierce

When the Democrats nominated him for president in 1852, his main advantage was that he had been out of politics for years and had no enemies. His journey to Washington turned tragic when he and his family were involved in a train wreck. He and his wife were unharmed, but their young son died. Mrs. Pierce refused to accompany her husband to his inauguration and returned to New Hampshire to grieve.

Though he was from a non-slave state, Pierce believed that the Constitution supported slavery. He made Jefferson Davis, future president of the Confederacy, a member of his cabinet. As president he enforced the Fugitive Slave Act that Northerners hated.

He also supported the Kanas Nebraska Act, which allowed people in the Kansas and Nebraska territories to decide whether they wanted slavery in those territories or not. Slave owners and abolitionists rushed into Kansas in an effort to influence the vote on slavery. The clashes between the slave owners and the abolitionists turned violent. Pierce was unable to unite the country or his party while the fighting continued.

Democrats passed over Pierce and nominated James Buchanan for the next election. When the South left the Union, Pierce wrote a letter of support to his friend Jefferson Davis. The letter became public and Pierce was viewed in his own state as a traitor. The increasingly reclusive former president drank so much after his wife’s death that he also died.

Not What their Party Ordered: The Surprising Presidencies of Zachary Taylor and Millard Fillmore

Zachary Taylor

Official White House Portrait of Zachary Taylor

Official White House Portrait of Zachary Taylor

Taylor was best known as a general rather than a politician. In fact, he had never voted in a presidential election. That was somewhat understandable since he was usually busy fighting battles. He earned his nickname “Old Rough and Ready” during the Seminole War in Florida. His men admired the fact that he fought beside them on the front lines. They also liked his independent spirit. Instead of a uniform Taylor wore a straw hat and civilian clothes.

At age sixty-one he led troops into Mexico in the fight for Texas. A new invention, the telegraph, was used for the first time to provide daily progress of the war. News of Taylor’s victories in the Mexican American War made him very popular. Despite or perhaps because his opinion on most issues was unknown, the Whigs chose him as their candidate in 1848.

Since Taylor was a slave owner, southerners expected him to support the expansion of slavery in the new territories of California and New Mexico. Taylor surprised almost everyone. He resolved to leave slavery in states where it existed but opposed its expansion. When Congressmen tried to work out a compromise, Taylor threatened to veto it. He said of the Union, “Whatever dangers may threaten it, I shall stand by and maintain it.”

Taylor never had a showdown with Congress. After a July 4th celebration he drank some tainted milk and died days later of gastritis.

Millard Fillmore

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Official White House Portrait of Millard Fillmore

Taylor’s vice-president Millard Fillmore took office after Taylor’s death. Fillmore grew up in extreme poverty. He was mostly self-educated, but he was encouraged by a schoolteacher named Abigail to study law. Later, Abigail became his wife. Ironically, he was chosen to balance the Whig ticket as a non-slave owner from New York. Yet, unlike Taylor, he was prepared to allow the spread of slavery.

He supported the Compromise of 1850 under which California was made a free state while the New Mexico and Utah territories were left open to slavery. Slavery was abolished in the District of Columbia, but a new fugitive slave law offered $10 to anyone who handed over an African-American to federal authorities. Although Fillmore disliked slavery, he thought that states and not the federal government should decide where it would or would not exist.

After the passage of the Compromise of 1850, Fillmore thought the slavery issue was resolved. Yet both North and South were dissatisfied with the Compromise. The Whigs chose not to nominate Fillmore in the next election. Fillmore looked forward to a happy retirement with his beloved Abigail. Sadly she died before he left Washington.

Fillmore lived for over twenty years after his presidency. He even ran for the office one more time as a third party candidate but lost. During the Civil War he supported the Union. Nevertheless, some never forgot his support of the Fugitive Slave Law. After President Lincoln’s assassination a mob tried to paint Fillmore’s home black.

Presidential Workaholic James K. Polk

Before the election of 1844 former president Andrew Jackson requested James K. Polk to visit him. He told Polk that he wanted someone who favored the annexation of Texas to run for president and promised to back Polk for the job.

Polk had experience serving as governor of Tennessee and as a congressman, but more famous names were being considered. Still, Polk was nominated by the Democrats and won the election with his promise to acquire both Oregon and Texas for the U.S. At his inauguration “Hail to the Chief” was played for the first time.

Portrait of President James K. Polk

Portrait of President James K. Polk

Polk is well-known for accomplishing his expansionist goals. Under his administration Britain ceded Oregon to the U.S. After a costly war with Mexico, Texas, California, and New Mexico became part of the United States, too.

Not everyone was pleased with Polk’s tactics, however. Polk claimed that war with Mexico was forced upon the U.S. because Mexican forces attacked the American troops that, on Polk’s orders, happened to be near the border of the two countries. A new congressman named Abraham Lincoln introduced “spot resolutions,” demanding that Polk identify the spot where American blood was shed on American soil. Indeed, it was unclear whether the troops led by Zachary Taylor had been in Mexican or American territory when fired upon.

Polk’s pro-slavery views offended others who did not want slavery to extend to new U.S. territories. More anti-slavery northerners began to leave the Democratic Party and join the Whigs.

Polk had promised to serve only one term and refused to run for another. He couldn’t have run for office again anyway because he was physically drained by his four years as president. He believed that “No president who performs his duty conscientiously can have any leisure.” Polk refused to delegate tasks and was the first president to insist on staying all summer in the White House despite the heat in Washington. His nearly non-stop work ethic contributed to his death three months after he left office.

Surprising Facts about U.S. President John Quincy Adams

Though he was the first son of a former president to be elected, John Quincy Adams’ presidency was undermined before he even got into office.

The 1824 election was crowded with four Republican candidates: Andrew Jackson, Adams, Henry Clay, and William Crawford. Jackson and Adams received the most votes but neither won outright, so the election results were decided in the House of Representatives where Clay was Speaker of the House. Clay threw his support behind Adams. Afterwards, Adams named Clay as his secretary of state. Jackson supporters claimed without proof that Adams had bribed Clay and did their best to discredit Adams.

John Quincy Adams Official White House Portrait

John Quincy Adams Official White House Portrait

Adams had also inherited his father John Adams’ stubborn refusal to negotiate. His first annual message to Congress contained some good ideas, such as promotion of internal improvements and the creation of a national university. His insistence on broad federal powers and his assertion that government officials did not need to consider the opinions of their constituents made him very unpopular, however. As a result, Congress ignored President Adams’ domestic and foreign policies.

After being voted out of office and replaced by Andrew Jackson, Adams did not retire. Instead, he served as a member of the House of Representatives for 17 years. He was the only president to serve in the House after being president. His family objected to him serving in a lower office, but his election pleased him.

Nicknamed “Old Man Eloquent” for his speeches against slavery, Adams received more respect in the House than as president. He also accomplished more. For example, he helped repeal the gag rule that prevented the House from debating any criticisms of slavery.

Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation

One hundred and fifty years ago on New Years Day, Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln never liked slavery, and he recognized that having slaves gave the southern states advantages in the Civil War. For example, southern slaves worked as cooks or nurses on the sidelines to save soldiers energy for fighting.

In the summer of 1862, Lincoln decided to write an emancipation proclamation. The document declared that any slave in a state that was fighting Union soldiers would be free on January 1, 1863.

Before issuing his proclamation, Lincoln asked his cabinet members to listen to a rough draft. He told them he would use his powers as president in wartime to free slaves who might otherwise help the Union cause. His Secretary of State, William Seward, supported the idea of freeing slaves, but warned Lincoln that the Union army’s losses during the year might influence the public’s opinion. He suggested that the president wait for a battle victory before announcing the emancipation proclamation. Lincoln agreed.

When the South’s General Lee retreated from the North after the battle at Antietam, Lincoln publicly announced his intention to sign the proclamation on January 1, 1863. Some people doubted that he would follow through on his promise, but they were wrong. On the morning of January 1, Lincoln made a major change in the proclamation. Though it still said that “all persons held as slaves” within the rebel southern states “are, and henceforth shall be free,” he added that African Americans could join the Union army. Lincoln knew the Union needed the manpower. In fact, though they served in all black units, between 180,000 and 200,000 black men fought for the Union during the war.

Before he could sign the document, Lincoln and his wife Mary hosted a New Years Day reception at the White House. First government officials mingled with the president, and then the public was invited to stand in a line to shake the president’s hand. Afterwards, Lincoln went back to his office to sign the emancipation proclamation. Lincoln said, “I never, in my life, felt more certain that I was doing right, than I do in signing this paper.” His hands were so stiff after three hours of shaking hands that he waited before signing his name. He said, “If my hand trembles when I sign the Proclamation, all who examine the document hereafter will say, ‘He hesitated.’” After a few moments, Lincoln’s hand felt less numb and he put his signature on the historic document.

The Emancipation Proclamation didn’t free any slaves right away. It only declared the slaves in the rebel states free—something Lincoln could not enforce in 1863. The document was important because it changed the way people thought about the war. Now soldiers in the Union army were fighting not only to bring the southern states back to the Union, but also to free the slaves.

Benjamin Franklin and Slavery

Throughout his life, Benjamin Franklin had a tendency to change his mind on political issues. For example, he initially supported the Stamp Act and only later decided that the American colonies should separate from Britain. Yet often Franklin ended up on the winning side of an argument, even if the argument was not settled in his lifetime.

Like his opinion of the American Revolution, Franklin’s views on slavery changed, too. He owned a couple of slaves at various times of his life and published ads for slave auctions when he worked as a printer. Still, he and his wife Deborah made sure that their slaves received an education from a Philadelphia school for black students. Most slave owners didn’t think slaves could learn, but after Franklin visited the school he commented that he had “higher opinions of the natural capacities of the black race.” He also published a few articles arguing against slavery. Until 1787, however, Franklin never gave the abolition of slavery his complete support.

By 1787, the year of the Constitutional Convention, Franklin became president of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery. During the convention, he sought to include a statement about the freeing of slaves in the U.S. Constitution. Like many of the Founding Fathers, however, Franklin feared that the union between northern and southern states would not be created if he argued too forcefully for the end of slavery.

Franklin’s silence on the abolition of slavery lasted only until the Constitution was ratified and the new federal government was in place. In 1790, he submitted a petition on the society’s behalf to the U.S. Congress. Franklin declared that slavery contradicted the principles of the American Revolution, particularly the ideas that all men were created equal and that they were entitled to liberty. The petition stated that Congress had an obligation to ensure “the blessings of liberty to the people of the United States without distinction of color.”

The anti-slavery petition set off a heated debate in Congress. It angered pro-slavery advocates like Congressman James Jackson of Georgia. He stated that the Bible supported slavery and that slaves were needed to do the work on the South’s plantations. Though in poor health, Franklin didn’t miss the opportunity to mock Jackson’s speech in print. He compared it to a speech supposedly given one hundred years earlier by an Algerian pirate who had Christian slaves. The pirate argued that it was “in the interest of the state to continue the practice; therefore let the petition be rejected.” He also said that his religion permitted the enslavement of Christians, and that they were better off living as slaves than as free men in Europe “where they would only cut each other’s throats in religious wars.”

Like Franklin’s fictional Algerian pirate, Congress rejected the petition to end slavery. After the debate ended, George Washington wrote to a friend, “the slave business has at last [been] put to rest and will scarce awake.” The contradiction of slavery and the promises of liberty for all Americans awoke again in the nineteenth century, resulting in the Civil War. Once again, Franklin had picked the point of view that eventually prevailed.

From Preserving the Union to Emancipation: President Lincoln’s Views on Slavery

President Lincoln believed that he would be best remembered for writing the Emancipation Proclamation. Although many people remember him as the president who freed the slaves, some of the facts surrounding that achievement have been clouded with the passing of time.

Although Abraham Lincoln hated slavery, his goal was not to free the slaves at the beginning of his presidency. Instead, he wanted the Southern states to remain in the Union and tried to prevent them from pulling out. He promised Southerners that he would not interfere with slavery in states where it already existed, but this assurance was not enough to prevent the Civil War.

As the war dragged on, however, Lincoln realized that freeing the slaves and preserving the Union were inseparable issues. Lincoln informed his cabinet of his plan to issue emancipation for the slaves in summer 1862, but was advised to wait for a Union army victory. When victory came, he pulled the proclamation out of his desk drawer. In his message to Congress in December 1862, he explained his actions: “In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free—honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve.”

Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. It stated that from that date “all persons held as slaves within any state or states, wherein the constitutional authority of the United States shall not then be practically recognized…shall then, thenceforward, and forever, be free.” Criticism came from within his own party. Conservative Republicans thought it was too radical, while the radicals complained that the proclamation only freed slaves in Southern states that the Union army had no authority to help.

In the military, some soldiers resented having to fight a war for the slaves and others did not want blacks to have the opportunity to join the Union army. Lincoln, however, felt that the former slaves had a stake in fighting for their freedom.  He was also impressed by the abilities of black troops on the battlefield. He wrote that when peace came, “there will be some black men who can remember that, with silent tongue, and clenched teeth, and steady eye, and well-poised bayonet, they have helped mankind on to this great consummation [eliminating slavery and saving the Union]; while…there will be some white ones unable to forget that, with malignant heart, and deceitful speech, they have strove to hinder it.” In just a few years, Lincoln transformed from a politician who wanted little to do with the issue of slavery, to a statesman who wanted to destroy it.