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What slaveholders feared most
Frederick Douglass learns to read
“Very soon after I went to live with Mr. and Mrs. Auld, she very kindly commenced to teach me the A, B, C,” Frederick Douglass recalled in the memoir he wrote after escaping slavery. Douglass had been born into slavery in Maryland in the late 1810s. He never knew the year of his birth, which he later inferred to be 1817 or 1818. Nor did he know the identity of his father, except that he was a white man. “He was admitted to be such by all I ever heard speak of my parentage,” Douglass said. “The opinion was also whispered that my master was my father, but of the correctness of this opinion, I know nothing; the means of knowing was withheld from me.”
He knew hardly more of his mother. “My mother and I were separated when I was but an infant—before I knew her as my mother,” he wrote. “It is a common custom, in the part of Maryland from which I ran away, to part children from their mothers at a very early age. Frequently, before the child has reached its twelfth month, its mother is taken from it and hired out on some farm a considerable distance off, and the child is placed under the care of an old woman, too old for field labor.” Whether this was to free up the mother for labor or to weaken the child’s bond with the mother, Douglass didn’t know. If the latter, it worked in his case, for he saw her a mere handful of times in his life and grew up as a de facto orphan.
When he was seven or eight he was chosen to be playmate and body servant to a son of Hugh and Sophia Auld of Baltimore. “Mr. and Mrs. Auld were both at home, and met me at the door with their little son Thomas, to take care of whom I had been given,” Douglass remembered. “And here I saw what I had never seen before; it was a white face beaming with the most kindly emotions; it was the face of my new mistress, Sophia Auld. I wish I could describe the rapture that flashed through my soul as I beheld it. It was a new and strange sight to me, brightening up my pathway with the light of happiness. Little Thomas was told, there was his Freddy, and I was told to take care of little Thomas. And thus I entered upon the duties of my new home with the most cheering prospect ahead.”
With the advantage of experience and hindsight, Douglass later reflected on the difference between slavery in the countryside and slavery in cities. “A city slave is almost a freeman, compared with a slave on the plantation. He is much better fed and clothed and enjoys privileges altogether unknown to the slave on the plantation. There is a vestige of decency, a sense of shame, that does much to curb and check those outbreaks of atrocious cruelty so commonly enacted upon the plantation. He is a desperate slaveholder who will shock the humanity of his non-slaveholding neighbors with the cries of his lacerated slave. Few are willing to incur the odium attaching to the reputation of being a cruel master.”
City life and her relative youth had shielded Sophia Auld from the culture and habits of the slave-owning class; in her innocence she treated Douglass as a little boy rather than a piece of property. Perhaps she thought he would make a more instructive companion to her son if he could read and write. In any event, she commenced teaching him the letters of the alphabet. “After I had learned this, she assisted me in learning to spell words of three or four letters,” Douglass recounted.
The lessons didn’t last long. “Mr. Auld found out what was going on, and at once forbade Mrs. Auld to instruct me further, telling her, among other things, that it was unlawful, as well as unsafe, to teach a slave to read,” Douglass wrote. Hugh Auld might have been exaggerating for his wife’s benefit, or Douglass might have misremembered, but teaching slaves to read wasn’t illegal in Maryland nor, until the 1830s, in most other Southern states. Especially in cities, slaves were often hired out, and a literate slave could fetch higher wages than an illiterate one. But the Nat Turner rebellion in Virginia in 1831, made possible in part by the ability of Turner and the other leaders to communicate by note, prompted a reconsideration, and several Southern states thereupon outlawed teaching slaves to read and write.
Hugh Auld wasn’t thinking about a broad rebellion but about a personal kind of insurgency. “If you give him an inch,” Auld said of the average slave, “he will take an ell”—a measure of textiles equal to six hands’ breadth. Auld added that literacy would be of no benefit to Douglass, either. Summarizing the disadvantages of literacy, Auld said, in Douglass’s later paraphrase, “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."
Auld was exactly right. “These words sank deep into my heart, stirred up sentiments within that lay slumbering, and called into existence an entirely new train of thought,” Douglass recalled. “It was a new and special revelation, explaining dark and mysterious things with which my youthful understanding had struggled, but struggled in vain. I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty—to wit, the white man's power to enslave the black man.” The white man could read and do all the things reading made possible; the black could not read and could do none of them.
Auld’s prohibition made literacy more appealing to Douglass. “From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom,” Douglass said. “It was just what I wanted, and I got it at a time when I least expected it. Whilst I was saddened by the thought of losing the aid of my kind mistress, I was gladdened by the invaluable instruction which, by the merest accident, I had gained from my master. . . . The very decided manner with which he spoke, and strove to impress his wife with the evil consequences of giving me instruction, served to convince me that he was deeply sensible of the truths he was uttering. It gave me the best assurance that I might rely with the utmost confidence on the results which, he said, would flow from teaching me to read. What he most dreaded, that I most desired.”
Douglass continued his instruction on the sly, on his own. Eventually he could read newspapers that came to Baltimore from the North, along with the occasional abolitionist tract. Reading opened his eyes to a world beyond Maryland, beyond slavery. The more he read, the more he became determined to enter that other world. A first attempt to escape involved Douglass in forging written passes for himself and a few others, purportedly authorizing their unsupervised travel in northern Maryland. Something aroused suspicion, and Douglass and his fellows frantically destroyed the passes lest those slips of paper give them away.
Finally he made his escape, to New York and then New England. At this point his command of written English became an even more potent weapon against the slave system. Douglass wrote and published his story, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, which made him a hero to the abolitionist movement. His eloquence continued to grow, and in hundreds of essays and speeches he provided a powerful refutation of the slaveholders’ assertion that black people lacked the intelligence to rise above bondage.
Douglass forever acknowledged that if not for his brief instruction by Sophia Auld, his life would have been very different. Hugh Auld likely thought that if the instruction had been even briefer—if it had never begun—the life of America as a country might have been very different too.