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Prompt : 

 Dante’s Inferno describes an imaginary trip to hell, and he places certain individuals in lower reaches (e.g., Brutus for killing Julius Caesar).  Look at Frederick Douglass’s owners and overseers.  Who would you place in the lower regions of hell?  Can any of them be saved? 


In The Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), wrote of an imaginary trip
through hell and heaven.  In his vision, he considered the most evil persons who would
go to hell.  Frederick Douglass (1817-1895) did not have to imagine hell: he lived it as a
slave in Maryland.  Looking at Douglass’s life, we might imagine the individuals he met,
and can consider whether they have been consigned to the nether world.    
Douglass offers fascinating insights into a terrible chapter in our history.  “My
father was a white man,” Douglass wrote.  “The opinion was also whispered that my
master was my father (p. 17).”         



















Entered, according to Act of Congress, in the year 1845,

in the Clerk’ s Office of the District Court of Massachusetts.


Book: Narr ative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
Author: Frederick Douglass, 1817?–95
First publi shed: 1845

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States and in most, if not all , other countries as well . Readers
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created by José Menéndez.


IN the month of August, 1841, I attended an anti-slavery

convention in Nantucket, at which it was my happiness to
become acquainted with FREDERICK DOUGLASS, the writer of
the foll owing Narrative. He was a stranger to nearly every
member of that body; but, having recently made his escape from
the southern prison-house of bondage, and feeli ng his curiosity
excited to ascertain the principles and measures of the
aboliti onists,—of whom he had heard a somewhat vague
description whil e he was a slave,—he was induced to give his
attendance, on the occasion all uded to, though at that time a
resident in New Bedford.

Fortunate, most fortunate occurrence!—fortunate for the
milli ons of his manacled brethren, yet panting for deli verance
from their awful thraldom!—fortunate for the cause of negro
emancipation, and of universal li berty!—fortunate for the land
of his birth, which he has already done so much to save and
bless!—fortunate for a large circle of friends and acquaintances,
whose sympathy and affection he has strongly secured by the
many sufferings he has endured, by his virtuous traits of
character, by his ever-abiding remembrance of those who are in
bonds, as being bound with them!—fortunate for the multit udes,
in various parts of our republi c, whose minds he has enli ghtened
on the subject of slavery, and who have been melted to tears by
his pathos, or roused to virtuous indignation by his stirring
eloquence against the enslavers of men!—fortunate for himself,
as it at once brought him into the field of public usefulness,


“ gave the world assurance of a MAN,” quickened the slumbering
energies of his soul, and consecrated him to the great work of
breaking the rod of the oppressor, and letting the oppressed go

I shall never forget his first speech at the convention—the
extraordinary emotion it excited in my own mind—the powerful
impression it created upon a crowded auditory, completely
taken by surprise—the applause which foll owed from the
beginning to the end of his feli citous remarks. I think I never
hated slavery so intensely as at that moment; certainly, my
perception of the enormous outrage which is inflicted by it, on
the godli ke nature of its victims, was rendered far more clear
than ever. There stood one, in physical proportion and stature
commanding and exact—in intell ect richly endowed—in natural
eloquence a prodigy—in soul manifestly “ created but a littl e
lower than the angels” —yet a slave, ay, a fugiti ve slave,—
trembli ng for his safety, hardly daring to beli eve that on the
American soil , a single white person could be found who would
befriend him at all hazards, for the love of God and humanity!
Capable of high attainments as an intell ectual and moral
being—needing nothing but a comparatively small amount of
culti vation to make him an ornament to society and a blessing to
his race—by the law of the land, by the voice of the people, by
the terms of the slave code, he was only a piece of property, a
beast of burden, a chattel personal, nevertheless!

A beloved friend from New Bedford prevail ed on Mr.
DOUGLASS to address the convention. He came forward to the
platform with a hesitancy and embarrassment, necessarily the
attendants of a sensiti ve mind in such a novel positi on. After
apologizing for his ignorance, and reminding the audience that
slavery was a poor school for the human intell ect and heart, he
proceeded to narrate some of the facts in his own history as a
slave, and in the course of his speech gave utterance to many


noble thoughts and thrilli ng reflections. As soon as he had taken
his seat, fill ed with hope and admiration, I rose, and declared
that PATRICK HENRY, of revolutionary fame, never made a
speech more eloquent in the cause of li berty, than the one we
had just li stened to from the li ps of that hunted fugiti ve. So I
beli eved at that time—such is my beli ef now. I reminded the
audience of the peril which surrounded this self-emancipated
young man at the North,—even in Massachusetts, on the soil of
the Pil grim Fathers, among the descendants of revolutionary
sires; and I appealed to them, whether they would ever all ow
him to be carried back into slavery,—law or no law,
constitution or no constitution. The response was unanimous
and in thunder-tones—“ NO!” “ Will you succor and protect him
as a brother-man—a resident of the old Bay State?” “ YES!”
shouted the whole mass, with an energy so startli ng, that the
ruthless tyrants south of Mason and Dixon’ s li ne might almost
have heard the mighty burst of feeli ng, and recognized it as the
pledge of an invincible determination, on the part of those who
gave it, never to betray him that wanders, but to hide the
outcast, and firmly to abide the consequences.

It was at once deeply impressed upon my mind, that, if Mr.
DOUGLASS could be persuaded to consecrate his time and
talents to the promotion of the anti-slavery enterprise, a
powerful impetus would be given to it, and a stunning blow at
the same time infli cted on northern prejudice against a colored
complexion. I therefore endeavored to instil hope and courage
into his mind, in order that he might dare to engage in a
vocation so anomalous and responsible for a person in his
situation; and I was seconded in this eff ort by warm-hearted
friends, especially by the late General Agent of the
Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, Mr. JOHN A. COLL INS,
whose judgment in this instance entirely coincided with my
own. At first, he could give no encouragement; with unfeigned


diff idence, he expressed his conviction that he was not adequate
to the performance of so great a task; the path marked out was
wholly an untrodden one; he was sincerely apprehensive that he
should do more harm than good. After much deli beration,
however, he consented to make a trial; and ever since that
period, he has acted as a lecturing agent, under the auspices
either of the American or the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery
Society. In labors he has been most abundant; and his success in
combating prejudice, in gaining proselytes, in agitating the
publi c mind, has far surpassed the most sanguine expectations
that were raised at the commencement of his brill iant career. He
has borne himself with gentleness and meekness, yet with true
manli ness of character. As a publi c speaker, he excels in pathos,
wit, comparison, imitation, strength of reasoning, and fluency of
language. There is in him that union of head and heart, which is
indispensable to an enli ghtenment of the heads and a winning of
the hearts of others. May his strength continue to be equal to his
day! May he continue to “ grow in grace, and in the knowledge
of God,” that he may be increasingly serviceable in the cause of
bleeding humanity, whether at home or abroad!

It is certainly a very remarkable fact, that one of the most
eff icient advocates of the slave population, now before the
publi c, is a fugiti ve slave, in the person of FREDERICK
DOUGLASS; and that the free colored population of the United
States are as ably represented by one of their own number, in
the person of CHARLES LENOX REMOND, whose eloquent
appeals have extorted the highest applause of multit udes on
both sides of the Atlantic. Let the calumniators of the colored
race despise themselves for their baseness and illi berali ty of
spirit, and henceforth cease to talk of the natural i nferiority of
those who require nothing but time and opportunity to attain to
the highest point of human excell ence.


It may, perhaps, be fairly questioned, whether any other
portion of the population of the earth could have endured the
privations, suff erings and horrors of slavery, without having
become more degraded in the scale of humanity than the slaves
of African descent. Nothing has been left undone to cripple their
intell ects, darken their minds, debase their moral nature,
oblit erate all t races of their relationship to mankind; and yet
how wonderfully they have sustained the mighty load of a most
frightful bondage, under which they have been groaning for
centuries! To ill ustrate the effect of slavery on the white man,—
to show that he has no powers of endurance, in such a
conditi on, superior to those of his black brother,—DANIEL
O’ CONNELL , the distinguished advocate of universal
emancipation, and the mightiest champion of prostrate but not
conquered Ireland, relates the foll owing anecdote in a speech
deli vered by him in the Concili ation Hall , Dubli n, before the
Loyal National Repeal Association, March 31, 1845. “ No
matter,” said Mr. O’ CONNELL, “ under what specious term it
may disguise itself, slavery is still hideous. It has a natural, an
inevitable tendency to brutali ze every noble faculty of man. An
American sail or, who was cast away on the shore of Africa,
where he was kept in slavery for three years, was, at the
expiration of that period, found to be imbruted and stulti fied—
he had lost all reasoning power; and having forgotten his native
language, could only utter some savage gibberish between
Arabic and Engli sh, which nobody could understand, and which
even he himself found diff iculty in pronouncing. So much for
the humanizing influence of THE DOMESTIC INSTITUTION!”
Admitting this to have been an extraordinary case of mental
deterioration, it proves at least that the white slave can sink as
low in the scale of humanity as the black one.

Mr. DOUGLASS has very properly chosen to write his own
Narrative, in his own style, and according to the best of his


abili ty, rather than to employ some one else. It is, therefore,
entirely his own production; and, considering how long and
dark was the career he had to run as a slave,—how few have
been his opportuniti es to improve his mind since he broke his
iron fetters,—it i s, in my judgment, highly creditable to his head
and heart. He who can peruse it without a tearful eye, a heaving
breast, an affli cted spirit,—without being filled with an
unutterable abhorrence of slavery and all it s abettors, and
animated with a determination to seek the immediate overthrow
of that execrable system,—without trembli ng for the fate of this
country in the hands of a righteous God, who is ever on the side
of the oppressed, and whose arm is not shortened that it cannot
save,—must have a fli nty heart, and be quali fied to act the part
of a traff icker “ in slaves and the souls of men.” I am confident
that it is essentially true in all it s statements; that nothing has
been set down in mali ce, nothing exaggerated, nothing drawn
from the imagination; that it comes short of the reali ty, rather
than overstates a single fact in regard to SLAVERY AS IT IS. The
experience of FREDERICK DOUGLASS, as a slave, was not a
peculi ar one; his lot was not especially a hard one; his case may
be regarded as a very fair specimen of the treatment of slaves in
Maryland, in which State it i s conceded that they are better fed
and less cruelly treated than in Georgia, Alabama, or Louisiana.
Many have suffered incomparably more, whil e very few on the
plantations have suff ered less, than himself. Yet how deplorable
was his situation! what terrible chastisements were infli cted
upon his person! what still m ore shocking outrages were
perpetrated upon his mind! with all his noble powers and
sublime aspirations, how li ke a brute was he treated, even by
those professing to have the same mind in them that was in
Christ Jesus! to what dreadful li abiliti es was he continually
subjected! how destitute of friendly counsel and aid, even in his
greatest extremities! how heavy was the midnight of woe which


shrouded in blackness the last ray of hope, and fill ed the future
with terror and gloom! what longings after freedom took
possession of his breast, and how his misery augmented, in
proportion as he grew reflective and intelli gent,—thus
demonstrating that a happy slave is an extinct man! how he
thought, reasoned, felt, under the lash of the driver, with the
chains upon his limbs! what peril s he encountered in his
endeavors to escape from his horrible doom! and how signal
have been his deli verance and preservation in the midst of a
nation of pitil ess enemies!

This Narrative contains many affecting incidents, many
passages of great eloquence and power; but I think the most
thrilli ng one of them all is the description DOUGLASS gives of
his feeli ngs, as he stood solil oquizing respecting his fate, and
the chances of his one day being a freeman, on the banks of the
Chesapeake Bay—viewing the receding vessels as they flew
with their white wings before the breeze, and apostrophizing
them as animated by the li ving spirit of freedom. Who can read
that passage, and be insensible to its pathos and sublimity?
Compressed into it i s a whole Alexandrian li brary of thought,
feeli ng, and sentiment—all t hat can, all t hat need be urged, in
the form of expostulation, entreaty, rebuke, against that crime of
crimes,—making man the property of his fell ow-man! O, how
accursed is that system, which entombs the godli ke mind of
man, defaces the divine image, reduces those who by creation
were crowned with glory and honor to a level with four-footed
beasts, and exalts the dealer in human flesh above all t hat is
call ed God! Why should its existence be prolonged one hour? Is
it not evil , only evil , and that continually? What does its
presence imply but the absence of all fear of God, all regard for
man, on the part of the people of the United States? Heaven
speed its eternal overthrow!


So profoundly ignorant of the nature of slavery are many
persons, that they are stubbornly incredulous whenever they
read or li sten to any recital of the cruelti es which are daily
infli cted on its victims. They do not deny that the slaves are
held as property; but that terrible fact seems to convey to their
minds no idea of injustice, exposure to outrage, or savage
barbarity. Tell t hem of cruel scourgings, of mutil ations and
brandings, of scenes of poll ution and blood, of the banishment
of all li ght and knowledge, and they affect to be greatly
indignant at such enormous exaggerations, such wholesale
misstatements, such abominable li bels on the character of the
southern planters! As if all t hese direful outrages were not the
natural results of slavery! As if it were less cruel to reduce a
human being to the conditi on of a thing, than to give him a
severe flagell ation, or to deprive him of necessary food and
clothing! As if whips, chains, thumb-screws, paddles,
bloodhounds, overseers, drivers, patrols, were not all
indispensable to keep the slaves down, and to give protection to
their ruthless oppressors! As if, when the marriage institution is
aboli shed, concubinage, adultery, and incest, must not
necessarily abound; when all t he rights of humanity are
annihil ated, any barrier remains to protect the victim from the
fury of the spoil er; when absolute power is assumed over li fe
and li berty, it will not be wielded with destructive sway!
Skeptics of this character abound in society. In some few
instances, their increduli ty arises from a want of reflection; but,
generally, it i ndicates a hatred of the light, a desire to shield
slavery from the assaults of its foes, a contempt of the colored
race, whether bond or free. Such will t ry to discredit the
shocking tales of slaveholding cruelty which are recorded in this
truthful Narrative; but they will l abor in vain. Mr. DOUGLASS
has frankly disclosed the place of his birth, the names of those
who claimed ownership in his body and soul, and the names


also of those who committed the crimes which he has all eged
against them. His statements, therefore, may easily be
disproved, if they are untrue.

In the course of his Narrative, he relates two instances of
murderous cruelty,—in one of which a planter deliberately shot
a slave belonging to a neighboring plantation, who had
unintentionally gotten within his lordly domain in quest of fish;
and in the other, an overseer blew out the brains of a slave who
had fled to a stream of water to escape a bloody scourging. Mr.
DOUGLASS states that in neither of these instances was any thing
done by way of legal arrest or judicial i nvestigation. The
Baltimore American, of March 17, 1845, relates a simil ar case
of atrocity, perpetrated with simil ar impunity—as foll ows:—
“ Shooting a slave.—We learn, upon the authority of a letter
from Charles county, Maryland, received by a gentleman of this
city, that a young man, named Matthews, a nephew of General
Matthews, and whose father, it i s beli eved, holds an off ice at
Washington, kill ed one of the slaves upon his father’ s farm by
shooting him. The letter states that young Matthews had been
left in charge of the farm; that he gave an order to the servant,
which was disobeyed, when he proceeded to the house,
obtained a gun, and, returning, shot the servant. He
immediately, the letter continues, fled to his father’ s residence,
where he still remains unmolested.” —Let it never be forgotten,
that no slaveholder or overseer can be convicted of any outrage
perpetrated on the person of a slave, however diaboli cal it may
be, on the testimony of colored witnesses, whether bond or free.
By the slave code, they are adjudged to be as incompetent to
testify against a white man, as though they were indeed a part of
the brute creation. Hence, there is no legal protection in fact,
whatever there may be in form, for the slave population; and
any amount of cruelty may be infli cted on them with impunity.


Is it possible for the human mind to conceive of a more horrible
state of society?

The effect of a religious profession on the conduct of
southern masters is vividly described in the foll owing Narrative,
and shown to be any thing but salutary. In the nature of the case,
it must be in the highest degree pernicious. The testimony of
Mr. DOUGLASS, on this point, is sustained by a cloud of
witnesses, whose veracity is unimpeachable. “ A slaveholder’ s
profession of Christianity is a palpable imposture. He is a felon
of the highest grade. He is a man-stealer. It is of no importance
what you put in the other scale.”

Reader! are you with the man-stealers in sympathy and
purpose, or on the side of their down-trodden victims? If with
the former, then are you the foe of God and man. If with the
latter, what are you prepared to do and dare in their behalf? Be
faithful, be vigil ant, be untiring in your eff orts to break every
yoke, and let the oppressed go free. Come what may—cost what
it may—inscribe on the banner which you unfurl to the breeze,
as your religious and politi cal motto—“ NO COMPROMISE WITH


BOSTON, May 1, 1845.



BOSTON, April 22, 1845.

My Dear Friend:
You remember the old fable of “ The Man and

the Lion,” where the li on complained that he should not be so
misrepresented “ when the li ons wrote history.”

I am glad the time has come when the “ li ons write history.”
We have been left long enough to gather the character of
slavery from the involuntary evidence of the masters. One
might, indeed, rest suff iciently satisfied with what, it i s evident,
must be, in general, the results of such a relation, without
seeking farther to find whether they have foll owed in every
instance. Indeed, those who stare at the half-peck of corn a
week, and love to count the lashes on the slave’ s back, are
seldom the “ stuff ” out of which reformers and aboliti onists are
to be made. I remember that, in 1838, many were waiti ng for
the results of the West India experiment, before they could
come into our ranks. Those “ results” have come long ago; but,
alas! few of that number have come with them, as converts. A
man must be disposed to judge of emancipation by other tests
than whether it has increased the produce of sugar,—and to hate
slavery for other reasons than because it starves men and whips
women,—before he is ready to lay the first stone of his anti-
slavery li fe.


I was glad to learn, in your story, how early the most
neglected of God’ s chil dren waken to a sense of their rights, and
of the injustice done them. Experience is a keen teacher; and
long before you had mastered your A B C, or knew where the
“ white sail s” of the Chesapeake were bound, you began, I see,
to gauge the wretchedness of the slave, not by his hunger and
want, not by his lashes and toil , but by the cruel and blighting
death which gathers over his soul.

In connection with this, there is one circumstance which
makes your recoll ections peculi arly valuable, and renders your
early insight the more remarkable. You come from that part of
the country where we are told slavery appears with its fairest
features. Let us hear, then, what it is at its best estate—gaze on
its bright side, if it has one; and then imagination may task her
powers to add dark li nes to the picture, as she travels southward
to that (for the colored man) Vall ey of the Shadow of Death,
where the Mississippi sweeps along.

Again, we have known you long, and can put the most
entire confidence in your truth, candor, and sincerity. Every one
who has heard you speak has felt, and, I am confident, every
one who reads your book will feel, persuaded that you give
them a fair specimen of the whole truth. No one-sided
portrait,—no wholesale complaints,—but strict justice done,
whenever individual kindli ness has neutrali zed, for a moment,
the deadly system with which it was strangely alli ed. You have
been with us, too, some years, and can fairly compare the
twili ght of rights, which your race enjoy at the North, with that
“ noon of night” under which they labor south of Mason and
Dixon’ s line. Tell us whether, after all , the half-f ree colored
man of Massachusetts is worse off than the pampered slave of
the rice swamps!

In reading your li fe, no one can say that we have unfairly
picked out some rare specimens of cruelty. We know that the


bitter drops, which even you have drained from the cup, are no
incidental aggravations, no individual ill s, but such as must
mingle always and necessarily in the lot of every slave. They
are the essential i ngredients, not the occasional results, of the

After all , I shall read your book with trembli ng for you.
Some years ago, when you were beginning to tell me your real
name and birthplace, you may remember I stopped you, and
preferred to remain ignorant of all . With the exception of a
vague description, so I continued, til l the other day, when you
read me your memoirs. I hardly knew, at the time, whether to
thank you or not for the sight of them, when I reflected that it
was still dangerous, in Massachusetts, for honest men to tell
their names! They say the fathers, in 1776, signed the
Declaration of Independence with the halter about their necks.
You, too, publi sh your declaration of freedom with danger
compassing you around. In all t he broad lands which the
Constitution of the United States overshadows, there is no
single spot,—however narrow or desolate,—where a fugiti ve
slave can plant himself and say, “ I am safe.” The whole armory
of Northern Law has no shield for you. I am free to say that, in
your place, I should throw the MS. into the fire.

You, perhaps, may tell your story in safety, endeared as
you are to so many warm hearts by rare gifts, and a still rarer
devotion of them to the service of others. But it will be owing
only to your labors, and the fearless efforts of those who,
trampli ng the laws and Constitution of the country under their
feet, are determined that they will “ hide the outcast,” and that
their hearths shall be, spite of the law, an asylum for the
oppressed, if, some time or other, the humblest may stand in our
streets, and bear witness in safety against the cruelti es of which
he has been the victim.


Yet it is sad to think, that these very throbbing hearts which
welcome your story, and form your best safeguard in telling it,
are all beating contrary to the “ statute in such case made and
provided.” Go on, my dear friend, till you, and those who, li ke
you, have been saved, so as by fire, from the dark prison-house,
shall stereotype these free, ill egal pulses into statutes; and New
England, cutting loose from a blood-stained Union, shall glory
in being the house of refuge for the oppressed;—till we no
longer merely “ hide the outcast,” or make a merit of standing
idly by whil e he is hunted in our midst; but, consecrating anew
the soil of the Pilgrims as an asylum for the oppressed, proclaim
our welcome to the slave so loudly, that the tones shall reach
every hut in the Caroli nas, and make the broken-hearted
bondman leap up at the thought of old Massachusetts.

God speed the day!

Till t hen, and ever,

Yours truly,







I WAS born in Tuckahoe, near Hill sborough, and about

twelve miles from Easton, in Talbot county, Maryland. I have
no accurate knowledge of my age, never having seen any
authentic record containing it. By far the larger part of the
slaves know as littl e of their ages as horses know of theirs, and
it i s the wish of most masters within my knowledge to keep
their slaves thus ignorant. I do not remember to have ever met a
slave who could tell of his birthday. They seldom come nearer
to it than planting-time, harvest-time, cherry-time, spring-time,
or fall -time. A want of information concerning my own was a
source of unhappiness to me even during chil dhood. The white
chil dren could tell t heir ages. I could not tell why I ought to be
deprived of the same privil ege. I was not all owed to make any
inquiries of my master concerning it. He deemed all such
inquiries on the part of a slave improper and impertinent, and
evidence of a restless spirit. The nearest estimate I can give
makes me now between twenty-seven and twenty-eight years of
age. I come to this, from hearing my master say, some time
during 1835, I was about seventeen years old.

My mother was named Harriet Bail ey. She was the
daughter of Isaac and Betsey Bail ey, both colored, and quite


dark. My mother was of a darker complexion than either my
grandmother or grandfather.

My father was a white man. He was admitted to be such by
all I ever heard speak of my parentage. 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. My mother and I were separated when I was
but an infant—before I knew her as my mother. It is a common
custom, in the part of Maryland from which I ran away, to part
chil dren from their mothers at a very early age. Frequently,
before the chil d 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. For what this separation is done,
I do not know, unless it be to hinder the …