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Chapter 11

_"A Change Came O'er the Spirit of My Dream"_


I lived in the family of Master Hugh, at Baltimore, seven years,
during which time--as the almanac makers say of the weather--my
condition was variable. The most interesting feature of my
history here, was my learning to read and write, under somewhat
marked disadvantages. In attaining this knowledge, I was
compelled to resort to indirections by no means congenial to my
nature, and which were really humiliating to me. My mistress--
who, as the reader has already seen, had begun to teach me was
suddenly checked in her benevolent design, by the strong advice
of her husband. In faithful compliance with this advice, the
good lady had not only ceased to instruct me, herself, but had
set her face as a flint against my learning to read by any means.
It is due, however, to my mistress to say, that she did not adopt
this course in all its stringency at the first. She either
thought it unnecessary, or she lacked the depravity indispensable
to shutting me up in <119 EFFECTS OF SLAVEHOLDING ON MY
MISTRESS>mental darkness. It was, at least, necessary for her to
have some training, and some hardening, in the exercise of the
slaveholder's prerogative, to make her equal to forgetting my
human nature and character, and to treating me as a thing
destitute of a moral or an intellectual nature. Mrs. Auld--my
mistress--was, as I have said, a most kind and tender-hearted
woman; and, in the humanity of her heart, and the simplicity of
her mind, she set out, when I first went to live with her, to
treat me as she supposed one human being ought to treat another.

It is easy to see, that, in entering upon the duties of a
slaveholder, some little experience is needed. Nature has done
almost nothing to prepare men and women to be either slaves or
slaveholders. Nothing but rigid training, long persisted in, can
perfect the character of the one or the other. One cannot easily
forget to love freedom; and it is as hard to cease to respect
that natural love in our fellow creatures. On entering upon the
career of a slaveholding mistress, Mrs. Auld was singularly
deficient; nature, which fits nobody for such an office, had done
less for her than any lady I had known. It was no easy matter to
induce her to think and to feel that the curly-headed boy, who
stood by her side, and even leaned on her lap; who was loved by
little Tommy, and who loved little Tommy in turn; sustained to
her only the relation of a chattel. I was _more_ than that, and
she felt me to be more than that. I could talk and sing; I could
laugh and weep; I could reason and remember; I could love and
hate. I was human, and she, dear lady, knew and felt me to be
so. How could she, then, treat me as a brute, without a mighty
struggle with all the noble powers of her own soul. That
struggle came, and the will and power of the husband was
victorious. Her noble soul was overthrown; but, he that
overthrew it did not, himself, escape the consequences. He, not
less than the other parties, was injured in his domestic peace by
the fall.

When I went into their family, it was the abode of happiness and
contentment. The mistress of the house was a model of
affec<120>tion and tenderness. Her fervent piety and watchful
uprightness made it impossible to see her without thinking and
feeling--"_that woman is a Christian_." There was no sorrow nor
suffering for which she had not a tear, and there was no innocent
joy for which she did not a smile. 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 excellent qualities, and her home of its early
happiness. Conscience cannot stand much violence. Once
thoroughly broken down, _who_ is he that can repair the damage?
It may be broken toward the slave, on Sunday, and toward the
master on Monday. It cannot endure such shocks. It must stand
entire, or it does not stand at all. If my condition waxed bad,
that of the family waxed not better. The first step, in the
wrong direction, was the violence done to nature and to
conscience, in arresting the benevolence that would have
enlightened my young mind. In ceasing to instruct me, she must
begin to justify herself _to_ herself; and, once consenting to
take sides in such a debate, she was riveted to her position.
One needs very little knowledge of moral philosophy, to see
_where_ my mistress now landed. She finally became even more
violent in her opposition to my learning to read, than was her
husband himself. She was not satisfied with simply doing as
_well_ as her husband had commanded her, but seemed resolved to
better his instruction. Nothing appeared to make my poor
mistress--after her turning toward the downward path--more angry,
than seeing me, seated in some nook or corner, quietly reading a
book or a newspaper. I have had her rush at me, with the utmost
fury, and snatch from my hand such newspaper or book, with
something of the wrath and consternation which a traitor might be
supposed to feel on being discovered in a plot by some dangerous

Mrs. Auld was an apt woman, and the advice of her husband, and
her own experience, soon demonstrated, to her entire
satisfaction, that education and slavery are incompatible with
each other. When this conviction was thoroughly established, I
was <121 HOW I PURSUED MY EDUCATION>most narrowly watched in all
my movements. If I remained in a separate room from the family
for any considerable length of time, I was sure to be suspected
of having a book, and was at once called upon to give an account
of myself. All this, however, was entirely _too late_. The
first, and never to be retraced, step had been taken. In
teaching me the alphabet, in the days of her simplicity and
kindness, my mistress had given me the _"inch,"_ and now, no
ordinary precaution could prevent me from taking the _"ell."_

Seized with a determination to learn to read, at any cost, I hit
upon many expedients to accomplish the desired end. The plea
which I mainly adopted, and the one by which I was most
successful, was that of using my young white playmates, with whom
I met in the streets as teachers. I used to carry, almost
constantly, a copy of Webster's spelling book in my pocket; and,
when sent of errands, or when play time was allowed me, I would
step, with my young friends, aside, and take a lesson in
spelling. I generally paid my _tuition fee_ to the boys, with
bread, which I also carried in my pocket. For a single biscuit,
any of my hungry little comrades would give me a lesson more
valuable to me than bread. Not every one, however, demanded this
consideration, for there were those who took pleasure in teaching
me, whenever I had a chance to be taught by them. I am strongly
tempted to give the names of two or three of those little boys,
as a slight testimonial of the gratitude and affection I bear
them, but prudence forbids; not that it would injure me, but it
might, possibly, embarrass them; for it is almost an unpardonable
offense to do any thing, directly or indirectly, to promote a
slave's freedom, in a slave state. It is enough to say, of my
warm-hearted little play fellows, that they lived on Philpot
street, very near Durgin & Bailey's shipyard.

Although slavery was a delicate subject, and very cautiously
talked about among grown up people in Maryland, I frequently
talked about it--and that very freely--with the white boys. I
<122>would, sometimes, say to them, while seated on a curb stone
or a cellar door, "I wish I could be free, as you will be when
you get to be men." "You will be free, you know, as soon as you
are twenty-one, and can go where you like, but I am a slave for
life. Have I not as good a right to be free as you have?" Words
like these, I observed, always troubled them; and I had no small
satisfaction in wringing from the boys, occasionally, that fresh
and bitter condemnation of slavery, that springs from nature,
unseared and unperverted. Of all consciences let me have those
to deal with which have not been bewildered by the cares of life.
I do not remember ever to have met with a _boy_, while I was in
slavery, who defended the slave system; but I have often had boys
to console me, with the hope that something would yet occur, by
which I might be made free. Over and over again, they have told
me, that "they believed I had as good a right to be free as
_they_ had;" and that "they did not believe God ever made any one
to be a slave." The reader will easily see, that such little
conversations with my play fellows, had no tendency to weaken my
love of liberty, nor to render me contented with my condition as
a slave.

When I was about thirteen years old, and had succeeded in
learning to read, every increase of knowledge, especially
respecting the FREE STATES, added something to the almost
intolerable burden of the thought--I AM A SLAVE FOR LIFE. To my
bondage I saw no end. It was a terrible reality, and I shall
never be able to tell how sadly that thought chafed my young
spirit. Fortunately, or unfortunately, about this time in my
life, I had made enough money to buy what was then a very popular
school book, viz: the _Columbian Orator_. I bought this addition
to my library, of Mr. Knight, on Thames street, Fell's Point,
Baltimore, and paid him fifty cents for it. I was first led to
buy this book, by hearing some little boys say they were going to
learn some little pieces out of it for the Exhibition. This
volume was, indeed, a rich treasure, and every opportunity
afforded me, for <123 _The Columbian Orator_--A DIALOGUE>a time,
was spent in diligently perusing it. Among much other
interesting matter, that which I had perused and reperused with
unflagging satisfaction, was a short dialogue between a master
and his slave. The slave is represented as having been
recaptured, in a second attempt to run away; and the master opens
the dialogue with an upbraiding speech, charging the slave with
ingratitude, and demanding to know what he has to say in his own
defense. Thus upbraided, and thus called upon to reply, the
slave rejoins, that he knows how little anything that he can say
will avail, seeing that he is completely in the hands of his
owner; and with noble resolution, calmly says, "I submit to my
fate." Touched by the slave's answer, the master insists upon
his further speaking, and recapitulates the many acts of kindness
which he has performed toward the slave, and tells him he is
permitted to speak for himself. Thus invited to the debate, the
quondam slave made a spirited defense of himself, and thereafter
the whole argument, for and against slavery, was brought out.
The master was vanquished at every turn in the argument; and
seeing himself to be thus vanquished, he generously and meekly
emancipates the slave, with his best wishes for his prosperity.
It is scarcely neccessary{sic} to say, that a dialogue, with such
an origin, and such an ending--read when the fact of my being a
slave was a constant burden of grief--powerfully affected me; and
I could not help feeling that the day might come, when the well-
directed answers made by the slave to the master, in this
instance, would find their counterpart in myself.

This, however, was not all the fanaticism which I found in this
_Columbian Orator_. I met there one of Sheridan's mighty
speeches, on the subject of Catholic Emancipation, Lord Chatham's
speech on the American war, and speeches by the great William
Pitt and by Fox. These were all choice documents to me, and I
read them, over and over again, with an interest that was ever
increasing, because it was ever gaining in intelligence; for the
more I read them, the better I understood them. The reading of
<124>these speeches added much to my limited stock of language,
and enabled me to give tongue to many interesting thoughts, which
had frequently flashed through my soul, and died away for want of
utterance. The mighty power and heart-searching directness of
truth, penetrating even the heart of a slaveholder, compelling
him to yield up his earthly interests to the claims of eternal
justice, were finely illustrated in the dialogue, just referred
to; and from the speeches of Sheridan, I got a bold and powerful
denunciation of oppression, and a most brilliant vindication of
the rights of man. Here was, indeed, a noble acquisition. If I
ever wavered under the consideration, that the Almighty, in some
way, ordained slavery, and willed my enslavement for his own
glory, I wavered no longer. I had now penetrated the secret of
all slavery and oppression, and had ascertained their true
foundation to be in the pride, the power and the avarice of man.
The dialogue and the speeches were all redolent of the principles
of liberty, and poured floods of light on the nature and
character of slavery. With a book of this kind in my hand, my
own human nature, and the facts of my experience, to help me, I
was equal to a contest with the religious advocates of slavery,
whether among the whites or among the colored people, for
blindness, in this matter, is not confined to the former. I have
met many religious colored people, at the south, who are under
the delusion that God requires them to submit to slavery, and to
wear their chains with meekness and humility. I could entertain
no such nonsense as this; and I almost lost my patience when I
found any colored man weak enough to believe such stuff.
Nevertheless, the increase of knowledge was attended with bitter,
as well as sweet results. The more I read, the more I was led to
abhor and detest slavery, and my enslavers. "Slaveholders,"
thought I, "are only a band of successful robbers, who left their
homes and went into Africa for the purpose of stealing and
reducing my people to slavery." I loathed them as the meanest
and the most wicked of men. As I read, behold! the very
discontent so graphically pre<125 MY EYES OPENED>dicted by Master
Hugh, had already come upon me. I was no longer the light-
hearted, gleesome boy, full of mirth and play, as when I landed
first at Baltimore. Knowledge had come; light had penetrated the
moral dungeon where I dwelt; and, behold! there lay the bloody
whip, for my back, and here was the iron chain; and my good,
_kind master_, he was the author of my situation. The revelation
haunted me, stung me, and made me gloomy and miserable. As I
writhed under the sting and torment of this knowledge, I almost
envied my fellow slaves their stupid contentment. This knowledge
opened my eyes to the horrible pit, and revealed the teeth of the
frightful dragon that was ready to pounce upon me, but it opened
no way for my escape. I have often wished myself a beast, or a
bird--anything, rather than a slave. I was wretched and gloomy,
beyond my ability to describe. I was too thoughtful to be happy.
It was this everlasting thinking which distressed and tormented
me; and yet there was no getting rid of the subject of my
thoughts. All nature was redolent of it. Once awakened by the
silver trump of knowledge, my spirit was roused to eternal
wakefulness. Liberty! the inestimable birthright of every man,
had, for me, converted every object into an asserter of this
great right. It was heard in every sound, and beheld in every
object. It was ever present, to torment me with a sense of my
wretched condition. The more beautiful and charming were the
smiles of nature, the more horrible and desolate was my
condition. I saw nothing without seeing it, and I heard nothing
without hearing it. I do not exaggerate, when I say, that it
looked from every star, smiled in every calm, breathed in every
wind, and moved in every storm.

I have no doubt that my state of mind had something to do with
the change in the treatment adopted, by my once kind mistress
toward me. I can easily believe, that my leaden, downcast, and
discontented look, was very offensive to her. Poor lady! She
did not know my trouble, and I dared not tell her. Could I have
freely made her acquainted with the real state of my mind, and
<126>given her the reasons therefor, it might have been well for
both of us. Her abuse of me fell upon me like the blows of the
false prophet upon his ass; she did not know that an _angel_
stood in the way; and--such is the relation of master and slave I
could not tell her. Nature had made us _friends;_ slavery made
us _enemies_. My interests were in a direction opposite to hers,
and we both had our private thoughts and plans. She aimed to
keep me ignorant; and I resolved to know, although knowledge only
increased my discontent. My feelings were not the result of any
marked cruelty in the treatment I received; they sprung from the
consideration of my being a slave at all. It was _slavery_--not
its mere _incidents_--that I hated. I had been cheated. I saw
through the attempt to keep me in ignorance; I saw that
slaveholders would have gladly made me believe that they were
merely acting under the authority of God, in making a slave of
me, and in making slaves of others; and I treated them as robbers
and deceivers. The feeding and clothing me well, could not atone
for taking my liberty from me. The smiles of my mistress could
not remove the deep sorrow that dwelt in my young bosom. Indeed,
these, in time, came only to deepen my sorrow. She had changed;
and the reader will see that I had changed, too. We were both
victims to the same overshadowing evil--_she_, as mistress, I, as
slave. I will not censure her harshly; she cannot censure me,
for she knows I speak but the truth, and have acted in my
opposition to slavery, just as she herself would have acted, in a
reverse of circumstances.

Frederick Douglass

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