The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass Chapter 10
On January 1, 1833, Douglass goes to live with Mr. Covey. Within a week, Douglass gets a severe whipping because he is unaccustomed to being a field hand. On one errand, Douglass undergoes two near-death experiences while driving oxen. Upon finishing his task, Douglass is punished for his incompetence. Mr. Covey takes Douglass out to the woods and beats him with switches. For the first six months of the year, Douglass is beaten regularly. Mr. Covey works his slaves to the point of exhaustion. A hard-working man himself, he gets the slaves to work hard at all times by sneaking up on them. Thus the slaves refer to him as "the snake." Mr. Covey's most prominent characteristic is to deceive. Douglass believes that Mr. Covey deceives himself into believing that he is a sincere worshipper of God. But his actions speak differently. In one instance, Mr. Covey purchases a slave named Caroline, an able-bodied woman, as a breeder. He hires a married slave to shack up with her for the purpose of getting her pregnant. She gives birth to twins and he regards them a welcome addition to his wealth. As for Douglass, he experiences his darkest days of slavery in the first six months working for Mr. Covey.
"I was broken in body, soul, and spirit. My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed, the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye died; the dark night of slavery closed in upon me; and behold a man transformed into a brute!" Chapter 10, pg. 105
Douglass is broken to the point of wanting to take his life and that of Mr. Covey. But a flicker of hope keeps him going. Douglass looks longingly at the vessels on the Chesapeake Bay, with their white sails and their swift mobility. He contrasts his condition of bondage to the freedom of the noble ships. It produces in him an overwhelming desire to escape from slavery or die trying. He convinces himself to endure because a better day is coming.
After six months of dreadful treatment, Douglass tells of an incident with Mr. Covey that turns him from a slave into a man. One hot day in August 1833, Douglass and three other slaves are put to work on fanning wheat. Douglass, seized by a sudden failure of strength, falls down from exhaustion. On hearing the fan stop, Mr. Covey comes over and gives him a swift kick in the side. After trying unsuccessfully to get up, Douglass lies on the ground expecting the worst. Mr. Covey strikes him on the head with a hickory slat and it causes blood to run down freely. Douglass takes a great risk and takes to the road, hoping to get protection from Master Thomas Auld at St. Michael's. After some five hours covering seven miles, Douglass finally arrives at his master's store, looking like a man who has barely escaped death. Douglass tells him what happened, but Master Thomas commands him to go back or else. The next morning, Douglass makes his way back, disappointed and without hope. On coming back, Mr. Covey wastes no time in trying to beat him again. Douglass manages to hide in the cornfields. That night, Douglass runs into a slave named Sandy Jenkins. The old slave invites Douglass to his house and in hearing the story of Douglass's dilemma, advises him to carry a certain root that would protect him from harm. Although hesitant at first, Douglass agrees to give it a try. The next morning, following Sandy Jenkin's instructions, he carries the root upon his right side. To his surprise, Mr. Covey speaks to him kindly as he goes to church. The next morning, however, while Douglass is working in the stable, Mr. Covey comes in to beat him. As he is being tied up, Douglass fights back. After nearly two hours of struggle, Mr. Covey relents. Douglass feels that Mr. Covey has gotten the worst of the fight. Afterwards, Mr. Covey does not raise a hand against Douglass. This incident is an important turning point in Douglass's life.
"My long-crushed spirit rose, cowardice departed, bold defiance took its place; and I now resolved that, however long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact. I did not hesitate to let it be known of me, that the white man who expected to succeed in whipping, must also succeed in killing me." Chapter 10, pg. 113
The only explanation Douglass has as to why Mr. Covey does not have him publicly punished for the crime of raising his hand against a white man is to keep his reputation as a first-rate overseer and "nigger-breaker." Douglass's service to Mr. Covey ends on Christmas day, 1833. The days between Christmas and New Year's day are holidays for the slaves. Douglass feels that the slaveholders give these days as an outlet for the slaves' otherwise dreary existence. It is not due to the kindness of the slaveholders. They use clever tactics such as encouraging the slaves to get drunk. In experiencing the negative excesses of freedom, the slave is then more tolerating of slavery. This principle of disgusting the slaves with the very things they desire is a common practice among the slaveholders.
Douglass goes to work for Mr. William Freeland, a fair and respectable slaveholder who is devoid of religious pretensions. Of all the slaveholders he has known, the worst are the religious ones. He describes the conduct of one reverend, Mr. Rigby Hopkins, whom he considers the greatest religious hypocrite. He relishes beating his slaves and even considers the whippings his religious duty.
Mr. Freeland owns two slaves: Henry Harris and John Harris. Within a short period of time, Douglass rounds up a few slaves who want to learn how to read. They call it the Sabbath school because the meetings are on Sundays. Soon, over forty slaves, some from the surrounding farms, attend for the sheer joy of learning. Douglass regards teaching the slaves the most rewarding time of his life as a slave. He is overcome with emotion when he thinks about the slaves shut off from learning. In addition to the Sabbath school, Douglass teaches the slaves at home. The year passes without Douglass having received one blow. He gives credit to Mr. Freeland, whom he considers the best master he has had before becoming his own master.
Douglass is hired for another year, but he resolves to not let the year pass without attempting an escape. Douglass expresses his sentiments with wordplay: "But, by this time, I began to want to live upon free land as well as with Freeland; and I was no longer content, therefore, to live with him or any other slaveholder." Chapter 10, pg. 122 Douglass recruits several other slaves to escape with him. They are Henry Harris, John Harris, Henry Bailey (his uncle), and Charles Roberts (uncle-in-law). After much planning, they finally decide upon a plan to take a boat up the Chesapeake Bay during the Easter holidays. Douglass has to devote much of his energy into reassuring and encouraging the other slaves. The day of their intended escape, Douglass is overcome with a feeling that they are betrayed. It proves to be correct as Douglass and the others are rounded up.
Henry refuses to be tied up and there is a scuffle before he is eventually subdued. During the scuffle, Douglass is able to get rid of the pass that he has written for their escape. Before they are taken away, Mr. Freeland's mother, Betsy Freeland, hands Henry and John some biscuits. She rebukes Douglass for corrupting their minds to run away. On the way, Douglass tells Henry to eat his pass and he spreads the word to own nothing. They are taken to the Easton jail where they spend a couple of days. Slave traders come by like vultures to see if the slaves will be put up for sale. Mr. Hamilton and Mr. Freeland come and take the others home, leaving Douglass in jail all alone. After a week, Captain Auld comes to take Douglass home, intending to send him to Alabama. But instead, Douglass is sent to Baltimore once again to the home of Mr. Hugh Auld.
After being away for more than three years, Douglass returns to Baltimore. He is immediately hired to learn how to calk. But first, Douglass is put to work in assisting the shipbuilders. This requires Douglass to heed the orders of about seventy-five people; he is always at the beckoning call of someone needing help. For eight months Douglass endures the work until he gets into a fight with some white men who are against working with colored people. Douglass fights back, but is eventually badly beaten. Douglass's condition and story garners the sympathy of Master Auld. He goes to a lawyer, but the law states that without the testimony of a white man, nothing could be done about the incident. Master Hugh sends Douglass to another shipyard and he finally learns to calk. Within one year, Douglass earns the wages of the most experienced calkers, at times bringing in nine dollars per week. As Douglass's condition improves, he finds that his desire for freedom increases. During his leisure time, Douglass once again thinks about a possible path to freedom.