The Narrative of Frederick Douglass

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Themes and Colors
The Self-Destructive Hypocrisy of Christian Slaveholders Theme Icon
Knowledge and Ignorance Theme Icon
Truth and Justice Theme Icon
The Inexpressibility of Enslavement Theme Icon
Fellowship Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Narrative of Frederick Douglass, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Truth and Justice Theme Icon

Douglass’s autobiography is created out of the belief that exposing the truth will eventually bring about justice. To Douglass, a straightforward depiction of the true nature of slavery is one of the most effective ways to combat the injustice of the institution. His story is delivered matter-of-factly, and Douglass rightly judges that he doesn’t need to embellish or editorialize on his story in order to persuade readers of the horrors of slavery. In the text, one moment defines Douglass’s veneration of truth: after teaching himself to read, Douglass pores over an anti-slavery book called The Columbian Orator and concludes that “the moral which I gained from the dialogue was the power of truth over the conscience of even a slaveholder.” The value Douglass places on truthfulness becomes still clearer when he reveals that it pains him to be unable to describe the facts of his escape in meaningful detail (even though he must keep it secret in order to protect those who helped him escape).

The significance of Douglass’s ability to write truthfully should not be underestimated. One of the many injustices of slavery that Douglass recounts is the inability to speak truthfully, which seems like it should be a basic human entitlement. While enslaved, he and other slaves would be punished severely for simply speaking honestly about the discomfort of their situations. Douglass’s freedom not only affords him an escape from these miserable conditions, but also an opportunity for honest, public reflection on the miseries he endured.

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Truth and Justice ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Truth and Justice appears in each chapter of The Narrative of Frederick Douglass. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Truth and Justice Quotes in The Narrative of Frederick Douglass

Below you will find the important quotes in The Narrative of Frederick Douglass related to the theme of Truth and Justice.
Chapter 2 Quotes

“I have often been utterly astonished, since I came to the north, to find persons who could speak of the singing, among slaves, as evidence of their contentment and happiness. It is impossible to conceive of a greater mistake. Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy.”

Related Characters: Frederick Douglass (speaker)
Page Number: 9
Explanation and Analysis:

After Douglass reflects on the singing which enlivened slaves' walks to the home plantation on allowance day, he briefly stops recounting his experiences in the South to acknowledge the setting in which he writes: the North. He rightly accuses Northerners of misinterpreting slaves' songs; as Douglass explains, slaves do not sing when they are happy, but rather when are unhappy and isolated. Their songs are akin to the songs a man might make while alone on an island; they are communal expressions of sadness and alienation. By reinterpreting slaves' singing, Douglass continues to advocate that Northerners forget their old beliefs about slaves and adopt truer, and often more negative, views of slaves' lives. By changing the ways Northerners perceive little daily events such as songs, Douglass may change the way they understand slavery as a whole. 


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Chapter 3 Quotes

On Old Barney and Young Barney: “No excuse could shield them, if the colonel only suspected any want of attention to his horses—a supposition which he frequently indulged, and one which, of course, made the office of old and young Barney a very trying one. They never knew when they were safe from punishment. They were frequently whipped when least deserving, and escaped whipping when most deserving it.”

Related Characters: Frederick Douglass (speaker), Colonel Edward Lloyd, Old Barney and Young Barney
Related Symbols: Old Barney and Young Barney
Page Number: 10
Explanation and Analysis:

In addition to recounting stories of inhumane cruelty towards slaves, Douglass tells anecdotes in which cruelty was spurred by lies and arbitrary whims. Any slave with tar found on his or her person was accused of attempting to enter the fruit garden (which had a tarred fence). Similarly, the two slaves who took care of Lloyd's excellent horses were often accused of negligence, regardless of whether they neglected Lloyd's horses or not. Their master was able to falsely accuse them of shirking their duties whenever that suited his whims. This story does not only illustrate the uncertainty that plagued slaves' daily lives; it also exposes the falsehoods delivered by slaveowners, and it suggests that Douglass's writing is in a separate moral sphere, one devoted to truth as well as justice.

“…slaves, when inquired of as to their condition and the character of their masters, almost universally say they are contented, and that their masters are kind. The slaveholders have been known to send in spies among their slaves, to ascertain their views and feelings in regard to their condition. The frequency of this has had the effect to establish among the slaves the maxim, that a still tongue makes a wise head. They suppress the truth rather than take the consequences of telling it, and in so doing prove themselves a part of the human family.”

Related Characters: Frederick Douglass (speaker)
Page Number: 11
Explanation and Analysis:

Douglass recounts a story that is "reported of" Colonel Lloyd, admitting that this particular anecdote may be a rumor as he continues to attempt to only express the truth in his narrative. According to this story, Lloyd once met one of his slaves and asked him how he was treated by his master. The slave replied honestly, saying that he was worked too hard and not treated well. Then, a few weeks afterwards, this particular slave was apparently sold to a slave-trader in Georgia, forever severed from his family and friends. This demonstrates how slaves were treated when they told the truth. 

After this anecdote, Douglass explains that many slaves must lie when they are asked how they are doing; they claim that their master treats them kindly because they are afraid of such punishment. This illustrates how the sins of slave-owners compound; slaves are forced into morally questionable activities (perhaps the least of which is simple lying) because of the way their owners are allowed to treat them.

Chapter 4 Quotes

“I speak advisedly when I say this,—that killing a slave, or any colored person, in Talbot county, Maryland, is not treated as a crime, either by the courts or the community.”

Related Characters: Frederick Douglass (speaker)
Related Symbols: Demby
Page Number: 14
Explanation and Analysis:

Douglass relates how another overseer, the solemn young man Mr. Gore, shot the slave Demby while Demby was submerging himself in a creek, in an attempt to assuage his pain after receiving wounds from the whip. Just as Mr. Gore coldly completed this murder, Lloyd calmly accepted it; Gore claimed that Demby was setting a dangerous example of uncontrollable conduct for the other slaves, and Lloyd determined that this explanation justified the murder. After presenting this specific instance, Douglass reminds the reader that such murders are not considered murders in Maryland -- "courts" as well as the "community" equally allow slaveowners to kill a slave without consequences. This simple description of the legal and social situation is thus grounded in a particular incident, allowing the reader to realize the emotional and powerful force of such law and social custom. 

Chapter 5 Quotes

“From my earliest recollection, I date the entertainment of a deep conviction that slavery would not always be able to hold me within its foul embrace; and in the darkest hours of my career in slavery, this living word of faith and spirit of hope departed not from me, but remained like ministering angels to cheer me through the gloom. This good spirit was from God, and to him I offer thanksgiving and praise.”

Related Characters: Frederick Douglass (speaker)
Page Number: 19
Explanation and Analysis:

Douglass reflects that he was the only slave child to be sent to Baltimore -- he was "the first, last, and only choice." Ever dedicated to the truth, Douglass admits that he interprets this choice as an act of Providence in his favor. Douglass feels that God sent him faith and hope that he would be removed from slavery. According to Douglass, he was divinely ordained to be freed from slavery -- and, perhaps, to share his former experiences as a slave with the rest of humanity. Douglass implies that his narrative was inspired by God; it is grounded in the Christian faith, the faith which many of his readers claim. As a good Christian (and unlike the hypocritical "Christian" slaveowners), Douglass then directly offers "thanksgiving and praise" to God, and this act reveals a piety which might allow many of his readers to connect with him as well as his mission.

Chapter 6 Quotes

“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 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… and the argument which he so warmly urged, against my learning to read, only served to inspire me with a desire and determination to learn. In learning to read, I owe almost as much to the bitter opposition of my master, as to the kindly aid of my mistress. I acknowledge the benefit of both.”

Related Characters: Frederick Douglass (speaker), Hugh Auld, Sophia Auld
Page Number: 20
Explanation and Analysis:

Shortly after arriving in Baltimore, Mrs. Auld begins to teach Douglass how to read. She only is able to explain up to "words of three or four letters," however, before Mr. Auld learns about this endeavor and forbids Mrs. Auld from continuing. In his vehement declaration that Douglass must not become literate, Mr. Auld unwittingly provides Douglass with the most useful lesson of all: literacy is the key to freedom. Through denying slaves the right to read or write, slaveowners deprive slaves of the knowledge they need to attain freedom from their bondage. Most slaves cannot realize this, however, because few slaveowners describe this phenomenon as directly as Mr. Auld did when he found Mrs. Auld teaching Douglass. This explains why Douglass has uniquely been able to attain literacy, which suggests that Douglass is a genuine representation of all slaves. In his wisdom, Douglass reveals the particular reason for his triumph, as well as crediting both Mr. and Mrs. Auld.

Chapter 7 Quotes

On reading The Columbian Orator: “The moral which I gained from the dialogue was the power of truth over the conscience of even a slaveholder.”

Related Characters: Frederick Douglass (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Columbian Orator
Page Number: 24
Explanation and Analysis:

After Douglass managed to learn to read, through piecing together lessons in the street from various white children ("hungry little urchins") whom he gave bread, he becomes fascinated with the book The Columbian Orator. This text includes a variety of "interesting matter," especially a dialogue between a slaveowner and slave which displays the slave's intelligence and eloquence (through "smart" and "impressive" remarks) and results in the slave's emancipation. For Douglass, this conversation gives voice to sentiments inside himself; it articulates his feeling that he craves and deserves freedom and liberty. The slave in this dialogue also serves as a model for Douglass: he speaks the "truth" in order to exert power and contradict his owner's seemingly guiltless yet morally culpable "conscience." Douglass will echo this achievement in his own narrative.

“The reading of these documents enabled me to utter my thoughts, and to meet the arguments brought forward to sustain slavery; but while they relieved me of one difficulty, they brought on another even more painful than the one of which I was relieved. The more I read, the more I was led to abhor and detest my enslavers. I could regard them in no other light than a band of successful robbers, who had left their homes, and gone to Africa, and stolen us from our homes, and in a strange land reduced us to slavery.”

Related Characters: Frederick Douglass (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Columbian Orator
Page Number: 24
Explanation and Analysis:

Douglass explains that he read certain passages of The Columbian Orator many times, such as the dialogue between slave and master and Sheridan's speech about Catholic emancipation, and he analyzes how these readings affected him in multiple ways. Yes, they allowed him to articulate his innate sentiments in opposition to slavery and replaced his ignorance with understanding; they also, however, made him gain additional feelings -- of hostility and even hatred towards the slaveowners that he came to "abhor" and "detest." As these readings allowed Douglass to truthfully come to terms with his condition as slave, the truth threatened Douglass' moral virtue (making him loathe his slaveowners as much as he deplored his own position) although it also allowed him to develop his abolitionist perspective and argument. In learning the "truth," Douglass not only works towards his own freedom and that of others, but also must accept the harsh reality that even the "kindest" of slaveowners are complicit in an impossibly evil institution.

“As I writhed under it, I would at times feel that learning to read had been a curse rather than a blessing. It had given me a view of my wretched condition, without the remedy. It opened my eyes to the horrible pit, but to no ladder upon which to get out. In moments of agony, I envied my fellow-slaves for their stupidity. I have often wished myself a beast.”

Related Characters: Frederick Douglass (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Columbian Orator
Page Number: 24
Explanation and Analysis:

As Douglass continues to reflect on the way The Columbian Orator influenced his development, he more directly articulates the negative aspects of realizing the truth about his position (his "wretched condition") as a slave. After reading the work, had a more refined perspective, but still lacked the political or social means to improve his circumstance. He began to have a liminal sort of existence; he was still a slave, but he saw the ignorance (what he called the "stupidity") of his "fellow" slaves, which prevented him from fully belonging to their community. He even wished he was a "beast," feeling that it would be better to live ignorant of the full evils of his position than to be aware of them and still unable to change them.

Chapter 10 Quotes

“This battle with Mr. Covey was the turning-point in my career as a slave. It rekindled the few expiring embers of freedom, and revived within me a sense of my own manhood…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.”

Related Characters: Frederick Douglass (speaker), Edward Covey
Page Number: 43
Explanation and Analysis:

Douglass experiences a "glorious resurrection ... to the heaven of freedom" during his time under Mr. Covey's watch. One hot August afternoon, at the Biblically significant time of 3pm (the same time of Christ's crucifixion), Douglass finally loses his physical strength. When he is whipped by Mr. Covey, as expected, he decides to complain to his master about Mr. Covey's behavior -- which he later does. On his way back from his master's house (his journey after complaining to his master), Douglass receives a superstitious root from the slave Sandy Jenkins. The root seems to prevent Douglass from being beaten; as Douglass carries it, Mr. Covey speaks to him kindly. Then, the next day, when Mr. Covey attempts to whip Douglass, Douglass engages in a physical combat with Mr. Covey.

Douglass successfully fights Covey off; they brawl, and Covey does not whip Douglass as he intends to do. With this physical victory, Douglass has reclaimed his "manhood." He is a slave in "form," but not in "fact." He has taken one step towards freedom, and this progression begins to suggest how complicated and difficult the process to attaining freedom must be -- it doesn't just mean physically escaping the South, but also rebuilding one's identity as a human being in full possession of one's self.

“I held my Sabbath school at the house of a free colored man, whose name I deem it imprudent to mention; for should it be known, it might embarrass him greatly, though the crime of holding the school was committed ten years ago. I had at one time over forty scholars, and those of the right sort, ardently desiring to learn…I look back to those Sundays with an amount of pleasure not to be expressed. They were great days to my soul. The work of instructing my dear fellow-slaves was the sweetest engagement with which I was ever blessed.”

Related Characters: Frederick Douglass (speaker)
Page Number: 48
Explanation and Analysis:

While working for Freeland, Douglass begins to share his literary experience (and the knowledge and freedom which these experiences provide him) with his "dear fellow-slaves." This, more than any other item Douglass has shared, most effectively captures how Douglass's ability to read and write is not exceptional, and all slaves deserve the treatment which Douglass receives as a freed man.

Yet, even as Douglass reveals the events of this "Sabbath school" (a school which spreads Douglass's gifts with others in Christian fellowship), Douglass captures the still-present need for secrecy. He reluctantly refrains from revealing the freed man who hosted these literary sessions (despite his usual commitment to total truth), emphasizing how slaves are still struggling under social structures which restrain the improvement of their circumstance.

Chapter 11 Quotes

“The impression which I had received respecting the character and condition of the people of the north, I found to be singularly erroneous. I had very strangely supposed, while in slavery, that few of the comforts, and scarcely any of the luxuries, of life were enjoyed at the north, compared with what were enjoyed by the slaveholders of the south…The people looked more able, stronger, healthier, and happier, than those of Maryland. I was for once made glad by a view of extreme wealth, without being saddened by seeing extreme poverty.”

Related Characters: Frederick Douglass (speaker)
Page Number: 66-67
Explanation and Analysis:

After Douglass arrives in New Bedford, he receives his name ("Douglass") from Nathan Johnson and realizes that many of his impressions about Northerners were wrong. Douglass explains that, previously, he believed that because Northerners lacked slaves, they must also have lacked the luxury and comforts enjoyed by Southerners. He is surprised, however, by the profound well-being of Northern people, which seems to even surpass that of Southerners.

This indicates that slavery is indeed not essential to economic or other sorts of prosperity, thus mitigating an enduring, implicit argument in favor of slavery. It also suggests that an individual's perspective can easily be misguided; Douglass indirectly implies that Northerners' opinions about Southerners might be as wrong as his own prior opinions about Northerners. 

“The [Liberator] paper became my meat and my drink. My soul was set all on fire. Its sympathy for my brethren in bonds—its scathing denunciations of slaveholders—its faithful exposures of slavery—and its powerful attacks upon the upholders of the institution—sent a thrill of joy through my soul, such as I had never felt before!”

Related Characters: Frederick Douglass (speaker)
Page Number: 69
Explanation and Analysis:

Following his move to New Bedford, Douglass has another literary discovery: The Liberator, an abolitionist newspaper. Just as The Columbian Orator spurred Douglass's individual development and honed his personal beliefs against slavery, The Liberator fosters Douglass's impulse to support and participate in the abolitionist movement. First, reading brought personal convictions to Douglass; now, it allows him to share in the collective convictions which encouraged him to write this narrative at all. Finally, we see literature's power to connect individuals in the pursuit of justice -- the very power which Douglass is relying on in this narrative. Finally, Douglass's sympathy for the fellowship of all slaves merges with the broader social project and progress of the abolitionist movement.

Appendix Quotes

“What I have said respecting and against religion, I mean strictly to apply to the slaveholding religion of this land, and with no possible reference to Christianity proper; for, between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference—so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked.”

Related Characters: Frederick Douglass (speaker)
Page Number: 71
Explanation and Analysis:

Douglass provides an Appendix here in order to clarify certain points which he feels he may have misrepresented in his narrative. Firstly, he comments on religion; as a Christian man himself, Douglass clarifies that he is not against Christianity, but is only opposed to the hypocritical form of Christianity common among slaveowners. After the narrative proper, Douglass directly praises Christian doctrine itself -- as "good, pure, and holy," and as essential to life. He thus aligns his narrative with the Christian audience from the North, allying himself to his likely audience through the medium of religion, while also avoiding any criticisms that he is "unchristian" because of his condemnation of religious slaveowners. Indeed, this critique of people who twist and corrupt religion for their own cruel purposes is one of the most enduring lessons of Douglass's narrative.