Colonel Lloyd keeps a lush and tempting garden, and slaves are often whipped for stealing fruit from it. In order to prevent theft from the garden, the encircling fence was coated in tar. Any slave who had tar on his body, for whatever reason, would be punished, and slaves began to fear tar itself.
Under the justice of the plantation, slaves are presumed guilty. Douglass's anecdote about the tar shows how such a system results in both terrible fear and ridiculous inefficiency, as slaves feel they will be punished for simply using a substance while the workings of the farm are therefore affected by slaves trying to avoid using tar.
Colonel Lloyd also kept a luxurious stable, under the care of a father-and-son team of slaves named Old Barney and Young Barney. Whenever the Colonel notices the slightest problem with his riding equipment, he blames the Barneys, and the slaves receive a whipping regardless of whether or not they could have controlled the problems. Douglass has even seen Old Barney, a sixty-year-old man, forced to kneel and receive thirty lashes. When the Colonel complains, the slaves cannot answer a word in reply or attempt to justify their actions. The Colonel demands that the slaves stand silently and fearfully in his presence.
The Colonel is unimaginably wealthy. He was rumored to have a thousand slaves—so many that the Colonel could not recognize them all. On the highway, the Colonel came across a slave he did not recognize and asked him whom he belonged to and how his master treats him. The slave, not recognizing his master, explained his origins and complained of his treatment. A few weeks later, this slave was sold to a Georgia trader as punishment for his truthful responses. This, according to Douglass, is the sort of fate that befalls any slave who speaks truthfully.
Slaves are compelled by fear to obscure the truth of the miseries they endure, lest they end up like the Colonel’s slave who was sold to a Georgia trader. This underscores the importance—and the rarity—of Douglass’s ability to speak candidly and truthfully in his memoir. He is not just speaking for himself—he is speaking for all slaves, because they themselves cannot.
Because slaves who speak the truth of their condition are so often punished, slaves will nearly universally report that they are happy and contented. The slaves adopt the maxim, “a still tongue makes a wise head,” because it is considered better to suppress the truth than to face the consequences of telling it. Douglass himself remembers lying about his happiness when asked.
Like free people, slaves are just as susceptible to prejudiced thinking. They tend to think their own masters are better than others’, and will sometimes fight amongst themselves about the goodness of their masters. Douglass writes that “it was considered as being bad enough to be a slave; but to be a poor man’s slave was deemed a disgrace indeed!”
Douglass drives home the point that slaves are not a homogenous mass, but distinct individuals—with the same foibles as free people. Slaves still compete with one another and find ways to elevate themselves relative to others.