Sophia Auld is, at first, everything Douglass expected her to be. Her dedication to her trade as a weaver has left her unaccustomed to owning slaves and unaware of the way slaves are usually treated. She is disturbed when Douglass grovels wretchedly in front of her, and prefers to be looked at in the eye.
Sophia Auld’s exceptional kindness comes from her willingness to treat Douglass like a fellow human being and dispense with the debasing manners most slave owners require.
However, Mrs. Auld is soon warped by the corrupting power of owning slaves. After Douglass moves in, she generously begins teaching him his ABC’s, but just as Douglass is beginning to learn to spell, Mr. Auld intervenes. He instructs his wife to prevent slaves from learning at all costs, as it is both illegal and unsafe to teach a slave to read. Mr. Auld emphasizes that a literate slave will become an unmanageable slave.
Hugh’s strong opposition to Douglass’s education shows that slaveholders rely on their slaves’ ignorance in order to keep them oppressed. The transformation in Sophia shows how slavery corrupts the slave owners—they become used to power, they come to rely on slavery, and so they expect and need complete obedience and do whatever is necessary to ensure it.
Mr. Auld’s words affect Douglass deeply, and he realizes that Mr. Auld’s exhortations against educating slaves must mean that learning carries with it some degree of empowerment. He begins to understand the white man’s power to enslave the black man, and starts to regard literacy as a path to freedom. Because Douglass and Mr. Auld have such opposite goals, Douglass takes the thing Mr. Auld finds most abhorrent and esteems it highly.
Douglass understands that slavery hinges upon stifling slaves’ mental understanding and freedom. His extraordinary determination to free himself prompts him to resolve to expand his knowledge and autonomy of mind.
In Baltimore, Douglass notices that slaves are treated much more humanely, and live almost like freemen. City-dwelling slaveholders are reluctant to look bad in front of their neighbors by malnourishing or beating their slaves. However, Douglass concedes that this general rule doesn’t hold in all cases: across the street from Hugh and Sophia Auld live the Hamiltons, who own two female slaves, Mary and Henrietta. Mrs. Hamilton whips her slaves cruelly and deprives them of food; Mary is regularly seen fighting with pigs to eat the waste thrown in the street.
Slaveholders are eager to conform: social pressures prove to be enough to make city slaveholders treat their slaves humanely—in most cases, at least. Mrs. Hamilton’s barbarism shows that while some slaveholders’ cruelty is a product of social norms, others’ is simply caused by sadism.