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The Legitimization of Slavery and Frederick Douglass

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Slavery’s roots extend back more than two thousand years. With such a lengthy past, many arguments have arisen regarding the definition of slavery. Frederick Douglass, being a former slave in the American south, offered one definition of the term “slave” while giving a lecture. He stated, “The slave is a human being, divested of all rights – reduced to the level of a brute… In law, a slave has no wife, no children, no country, and no home…” (“The Nature of Slavery”). One may question how the treatment of a person, in such a manner, could be condoned. In order to successfully convince a society that it is acceptable to enslave an innocent group of people, they needed to justify its legitimacy. Their excuses, however, are immaterial when raised to oppress a strong abolitionist leader. In his book, Inhuman Bondage, David Brion Davis examines the methods of beastialization, dehumanization, and racism as steps toward the legitimization of slavery. As Frederick Douglass rose to prominence in the abolitionist movement, he discounted each of the rationalizations. His actions, rebelling against his “master,” starting a family, and becoming a leader, contradict the justification of slavery. Upon examining the steps taken by the American people to legitimize the enslavement of African Americans, it becomes apparent that Frederick Douglass conflicts with their explanations (Davis).

A first step in the legitimization of slavery is the bestialization of the individuals to be enslaved. The society aligns the domestication of wild animals with the “domestication” of African American slaves. David Brion Davis examines this topic via quotations from Aristotle, as he discusses the value of a tame animal. This leads into the discussion of African Americans. He says, “these people are slaves by nature, and it is better for them to be subject to this kind of control” (Davis 33-34). Aristotle literally discusses these people in terms of agricultural labor animals. He goes on to assert the difference between the body of a slave and of a free man. Aristotle says, “Nature must therefore have intended to make the bodies of free men and of slaves different also; slaves’ bodies strong for the services they have to do…” (Davis 33-34). Aristotle’s words express racism toward people of African descent. He groups together cattle, oxen, horses, and slaves, saying all should be treated as wild animals. They must be tamed and utilized, by the white man for their physical abilities. As a slave, Douglass was categorized among the livestock. He writes, “I now saw, in my situation, several points of similarity with that of the oxen. They were property, so was I; they were to be broken, so was I” (Douglass 212). At times he may have felt himself to be reduced to the property of another man, but he utilizes the fire of his emotions. He rebels against his “owner” and refuses the position he is given. He says, “I remembered my pledge to stand up in my own defense… I was resolved to fight” (Douglass 242). He is not broken as he uses his fury to defend himself; he says, “The fighting madness had come upon me, and I found my strong fingers firmly attached to the throat of my cowardly tormentor” (Douglass 242). While initially he rejects his life as a slave and fights back against his oppressors, he meets many setbacks along the way. His ultimate rise from his life as an animal is accomplished through his education. By learning to read, write and speak, he breaks away from his bestialization and fights the system of slavery.

The dehumanization of African Americans also aided in the legitimization of slavery. Indeed, slaves were “deprived of precisely those traits and faculties that are prerequisites for human dignity, respect, and honor” (Davis 29). Many slaves were given little clothing and no hygienic facilities; this robbed them of their pride. Even the most basic human relationship, of mother to child, was taken from them. Douglass was torn away from his mother after birth so that she could return to work; he was left with his grandmother to be raised alongside his biological siblings. In the beginning of the book, there are often mentions of his relations being beaten. As the story progresses, however, there are no longer any allusions to his family. He is sent to different plantations alone, with no social attachments or home. Davis asserts, “This absence of a past and a future, of a place in history and society from which to grow in small increments, made each slave totally vulnerable. This may be the very essence of dehumanization” (Davis 37). Douglass had no past, no history, no permanent group to connect with, and no home. He, however, overcame this. While he was living in Baltimore, he met a woman; after he escaped, he was reunited with her. He says, “my intended wife, Anna, came on from Baltimore and, in the presence of Mrs. Mitchell and Mr. Ruggles, we were married by Rev. James W. C. Pennington” (Douglass 341). With nothing to hold onto, he created his own past, present, and future. Douglass and Anna later had two children. He rejected the dehumanization that held him down, as he became the leader of his family. Thus, he took back his “human dignity, respect, and honor” (Douglass).

Racism, of course, was another facet of the legitimization of slavery. Through a strongly racist ideology, slaves were believed to be part of a lower class of human. On an academic level, prominent figures publicly announced their negative opinions of African Americans. Philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote, “The Negroes of Africa have received from nature no intelligence that rises above the foolish” (Kant). Through this quote, one can deduce that society thought slaves to be mentally insufficient, and unable to rise above this. This is ironic, considering that Douglass recounts Mr. Auld’s fear of the slaves becoming educated. As he scolds his wife for teaching Douglass how to read, he expresses the fear of the slaves learning enough to realize that they can rebel. It is evident that they were concerned of the power of the slaves, and the extent of their abilities. Indeed, Kant’s contemporary, David Hume, held similar racist beliefs. He stated, “I am apt to suspect the Negroes, and in general all other species of men, to be naturally inferior to the whites” (Hume). The belief that African Americans were physically and psychologically inferior to whites was a generally accepted belief. As Frederick Douglass attempted to obtain employment after escaping slavery, for example, he was denied work as a calker due to the color of his skin. The white men threatened to leave if he worked beside him. Yet Douglass did not let this mentality stand. Although he worked as a laborer, making fractions of the white men’s wages, he did not settle. He joined the abolitionist movement, and wrote in the papers against slavery. After joining up with Mr. Garrison, Douglass spent a great deal of time speaking out against slavery. By doing so, he proved to the world that he was equal to any man who heard him. Utilizing his skills as an orator, he worked to break down the racism that held him back; in this Douglass worked to undo the legitimization of slavery. As a public figure, and a leader, he stands on display to de-rationalize slavery (Douglass 304-359).

John Locke, in his work Two Treatises of Government, argues that, theoretically, slavery cannot exist. Locke says, “This freedom from absolute, arbitrary power is so necessary to… a man’ preservation, that he cannot part with it but by what forfeits his preservation and life together” (Locke). No man can be a slave, for each man has power over himself. In giving up control of one’s own life, they are forfeiting their own lives, which as part of survival cannot be done. Douglass proved this in his own actions. As stated in the aforementioned speech, he said, “In law, a slave has no wife, no children, no country, and no home” (“The Nature of Slavery”). He had control over his own life; therefore, he escaped and lived his life according to his own wishes. Overall, Douglass may have agreed with Locke. Locke asserts that one cannot be a slave unless one consents to enslavement. Douglass states that one cannot be a slave if they have a family. Therefore, Douglass chose not to be a slave. His liberation from slavery, in a technical manner, was through his family. If slaves have no family, then he was not a slave.

Frederick Douglass’s life is a testament against the legitimization of slavery. He stands as evidence against every reason that a man claimed for slavery. They claimed that African Americans were animals. Yet even as Douglass was defending himself from his “master,” he was polite to him. Even while holding the man’s neck, he answered, “Yes, sir” (Douglass 243). Society claimed that they were less than human. Few aspects are more human than fighting for what one believes in. Douglass more than proved his competence and equality to any man. As one looks at the rationalizations attached to slavery, it is clear that Frederick Douglass contests every word.

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