The purpose behind Fredrick Douglasss Narrative was to appeal to the other abolitionists who he wanted to convince that slave owners were wrong for their treatment of other human beings. His goal was to appeal to the middle-class people of that time and persuade them to get on board with the abolitionist movement. Douglass had a great writing style that was descriptive as well as convincing. He stayed away from the horrific details of the time, which helped him grasp the attention of the women who in turn would convince their husbands to help by donating money and eventually ending slavery. He used his words effectively in convincing the readers that the slave owners were inhuman and showed how they had no feelings for other human beings. Although Douglass appealed to the middle-class people, he upset other Northerners at the same time, mainly the slave traders, because he was destroying their business. Through personal anecdotes, Douglass draws an accurate picture of slave life. Simultaneously, he chooses these events for how they will affect the Northern audiences opinion of southern slaveholders (Quarles ii).
Douglass uses family relationships, starting with his own birth, to gain the compassion of his target audience. He never knew the identity of his father, but it was whispered (Douglass 2) that it was his master. Douglass mentions this to demonstrate how the master in many cases, sustains to his slaves the double relation of master and father (2). This was so commonplace that it was by law established that the children of women shall in all cases follow the condition of their mother (2). This meant that these bastard children were slaves despite their paternal heritage because their mother was a slave. The effect of this revelation was to shock and offend the morals of the conservative Northern whites. Northern society scorned people in adulterous and interracial relationships. By portraying these Southerners as immoral and adulterous, Douglass wanted to cultivate in his audience a damaging opinion of southern slaveholders (Quarles ix).
Continuing with the theme of family values, Douglass shifts to the basic family unit. Their master separated Douglass and his mother when he was an infant, for what reason he does not know (Douglass 2). No one gave Douglass an explanation because this situation was customary on plantations. Douglass wanted to horrify his Northern white readers by informing them that slaveholders regularly split slave families for no apparent reason. This obviously would upset Northerners because the family unit was the foundation for their close-knit communities. Multiple generations and extended families lived together or near each other. It was unimaginable to the readers that a society existed that took children away from their mothers without reason. Northerners would think of anyone who was part of such a society as a heartless monster (Quarles ix).
Another example of how Douglass used family values against southern slaveholders was in the treatment of his grandmother. When Douglasss master decided his grandmother was too old and no longer useful, they took her to the woods, built her a little hut and then made her welcome to the privilege of supporting herself in perfect loneliness; thus virtually turning her out to die (Douglass 28). This shows the lack of decency or gratitude on the part of slaveholders toward slaves that had faithfully, their entire lives, served their masters. This mistreatment enrages the readers, especially those with close-knit families, because people should take care of and respect their elders until death. The usefulness of older people goes beyond physical attributes because they have a wealth of knowledge and experience to share.
To force his audience to feel further alienated, Douglass elaborates on the treatment of slaves as animals in his description of slave sleeping conditions. Masters did not give the slaves a bed to sleep on, only a coarse blanket (Douglass 6). So at the end of the day, slaves old and young, male and female, married and single would drop down side by side, on one common bedthe cold damp floor (6). Douglass knew that some of his Northern readers could associate to the slaves situation because they too had once endured similar poor living conditions or even homelessness. However, Northern society made it possible for an individual to overcome such hardships while the masters denied their slaves a better existence. The institution of slavery held each successive generation in poverty, which is an indignity to the dream that many Northerners held of prosperity in the new world (Quarles x).
Frederick Douglass used family values and basic human rights, as well as many other methods not mentioned to persuade the middle-class white audience toward the cause of abolition. He expects his readers will share his hate for the corrupt, slaveholding, woman whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of southern slaveholders (Douglass 71). For all these reasons, it shows exactly why slave traders from the North would be upset by Douglasss Narrative, where as the people he appeals to would be sickened by what they read and would support the abolitionist cause.
Quarles, Benjamin, ed. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave. By Frederick Douglass. Cambridge: Harvard Press, 1988.
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