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Frederick Douglass, 1818-1895
My Bondage and My Freedom. Part I. Life as a Slave. Part II. Life as a Freeman
New York: Miller, Orton & Mulligan, 1855.


Frederick Douglass' second autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom, significantly revises key portions of his original 1845 Narrative and extends the story of his life to include his experiences as a traveling lecturer in the United States as well as England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. Douglass also frames his second autobiography differently, replacing the prefatory notes by white abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips with an introduction by the prominent black abolitionist Dr. James M'Cune Smith. While the appendix to his first autobiography serves primarily as a clarification about Douglass' views on religion, the appendix to My Bondage and My Freedom includes a letter to a former master, Thomas Auld—a ship captain—and various excerpts from Douglass' abolitionist lectures. These prefaces and appendices provide the reader with a sense of the larger historical movement(s) in which Douglass plays an important part. Douglass later expanded and republished this autobiography twice more, in 1881 and 1892, both under the title Life and Times of Frederick Douglass.

Like Douglass's earlier Narrative, My Bondage and My Freedom begins with his birth in Tuckahoe, Maryland, but the revised version offers many additional details. In Chapter 1, Douglass remembers his grandmother, Betsey Bailey, at length: "Grandmammy was . . . all the world to me; and the thought of being separated from her, [for] any considerable time . . . was intolerable" (p. 39). However, when he is around seven years old, his grandmother takes him to live on the plantation of Colonel Edward Lloyd, and they are indeed separated, leaving young "Fed" with no family except for his brothers and sisters, of whom he notes, "slavery had made us strangers" (p. 48). Douglass acknowledges that "it was sometimes whispered that my master was my father," but he cannot confirm the accuracy of this rumor, for "slavery does away with fathers, as it does away with families" (p. 51-52). In describing his early life on the plantation, Douglass expands the material from the first five chapters of his 1845 Narrative—including the death of his mother, descriptions of brutal overseers, and the whipping of Aunt Esther (previously Hester)—to fill the first nine chapters of My Bondage and My Freedom.

In Chapter 10, Douglass describes life in Baltimore with his new master, Hugh Auld, a ship carpenter and brother of Thomas Auld. "I had been treated as a pig on the plantation; I was treated as a child now," he notes, but the "troops of hostile boys" in the streets nevertheless made him wish at times to be back on "the home plantation" (p. 141-142). When Hugh Auld discovers that his wife, Sophia, is teaching Douglass to read, he insists that she stop immediately, for "[a slave] should know nothing but the will of his master," and literacy "would forever unfit him for the duties of a slave" (p. 146). Douglass hears and understands this message, but Auld's words actually convince him of the crucial importance of literacy: "In learning to read, therefore, I . . . owe quite as much to the opposition of my master, as to the kindly assistance of my amiable mistress" (p. 147). In order to attain literacy, Douglass is "compelled to resort to indirections" such as exchanging bread for reading lessons from hungry white children in the streets of Baltimore (p. 151). "For a single biscuit," he recalls, "any of my hungry little comrades would give me a lesson more valuable to me than bread" (p. 155).

Chapters 13-20 of My Bondage and My Freedom retell the series of relocations and challenges Douglass faces from 1833 (then fifteen years old) through 1838, when he finally escapes from slavery. "One trouble over, and on comes another," Douglass recalls; "The slave's life is full of uncertainty" (p. 179). This particular period of uncertainty begins with the death of Captain Anthony, who, Douglass notes, had remained his master "in fact, and in law," though he had become "in form the slave of Master Hugh" (p. 173). Captain Anthony's death necessitates a division of his human "property," and soon afterwards, Hugh Auld sends Douglass to work at his brother Thomas Auld's plantation, on Maryland's Eastern shore (p. 186). When Master Thomas finds that severe whippings do not cause "any visible improvement in [Douglass'] character," he hires the young slave out to Edward Covey, who is reputed to be "a first rate hand at breaking young negroes" (p. 203). On January 1, 1834, Douglass sets out for Covey's farm, fearing that "like a wild young working animal, I am to be broken to the yoke of a bitter and life-long bondage" (p. 207). Fittingly, one of his first assignments is to tame "a pair of unbroken oxen," which Douglass describes as a near-impossible task (p. 209). The oxen run away, and Covey punishes Douglass harshly. But Douglass does not intend to be broken either, and his year with Covey culminates in a violent fistfight with the overseer. This brutal struggle, Douglass recalls, "rekindled in my breast the smouldering embers of liberty . . . and revived a sense of my own manhood" (p. 246). Douglass emphasizes his victory over Covey as a turning point in the narrative: "This spirit made me a freeman in fact, while I remained a slave in form" (p. 247). In 1835, Douglass leaves Covey to work for William Freeland, "a well-bred southern gentleman," noting that "he was the best master I ever had, until I became my own master" (pp. 258, 268). After an uneventful year, Douglass devises his first escape plan, conspiring with five other young male slaves (p. 279). However, their scheme is detected, Douglass is imprisoned for a time, and finally Thomas Auld sends him back to live with Hugh (p. 303).

While working in a Baltimore shipyard as a hired laborer, Douglass is savagely beaten and nearly killed by four white ship carpenters. Nevertheless, the job allows Douglass to save some money, finally enabling him to make his escape in September 1838. Douglass does not reveal the full details of his escape in My Bondage and My Freedom, fearing that he might "thereby [prevent] a brother in suffering [from escaping] the chains and fetters of slavery" (p. 323). (He narrates his escape in Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, published well after emancipation). Instead, Douglass skips to his first impressions of life in New York: "less than a week after leaving Baltimore, I was walking amid the hurrying throng, and gazing upon the dazzling wonders of Broadway" (p. 336).

Although the title suggests that Douglass' second autobiography might spend as much time on his "freedom" as it spends on his "bondage," only the last four chapters are devoted to his life as a free man. Chapter 22 details Douglass' marriage to Anna Murray, his move to New Bedford, Massachusetts, his renaming (from Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey to Frederick Douglass), and his first encounter with "the mind of William Lloyd Garrison" (p. 341, p. 343, p. 354). Chapter 23 relates Douglass' involvement with the American Anti-Slavery Society and describes his original impetus to write down his story (the 1845 Narrative)—"to dispel all doubt [about his background] . . . and [to expose] the secrets and crimes of slavery and slaveholders" (p. 363). Chapter 24 describes Douglass' tumultuous Atlantic crossing on a ship full of slave-owners, his exploits as a traveling lecturer in England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, and the "many dear friends" abroad who collaborate to purchase Douglass's freedom from Thomas Auld in 1846 (p. 373). Chapter 25 recalls Douglass's plan to start a newspaper after returning to the United States, which he realizes with the help of his "friends in England" despite some unexpected resistance from his abolitionist "friends in Boston" (p. 392-393). This difference of opinion was emblematic of a larger rift between Douglass and the followers of William Lloyd Garrison over various points of political philosophy. Determined to circulate his newspaper from a neutral location, Douglass begins printing The North Star in December 1847 and moves his family to Rochester, New York, in 1848. He concludes My Bondage and My Freedom with a revised mission statement: "to promote the moral, social, religious, and intellectual elevation of the free colored people . . . to advocate the great and primary work of the universal and unconditional emancipation of my entire race" (p. 406).

Works Consulted: Andrews, William, To Tell a Free Story: The First Century of Afro-American Autobiography, 1760-1865, Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1986; Blassingame, John W., and others, Eds., The Frederick Douglass Papers, Series Two, Vol. 1, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999; Douglass, Frederick, Autobiographies, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., ed., New York: Penguin Books, 1996.

Patrick E. Horn

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