Frederick Douglass

 Posted by on 7 February 2006 at 7:14 am  Uncategorized
Feb 072006

A few days ago, I was preparing some notes for an upcoming FROG discussion of the chapter on slavery from Andy Bernstein’s so-far excellent book The Capitalist Manifesto. Apropos Andy’s argument that Enlightenment rather than Christian ideals eliminated slavery in the West, I remembered Frederick Douglass’ comments on the particular brutality of religious slaveowners from his short but powerful Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. The passage was even more wonderful than I remembered:

Another advantage I gained in my new master was, he made no pretensions to, or profession of, religion; and this, in my opinion, was truly a great advantage. I assert most unhesitatingly, that the religion of the south is a mere covering for the most horrid crimes,–a justifier of the most appalling barbarity,–a sanctifier of the most hateful frauds,–and a dark shelter under, which the darkest, foulest, grossest, and most infernal deeds of slaveholders find the strongest protection. Were I to be again reduced to the chains of slavery, next to that enslavement, I should regard being the slave of a religious master the greatest calamity that could befall me. For of all slaveholders with whom I have ever met, religious slaveholders are the worst. I have ever found them the meanest and basest, the most cruel and cowardly, of all others. It was my unhappy lot not only to belong to a religious slaveholder, but to live in a community of such religionists. Very near Mr. Freeland lived the Rev. Daniel Weeden, and in the same neighborhood lived the Rev. Rigby Hopkins. These were members and ministers in the Reformed Methodist Church. Mr. Weeden owned, among others, a woman slave, whose name I have forgotten. This woman’s back, for weeks, was kept literally raw, made so by the lash of this merciless, religious wretch. He used to hire hands. His maxim was, Behave well or behave ill, it is the duty of a master occasionally to whip a slave, to remind him of his master’s authority. Such was his theory, and such his practice.

Mr. Hopkins was even worse than Mr. Weeden. His chief boast was his ability to manage slaves. The peculiar, feature of his government was that of whipping slaves in advance of deserving it. He always managed to have one or more of his slaves to whip every Monday morning. He did this to alarm their fears, and strike terror into those who escaped. His plan was to whip for the smallest offences, to prevent the commission of large ones. Mr. Hopkins could always find some excuse for whipping a slave. It would astonish one, unaccustomed to a slaveholding life, to see with what wonderful ease a slaveholder can find things, of which to make occasion to whip a slave.

A mere look, word, or motion,–a mistake, accident, or want of power,–are all matters for which a slave may be whipped at any time. Does a slave look dissatisfied? It is said, he has the devil in him, and it must be whipped out. Does he speak loudly when spoken to by his master? Then he is getting high-minded, and should be taken down a button-hole lower. Does he forget to pull off his hat at the approach of a white person? Then he is wanting in reverence, and should be whipped for it. Does he ever venture to vindicate his conduct, when censured for it? Then he is guilty of impudence,–one of the greatest crimes of which a slave can be guilty. Does he ever venture to suggest a different mode of doing things from that pointed out by his master? He is indeed presumptuous, and getting above himself; and nothing less than a flogging will do for him. Does he, while ploughing, break a plough,–or, while hoeing, break a hoe? It is owing to his carelessness, and for it a slave must always be whipped. Mr. Hopkins could always find something of this sort to justify the use of the lash, and he seldom failed to embrace such opportunities. There was not a man in the whole county, with whom the slaves who had the getting their own home, would not prefer to live, rather than with this Rev. Mr. Hopkins. And yet there was not a man any where round, who, made higher professions of religion, or was more active in revivals, –more attentive to the class, love-feast, prayer and preaching meetings, or more devotional in his family,–that prayed earlier, later, louder, and longer,–than this same reverend slave-driver, Rigby Hopkins.

More recently, I ran across this fantastic quote from Mr. Douglass on Tom Palmer’s blog:

The old doctrine that the slavery of the black, is essential to the freedom of the white race, can maintain itself only in the presence of slavery where interest and prejudice are the controlling powers, but it stands condemned equally by reason and experience. The statesmanship of to-day condemns and repudiates it as a shallow pretext for oppression. It belongs with the commercial fallacies long ago exposed by Adam Smith. It stands on a level with the contemptible notion, that every crumb of bread that goes into another man’s mouth, is just so much bread taken from mine. Whereas, the rule is in this country of abundant land, the more mouths you have, the more bread you can put into your pocket, the more I can put into mine. As with political economy, so with political and civil rights (Frederick Douglass, November 17, 1864).

I’ve not read much from Frederick Douglass, but every bit I do read inspires me to read more.

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