Frederick Douglass: “Knowledge Unfits a Man to be a Slave”

Frederick Douglas was born a slave in the month of February 1818. He was a towering figure in the fight to end slavery in the United States and emerged as a prominent American statesman in the nineteenth century. The article excepted below rekindled my memory of the exhilaration I felt over twenty years ago when I read his autobiography: “The Life and Times of Frederick Douglas.” Douglas’ lasting contribution to all Americans (and all people of the world) was his commitment to develop his mind. By learning to read and developing his mental powers, he had already “freed” himself spiritually years before he escaped from the Maryland plantation where he was kept a slave. In fact, it was the power of his mind that gave him the physical strength to challenge his master. There is no finer example for our children (and adults) to emulate, than the great Frederick Douglas, in our commitment to educate our minds and become free. Douglas understood, once he started reading, that if he could think, he would not be slave. He came to know, as we all should, that he shackles of the mind are more powerful  than the iron shackles on the body. In celebration of this bicentennial year of the birth of Frederick Douglas let us all renew our desire to unfetter our minds by emulating this unique individual. 

Frederick Douglass: “Knowledge Unfits a Man to be a Slave”

by Nancy Spannaus

This year is the 200th anniversary of Douglass’s birth, and he is finally begun to be celebrated as the towering figure he was during the mid- and late 19th century. Douglass’s role in the movement to abolish slavery, including support for Lincoln in the Civil War, and later in the tumultuous post-war battles, showed him to be a great political leader. He famously championed the U.S. Constitution and called on his fellow African-Americans to support and enforce it. He fought for the woman’s right to vote. For many years he edited his own newspaper. He also served as ambassador to Haiti for a brief time, and remained active in politics until his death in 1895.

Frederick Douglass

But the aspect of Frederick Douglass’s contribution which I want to emphasize on this occasion is Douglass’s understanding of, and commitment to, education.  Yes, Douglass was primarily addressing black Americans in his discussion of this topic. But this man, who, despite being born into slavery, fought successfully to achieve a high degree of literacy, has much to teach all Americans (and others) about the qualifications for responsible citizenship of a republic.

Readers have ample opportunity to investigate the subject for themselves in Douglass’s several autobiographies:  Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845), which became a bestseller, and was influential in promoting the cause of abolition; My Bondage and My Freedom (1855); and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, which went through its final editing in 1892, three years before his death.

A Mind Awakening

By the age of nine, Douglass says, he was inquiring “into the origin and nature of slavery. Why am I a slave? Why are some people slaves and others masters? These were perplexing questions and very troublesome to my childhood. I was very early told by some one that ‘God up in the sky’ had made all things, and had made black people to be slaves and white people to be masters …. I could not tell how anybody could know that God made black people to be slaves.”

In 1825, Douglass, who was about eight at the time, was sent to live in Baltimore with his master’s cousin, Hugh Auld, and his wife. The move to a city, one of the major industrial and shipbuilding centers on the U.S. East Coast, was to give Frederick a chance to expand his horizons both mentally and physically. It was at the Aulds that Douglass came to a more conscious understanding of his hatred of slavery and his love of learning.

Douglass developed a passion early on for reading, a passion which, ironically, was provoked by the debased ideas of his master, Hugh Auld. Douglass called Auld’s lecture to his wife, on why she should stop teaching the boy to read, “the first decidedly anti-slavery lecture” he ever heard, and a revelation which drove him to learn as much as he could. In The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, the great man explained:

“The frequent hearing of my mistress reading the Bible aloud … awakened my curiosity … to this mystery of reading, and roused in me the desire to learn. Up to this time I had known nothing whatever of this wonderful art, and my ignorance and inexperience of what it could do for me, as well as my confidence in my mistress, emboldened me to ask her to teach me to read … My mistress seemed almost as proud of my progress as if I had been her own child, and supposing that her husband would be as well pleased, she made no secret of what she was doing for me. Indeed, she exultingly told him of the aptness of her pupil and of her intention to persevere, as she felt it her duty to do, in teaching me, at least, to read the Bible.”

Abraham Lincoln reading to his son Tad.

What was the reaction of the presumably God-fearing, Christian slave-owner, Hugh Auld? Douglass describes it thus: “Of course he forbade her to give me any further instruction, telling her in the first place that to do so was unlawful, as it was also unsafe, ‘for,’ said he, ‘if you give a nigger an inch he will take an ell [an obsolete unit of measurement amounting to about 45 inches-ed.]. Learning will spoil the best nigger in the world. If he learns to read the Bible it will forever unfit him to be a slave.’ Apparently unaware of the rather extraordinary admission he had just made, Auld continued, ‘He should know nothing but the will of his master, and learn to obey it. As to himself, learning will do him no good, but a great deal of harm, making him disconsolate and unhappy. If you teach him how to read, he’ll want to know how to write, and this accomplished, he’ll be running away with himself.’ ”

Read: Frederick Douglass: “Knowledge Unfits a Man to be a Slave”

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