Frederick Douglass

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Frederick Douglass

left Master Thomas's house, and went to live with Mr. Covey, on the

1st of January, 1833. I was now, for the first time in my life, a field hand. In my new employment, I found myself even more awkward than

a country boy appeared to be in a large city. I had been at my new home but one week before

Mr. Covey gave me a very severe whipping, cutting my back, causing

the blood to run, and raising ridges on my flesh as large as my little finger. The details of this affair are as follows: Mr. Covey sent me, very early in the morning of one of our coldest days in the month of January, to the woods, to get a load of wood. He gave me a team of unbroken oxen. He told me which was the in-hand ox, and which the off-hand1 one. He then tied the end of a large rope around the horns of the in-hand ox, and gave me the other end of it, and told me, if the oxen started to run, that I must hold on upon the rope. I had never driven oxen before, and of course I was very awkward. I, however, succeeded in getting to the edge of the woods with little difficulty; but I had got a very few rods into the woods, when the oxen took fright, and started full tilt, carrying the cart against trees, and over stumps, in the most frightful manner. I expected every moment that my brains would be dashed out against the trees. After run­ ning thus for a considerable distance, they finally upset the cart, dashing it with great force against

a tree, and threw themselves into a dense thicket.

How I escaped death, I do not know. There I was, entirely alone, in a thick wood, in a place new to me.

My cart was upset and shattered, my oxen were entangled among the young trees, and there was none to help

me. After a long spell of effort, I succeeded in getting my cart right­ ed, my oxen disentangled, and again yoked to the cart. I now pro-

ceeded with my team to the place where I had, the day before, been chopping wood, and loaded my cart pretty heavily, think­ ing in this way to tame my oxen. I then proceeded on my way home. I had now con­ sumed one half of the day. I got out of the woods safely, and now felt out of danger. I stopped my oxen to open the woods gate; and just as I did so, before I could g<:t hold of my ox rope, the oxen again started, rushed through the gate, catching it between the wheel and the body of the cart, tearing it to pieces, and coming within a few inches of crushing me against the gate-post. Thus twice, in one short day, I escaped death by the merest chance. On my return, I told Mr. Covey what had happened, and how it happened. He ordered me to return to the woods again immediately. I did so, and he followed on after me. Just as I got into the

  1. in-hand .• • off-hand: In a team of animals used for pulling loads, the animal trained to work on the left side is the in-hand one; the animal on the right is the off-hand one.


A Load of Brush (1912), Louis Paul Dessar. Oil on canvas, 28 '//' x 36 '//', National Museum of American Art, gift of John Gellatly, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.CJArt Resource, New York.

fully up to the point of endur­

ance. Long before day we were up, our horses fed, and by the first approach of day we were off to the field with our hoes and ploughing teams. Mr.

Covey gave us enough to eat, but scarce time to eat it. We were often less than five min­ utes taking our meals. We were often in the field from the first approach of day till its last lingering ray had left us; and

at saving-fodder time, midnight often caught us in the field binding blades.2

Covey would be out with

us. The way he used to stand it, was this. He would spend the most of his afternoons in bed.

He would then come out fresh "'""\

woods, he came up and told me to stop my cart, and that he would teach me how to trifle away my time, and break gates. He then went to a large gum-tree, and with his axe cut three large switches, and, after trimming them up neatly with his pocket-knife, he ordered me to take

off my clothes. I made him no answer, but

    • stood with my clothes on. He repeated his order. I still made him no answer, nor did I move to strip myself. Upon this he rushed at me with the fierceness of a tiger, tore off my clothes, and lashed me till he had worn out his switches, cutting me so savagely as to leave the marks visible for a long time after. This whip­ ping was the first of a number just like it, and for similar offenses.

I lived with Mr. Covey one year. During

the first six months, of that year, scarce a week passed without his whipping me. I was seldom free from a sore back. My awkwardness was

in the evening, ready to urge us on with his words, example, and frequently with the whip. Mr. Covey was one of the few slaveholders who could and did work with his hands. He was a hard-working man. He knew by himself just . what a man or a boy could do. There was no deceiving him. His work went on in his absence almost as well as in his presence; and he had

the faculty of making us feel that he was ever present with us. This he did by surprising us. He seldom approached the spot where we were at work openly, if he could do it secretly. He always aimed at taking us by surprise. Such was his cunning, that we used to call him, among our­ selves, "the snake." When we were at work in

  1. saving-fodder . . • binding blades: They are gathering and bundling ("binding"} com-plant leaves ("blades"} to use as food for livestock ("fodder").


TO faculty (fak'al-te) n. a natural power or ability

448 K NOW

the cornfield, he would sometimes crawl on his hands and knees to avoid detection, and all at once he would rise nearly in our midst, and scream out, "Ha, ha! Come, come! Dash on, dash on!" This being his mode

of attack, it was never safe to stop a single minute. His comings were like a thief in the night. He appeared to us as being ever at hand. He was under every tree, behind every stump, in every bush, and at every window, on the plantation. He would some­ times mount his horse, as if bound to· St. Michael's, a distance of seven miles, and in half an hour afterwards you would see him coiled up in the corner of the wood-fence, watching every motion of the . slaves. He would; for this purpose, leave his horse tied up in the woods. Again, he would sometimes walk up to us, and give us orders as though he was upon the point

of starting on a long journey, turn his back upon us, and make as though he was going to the house to get ready; and, before he would get half way thither, he would turn short and crawl into


a fence-corner, or behind some tree, and there watch us till the going down of the sun. . . .

at any one tii:ne of my life more than another, I was made to drink the

bitterest dregs of slavery, that time was during the first six months of my stay with Mr. Covey.

We were worked in all weathers. It was never too hot or too cold; it could never rain, blow, hail, or snow, too hard for us to work in the field. Work,

work, work, was scarcely more the order of the day than of the night. The longest days were too short for him, and the shortest nights too long for him. I was somewhat unmanageable when I first

went there, but a few months

of this discipline tamed me. Mr.·· Covey succeeded in breaking

me. I was broken in body, soul, and spirit. My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition

to read departed, the cheerful spark that lingered about my . eye died; the dark night of slavery closed in upon me; and behold a man transformed into a brute!

Sunday was my only leisure time. I spent this in a sort of beast-like stupor, between sleep and wake, under some large tree. At times I would rise up,

a flash of energetic freedom would dart through my soul, accompanied with a faint beam of hope, that flickered for a moment, and then vanished.

I sank down again, mourning over my wretched condition. I was sometimes prompted to take my life, and that of Covey, but was prevented by a combination of hope and fear. My sufferings on this plantation seem now like a dream rather than a stern reality. . . .

I have already intimated that my condition was much worse, during the first six months

of my stay at Mr. Covey's, than in the last six. The circumstances leading to the change in Mr. Covey's course toward me form an epoch in my humble history. You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man. On one of the hottest days of the month

of August, 1833, Bill Smith, William Hughes, a slave named Eli, and myself, were engaged in




languish (lang'gwYsh) v. to become weak

intimate (Yn'ta-mat) v. to make known indirectly; hint


fanning wheat.3 Hughes was clearing the fanned wheat from before the fan. Eli was turning, Smith was feeding, and I was carrying wheat to the fan. The work was simple, requiring strength rather than intellect; yet, to one entirely unused to such work, it came very hard. About three o'clock of that day, I broke down; my strength failed me;

lwas seized with a violent aching of the head, attended with extreme dizziness; I trembled in every limb. Finding what was coming, I nerved myself up, feeling it would never do to stop work. I stood as long as I could stagger to the hopper4 with grain. When I could stand no longer, I fell, and felt as if held down by an immense weight.

The fan of course stopped; every one had his own work to do; and no one could do the work of the other, and have his own go on at the same time.

Covey was at the house, about one hundred yards

from the treading-yard where we were fanning.

heavy blow upon the head, making a large wound, and the blood ran freely; and with this again told me to get up. I made no effort

to comply, having now made up my mind to let him do his worst. In a short time after receiving this blow, my head grew better. Mr. Covey had now left me to my fate. At this moment I resolved, for the first time, to go to my master, enter a complaint, and ask his protection. In order to do this, I must that afternoon walk seven miles; and this, under the circumstances,

was truly a severe undertaking. I was exceedingly feeble; made so as much by the kicks and blows which I received, as by the severe fit of sickness to which I had been subjected. I, however, watched my chance, while Covey"was looking

in an opposite direction, and started for St. Michael's. I succeeded in getting a considerable distance on my way to the woods, when Covey discovered me, and called after me to come back, threatening what he would do if I did not come.

I disregarded both his calls and his threats, and

made my way to the woods as fast as my feeble


On hearing the fan stop, he left immediately, and

came to the spot where we were. He hastily inquired what the matter was. Bill answered that I was sick, and there was no one to bring wheat to the fan. I had by this time crawled away

under the side of the post and rail-fence by which the yard was enclosed, hoping to find relief by getting out of the sun. He then asked where I was. He was told by one of the hands.

He came to the spot, and, after looking at me awhile, asked me what was the matter. I told him as well as I could, for I scarce had strength to speak. He then gave me a savage kick in the side, and told me to get up. I tried to do so, but fell back in the attempt. He gave me another kick, and again told me to rise. I again tried, and succeeded in gaining my feet; but, stooping

to get the tub with which I was feeding the fan, I again staggered and fell. While down in this situation, Mr. Covey took up the hickory slat with which Hughes had been striking off the half-bushel measure, and with it gave me a


state would allow; and thinking I might be

overhauled by him if I kept the road, I walked through the woods, keeping far enough from

the road to avoid detection, and near enough to prevent losing my way. I had not gone far before my little strength again failed me. I could go no farther. I fell down, and lay for a considerable time. The blood was yet oozing from the wound on my head. For a time I thought I should bleed to death; and think now that I should have done so, but that the blood so matted my hair as to stop the wound. After lying there about three quarters of an hour, I nerved myself up again, a.nd started on my way, through bogs and briers, barefooted and bareheaded, tearing my feet sometimes at nearly every step; and after a journey of about seven miles, occupying some five hours to perform it, I arrived at master's

  1. fanning wheat: using a machine that blows air,to separate grains of wheat from the unusable husks.

  2. hopper: a funnel-shaped container for storing grain.

store. I then presented an appearance enough to affect any but a heart of iron. From the crown of my head to my feet, I was covered with blood.

My hair was all clotted with dust and blood; my shirt was stiff with blood. My legs and feet were torn in sundry places with briers and thorns, and were also covered with blood. I suppose I looked like a man who had escaped a den of wild beasts, and barely escaped them. In this state I appeared before my master, humbly

entreating him to interpose his authority for my protection. I told him all the circumstances as well as I could, and it seemed, as I spoke, at times to affect him. He would then walk the floor, and seek to justify Covey br saying he expected I deserved i . He asked me what I wanted. I told him, to let me get a new home; that as sure as I lived with Mr. Covey again, I should live with but to die with him; that Covey would surely kill me; he

was in a fair way for it. Master · Thomas ridiculed the idea th ,t there was any danger of Mr. Covey's killing me, and said that he knew Mr. Covey; that he was

a good man, and that he coulcli not think of taking me from him that, should he do so, he would lose the whole year's wages; tha I belonged to Mr. Covey for one

year, and that I must go back to

him, come what might; and that I must not trouble him with any more stories, or that he would himself get hold of me. After threatening me thus, he gave me a very large dose of salts,5 telling me that I might remain in St. Michael's that night, (it being quite late,) but that I must be off back to Mr. Covey's early in the morning; and that if I did not, he would get hold of me,

which meant that he would whip me. I remained all night, and, according to his orders, I started off to Covey's in the morning, (Saturday morn­ ing,) wearied in body and broken in spirit. I got no supper that night, or breakfast that morning. I reached Covey's about nine o'clock; and just as I was getting over the fence that divided Mrs.

Kemp's fields from ours, out ran Covey with his cowskin, to give me another whipping. Before

he could reach me, I succeeded in getting to the cornfield; and as the corn was very high, it afforded me the means of hiding. He seemed very angry, and searched for me a long time. My behavior was al­ together unaccountable. He finally gave up the chase, thinking, I suppose, that I must come home for something to eat; he would give himself no further trouble in looking for : me. I spent that day mostly

in the woods, having the alternative before me,-to go home and be whipped to death, or stay in the woods and be starved to death. That night,

[ fell in with Sandy Jenkins, 1slave with whom I was mmewhat acquainted. Sandy a free wife who lived about four miles from Mr. Covey's; md it being Saturday, he was

on his way to see her. I told him my circumstances, and he very kindly invited me to go home with him. I went home ·with him, and talked this whole matter over, and got his advice as to what course it was best for me to pursue. I found Sandy an old adviser. He told

  1. salts: mineral salts used to relieve faintness and headache or reduce swelling.

, :>',VO RDS .

TO . sundry (sun'dre) adj. various; miscellaneous

. _lv. to interfere in order to help; intervene



me, with great solemnity, I must go back to Covey; but that before I went, I must go with him into another part of the woods, where there was a certain root, which, if I would take some of it with me, carrying it always on my right side, would render it impossible for Mr. Covey, or any other white man, to whip me. He said he had carried it for years; and since he had done so, he had never received a blow, and never expected to while he carried it. I at first rejected the idea, that the simple carrying of a root in my pocket would have any such effect as he had said, and was not disposed to take it; but Sandy impressed the necessity with much earnestness, telling me it could do no harm, if it did no

good. To please him, I at length took the root, and, according to his direction, carried it upon my right side. This was Sunday morning. I immediately started for home; and upon entering the yard gate, out came Mr. Covey

on his way to meeting.6 He spoke to me very kindly, bade me drive the pigs from a lot near

by, and passed on towards the church. Now, this singular conduct of Mr. Covey really made me begin to think that there was something in the root which Sandy had given me; and had it

been on any other day than Sunday, I could have attributed the conduct to no other cause than the influence of that root; and as it was, I was half inclined to think the root to be something more than I at first had taken it to

be. All went well till Monday morning. On this morning, the virtue of the root was fully tested. Long before daylight, I was called to go and rub, curry, and feed, the horses. I obeyed, and was glad to obey. But whilst thus engaged, whilst in the act of throwing down some blades from the loft, Mr. Covey entered the stable with a long rope; and just as I was half out of the loft, he caught hold of my legs, and was about tying me. As soon as I found what he was up

to, I gave a sudden spring, and as I did so, he holding to my legs, I was brought sprawling on the stable floor. Mr. Covey seemed now to think he had me, and could do what he pleased; but at

this moment-from whence came the spirit I don't know-I resolved to fight; and, suiting my action to the resolution, I seized Covey hard by the throat; and as I did so, I rose. He held on to me, and I to him. My resistance was so entirely unexpected, that Covey seemed taken all aback.7 He trembled like a leaf. This gave me assurance, and I held him uneasy, causing the blood to run where I touched him with the ends of my

fingers. Mr. Covey soon called out to Hughes for help. Hughes came, and, while Covey held me, attempted to tie my right hand. While he

was in the act of doing so, I watched my chance, and gave him a heavy kick close under the ribs. This .ick fairly sickened Hughes, so that he left me in the hands of Mr. Covey. This kick had the effect of not only weakening Hughes, but Covey also. When he saw Hughes bending over with pain, his courage quailed. He asked me if I meant to persist in my resistance. I told him I did, come what might; that he had used me

like a brute for six months, and that I was determined to be used so no longer. With that, he strove to drag me to a stick that was lying just out of the stable door. He meant to knock me down. But just as he was leaning over to get the stick, I seized him with both hands by his collar, and brought him by a sudden snatch to

the ground. By this time, Bill came. Covey called upon him for assistance. Bill wanted to know what he could do. Covey said, "Take hold of him, take hold of him!" Bill said his master

hired him out to work, and not to help to whip me; so he left Covey and myself to fight our own battle out. We were at it for nearly two hours. Covey at length let me go, puffing and blowing at a great rate, saying that if I had not resisted, he would not have whipped me half so much. The truth was, that he had not whipped

me at all. I considered him as getting entirely the worst end of the bargain; for he had drawn no

  1. meeting: church service.

  2. taken all aback: so surprised as to be unable to move or respond.


blood from me, but I had from him. The whole six months afterwards, that I spent with Mr.

Covey, he never laid the weight of his finger upon me in anger. He would occasionally say, he didn't want to get hold of me again. "No," thought I, "you need not; for you will come off worse than you did before."

This battle with Mr. Covey was the tuming­ point in my career as a slave. It rekindled the few expiring embers of freedom, and revived within me a sense of my own manhood. It recalled the departed self-confidence, and inspired me again with a determination to be free. The gratification afforded by the triumph was a full compensation for whatever else might follow, even death itself. He only can understand the deep satisfaction


which I experienced, who has himself repelled by force the bloody arm of slavery. I felt as I never felt before. It was a glorious resurrection, from the tomb of slavery, to the heaven of freedom.

My long-crushed spirit rose, cowardice departed, bold defiance took its place; and I now resolved that, however long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact. I did not hesitate to let it be known of me, that the white man who expected to succeed in whipping, must also succeed in killing me.

From this time I was never again what might be called fairly whipped, though I remained a slave four years afterwards. I had several fights, but was never whipped. ·>


REFLECT (!)write your impression of Frederick Douglass in your notebook to share in class.

RETHINK Explain what you think Douglass means when he states, "However long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed

forever when Icould be a slave in fact" (page 454).

. ' . .


·.C90J)rative 1.t tning·· ·

Work in asmaU group to Prepare a student who

has not done th.ereading (either in pretense qr actuality) for a test on this selection. Each "teacher,,·

reveal to you about his character?


  • his resolve to ask Master Thomas for protection

  • his agreeing to take the root from Sandy

  • his decision to fight Mr. Covey

. has only threerni.nutes tospeak fothe.unprepared

student and therefore should coordinate.a presentation that covers the.mainevents and ideas,

/4\1\,hat would you say freedom means to Douglass?


l7 cohnowsidheerfeels on Sunday, his only day of leisure

A the remark "You have seen how a man was

made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man" (page 449)

what he says in the next-to-last paragraph


RNllllj. QUICK WRITES ,_ .....

5 What do the conflicts between Douglass and Mr.

Covey reveal about slavery's effects on both slaves and masters?

1. Douglass founded an antislavery newspaper,the North Star. Based on


  1. How has reading this excerpt increased your understanding of the life of a plantation slave?

  2. In what situations today. might a person be inspired by Douglass's story?



Reread the next-to-last paragraph, in which Douglass describes his feelings of freedom and manhood after resisting Mr. Covey's brutality. Cite specific examples to explain how Douglass's ideas compare with Emerson's philosophy in

the excerpt from "Self-Reliance" on page 291.

. ·.

your reading of this excerpt,· write an outline for an editorial aboutslavery that Douglass might have printed in his newspaper.

    1. Douglass's fight with Mr. (Ovey cm

.· page 453 was a tumin.9ppinfforhim. Think of an incident fromyour own


. Hfe that you would describe as. . ··..·..•.• turning point. Writeabout this iJ1cidEmt in short autobiogr,ap.ical sketc. explaining why it cha9ea Y°,urtite. ,

      • l'ORTFOLJo Save yo&h /iting.}Jv . may want to use ii later as a spring..\ ·

.board to a. piece fo r your portfolio, .

, - , --


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