Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave By Frederick Douglass Summary and Analysis Chapter XI

Summary

Douglass escapes to the North in this chapter but is not forthcoming about how he managed this feat. He explains that his method of escape is still used by other slaves and thus he doesn't want to publicize it. Douglass adds that the underground railroad (an organized system of cooperation among abolitionists helping fugitive slaves escape to the North or Canada) should be called the "upperground railroad," and he honors "those good men and women for their noble daring, and applauds them for willingly subjecting themselves to bloody persecution," but he states emphatically that he is adamantly opposed to anyone revealing the means whereby slaves escape.

Douglass says that he needed money to escape, so he proposed to Hugh Auld that he "hire his time." In return for a set amount per week, Douglass gained the liberty of finding work; anything he made over the amount he promised to Auld was his to keep. "Rain or shine, work or no work, at the end of each week the money must be forthcoming, or I must give up my privilege." He relieved Hugh Auld from the responsibility of clothing, feeding, and finding work for him. For Douglass, this work situation meant suffering under slavery, but also experiencing the anxiety of a free person (who must fend for him or herself in the job market). Nonetheless, he was determined to earn enough for his escape. Eventually he acquired enough money to get himself to New York on September 3, 1838.

The excitement of being free was soon tempered by loneliness and fear of being captured and kidnapped. In the North, there are plenty of "man-hunters," who are eager to take fugitive slaves back to their owners for a fee. Fortunately, he met David Ruggles, an abolitionist who advised him to move to New Bedford, Massachusetts, about fifty miles south of Boston, where he could easily find work. Here, Douglass mentions for the first time his wife, Anna Murray (a freed woman whom he had met in Maryland), who joined him in New York City. They were married on September 15, 1838, and immediately traveled to New Bedford, where they stayed with Nathan Johnson, an abolitionist. Johnson suggested that Frederick change his last name in order to hide from slave hunters. Douglass explains: "I gave Mr. Johnson the privilege of choosing me a name, but told him he must not take from me the name of 'Frederick.' I must hold on to that, to preserve a sense of my identity." To replace "Bailey," Johnson chose "Douglass," a character in Sir Walter Scott's long romantic poem The Lady of the Lake. Oddly, the name of the banished nobleman in that poem, James of Douglas, is spelled with a single s.

Douglass was greatly surprised at the wealth of luxuries in the North, for he had imagined that without slaves, Northerners must be living in poor conditions. Instead, he found the North to be refined and wealthy and without signs of extreme poverty. "The people looked more able, stronger, healthier, and happier than those of Maryland." Douglass was enterprising and soon found work loading a ship and managing various odd jobs. Unfortunately, he could not work as a caulker, for the white caulkers in New Bedford refused to work with a black person.

Another turning point occurred at this time. About four months after settling in New Bedford, Douglass chanced upon The Liberator, an abolitionist newspaper, and became more acquainted with the anti-slavery movement. While attending an anti-slavery convention on August 11, 1841, he spoke for the first time to an audience of white people at the urging of William Coffin, an abolitionist leader. Douglass ends his story by saying that as an ex-slave, he initially felt uneasy speaking to a white crowd, but he overcame feelings of inferiority and became an ardent orator and advocate of abolition.

Analysis

The newly freed Douglass understood that his name was inseparable from his identity and chose to retain his first name. However, he deferred to his host in picking a new last name. The Lady of the Lake tells of a fugitive hero (James of Douglas) who redeems himself; it is a story which vaguely parallels Douglass' fugitive life.

In this final chapter, Douglass presents economic arguments against slavery. Foremost, slavery is a thief, he says, and the fruits of slave labor are enjoyed only by slaveholders. Douglass remembers that Hugh Auld was even disappointed that Douglass failed to bring as much as Hugh expected. Greed is clearly one of the fundamental ingredients of slavery — greed and power.

In New Bedford, Douglass learned that the capitalist free market could be perilous. A free market in which a person must fend for himself or herself is a difficult one, indeed, but Douglass certainly preferred that situation to a slave economy. Indeed, on reaching the North, Douglass was extremely happy to find work for himself although he was unable to work in his chosen profession (caulking) because of racism. Douglass is much less critical and forthcoming about racism in the North (at least in this first version of his autobiography). There are several obvious explanations for this. First, he was still intoxicated with freedom in the North and any racism he experienced there would have been minor compared to what he underwent in the South. Second, he did not want to alienate his Northern hosts; as a fugitive, he certainly would not have wanted to confront racist Northerners who could inform slave hunters of his whereabouts. The power of slave hunters in the free states was a contentious issue for many years. Later, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 would legitimize fugitive slave hunting in free states.

Money became a necessary key for freedom, a key as important as knowledge, for Douglass needed money to buy his passage to New York. He learned that a free market system indeed produces more wealth in the North. The white and black workers there were healthier, happier, and more prosperous than those in the South. Northern living conditions were better and the free market was simply a more efficient process. Machinery had replaced slave labor. Douglass heartily embraces the kind of capitalism he has seen in the North.

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