Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave By Frederick Douglass Summary and Analysis Letter From Wendell Phillips, Esq.

Summary

A private letter from Phillips, addressing Douglass as "My Dear Friend," is sometimes included as an introduction to certain editions of the Narrative. Phillips begins his letter by referring to the old fable of "The Man and the Lion," in which the lion states that he would no longer be misrepresented if he — and not the man — could tell his side of the story. Such is the condition of the slave, whose true story is not usually told; instead, the slave masters have always spoken on behalf of the slave.

Phillips refers to the West Indian "experiment" of 1838, when Britain finally abolished the slave trade and granted freedom to blacks throughout the British colonies. Sadly, the success of this emancipation brought few converts to the abolition movement. Too many people have continued to be more concerned about the price of sugar than they are about the victims of slavery.

Phillips urges Douglass to fairly compare how his race is treated in the North and in the South and tell readers about the differences. He wants to thank Douglass for fully revealing the horrors of slavery. Douglass, he says, has shown immense courage. It is exceedingly dangerous to expose one's identity through the media, for slave hunters will be eager to track down just such a fugitive. Phillips admits that if he were Douglass he would not have the courage to publish this manuscript; he would throw it in the fire in order to avoid publicity. Phillips hopes for the day when the North need no longer simply hide fugitives but openly welcome them. New England, which was a place of refuge for the Pilgrims, should now be an open asylum for all oppressed peoples.

Analysis

Wendell Phillips was another leading abolitionist of the time, and his letter serves as a kind of "book review." Phillips begins by recognizing that history is told by people who hold power. Marginalized people are misrepresented or misunderstood because they have no voice. Phillips' argument is, in fact, surprisingly similar to that made by political activists in the U.S. today, who demand that marginalized people — people of color, women, racial minorities, gays and lesbians — be represented.

Phillips refers to the anti-slavery movement in Britain which ended slavery in British colonies in the Caribbean (West Indies). The "experiment" apparently had no horrendous or negative effect on British society or on its economy. Furthermore, Phillips urges abolitionists to look beyond simple moral arguments. For example, he cites abolitionists whose only argument is that it is not right for Southerners to justify slavery on economic grounds. (Some pro-slavery advocates warned that eliminating slavery in the Caribbean would lead to an increase in the price of sugar.) There are many other arguments one can make against slavery, Phillips says, presenting slavery as an issue that is absolutely antithetical to the very foundations of a free America. Plymouth Rock once offered refuge to the oppressed; it should do so again.

Phillips' comments about fugitive slaves being hunted refers to the existence of slave hunters, whose sole livelihood was capturing fugitives in the North for a bounty. Slave hunters were later legitimized under the Fugitive Slave Act. As part of the Great Compromise of 1850, Congress passed a bill forbidding new slave states but allowing fugitive slaves to be captured and returned to their owners. The measure preserved the Union for a few more years.

Phillips understands that there is racism in the North, that the black person there enjoys only partial rights ("a twilight of rights"), but this situation, he feels, is better than the "noon of night" (midnight), under which slaves labor in the South.

Glossary

a halter about their neck a rope around their neck, or in danger of death.

desolate a deserted place.

MS the abbreviation for manuscript.

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