'I Have Since Heard of His Death'

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Frederick Douglass's initial attempt to escape bondage failed. He was put up in the jail, where he was daily visited by slave-traders who inspected him, mocked him and joked about how much money they could make selling him down South. Being sold into the Deep South was effectively considered a death sentence among the slaves in the border states. Douglass was ultimately saved from this fate when his master, overlooked evidence of the plot, and shipped him to a relative in Baltimore, where Douglass had been a slave earlier in his life. By this time Douglass had acquired a reputation as a trouble-maker. Local planters promised to shoot Douglass if he remained on Maryland's Eastern Shore.


Douglass is put in an interesting position by all of this. In his final autobiography, he is clear that slave-holder law (unjust as it was) should have condemned him South. And for all his fulminating against slavery, he is oddly, humanly, grateful to his master. This is perhaps the most interesting thread in The Life And Times Of Frederick Douglass--a complete and total sense that slavery is utterly unjust, and yet an affection for those who beat him, enslaved him, and pilfered his labor.

Here, upon returning to Baltimore, he laments his broken relationship with "Master" Tommy:

Thus, after three years spent in the country, roughing it in the field, and experiencing all sorts of hardships, I was again permitted to return to Baltimore, the very place of all others, short of a free State, where I most desired to live. 

The three years spent in the country had made some difference in me, and in the household of Master Hugh. "Little Tommy" was no longer little Tommy, and I was not the slender lad who had left the Eastern Shore just three years before. The loving relations between Master Tommy and myself were broken up. He was no longer dependent on me for protection, but felt himself a man, and had other and more suitable associates. 


In childhood he had considered me scarcely inferior to himself,--certainly quite as good as any other boy with whom he played; but the time had come when his friend must be his slave. So we were cold to each other, and parted. It was a sad thing to me, that, loving each other as we had done, we must now take different roads. 

To him a thousand avenues were open. Education had made him acquainted with all the treasures of the world and liberty had flung open the gates thereunto; but I who had attended him seven years; who had watched over him with the care of a big brother, fighting his battles in the street and shielding him from harm to an extent which induced his mother to say, 

"Oh, Tommy is always safe when he is with Freddy"--I must be confined to a single condition. He had grown and become a man: I, though grown to the stature of manhood, must all my life remain a minor--a mere boy. 

Thomas Auld, junior, obtained a situation on board the brig Tweed, and went to sea. I have since heard of his death. There were few persons to whom I was more sincerely attached than to him.

A quick aside: I bold that last sentence because, again, you see an artist--and this is what Douglass was--saving the gut punch for the last possible second. Even the commas hold you back until--I have since heard of his death. It is not always wrong to bury the lede.

Back on topic, Douglass is not happy that his young master died at sea. He is not vengeful or haughty. On the contrary he essentially says that he's loved few other people more. This would, evidently, include his abolitionist friends, and other African-Americans. This is what we mean when we talk about the intimacy of slavery and Jim Crow. 

We see that same phenomenon, most powerfully, when Douglass returns--a free man--to see his old master Thomas Auld, who is, at the time of their meeting, near death:


To me Captain Auld had sustained the relation of master--a relation which I had held in extremest abhorrence, and which for forty years I had denounced in all bitterness of spirit and fierceness of speech. He had struck down my personality, had subjected me to his will, made property of my body and soul, reduced me to a chattel, hired me out to a noted slave breaker to be worked like a beast and flogged into submission, taken my hard earnings, sent me to prison, offered me for sale, broken up my Sunday-school, forbidden me to teach my fellow-slaves to read on pain of nine and thirty lashes on my bare back and had, without any apparent disturbance of his conscience, sold my body to his brother Hugh and pocketed the price of my flesh and blood. 

I, on my part, had traveled through the length and breadth of this country and of England, holding up this conduct of his, in common with that of other slaveholders, to the reprobation of all men who would listen to my words. I had by my writings made his name and his deeds familiar to the world in four different languages, yet here we were, after four decades, once more face to face--he on his bed, aged and tremulous, drawing near the sunset of life, and I, his former slave, United States Marshal of the district of Columbia, holding his hand and in friendly conversation with him in a sort of final settlement of past differences preparatory to his stepping into his grave, where all distinctions are at an end, and where the great and the small, the slave and his master, are reduced to the same level. 

Had I been asked in the days of slavery to visit this man I should have regarded the invitation as one to put fetters on my ankles and handcuffs on my wrists. It would have been an invitation to the auction-block and the slave-whip. I had no business with this man under the old regime but to keep out of his way. But now that slavery was destroyed, and the slave and the master stood upon equal ground, I was not only willing to meet him, but was very glad to do so. 

The conditions were favorable for remembrance of all his good deeds, and generous extenuation of all his evil ones. He was to me no longer a slaveholder either in fact or in spirit, and I regarded him as I did myself, a victim of the circumstances of birth, education, law, and custom. 

Our courses had been determined for us, not by us. We had both been flung, by powers that did not ask our consent, upon a mighty current of life, which we could neither resist nor control. By this current he was a master, and I a slave; but now our lives were verging towards a point where differences disappear, where even the constancy of hate breaks down and where the clouds of pride, passion and selfishness vanish before the brightness of infinite light. 

At such a time, and in such a place, when a man is about closing his eyes on this world and ready to step into the eternal unknown, no word of reproach or bitterness should reach him or fall from his lips; and on this occasion there was to this rule no transgression on either side. 

As this visit to Capt. Auld has been made the subject of mirth by heartless triflers, and by serious-minded men regretted as a weakening of my life-long testimony against slavery, and as the report of it, published in the papers immediately after it occurred, was in some respects defective and colored, it may be proper to state exactly what was said and done at this interview... 

On reaching the house I was met by Mr. Wm. H. Bruff, a son-in-law of Capt. Auld, and Mrs. Louisa Bruff, his daughter, and was conducted by them immediately to the bed-room of Capt. Auld. We addressed each other simultaneously, he calling me "Marshal Douglass," and I, as I had always called him, "Captain Auld." 

Hearing myself called by him "Marshal Douglass," I instantly broke up the formal nature of the meeting by saying, "not Marshal, but Frederick to you as formerly." We shook hands cordially, and in the act of doing so, he, having been long stricken with palsy, shed tears as men thus afflicted will do when excited by any deep emotion... 

After he had become composed I asked him what he thought of my conduct in running away and going to the north. He hesitated a moment as if to properly formulate his reply, and said: "Frederick, I always knew you were too smart to be a slave, and had I been in your place, I should have done as you did." I said, "Capt. Auld, I am glad to hear you say this. I did not run away from you, but from slavery; it was not that I loved Caesar less, but Rome more." 

I told him that I had made a mistake in my narrative, a copy of which I had sent him, in attributing to him ungrateful and cruel treatment of my grandmother; that I had done so on the supposition that in the division of the property of my old master, Mr. Aaron Anthony, my grandmother had fallen to him, and that he had left her in her old age, when she could be no longer of service to him, to pick up her living in solitude with none to help her, or, in other words, had turned her out to die like an old horse. 

"Ah!" he said, "that was a mistake, I never owned your grandmother; she in the division of the slaves was awarded to my brother-in-law, Andrew Anthony; but," he added quickly, "I brought her down here and took care of her as long as she lived." The fact is, that, after writing my narrative describing the condition of my grandmother, Capt. Auld's attention being thus called to it, he rescued her from her destitution. I told him that this mistake of mine was corrected as soon as I discovered it, and that I had at no time any wish to do him injustice; that I regarded both of us as victims of a system. 

"Oh, I never liked slavery," he said, "and I meant to emancipate all of my slaves when they reached the age of twenty-five years." I told him I had always been curious to know how old I was and that it had been a serious trouble to me, not to know when was my birthday. He said he could not tell me that, but he thought I was born in February, 1818. 

This date made me one year younger than I had supposed myself from what was told me by Mistress Lucretia, Captain Auld's former wife, when I left Lloyd's for Baltimore in the Spring of 1825; she having then said that I was eight, going on nine. I know that it was in the year 1825 that I went to Baltimore, because it was in that year that Mr. James Beacham built a large frigate at the foot of Alliceana street, for one of the South American Governments. 

Judging from this, and from certain events which transpired at Col. Lloyd's such as a boy under eight years old, without any knowledge of books, would hardly take cognizance of, I am led to believe that Mrs. Lucretia was nearer right as to my age than her husband. Before I left his bedside Captain Auld spoke with a cheerful confidence of the great change that awaited him, and felt himself about to depart in peace. Seeing his extreme weakness I did not protract my visit. The whole interview did not last more than twenty minutes, and we parted to meet no more. His death was soon after announced in the papers, and the fact that he had once owned me as a slave was cited as rendering that event noteworthy.

Forgive the long excerpt. There is a lot here. It actually helps me to take the complaint "I never liked slavery" as a serious and sincere statement. My exploration into the topic has actually made me less angry, and less bitter. I don't think we can understand the labor it would have taken for a planter to extricate himself from his society and his ties. He was his connections. And slavery was essential.

As for Douglass, again we see the lack of bitterness and the desire to connect with someone who did him much harm. It's a recurrent theme throughout the book. What makes it, to my mind, such a fine example of memoir is Douglass never hesitates to tell the truth of slavery, but he also never resorts to making cartoons of people--even those who enslaved him.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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