Frederick Douglass and Modern Slavery

by Chris Sullivan
Different Bugle

Drapetomania was a supposed mental disorder that caused slaves to run away from their masters. Anyone paying attention to the emigration of many Americans to freer countries might think that drapetomania is striking the wealthier classes.

A man who knew something about drapetomania – in fact he had it, even if undiagnosed – was Frederick Douglass. After his escape he wrote a short autobiography titled Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. His narrative is of interest not just because of its first hand account of slavery, but because of the insights he relates that are applicable to many people today.  Many people realize that the government they live under is a criminal organization, but will jump to its defense when some foreigner criticizes the actions or policies of their government.

Douglass relates how slaves would argue about whose master was greatest even though they might hate their master.

"The same traits of character might be seen in Colonel Lloyd’s slaves, as are seen in the slaves of the political parties….. Indeed, it is not uncommon for slaves even to fall out and quarrel among themselves about the relative goodness of their masters, each contending for the superior goodness of his own over that of the others. At the very same time, they mutually execrate their masters when viewed separately. It was so on our plantation. When Colonel Lloyd’s slaves met the slaves of Jacob Jepson, they seldom parted without a quarrel about their masters; Colonel Lloyd’s slaves contending that he was the richest, and Mr. Jepson’s slaves that he was the smartest, and most of a man. Colonel Lloyd’s slaves would boast his ability to buy and sell Jacob Jepson. Mr. Jepson’s slaves would boast his ability to whip Colonel Lloyd. These quarrels would almost always end in a fight between the parties, and those that whipped were supposed to have gained the point at issue. They seemed to think that the greatness of their masters was transferable to themselves. It was considered as being bad enough to be a slave; but to be a poor man’s slave was deemed a disgrace indeed!"

The issue of transferability is evident in people bragging about their country, school or football team as though they are bathed in some kind of reflected glory from the entity in question.

An incident that illustrates how slave owners and governments can brook no disobedience is related in the account of the murder of a slave named Demby. Mr Gore, the overseer, shot Demby in the head for disobedience.

"He was asked by Colonel Lloyd and my old master, why he resorted to this extraordinary expedient. His reply was, (as well as I can remember,) that Demby had become unmanageable. He was setting a dangerous example to the other slaves,-one which, if suffered to pass without some such demonstration on his part, would finally lead to the total subversion of all rule and order upon the plantation."

This is probably why dissidents such as Sophie Scholl, Cardinal Mindszenty and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn are celebrated here, but indigenous protesters or dissidents are not.

Learning to read was viewed by Douglass as the road to freedom, but government schools have blunted the efficacy of this for many people by teaching them very early lots of erroneous or incomplete information.

"Very soon after I went to live with Mr. and Mrs. Auld, she very kindly commenced to teach me the A, B, C. After I had learned this, she assisted me in learning to spell words of three or four letters. Just at this point of my progress, Mr. Auld found out what was going on, and at once forbade Mrs. Auld to instruct me further, telling her, among other things, that it was unlawful, as well as unsafe, to teach a slave to read….I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty-to wit, the white man’s power to enslave the black man. It was a grand achievement, and I prized it highly. From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom. It was just what I wanted, and I got it at a time when I the least expected it. Whilst I was saddened by the thought of losing the aid of my kind mistress, I was gladdened by the invaluable instruction which, by the merest accident, I had gained from my master. Though conscious of the difficulty of learning without a teacher, I set out with high hope, and a fixed purpose, at whatever cost of trouble, to learn how to read."

Government schooling is probably the greatest mechanism of control yet discovered. It is the modern equivalent of enforced illiteracy. Reading is fine as long as you don’t read the wrong things. This is why the internet is a lethal menace to government’s organized ignorance.

Almost everyone has heard the phrase "bread and circuses" to describe the method used by Rome to keep the populace pacified, but it works in almost any setting and with any people.

"This will be seen by the fact, that the slaveholders like to have their slaves spend those [holi]days just in such a manner as to make them as glad of their ending as of their beginning. Their object seems to be, to disgust their slaves with freedom, by plunging them into the lowest depths of dissipation. For instance, the slaveholders not only like to see the slave drink of his own accord, but will adopt various plans to make him drunk. One plan is, to make bets on their slaves, as to who can drink the most whisky without getting drunk; and in this way they succeed in getting whole multitudes to drink to excess. Thus, when the slave asks for virtuous freedom, the cunning slaveholder, knowing his ignorance, cheats him with a dose of vicious dissipation, artfully labelled with the name of liberty. The most of us used to drink it down, and the result was just what might be supposed; many of us were led to think that there was little to choose between liberty and slavery. We felt, and very properly too, that we had almost as well be slaves to man as to rum. So, when the holidays ended, we staggered up from the filth of our wallowing, took a long breath, and marched to the field,-feeling, upon the whole, rather glad to go, from what our master had deceived us into a belief was freedom, back to the arms of slavery."

When someone tries to keep the fruits of his labor or escape government control, he is denounced as a "tax cheat" or just an over all ungrateful traitor, the same as with a slave who tries unsuccessfully to escape. Douglass attempted an escape with some other slaves, but was thwarted because of someone reporting the plan. In typical fashion, he was the bad guy for not appreciating his station in life.

"… Betsy Freeland, mother of William Freeland, came to the door with her hands full of biscuits, and divided them between Henry and John. She then delivered herself of a speech, to the following effect:-addressing herself to me, she said, "~You devil! You yellow devil!~ it was you that put it into the heads of Henry and John to run away. But for you, you long-legged mulatto devil! Henry nor John would never have thought of such a thing." I made no reply, and was immediately hurried off towards St. Michael’s."

While still a slave, Douglass had a lesson in income taxation. He had learned the trade of caulking ships and was working in a shipyard making six to nine dollars a week. His master imposed a 99 percent tax on his wages.

"I was now getting, as I have said, one dollar and fifty cents per day. I contracted for it; I earned it; it was paid to me; it was rightfully my own; yet, upon each returning Saturday night, I was compelled to deliver every cent of that money to Master Hugh. And why? Not because he earned it, – not because he had any hand in earning it,-not because I owed it to him,-nor because he possessed the slightest shadow of a right to it; but solely because he had the power to compel me to give it up. The right of the grim-visaged pirate upon the high seas is exactly the same."

Later on he says that he was sometimes given six cents out of the six dollars, so he wasn’t taxed at 100 percent. He might also have been reminded of all the services and conveniences and freedom that were being provided by his master. After his escape, he got a job and describes the satisfaction of how it felt to keep all his earnings, something modern slaves aren’t allowed to do.

"It was the first work, the reward of which was to be entirely my own. There was no Master Hugh standing ready, the moment I earned the money, to rob me of it. I worked that day with a pleasure I had never before experienced."

There are lots of books and articles about how to flee the country, get your assets out and where to settle in relative peace and freedom, but one thing hard to overcome even if you have the means to leave, is family and friends.

"It is my opinion that thousands would escape from slavery, who now remain, but for the strong cords of affection that bind them to their friends. The thought of leaving my friends was decidedly the most painful thought with which I had to contend. The love of them was my tender point, and shook my decision more than all things else"

A man writing in 1845 was obviously not writing for readers of today, but many of the same dilemmas are confronted by modern people who are trying to get from under the oppressor’s boot. A man like Douglass could not have imagined the degree of control imposed by modern governments. It’s not too far-fetched to see the day when paychecks will be direct-deposited to the IRS, and producers sent the balance by the IRS. Or maybe all debits would be handled by the IRS and anything they didn’t approve of would be disallowed. This would make it difficult for modern slaves to flee if they should contract drapetomania.

Copyright © 2012 Chris Sullivan

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