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Frederick Douglass: No Longer A Slave in Fact

This is the fourth installment in a series on “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.” The last post, on the habits of virtue of vice, can be read here


At a particularly important juncture in his life, Frederick Douglass

resolved that, however long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact.

While the slavery in form that Douglass mentions (this is culturally-accepted, race-based mass slavery of the sort that was legal at the time) no  longer exists in the same way in the USA, I would argue that the slavery in fact Douglass here discusses very much does. I want to address two major facets of slavishness and consider slavery in fact in today’s post.

A slave does not value himself rightly.

Because slavery is by definition dehumanizing, a slave does not afford human dignity to himself. He sees his master as of more value than himself, regarding himself as lesser and by nature subservient. A slave in Douglass’ day internalizes the message of culture and applies it to himself, believing himself to be by nature deserving of less than his master.

As such, the slave will not defend himself against aggressors: physically, emotionally, or otherwise. The slave will consider himself as deserving of punishment or aggression and go about life trying to keep his head down and avoid the inevitable retribution that will fall upon him for his mere existence.

Now, a slave may view his circumstance as unfortunate and wish for a better state of affairs. This does not change the fact that his view of himself is deeply flawed due to the conditioning he has received. Douglass ceases to be a slave in fact when he decides to defend himself against his master, answering him blow for blow and declaring his self-defense just. Slavishness, in part, is characterized by the dehumanizing of the self and the over-glorification of those who abuse you.

This can occur now, outside of the formal slave system, just as it occurred within it during Douglass’ day. The depressed view of oneself, bolstered by negativity from an authority figure, can lead to an overall devaluation of the self. The employee constantly belittled by his boss, the teenager constantly belittled by his parents or peers in higher social standing, the girlfriend belittled by her abusive boyfriend; these situations result in slavishness. It is important in order to be free in fact that one has a proper view of him or herself.

A slave does not think for himself.

Ultimately, this problem, and all other problems of slavishness, come from one’s inability to think for oneself. The slave is a beast of burden rather than a man. He begins his work in the morning and ends it at night, only pausing to eat or sleep. He does not have independent thoughts and does not ponder metaphysical issues freely. Instead, he is under the yoke, devoting all his time to the practical work his master has assigned him.

Slavery is a system perpetuated by this thoughtlessness. As we have discussed before, the slave does not consider freedom, or any other abstract concept for that matter. He is burdened with toil and pain, left without time for thought. Because he does not think for himself, he cannot be master of himself. He relies on the thoughts of his master to make decisions for him.

This aspect of the slave system is even more common today than the first  discussed. We commonly look to others to think for us, seeking to be told the answer rather than shown how to find it. We often overlook the importance of thinking through issues for ourselves, and instead look to talking heads to feed us our opinions. Despite the fact that we are free in form, we often lack freedom in fact.

Douglass shows us the antidote to these problems. He, though slave in form, was free in fact, choosing to value himself rightly and think for himself even while under the yoke of slavery. We, then, are without excuse. If we are to live as free men and women in this day and age, we must take our freedom seriously. To disregard our status as rational beings made in the image of God–and consider ourselves instead less than those who persecute us–is to put on slavishness. To refuse to think for ourselves and instead look in sloth towards those who will serve as our masters and tell us what to think is to reject freedom.

May we, who were born free and with more advantage than Frederick Douglass ever had, seek to attain a portion of the freedom in fact that Douglass grasped while still in chains.

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