The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass focuses on the lives of slaves during the 19th century. More specifically, we followed Frederick Douglassr’s journey through slavery and the struggles that he endured. As he grew up, Douglass witnessed many acts of hatred and cruelty towards other slaves as well as experiencing them himself. Despite the difficult times that Douglass went through, he remained optimistic about obtaining freedom. When Douglass was finally released from slavery, he began to reflect upon his life and think deeply about what he went through. Douglass realized he had been dehumanized and understood that slave owners did the same to others. Because of the process of dehumanization, slave owners were able to commit cruelty upon their slaves without feeling remorse.
Not all slave owners in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass were cruel to their slaves at first, but over time dehumanization allowed them to commit acts of cruelty without feeling incriminated. When Frederick Douglass lived on the Hugh plantation, his mistress attempted to teach him how to read. When the master found out, he shamed the mistress and told her not to teach Douglass again. Over time, she starting treating Douglass like the master did because of dehumanization. She treated him like a human being before being told not to teach, but after that her entire perspective changed. In entering upon the duties of a slaveholder, she didn’t seem to perceive that I sustained to her the relation of a mere chattel, and that for her to treat me as a human being was not only wrong, but dangerously so (22). Once the mistress conformed to society’s expectations of being a slaveholder, she treated Douglass poorly. Dehumanization allowed her to make this transition without feeling guilty for viewing Douglass as lesser than a human being.
Dehumanization was clearly exemplified when Frederick was sent to work on Edward Coveyr’s farm. Covey had a reputation of breaking slaves. This meant he had an effective process of disciplining and training slaves who had normally misbehaved. As Frederick looked back on his life, he said, If at any one time of my life more than another, I was made to drink the bitterest dregs of slavery, that time was during the first six months of my stay with Mr. Covey (37). Edward Covey would whip his slaves constantly for the smallest accidental mishaps. He had a way of making his slaves feel as though they were being watched by him at all times. He would creep through the fields and sneak behind bushes in order to inevitably find an excuse to whip his slaves. He was so deceitful that his slaves called him the snake because they were terrified of him. Edward Covey was able to commit such cruel acts on his slaves because he would dehumanize them. He would think of them as less than human. We know this because Covey was a religious man who would pray frequently and practice the words of the Bible. This would have stopped him from being so cruel to his slaves if he thought of them as equal humans. It is because he thought of them as less that he was justified in treating them cruelly.
The process of dehumanization allowed slave owners to treat their slaves with no sense of remorse or mercy. Frederick Douglass shares stories of some of the horrors that he witnessed. The mistreatment of slaves was a theme throughout the book, and the stories that Frederick shares provide numerous examples of it. He provides the example of two girls who lived across the street from him. They were treated very poorly by the person who owned them.
Their names were Henrietta and Mary. Henrietta was about twenty-two years of age, Mary was about fourteen; and of all the mangled and emaciated creatures I ever looked upon, these two were the most so. His (Mr Thomas Hamilton) heart must be harder than stone, that could look upon these unmoved. The head, neck and shoulders of Mary was nearly cut to pieces.(21)
Frederick directly states that Mr Thomas Hamilton must have a heart as hard as stone, for he was able to whip his slaves nearly to death with no remorse for it. Mary is only fourteen years old and she was whipped so often that her body was torn. If Mr Thomas Hamilton had seen these girls as humans, he wouldnt have beaten them so horridly. He wouldnt call then names such as black gip or pecked. The sheer violence of their masterr’s actions directly shows that he didnt view them as human beings who could be emotionally and physically affected by his abuse.
Douglass provides another example of dehumanization when he talks about the cruelty of Master Andrew. Master Andrew was notorious for being a cruel drunkard. He makes an example towards Douglass by murdering his younger brother in front of him in cold blood.
the thought of passing out of their hands into those of Master Andrew- a man who, but a few days before, to give me a sample of his bloody disposition, took my little brother by the throat, threw him on the ground, and with the heel of his boot stamped upon his head till the blood gushed from his nose and ears- was well calculated to make me anxious as to my fate.(28)
The murder of Frederickr’s brother was and act to assert Master Andrewr’s dominance, to make sure that the new slaves were to listen to him and fear him. If he had seen Frederickr’s little brother as human he wouldnt have been able to stomp him to death just to make an example of him. He wouldnt have been able to murder a boy out of cold blood because he would know that the boy could feel and hurt just like other people do. This continuing of dehumanization kept the act of slavery cruel and allowed slaveholders to commit such terrible acts.