Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass


Though there are a lot of books written about slavery, this is one of the first accounts of slavery actually written by a slave. Frederick Douglass taught himself to read and write and then set out to chronicle the life of a slave and to expose the horrors of slavery.



The story of a slave’s life as told by a slave. From the time he was a young boy living on a plantation to his life as a free man in the North. This book chronicles Frederick Douglass’ travels from farms to the city and back again, his struggle to learn to read and write and his voyage of self-discovery through his efforts to better himself and his race.



Frederick Douglass (FD): The main character.

Harriet Bailey: FD’s mother. A slave.

Captain Anthony: FD’s first master.

Mr. Plummer: Capt. Anthony’s overseer.

Ned Roberts: A slave of Capt. Anthony’s.

Aunt Hester: Another slave of Anthony’s.

Andrew, Richard and Lucretia: Captain Anthony’s children.

Capt. Auld: Lucretia’s husband, another of FD’s masters.

Colonel Lloyd: A plantation owner.

Mr. Severe: Lloyd’s overseer.

Mr. Hopkins: Severe’s replacement.

Old Barney and young Barney: Two of Lloyd’s slaves.

Mr. Gore: Hopkin’s successor.

Demby: A slave.

Master Daniel: One of Col. Lloyd’s sons.

Thomas Auld: Son of Capt. Auld.

Rowena Hamilton: Hugh’s second wife.

Mr. Covey: A slave breaker.

Mr. Freeland: Another slave master.

Sandy, Henry, Handy and John: Slaves and friends of FD.

Mr. Ruggles: An abolitionist.

Anna: FD’s wife.




  • FD is born in Maryland to a slave named Harriet Bailey. Though FD’s father is white, his identity is unclear. He might be his master.
  • As was the custom he was separated from his mother when he was an infant.
  • His mother would walk twelve miles after her days in the field to see him.
  • His mother dies when he is seven. He is not allowed to attend her burial.
  • Plummer whips and beats the slaves unmercifully.
  • Aunt Hester is tied up and whipped for hours. This is the first time FD sees this kind of violence.


  • Tobacco, corn, and wheat are the chief crops of Auld’s plantation.
  • If any slave misbehaved they were whipped and sent to Baltimore to a slave dealer.
  • Slaves were given an allowance of food and a yearly clothing allotment. The clothes never lasted the year and often the children ran around naked.
  • Slaves did not get beds, only coarse blankets.
  • They had to rise the moment they heard the horn in the morning and get to work in the fields.
  • Mr. Severe would beat and yell at them all day.
  • Slaves who got to work in the main house, called Great House Farm, were considered very lucky.
  • FD begins to understand the sadness and irony in the songs the slaves sing. Contrary to what many Northerners thought the slaves were not singing out of joy, but out of pain and longing.


  • Col. Lloyd puts tar around the fence of his garden so no slaves will steal his fruit. Slaves caught with tar on them are beaten.
  • Lloyd beats Old and young Barney all the time and often for no reason just to keep them off balance and to set an example to the others.
  • More stories about the cruelty of Col. Lloyd.
  • Slaves from different farms would fight each other in the name of their masters.


  • Gore becomes the overseer of Lloyd’s farm. He is very cruel. He beats a slave and when the slave won’t come out of the water, he shoots him.
  • Killing a slave at that time was not a crime.
  • More stories of killings of slaves are mentioned. One is shot simply for being on another plantation.
  • A common saying was "it’s worth half a cent to kill a nigger and half a cent to bury one."


  • FD is too young to work in the fields so he keeps the barnyard clean and helps Master Daniel find game birds after he shoots them.
  • FD has no shoes or socks, just a linen shirt that goes to his knees. He is always hungry and cold.
  • The slaves were served boiled corn meal called mush. They had to eat it out of large bowls or troughs. Whoever ate the fastest got the most.
  • FD gets to leave the farm and go to Baltimore. He is very excited about this since he’s wanted to go there for a long time.
  • He gets to Baltimore and meets his new masters. He meets Sophia and is surprised and happy that she is warm and caring.
  • He believes that fate has sent him to live there.


  • Sophia is at first very kind to him. She treats the slaves with respect.
  • She begins to teach FD the alphabet. Capt. Auld finds out and forbids her to continue. He believes that reading will spoil FD and that it’s better for him to be ignorant so that he will not be discontent.
  • FD realizes that freedom lies in education and vows to continue his.
  • Slaves in the city are treated differently than in the country. They have more freedom. There are exceptions and FD tells the story of the savage beatings of two slaves called Henrietta and Mary. Mary would fight the pigs in the street for food.


  • FD continues to learn to read and write.
  • Though she was kind before Sophia is now forced to be mean to him.
  • He is watched all the time to make sure he doesn’t read.
  • On his travels in Baltimore he meets white street kids who help him learn to read. They are indentured servants until twenty-one, but he will be a slave for life.
  • He reads a famous speech about Catholic Emancipation and it effects him profoundly. The more he reads the more he detests slavery.
  • He starts to hear the word abolition, but no one will tell him what it means.
  • He meets two Irish dockworkers who tell him to escape to the North where he can be free.
  • He decides to learn how to write as he watches ship workers mark wood with letters.
  • He tricks white children into teaching him more letters.


  • Capt. Anthony dies and FD has to leave Baltimore.
  • He is taken with all the property and ranked with all the slaves in terms of value.
  • The slaves all wait to see where they will end up based on their value.
  • FD goes to Lucretia and is sent back to Baltimore.
  • Lucretia and her husband both die shortly afterward and FD is sold off to strangers.
  • He is upset that his grandmother still cannot be free after all her years of service. She is given a small house in the woods and left there alone and away from family and friends.
  • FD goes to Master Thomas. He takes a boat back to St. Michael’s and watches very closely the route it is taking.


  • FD goes back to Master Auld’s house.
  • Master Auld does not feed his slaves enough and so the slaves must resort to begging and stealing food.
  • Though he pretends, Master Auld is never kind to his slaves.
  • Preachers would visit the house and be fed very well while the slaves would starve.
  • Mr. Wilson starts a Sunday school for the slaves, but it is broken up violently after only three meetings.
  • Master Auld tells FD that city life has spoiled him.
  • FD would let Maser Auld’s horse run off to the next farm just so he could get fed before bringing him back.
  • Master Auld sends FD to Mr. Covey, a "slave breaker." Even though he has a terrible reputation FD knows he will at least be fed.


  • FD goes to work as a field hand at Mr. Covey’s.
  • One day he takes the oxen out for wood and is nearly killed trying to control them. When he gets back Mr. Covey beats him savagely for mishandling the oxen.
  • For the first six months of his time at Covey’s, FD is whipped once a week.
  • Covey would sneak up on the slaves to try and catch them loafing.
  • Covey buys a female slave specifically to breed her. He borrows another slave and makes them have sex every night. She finally has twins.
  • FD thinks about suicide.
  • When white people see the beautiful sailing ships they think of travel and exotic places, but all FD can think about is slavery.
  • He dreams of escaping.
  • One day he becomes sick in the field and Mr. Covet beats him severely.
  • He decides to complain to his master, but his master tells him he deserved it.
  • He goes back and hides from Covey. He meets another slave named Sandy. Sandy tells him about a root that will protect him from harm.
  • FD puts the root in his pocket and Mr. Covey is kind to him.
  • Covey finds him later in the barn and tries to beat him, but he fights back and Covey can’t beat him.
  • Covey leaves him alone after that. He is afraid to publicly whip him because he will lose his reputation as a slave breaker.
  • The holidays are the only time when the slaves can enjoy themselves. They were allowed to see their families, drink, dance, whatever they wanted. FD begins to see the hypocrisy of this. The slaves are just manipulated. If they did not allow this brief period of freedom, the slaves would have revolted.
  • FD goes to Mr. Freeland. He is a task master, but not as violent as Covey.
  • FD talks about how hypocritical "religious" slave owners are. How they praise God, while beating and starving their slaves.
  • While at Mr. Freeland’s FD meets John, Henry and Handy. He secretly teaches them to read while pretending that they are studying the bible.
  • FD is desperate to be free. He wants to "live on free land as well as with Freeland." He plots with Henry, John, Sandy and Handy on the best way to escape.
  • They decide to steal a large canoe and pose as fisherman as they make their way upriver. FD forges notes for them which give them permission to travel.
  • On the day they are about to escape, they are found out. There is a scuffle as they are tied up, they all manage to get rid of their notes by either eating them or throwing them in the fire.
  • They are thrown in jail and slave traders taunt them with threats of beatings and slavery.
  • They are all separated and FD gets sent back to Baltimore.
  • FD gets hired to learn how to caulk in the Baltimore shipyards, but really he is just an aide to all the other workers.
  • The white workers refuse to work with the blacks. FD gets into a big fight and gets beaten up badly by four white men. FD complains to his master who tries to take action for him, but nothing can be done.
  • FD goes to another shipyard and learns how to caulk. Soon he is finding his own jobs. He still has to give the money to his master and this makes him very angry.


  • FD is ready to escape.
  • He talks about how the underground railroad was a noble idea, but was too in the open and made the slave owners more cautious and aggressive in keeping their slaves imprisoned.
  • FD is getting tired of doing all the work and handing over all the money to his master.
  • Even though he is afraid of failing he escapes again.
  • He has no problem and ends up in New York.
  • Though free he is still fearful of being found out. He is suspicious of all white people and blacks as well. His motto is "Trust no man." He is broke and hungry.
  • He meets an abolitionist, Mr. Ruggles who advises him that he is not safe in New York and should go to New Bedford.
  • FD marries Anna and they make their way to New Bedford.
  • They are taken in by abolitionists.
  • FD changes his name from Frederick Johnson to Frederick Douglass since there are too many Johnsons.
  • FD had believed that Northerners would be the same as poor white Southerners. He thought that without slavery they would not be as wealthy. He sees that he was wrong and he is even angrier about slavery.
  • He still can’t find work as a caulker, but he starts to do any job he can find. He is finally free and self-employed.
  • He starts to read "the Liberator" an anti-slavery paper and starts attending anti-slavery meetings. He then starts speaking at the meetings and after a while becomes a famous speaker and opponent of slavery.


  • In the appendix FD explains that while he criticized slave owners who pretended to be religious, he wasn’t criticizing religion or those who are truly pious.
  • Schoolbytes has a good paper that talks about the appendix in Frederick Douglass. Go check it out in our researchbytes section:



  • Douglass eventually owned his own newspaper, FredrickDouglass' Monthly.
  • He travelled the country as an anti-slavery lecturer but many anti-abolitionists sought to discredit him because they felt he was too intelligent, and articulate to have been a slave. The book was also challenged as inauthentic for the same reasons, but since people heard him speak, there was no doubt that he was the author.
  • He held several appointed positions in the US govt. including posts in Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
  • Some famous abolitionists include Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thoreau, Harriet Beecher Stowe, John Greenleaf Whittier.