Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass Summary and Analysis
Overseer Hopkins was replaced by Austin Gore after some time. Gore had worked at one of the outlying farms and had proven his mettle. He was "proud, ambitious and persevering. He was artful, cruel, and obdurate. He was just the man for such a place, and it was just the place for such a man." Slaves could never talk back and defend themselves. Gore often saw a look or heard a word which displeased him, and subsequently doled out the severest punishment. Accusation was the same as conviction, and conviction was the same as punishment.
While Gore required the most blatant servility from a slave, he often evinced the same to Colonel Lloyd. He wanted to be the highest of the overseers and desired nothing more once he was there. He was brutal and duplicitous and had no conscience. He seemed to notice everything, and the slaves hated him the most of all the overseers.
He was young but serious, never smiling or laughing. He was not talkative or humorous. He was not reluctant to fulfill any duty his post required of him and never showed any remorse or hesitation. Douglass saw his relentless brutality as "equaled only by the consummate coolness with which he committed the grossest and most savage deeds upon the slaves under his charge."
One slave, Demby, learned firsthand the lengths to which his evil went. Demby was being whipped when he escaped into the river and refused to come out. Gore said that he would count to three and if Demby did not come out, he would shoot him. After Gore reached three, he calmly and coolly shot Demby dead.
When Lloyd asked why Gore had resorted to such an extreme measure, Gore explained that Denby was unmanageable and was setting a bad example for the other slaves. Lloyd accepted Gore's explanation, and Gore's reputation amongst the slaves spread far and wide. Since slaves had no judicial standing, nothing they witnessed Gore do could be challenged. Douglass mused that Gore may still be alive today, but completely ignorant of his guilty, blood-stained conscience.
Unfortunately, killing slaves was not a criminal offense in the courts or the community. Douglass gave several examples of masters that killed their slaves and went scot-free. One murderess, the wife of Mr. Giles Hicks, murdered her serving-girl, which was Douglass's wife's cousin. Mrs. Hicks had viciously beaten and mangled the young girl's frame time and time again, but eventually snapped one day when her baby started crying and the slave girl was asleep and did not hear it. Mrs. Hicks beat the slave girl so hard that she died. Despite minor misgivings from the townspeople, she was never prosecuted.
Douglass relates one last example. Colonel Lloyd's slaves fished for oysters in the nearby river. One day an elderly slave crossed into the adjoining property of Mr. Beal Bondly without being aware of it. Mr. Bondly shot and killed the old man. He came over to Lloyd's home; "whether to pay him for his property, or to justify himself in what he had done, I know not," Douglass wrote, and "at any rate, this whole fiendish transaction was soon hushed up." Clearly, killing a slave was no problem whatsoever.
Douglass chronicles the brutality experienced by slaves on Colonel Lloyd's farm, especially at the hands of Austin Gore, the head overseer. Gore, also referred to as Orson Gore in the plantation records, was listed in the 1830 census as the head of household containing three boys, two girls, a wife, and an elderly woman. The incident of the murder of Demby was reconstructed by Douglass through plantation legends because Douglass was only a child at the time of its occurrence, noted in the records as 1822.
When the Narrative was published, one of Gore's friends challenged the account of the murder. As John Blassingame notes in the annotations to the Yale edition of the autobiography, the friend insisted Gore was "a respectable citizen living near St. Michaels, and...a worthy member of the Methodist Episcopal Church...all who know him, think him anything but a murderer." Of course, what makes this assertion all the more humorous is the assumption that religious piety was opposed to violence and depravity. Douglass made clear to address that erroneous assumption many times in his works.
This chapter briefly mentions Douglass's future wife, Anna, by addressing the murder of her cousin at the hands of a cruel slaveholder's wife. Anna Murray was born a free woman in Denton, Carolina County, Maryland. She worked as a domestic in Baltimore and met Douglass at the East Baltimore Mental Improvement Society. Later she helped finance his escape and the two married when he made it to New York. When Douglass traveled abroad she remained at home, her frugality and occupation binding shoes increasing the household's wealth. She was also active in the Lynn Ladies' Anti-Slavery Society. She was not at ease in the public spotlight but was much beloved by her husband. She died from a stroke of paralysis in Washington, D.C. in August 1883.
On a more general note, Douglass's autobiography has attracted critical attention in the way it deals with the realms of public and private. Scholar Donald Gibson attempts to articulate how Douglass displays concern for the pubic and social as well as the personal and private. He discusses the facts of slavery in a supposed civilized and Christian country and recounts the experiences of his own individual life. Every word of the Narrative is written with the public in mind and for an important political purpose, but they are also words that express the "unique, unusually intelligent, and talented man," Frederick Douglass.
The public and the private in this work are, as Gibson sees them, perpetually at war. One is "supporting and lending authority and significance to the other." At stake here is how "the personality of the narrator seeks a larger role than the public purpose of the book can allow" while at the same time "the public perspective aims to dominate, to suppress all about the narrator except his representative qualities..." Gibson provides several textual examples for his assertion. In this chapter in particular, the discussion of Gore and the particularities of life at the Great House Farm are part of a larger discussion on slavery in Maryland and the country as a whole. This inability to separate public and private makes Douglass's autobiography compelling as well as didactic and important.
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- Summary and Analysis of Preface and Letter from Wendell Phillips, Esq.
- Summary and Analysis of Chapter I
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