The Narrative begins with Douglass explaining that he was born in Talbot County, Maryland, but did not know his birthday because such information was often kept from slaves, which was lamentable and bothersome to him throughout his life. He rarely saw his mother and the identity of his father was unknown, although it was commonly assumed to be his first master, Captain Anthony. Anthony was a moderately wealthy slaveholder and was not particularly kind or conscientiousness. He rarely interfered when his overseers treated his slaves brutally.
Anthony was the clerk and superintendent for Colonel Lloyd, one of Maryland's wealthiest slaveholders. His plantation home was known as the Great House Farm, where Douglass resided when he was very young. Slaves received scanty allowances and had little time of their own; many were also cruelly beaten by the overseers. However, slaves on the outlying farm spoke highly of Great House Farm and considered it an honor to be sent there on errands.
Douglass detailed the sumptuous gardens of Colonel Lloyd's plantation and provided further information about the realities of slavery. He explained why slaves often praised their masters: they were afraid that the whites to whom they were speaking would report their insolence and they would be punished. Douglass also wrote of the wild and mournful beauty of the slave songs and how they suggested the horrors of slavery.
Douglass did not have many tasks on Colonel Lloyd's plantation. He was often cold and hungry. Thankfully, it was announced one day that he amongst several slave children was chosen to live with Anthony's son-in-law's brother, Hugh Auld, in Baltimore. Douglass attributed this fortuitous event to divine intervention; he knew God meant for him to one day escape the bonds of servitude.
Douglass's new mistress, Mrs. Auld, was sweet and untouched by the destructive effects of slavery. She refused to treat him ill and even decided she would teach him how to read. Her husband, however, knowing the effects of teaching a slave to read – intractability, unmanageability, disillusionment – forbade her from doing so. Douglass decided he would teach himself how to read and write; this he did by learning from the Baltimore street boys and using the Aulds' son's copybooks to practice writing. Douglass attained a copy of the Columbian Orator, which provided him with writings on emancipation and a denunciation of slavery.
After Captain Anthony died his assets, including all of the salves, were divided amongst two of his children. Thankfully Douglass was able to remain with Master Hugh, but this was short-lived: a quarrel between Hugh and his brother, Thomas, resulted in Douglass being sent to live with Thomas instead. He was not sad to go, as drink and the realities of slavery had ruined Mr. and Mrs. Hugh Auld, respectively, but living with Master Thomas was not pleasant either. Thomas was ignoble, cowardly, cruel, and virulently hypocritical in his faith. He and Douglass did not have a good relationship, and the latter was sent to work on the farm of Edward Covey, the famed "slave-breaker" known for "taming" slaves.
Living with Covey was the low point of Douglass's life. He was beaten frequently in the most unjust manner conceivable, he lost his desire to read and improve his intellect, and his spirits were broken. Covey was a most abominable man; he was duplicitous, merciless, fickle, and capable of savage brutality.
One day Douglass was very ill and could not complete his labor. This drew the attention of Covey, who beat Douglass until he was nearly senseless. Douglass resolved to journey to Master Thomas and beg him to protect him against Covey. Thomas was not amenable to this decision and Douglass had to travel back to the farm. On his way he stopped at the house of a wife of a fellow slave, Sandy. Sandy gave Douglass a special root and promised him that if he kept this root at his side he would never be touched again by a slaveholder. Douglass was skeptical but took the root.
When he arrived back at the farm Covey once again came upon him and began beating him. Douglass resolved that he would resist this time, and for over two hours the men were locked in combat. Douglass did not actually fight Covey but physically resisted the man's attacks. Finally Covey backed down and Douglass was free. For the duration of his stay on the farm Covey did not touch him, and Douglass believed it was his desire to keep his reputation that prevented him from turning Douglass in. This episode was the chief moment in Douglass's life; he viewed it as the time when he moved from being a slave to being a man.
After a year with Covey Douglass left and went to live on the farm of William Freeland. Freeland was the best master Douglass had; he was fair, honest, gave his slaves enough food and tools, and had no pretensions to piety. Douglass started a Sunday school for nearly forty slaves, teaching them how to read and write. As time passed Douglass became increasingly aware that he was getting older and he was still a slave. He resolved to devise a plan to escape. Several of his friends decided to join in the escape attempt, even though they were all aware of the possible dangers that awaited them.
However, the plot was discovered and the escape attempt foiled. Douglass and his friends were put into jail and Douglass's spirits were profoundly depressed. Finally he was released back into the custody of Hugh Auld in Baltimore. When he returned to the city he was allowed to be hired out to learn calking (waterproofing a ship). His first experience resulted in his being beaten by several white men, afraid they might lose their jobs to free blacks. Douglass went to another shipyard and worked diligently. Soon he was commanding high wages but was bitter that he had to turn nearly all of them over to Master Hugh. It was his taste of freedom and autonomy that revived within him the desire to escape, and he began to formulate a plan.
In order not to rouse the suspicions of his master, he worked assiduously at his calking. He was loath to leave his friends in Baltimore but knew that the time was come for him to try and go to the North. Finally, he achieved this escape; however, he did not publish any details in the Narrative as to not provoke danger to those who helped him or those who were still in slavery.
He arrived in New York and was exultant at his independence. Almost immediately, though, he felt lonely and lost in the city. If not for David Ruggles, a man who was most helpful to slaves and free blacks, he would have had a much more difficult time. In New York he was able to marry his love, Anna, and the two decided to move to New Bedford where it was safer. There Douglass found work and reveled in the ability to keep all of his wages and take on the responsibilities of an independent man. He even changed his name from Frederick Bailey to Frederick Douglass; "Douglass" was suggested by a friend who had just read "Lady of the Lake".
Douglass experienced some prejudice working in New Bedford. He also began reading the prominent abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator, and was in awe of its impassioned denunciations of slavery. One day he attended an anti-slavery convention in Nantucket and was asked to speak. He took the stage, and although he was slightly nervous, he was able to tell his story. The Narrative concludes with his explanation that he has been doing this very thing ever since that fateful day.
The Appendix to the autobiography sets out Douglass's criticisms against the Christianity of slaveholders and explains to readers that Douglass is only critical of that very hypocritical type of religion, not religion in general. He locates authentic Christianity in the black community.