While living at Master Hugh's for about seven years, Douglass learned to write. He did this despite not having a regular teacher, as his mistress had been forbidden to instruct him further. Douglass watched her transformation with a heavy heart. When he first came to her, she did not see him as chattel. She treated him like a human being and took care of his basic needs. Her cessation of instructing Douglass was her first step on the road to ruination. She went above and beyond her husband's request to leave off teaching her slave letters, and soon was most vigilant in making sure Douglass was nowhere near a newspaper. He was watched quite closely, but his own desire to read and write triumphed.
Douglass's plan to learn to read centered on making friends with the poor white children of Baltimore and learning from them a little at a time. He used to complete his errands for Mr. and Mrs. Auld quickly, and then meet up with his new friends. He often used to give them bread (as he was actually better off than most of them) for lessons. The fact that he was a slave moved his young friends.
He was now twelve and began to chafe under the thought that he would be a slave for life. It was about this time that he got hold of the Columbian Orator, a book that dealt with the relationship of master and slave and demonstrated how slavery made no rational sense. In this book existed a speech by Sheridan on behalf of Catholic emancipation, which was a "bold denunciation of slavery, and a powerful vindication of human rights."
What became clear to Douglass was that his master was right – learning did make slaves intractable and unmanageable. He came to perceive slaveholders as no more than "a band of successful robbers" who had gone to Africa and stolen them from their homes. He felt discontentment surge through him and often wondered if learning to read had been more of a curse than a blessing. His enslavement tormented him unceasingly.
Sometimes Douglass wondered if he should kill himself or do something which would get him killed, but he continually hoped that one day he might attain freedom. He began to listen for information regarding the abolitionists. When he first heard the term "abolition" he looked it up in the dictionary but still could not figure out what exactly was being abolished. He began to hear talk of abolition concerning slaves in the District of Columbia.
One day while down at the wharf he assisted two Irishmen with some heavy work. One asked him if he was a slave, and a slave for life. Douglass said he was. The Irishman encouraged Douglass to try and escape to the North. Douglass feared that they might be trying to trap him and pretended not to be interested in what they were saying, but he remembered their advice and thought about running away some time in the future.
As for learning how to write, Douglass got the idea from Durgin and Bailey's shipyard. When timber came in, it was marked with an "L" or an "S" or an "LF" depending on where on the ship it was to be placed. Douglass learned what these signs meant and was soon boasting to the young white boys that he could write as well as they could. They helped him with the other letters and soon he knew how to write. His "copy-book was the board fence, brick wall, and pavement; [his] pen was a lump of chalk." His master's son, Thomas, had gone to school and was also learning how to read. He brought home copy-books, and when his mistress was out, Douglass would copy in the blank spaces of Master Thomas's book. He finally knew how to read and write.
Douglass details how he learned how to read and write in the absence of formal instruction: he befriended the poor Baltimore street boys, and, through bribery, friendship, and cunning he obtained literacy. Through observing the letters marked at the schoolyard and in young Thomas Auld's copybooks, he learned how to write. This ingenious albeit uncommon method of education reveals Douglass's ambition, perseverance, and industriousness. Many autobiographies or bildungsroman novels incorporate the attainment of literacy and the subsequent voracious reading of many books, and Douglass's contribution to the genre is no different.
One of the most influential early texts for Douglass was the Columbian Orator, a textbook on rhetoric and grammar authored by Boston schoolteacher and bookseller Caleb Bingham. In the annotations to the Yale edition of the Narrative, Douglass scholar Blassingame writes about the Orator that it "contained short extracts from speeches by such famous orators as William Pitt, George Washington, Charles James Fox, and Cicero, as well as plays and poems on the themes of patriotism, education, and freedom." It was extremely popular during its day and very helpful to Douglass as he began to mature in his understanding of history and the system of slavery.
The speech by Richard Sheridan so lauded by Douglass was probably his "Part of Mr. O'Connor's Speech in the Irish House of Commons, in Favor of the Bill for Emancipating the Roman Catholics, 1795." Sheridan was an Irish orator, playwright, and politician and joined Parliament in 1780. The selection from Mr. O'Connor was in regards to allowing Catholics to hold office and sit in Parliament. The "Dialogue between a Master and Slave" was an anonymous work about the conversation between the two men after the slave was caught trying to run away for a second time; it was included in the 1827 edition of the Orator.
Douglass also begins to understand what "abolitionism" means. The word had entered his consciousness but he was unsure of its meaning, wondering why it was associated with slaves committing some supposed wrong against their master or slavery itself. Looking it up in the dictionary was not much help, and it was not until he attained a newspaper discussing the possibility of the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia and the slave trade between the states that the meaning of the word was finally elucidated. Readers of the Narrative no doubt appreciated this scene from the autobiography, as in his later years Douglass was one of the most prominent abolitionists in all of American history.
One final note about this chapter is the change that came upon Mrs. Auld as a result of her involvement with slavery. Indeed, Douglass's belief that slavery was as bad for the slaveholder as it was for the slave is most marked here. Previously pious, sweet, kind, and tolerant, Mrs. Auld began to exercise her power as a slaveholder. Her better nature was completely conquered. She embraced her husband's command to cease instructing Douglass, and overcompensated for it by brutally and methodically trying to prohibit Douglass from any interaction with the written word. The mastery over another human being that was the hallmark of slavery proved too beguiling to overcome, and Mrs. Auld was scarcely less cruel than many of the other southerners mentioned in the autobiography.