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Essay: Life in U.S. Slavery: Frederick Douglass Narrative & Impact on the South

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  • Published: 1 April 2019*
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Life as a slave in United States and the impact of slavery on the South

The 17th and 18th centuries of United States are best known by slavery that existed in both the Northern and the Southern states. Most of these slaves were from African countries, with only twenty percent coming from other parts of the world. Despite the cheap labor they offered including in plantations where most whites neglected, slaves lived different kind of life compared to the Whites. Most of them were denied the opportunity to access documents about them, never went to school, those in the plantations suffered more than their colleagues in homes, and lacked proper housing, food and clothing. The existence of these slaves had both positive and negative impacts on the southern states. Therefore, in this paper, I will narrate what it was like to be a slave in the United States as told through the experiences of Frederick Douglass, in his book “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Written by Himself” and the impact of slavery on the south.

Life as a slave in United States

Slaves were denied the opportunity to know their identities for future reference. This entailed preventing them from accessing documents that would help them know one another, identify their colleagues and trace one another later in life after being sold to other states like Alabama, Georgia and Louisiana. In the introduction of the book, Douglas elucidates how he was denied from knowing his parents and date of birth so that he could remain arrogant. He had the opportunity to see his mother only four or five times, all instances being at night. Despite knowing that he was born in Tuckahoe, near Hillsborough which was few miles from Easton, he neither new his age nor had seen any record containing it. “I have no accurate knowledge of my age, never having seen any authentic record containing it.” (Douglas 1). Also, in the entire essay, Douglas elucidates diverse instances where slave masters held important identification documents of their servants to prevent them from knowing who they are and maybe tracing one another.

While the slaveholders including their children had the opportunity to go to school and study, Slaves were denied this right. During the 18th century, all schools were only admitting white children into their free education program. Whites in Deep South passed new laws that prevented slaves from being taught by any white as well as making it a crime for anyone to educate them. Douglas makes efforts to learn how to read and write though the whole process is stopped when Mr. Auld realizes; “Mr. Auld found out what was going on, and at once forbade Mrs. Auld…” (Page 33).They believed that by educating the these slaves, they would end knowing each other very well, trace their colleagues sold in other parts of United States easily and could gang up to rebel against the forced labor and harsh working conditions. Mr. Auld told his wife; “if you teach that ni**er (speaking of myself) how to read, there would be no keeping him.” (Douglas 33).

Slaves in the plantations also experienced more difficulty compared to their colleagues in homes. Most plantations in the South were very big to an extent that some slaves had to work in the homes while others spent most of the time in the farms. Domestic slaves were given proper houses by their masters, ate good food including dining with their master’s families in some instances, and travelled with the family to inspect the farm or to the market. Douglas argues that “A city slave is almost a freeman, compared with a slave on the plantation…better fed and clothed, and enjoys privileges altogether unknown to the slave on the plantation.” (Douglas 34). This domestic slaves rarely interacted with those in the plantations, unless they accompanied the family to the plantations.

Slave owners didn’t provide proper housing to their slaves. Slaves were treated like wild animals who should neither sleep with people in the same house nor have proper housing. Although some slaveholders provided proper housing, majority did not. This forced the slaves to build houses on their own like their African houses, making them from sticks. The houses were very small with dirty clay floors. Due to this condition, Douglas could “steal a bag which was used for carrying corn to the mill.” (Douglas 27).  He would then place it on the floor, crawl inside and sleep; “I would crawl into this bag, and there sleep on the cold, damp, clay floor, with my head in and feet out.” (Douglas 27). Generally, slave owners were only concerned with keeping them alive instead of allowing them to stay in decent houses like them.

Eating and clothing was also a challenge. They neither ate nor dressed well. Since they spent most of the time working in the plantations, slaves lacked the opportunity to prepare proper meals that could also satisfy the entire group in a single house including children. They ate foods like “…coarse corn meal boiled” (Douglas 27) without spoons and in a single tray. Only those who were very strong and ate fastest left the eating points satisfied; “He that ate fastest got most; he that was strongest secured the best place; and few left the trough satisfied.” (Douglas 27). During the hottest summers, most slaves spent almost naked with no proper clothes.  Douglas narrates that he had “nothing on but a coarse tow linen shirt” (Douglas 26) that reached only to his knees.

Impact of Slavery on the South

Slaves impacted the southern states both positively and negatively. Slaves, despite the difficulties they faced, provided free and readily available labor to the south. The yeomen registered low profits due to their low scale production while the slaves of wealthy people did a lot of work thus helping them incur huge profits. Increase in prices of slaves also led to a decline in tobacco in the upper south. The southern society also changed itself in regard to their demand for slaves.

The treatment of slaves was generally deplorable and even the kindest plantation masters were more concerned with making a profit than making sure their slaves were treated well. With only a minimal amount of money required to actually purchase and maintain slaves, this became the best from of labor and allowed many owners of plantations to become very wealthy. Without slavery however, it is more likely that these plantation owners would be too busy working the fields to have the time to go off to defend the practice politically.

The yeomen specialized in small scale production. They lacked enough capital and resources to own big plantations and in turn register enormous profits. Although they believed that their future depended entirely on agricultural produce, they were unable to benefit from the existence of slaves. On the other hand, wealth farmers took advantage of these slaves to increase their scales of production even further. The spent little money on the labor provided by slaves and in turn produce large amounts of cash crops which they even exported to other countries.  As a result, the yeomen continued to remain poor while the wealthy people’s riches continued to increase. As a result, the wealthy people remained in the forefront in societal affairs like politics.

Because the economy of the southern states depended greatly on its plantations, the entire society experienced diverse changes due to the existence of these slaves. As a result, the increased cash crop production especially in cotton plantations led to demand for more slaves in the lower south. The lower south had most slaves because it depended on them so much compared to the upper south who majored in tobacco farming. As a result, in order to be at par with the lower south, the upper south decided to focus much of its attention on slave trade.

Due to increased demand for slaves in both the lower south and the upper south, the prices of slaves increased. Slave trade became very common leading to a decline in tobacco in the upper kingdom who had little slaves. On the other hand, the lower state experienced an increased production of capital which greatly boosted the economy. As a result, the upper south lagged much behind the lower south because they could not ascertain if their future depended on their plantations or the slave trade.

To sum up, slaves in the United States who mainly consisted of Africans suffered from diverse maltreatments from their masters. Slaves were denied the opportunity to know their identities for future reference. Both slaves and their children were denied the right to be educated just like the whites. Slaves in the homes did less and easy work compared to their colleagues in the plantations. Also, slave owners denied their slaves proper housing, clothing and food. This slavery had diverse impacts on the South, with the states benefiting from cheap and reliable labor, the yeomen continuing to be poor while the wealthy people acquiring more wealth and it lade to a shift in the economies of both the lower and the upper states. Generally, Fredrick Douglas’ book “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Written by Himself” clearly narrates the life Slaves in America before its abolition.

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