Frederick Douglas had several masters in his life. These people played an important role in his life. They made Douglass life better or worse, depending on what they decided to do. In most parts, Douglass’ life is a life they can control. Therefore, while Douglass is a self-educated thinking man, his fate is still influenced greatly by what these people decide for him. Colonel Lloyd, Mrs. Auld and Mr. Freeland are three of these people who made the greatest impact in Douglass’ life. They will be discussed in this essay.
His first master, Colonel Lloyd, consider himself Douglass’ master and owner. For him, Douglass is his slave and property. Due to this belief, he observed practices that are customary to masters like him. In their locality, slaves are considered to have no right to know details about their lives. They are not allowed to ask about their lives and doing so will be considered impertinent. They are to be separated from their mothers from their first 12 months onwards, except for a few visits now and then. (p. 32) Colonel Lloyd adhered to these rules. Douglass was taken from his mother when he was young. His mother visits him, but very rarely. His mother died, but he was not allowed to visit him her while she was sick, and even after she died and was buried. (pp. 31 to 33) Colonel Lloyd, like other masters, also withheld most information about Douglass from himself too. Douglass does not even know his exact age and birthday. All he had is an approximation. Furthermore, the fact that he is able to gather enough information so as to be able to approximate his age is a fortunate accident. His age, like al other information about him, his family and origin, were discovered by him through fortunate accidents of him being within hearing distance of people who happened to be talking about him (See for example p. 32). Another custom in Talbot county, Maryland, where his first master live, is cruelty towards slaves such as through infliction of physical pain and giving insufficient supplies for sustenance. Although not explicitly mentioned and described in the essay, certain narrations and developments show that, like other slaves in that place, Douglass was also exposed to cruelty from his masters. When he first came to Baltimore, he was shocked at the relative kindness he saw from people. Slaves are still considered as someone who is not an equal, but cruelty is not resorted to lest one will gain a bad reputation of being a cruel master (p. 39). This shows that he was not exposed to such kind of liberal treatment from his original master. He was also treated with cruelty. This has influenced him greatly because it is through this cruel treatment that he learned that he is a slave. Of all the places where Douglass’ were sent, it is in Maryland were he experienced the most inequality from his master’s status in terms of freedom of movement and cruelty.
Mrs. Auld is the wife of his second master. Mrs. Auld plays a very important part in Douglass’ narrative because she became at least two “firsts” in his life. She is the first person who showed him kindness and compassion rather than cruelty. She is also the first person who exposed him to learning by teaching him the alphabet. When Douglass first came into her front door, she treated him with kindness. For her, Douglass is still a slave, not an equal in status in society. He is there to take care of her son. However, while Douglass is not an equal in status in society, she considered him an equal in terms of humanity. They are both humans with dignity. This recognition of Douglass’ equality as a human is inherent upon her that even if she adopted what Douglass called “irresponsible power” at the end, she had to train for a long time to be able to do so (p. 40). However, the paradox in this that this same recognition of humanity shows that she still consider the role master-slave and owner-chattel to be existing between her and Douglass. It is not difficult to conclude that the reason Mrs. Auld decided against his education is due to the prohibition by his husband. It is rather due to the warning that came with this prohibition that education will cause them to lose their slave that she changed her treatment of Douglass. Therefore, she stopped teaching Douglass and forbade others from teaching him and take away as much as possible any source of information from him, such as a newspaper (pp. 40-41). However, in its technical sense, only a chattel may be lost. Only something that is owned may be lost. By considering that Douglass may be lost, Mrs. Auld considered herself his owner. A chattel does not have the same status as its owner.
His third master is Mr. Freeland, who hired him from his original master on a yearly basis for two years. Like others, Mr. Freeland considered himself as his master. For him, Douglass is a slave who should be content with what he is. His attempt to escape and ability to persuade others to come with him is a threat. Douglass himself is a threat. Therefore, as a slave, Douglass should be punished and set as an example to other slaves by selling him and sending him to Alabama. As his master at that time, Mr. Freeland finds it his role and responsibility to inflict this punishment. (pp. 56-57) However, he realized that many things have changed and this cannot be done anymore. Therefore, instead of being sold, Douglass was sent away to take him away from the threat to his life and safety and learn a trade (p. 57). There is a change of perception by placing Douglass in a higher stratum in society. This is because Douglass is not an ignorant slave anymore. He may still not be an equal, but he cannot be considered merely a chattel anymore because of his education. As Douglass himself aptly put in the beginning of the narration, slavery and education are incompatible (p. 41). In the eyes of Mr. Freeland, Douglass has acquired the humanity that many people refused to give him before. Mr. Freeland was able to feel compassion for Douglass because the former now sees the latter as someone in possession of humanity.
These people treated Douglass differently. As observed, their feelings toward him are affected by how they perceive him to be—either a chattel or a person. The people around Douglass show how even the kindest and most compassionate people may still be aware of an existing social division that affects people’s feelings and treatment of people. On the contrary, Douglass’ life shows how these different feelings and treatment greatly affect people’s lives. His narrative shows how masters’ steer the lives of their slaves.