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Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs Essay

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Updated: Apr 22nd, 2020


Slavery was probably one of the most awful catastrophes in the history of the United States. To enlighten the people about the dreadful facts, escapee slaves noted down their accounts of slavery on paper and availed the information for the public to read. Harriet Jacobs and Frederick Douglass are two of the numerous slaves, who wrote down their accounts of slavery. Each of them had a different experience with slavery.

Nonetheless, Frederick and Harriet shared a common experience: they relate about the repulsive tradition of slavery and the adverse effects it had on their lives. This paper aims at giving a comparative evaluation of the slavery life of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs. Age, gender, responsibilities, time, and the affected region had varied impacts on slaves’ life.

Slave’s childhood life

Slavery has adverse effects to childhood life of the victims. Frederick and Harriet’s childhoods were not exceptional. As Harriet was growing up in her contented domicile as she refers to it, she was utterly safeguarded from slavery. Her father was a tremendously generous and skillful carpenter, and he was permitted to look after his family, in spite of some of his earnings going to his mistress.

During their childhood, most slaves never knew about their innate repression into slavery. However, as they continued growing up, they would start assuming responsibilities in their masters’ homes or separated from their parents. It is from this time that they started experiencing the real burden of being slaves (Jacobs 78).

On the other hand, some slaves experienced the wrath of slavery from childhood. From the beginning, their life was cruel with some being separated from their mothers at a tender age. Frederick was born a mullatto. It was after her master raped her mother. Frederick’s heritage led to him being separated from his mother’s master, and apparently, his mother.

There was a belief that when a slave bore a mullatto, the father to the child was always the master of the affected slave. This enraged the master’s wife, and the master had to sell the child away to placate her. It is this reason that led to Frederick meeting his mother for remarkably few times before she died. He was not allowed to attend in his mother’s burial or own her photo (Douglass 112).

During their childhood, different slaves related with their masters differently. Some masters and mistresses were kind. They promised their adult slaves who had children that they would free their children after their demise; a promise some did not fulfill. To some slaves, life was pathetic since birth. They constantly witnessed slaves being tortured for no reasons. They had a single shirt that they used to cover their nakedness while some walked naked.

They spent their nights on hard concrete floors with no blankets. For those that lived with kind masters or mistresses, they did not experience this ordeal until they were about twelve years old. They only learnt about the limitations of slavery from their neighboring plantations. For instance, Harriet talks about how Mr. Litch was cruel to his slaves. For a slave girl, Harriet’s childhood was noticeably good.

Effects of gender on a slave’s life

Harriet extremely emphasizes that, women slaves suffered more compared to men slaves. Throughout his book, Frederick does not mention an instance where a slaved was maltreated because of his gender. One would assume that male slaves were subjected to severe punishments relative to female slaves. However, this was not the case.

For instance, Douglass narrates about how some masters treated their slaves well in cities with the exception of one master who owned two female slaves that he punished severely. He describes how one of the two female slaves called Mary was emaciated. Apart from beating, female slaves were subjected to other sufferings that men slaves never encountered. Both Harriet and Frederick narrate about how female slaves were sexually exploited by their masters. Moreover, most of the female slaves lost their children who were sold away to other slave owners.

When Harriet was fifteen years old, Dr. Flint made his initial sexual advance towards her; however, she never gave in to his request. In spite of not abusing Harriet physically, Dr. Flint yelled and verbally abused her for turning down his request. In his bid to ensnare Harriet into engaging in sexual relationships with him, Dr. Flint would at the beginning act fiercely to make it seem as if she is supposed to surrender to all his demands, and in particular sexual demands. When this failed to work, he would pretend to be so friendly in a bid to manipulate her into succumbing to his advances. However, no matter how persuasive he acted, he could not manage to entice Harriet.

When he failed to achieve his objective through the two methods, Dr. Flint would force Harriet to look after his young daughter or wife while she is asleep. This meant that Harriet had to share a common room with Dr. Flint’s daughter. When Harriet agreed to be looking after the daughter while she is asleep, Dr. Flint shifted the daughter’s bed to his room so that he could have an opportunity to lure Harriet into having sex with him.

Fortunately, his wife’s room was adjacent to his, and she kept watching them making it hard for him to attain his goal. Since Dr. Flint flattered with Harriet, his wife directed all her marital problems towards her. She blamed her for all that was happening in her family and started treating her with extreme indecency. Harriet turned down all offers made by Dr. Flint forcing him to send her to his son’s plantation.

Douglass explains an encounter he had when working under Edward Covey. Thomas Auld had sent Frederick to Covey as a penalty for eating food from out side and going out of the plantation at night. It is during this time that Covey purchased a female slave with an aim of breeding.

He employed a married man who slept with the female and gave birth to children who added to the number of his slaves. The incidence angered Frederick to a point that he had contemplated of killing Convey and himself. These sufferings led to Harriet and Frederick deciding to escape from their masters.

Effects of time, responsibilities and region on the slave’s life

Time, slave’s responsibilities and the region where a slave worked at significantly affected the quality of life spent by an individual. Moreover, it affected one’s desire to escape from the master. Both Harriet and Douglass lived during the same slave epoch. During this period, there were eminent indifferences between the Northerners and Southerners about slavery. Northerners argued that it was unethical to enslave another human being.

The Southerners claimed that slavery was critical to their lifestyle and economy. Besides, they used excerpts from the bible to support their actions. Southerners had a myth that claimed that after God had rebuked Noah’s son, he transformed him into a black and made all his offspring slaves. However, this supposition could be disapproved by questioning why mullatto were also made slaves yet they were not direct offspring of Ham. Religious masters were too cruel since they were guided by “divine providence” and to them slaves had an obligation to serve their masters (Quarles 58).

The duties assumed by each slave influenced their way of thinking. Female slaves were in most cases were responsible for household chores and errands. These chores were not harsh, and hence they did not always think of escaping. Male slaves, on the other hand, worked under harsh conditions.

Hence, they were always thinking about how they could escape to North. In some plantations, male slaves were responsible for fanning hay, a job that left them extremely exhausted. Furthermore, their masters mistreated them by beating and kicking them, and this fueled their desire to escape (Quarles 61).

The locality under which some slaves worked also affected their lives. Some slaves resided in a small township in North Carolina, which had few people, and hence almost everybody knew them. Such slaves were popular to even the whites making it hard for their masters or mistresses to mistreat them. For instance, it was hard for Dr. Flint to mistreat Harriet, especially when she turned down his sexual advances since other whites defended her. On the other hand, some masters owned numerous plantations thus appointing overseers to represent them in some plantations.

Such overseers exercised their authority beyond what they were authorized. They were extremely harsh on the slaves and treated them cruelly. Because of the size of the plantation, some events went unnoticed by the plantation owner. Some overseers went to the extent of killing some slaves for refusing to be beaten. However, after the matter reached the plantation owners, they downplayed the issue and no steps were taken against the overseers.

Most of the slaves enjoyed working in large cities than in plantations since they were treated well in the cities. Baltimore was one of the cities where masters and mistresses were known to treat their slaves well. For some slaves, living in Baltimore made them feel like a free people. Nevertheless, they could not live in these cities forever, and time would come for them to transfer into plantations while some were sold to plantation owners. In plantations, there was a lot of work and overseers were too uncouth making slaves opt to escape.


Based on Harriet and Frederick’s experience, the life of slaves entailed numerous hardships from childhood to adulthood. For those that spent most of their childhood life under the care of their parents, they had limited experience about their innate bondage to slavery. However, those born mullattos, experienced the pain of being slaves since they were separated from their parents after they are born. Being a male or a female influenced one’s life as a slave.

Female slaves experienced sexual harassment from their master. Douglass describes how other masters mistreated their female slaves. The jobs done by the slaves fueled their desire to escape. Fredericks desire to escape was fueled by mistreatments and forced labor he suffered under Covey. Conversely, Harriet attended domestic chores, a task that did not exhaust her. It was until when she suffered sexual harassment that she thought of escaping.

Works Cited

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. New York: Dover Publications, 1995. Print.

Jacobs, Harriet. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. New York: Dover Publications, 2001. Print.

Quarles, Benjamin. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Harvard: Harvard University Press, 1960. Print.

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