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The Circumstances that Prompt Masters to Whip Slaves
Digital History ID 498

Author:   Frederick Douglass

Annotation: Perhaps the nineteenth century's staunchest advocate of equal rights, Frederick Douglass was born into slavery on Maryland's eastern shore in 1818, the son of a slave woman and an unknown white man. While toiling as a ship's caulker, he taught himself to read. After he escaped from slavery at the age of 1820, he became the abolitionist movement's most effective orator and published an influential anti- slavery newspaper, The North Star. In this excerpt from one of his three autobiographies, he describes the circumstances that prompted slaveowners to whip slaves.

Document: A mere look, word, or motion, -- a mistake, accident, or want of power, -- are all matters for which a slave may be whipped at any time. Does a slave look dissatisfied? It is said, he has the devil in him, and it must be whipped out. Does he speak loudly when spoken to by his master? Then he is getting high- minded, and should be taken down a button- hole lower. Does he forget to pull off his hat at the approach of a white person? Then he is wanting in reverence, and should be whipped for it. Does he ever venture to vindicate his conduct, when censured for it? Then he is guilty of impudence,- - one of the greatest crimes of which a slave can be guilty. Does he ever venture to suggest a different mode of doing things from that pointed out by his master? He is indeed presumptuous, and getting above himself....

Source: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (3rd. English ed., Leeds, 1846) .

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