Inquiry into Frederick Douglass

Why did Mr. Plummer and Mr. Severe find personal pleasure in punishing slaves?

Mr. Plummer’s excessive cruelty appears to be fueled by internal problems of his own. On page 4, Douglass describes him as a “miserable drunkard, a profane swearer, and a savage monster.. Because of his “miserable” state, he resorts to punishing slaves as a means to gain pleasure. Clearly, he is sadistic, but there is not much else in the text to support any other conclusions. On page 11, Douglass introduces another overseer, Mr. Severe, who also finds pleasure in the suffering of others. Like Mr. Plummer, he is also described as a “profane swearer” (12). Again, there is not much evidence that explains why he finds pleasure in his actions.

Fortunately, Mr. Hopkins and his replacement give insight into this question. Mr. Hopkins was not excessively cruel to slaves. On page 23, he is replaced by Mr. Gore, and Douglass speculated that he “lacked the necessary severity”. Perhaps, people with natural sadistic tendencies just happen to be the perfect people for the job of punishing slaves. It is also possible that, in reality, Mr. Plummer and Mr. Severe were not actually being cruel just for their own pleasure and had a real purpose that Frederick Douglass just didn’t realize as a child. Mr. Severe could have just been cruel to strike fear into the hearts of slaves, and this could have led to Douglass believing he was doing it for pleasure. This idea is supported by the fact that in later cases of cruelty in the book, masters and overseers had practical reasons to harshly punish slaves, like to keep them subordinate and manageable.

I do not believe my answer to the question alone gave me much insight into this text, largely due to the flawed nature of the question itself. I had tried to change the question, but nothing I thought of could really make it any better without it becoming an unrelated question. However, the process of answering the question itself was helpful in my understanding of the text. Firstly, simply rereading the text again helped me understand it better than I had before. Secondly, my train of thought has led me to better understand Douglass’s narration and its characteristics.

Why did Douglass call Mr. Covey “poor” three times on pages 64 and 65?

The original question was “Why did Douglass call Mr. Covey a “poor man” on page 65?”. This question was revised because, during the process of answering the original question, a third usage of the word “poor” was found. Besides a dictionary definition, this question does not require any additional sources, and only looking deeper into the text itself is needed. The word “poor” appears three times on pages 64 and 65. The word is first used on page 64 when Douglass uses the definition “less than adequate” to call Mr. Covey a “poor singer”. In the same sentence, Douglass implies that he was a better singer, as Mr. Covey asked for him to sing for him.  Earlier in the book, Douglass describes the manner in which slaves sang songs of remorse to cope with their current situation. This could possibly suggest that perhaps Douglass had some understanding or quality, that a white man like Mr. Covey could never understand.

The second usage seems to use the definition “exciting pity.” This can be inferred because it was used as an exclamation, and Douglass was talking about Mr. Covey’s deceit, which Douglass believes to be a deplorable quality. This raises the question of why would he show pity for one who had treated him like an animal? He seems to pity Mr. Covey because Covey was deceived himself that he was a “sincere worshipper of the highest God”. In this, Douglass suggests that a real connection to God and actual adherence to Christian values is something that is not inherently wrong and that he admires, but Mr. Covey was unable to achieve that.

The third usage was used in the sense of  “lacking material possessions”. This is obvious, as, in the same sentence, Douglass says that “he was just starting in life” and could only afford to purchase a single slave. Through this, Douglass seems to understand that not all plantation owners were very rich, and also reveals this fact about Southern society to the North, which, at the time, was still very much societally separated from the South.

Douglass uses the same word three times in the span of two pages, using a completely different definition each time. While one possibility is that there was no intention, or that he just wanted to use simple, easy-to-understand words, another interpretation is that Douglass is utilizing a form of wordplay. Answering this question definitely deepened my understanding of the text. When reading this passage for the first time, I did not pay close attention to the word usage, and completely missed it. I only comprehended the literal meaning of Douglass’s words. I’m happy that I chose to look deeper into the text, to find any deeper meaning that I wouldn’t have found otherwise.

Did the complete truth of Douglass’s escape ever become revealed to the public?

The original questions I had were “Does/Did anybody know all the details of how he escaped?”, “Did he tell anybody them?”, and “Did the secrets get told to the world at any point when it would have been appropriate?” The questions above were revised to be condensed into a single, more answerable question. After the Civil War had ended, Frederick Douglass revealed the secrets of how he escaped in a magazine known as The Century Illustrated Magazine in November of 1881. In this publication, he starts off by restating the reasons why he had not told everything in his first narrative, being that he did not want to prevent the escape of others by letting their masters know how he escaped, and he did not want people who had aided his escape to be punished for doing the correct thing. He said that he was able to tell his story in the magazine at that time because slavery had since then been abolished. All of his reasoning begins to make more sense once he tells his story.

Free people of color needed to carry with them free papers, which had their names and physical descriptors. During this time period, many escaped by using the papers of a freeman, risking both of their liberties and lives. Frederick only escaped with the help of a free American sailor and his sailor’s protection, and a Baltimore hackman’s, whose name he reveals. Though the physical description on the card did not match Douglass at all, he was able to bluff his way past a train conductor, who was satisfied at the mere glance at the official document.

With these crucial pieces of information, it makes even more sense why Douglass could not reveal why. If he did, train conductors would likely have been more thorough in their searching, and also his free friends would have been punished. This answer not only deepens my understanding and appreciation of the text but also my understanding and appreciation of the author. I now know for sure why Douglass did not fully reveal his escape methods. I also understand the other obstacles that Douglass had to go through to achieve freedom. This new information also fills a narrative gap, making my understanding of his story more complete and cohesive.

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