Historiography Essay on Slavery
Frederick Douglass was born a slave on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. As a boy, Douglass learned to read and write while working as a house servant in Baltimore. In 1838, he made his way to freedom and went to New York City, where he soon married a free black woman named Anna Murray. After escaping from slavery, Frederick Douglass became a leader of the abolitionist movement, garnering praise for his incredible skills as an orator. His great speaking skills led him to write several autobiographies, his first one being Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. After returning from a successful speaking tour in Europe, Douglass worked on his antislavery newspaper, The North Star. During the Civil War, Douglass worked as a recruiter of African American troops for the Union Army, and he held several governmental appointments after the war. Douglass was a believer in the equality of all people, whether black, female, Native American, or recent immigrant groups. He actively supported women’s suffrage and was the first African American nominated for vice president in the Equal Rights Party. In 1895, Douglass died at his home in Washington, D.C (Douglass, 229). Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is a gripping autobiography that reveals the true nature of the black experience in slavery. In one part of the autobiography, Douglass disobeys Mr. Covey’s orders and while attempting to punish Douglass, a fight between the two ensues. Mr. Covey, known for being a tough, “first-rate overseer,” (Douglass, 291) backs down when he realizes that Douglass intends to resist him. Douglass’s small win is important to himself, as resisting Mr. Covey gives him a taste of independence, hope, and self confidence which inspires him to escape from slavery. There was a great slave revival during the ages of the cotton kingdom. In the South, most slaves lived in large plantations where a “big house” was enclosed by the plantations (Conlin, 313). During the antebellum period, the era before the Civil War, the debate over slave culture began. During this time, Historians sought to understand the relationship between slaves and their masters and the way the slave system of labor operated. Historians argued whether slavery was a benefactor or detriment to the United States. The works of three influential historians, Phillips, Stampp, and Genovese, have helped shape much of the modern historiographical argument about slavery. Douglass’s fight with Mr. Covey rekindles his desire for freedom, which supports Stampp’s argument, and undermines Phillips’s and Genovese’s argument.
Mr. Covey’s harsh treatment toward Douglass was very common in the South, which undermines Phillips’s argument in “Plantation Labor” where Phillips states that masters were usually kind and benevolent to their slaves and there were only exceptional cases where masters were cruel. According to Phillips, “severity was clearly the exception” (Phillips, 306) where “kindliness” (Phillips, 306) was usually the rule in a plantation. This directly contrasts with Douglass’s depiction of the ruthless Mr. Covey who does not hesitate to “savage[ly] kick” (Douglass 286) the feeble Douglass in his side. Phillips would account for Mr. Covey’s behavior as an exception because even the respected Master Thomas claims that Mr. Covey is a “good man” (Douglas, 287), despite Douglass’s bloody appearance caused by Mr. Covey’s abuse. In fact, most of Phillips’s quotes that help prove his argument are biased, as he quotes from mostly slave owners. This situation undermines Phillip’s argument because Mr. Covey frequently punishes his slaves although Phillips says that punishment is and usually not efficient or productive. Phillips claims that the “theory of rigid coercion and complete exploitation” (Phillips, 293) was strange to the bulk of slave owners and that slaves must be impelled more by “loyalty, pride and the prospect of reward”...
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