Friday, July 22, 2016

Frederick Douglass -- Living with Thomas Auld
 
Frederick had seen Thomas Auld only on the rare trips the shopkeeper made to Baltimore, but he had not forgotten who had sent him back to Baltimore after the distribution of the Anthony slaves.  Now, returning to the Eastern Shore in the spring of 1833, the boy hoped to find in Thomas an uncle, an older brother, perhaps a friend.  At the door of the Aulds’ St. Michaels house—it was a store and post office as well—Amanda, Thomas and Lucretia’s appealing small child, welcomed him warmly, but as he responded, her stepmother immediately instructed him to be respectful.  Rebuffed, he looked to Thomas, who saw before him not so much a winning young boy as a compelling adolescent.  Frederick could not read the austerity visible in his owner’s face as the two looked sternly at each other.
 
About Thomas Auld, Frederick wrote the following.
 
… Captain Auld was not born a slaveholder.  He had been a poor man, master only of a Bay craft.  He came into possession of all his slaves by marriage; and of all men, adopted slaveholders are the worst.  He was cruel, but cowardly.  He commanded without firmness.  In the enforcement of his rules, he was at times rigid, and at times lax.  … He found himself incapable of managing his slaves either by force, fear, or fraud.  We seldom called him “master;” we generally called him “Captain Auld,” …. Our want of reverence for him must have perplexed him greatly.  He wished to have us call him master, but lacked the firmness necessary to command us to do so.  His wife used to insist upon our calling him so, but to no purpose (Douglass 66 67).
 
Not long after Frederick’s arrival at St. Michaels, Thomas Auld attended a Methodist camp-meeting held in Talbot County and “there experienced religion.
 
… I indulged a faint hope that his conversion would lead him to emancipate his slaves, and that, if he did not do this, it would, at any rate, make him more kind and humane.  I was disappointed in both these respects.  … If it had any effect on his character, it made him to have been a much worse man after his conversion than before.  … After his conversion, he found religious sanction and support for his slaveholding cruelty.  He made the greatest pretensions of piety.  His house was the house of prayer.  He prayed morning, noon, and night.  He very soon distinguished himself among his brethren, and was soon made a class-leader and exhorter.  His activity in revivals was great, and he proved himself an instrument in the hands of the church in converting many souls.  His house was the preacher’s home.  They used to take great pleasure in coming there to put up; for while he starved us, he stuffed them (Douglass 67-68).
 
At this time in his life, Frederick “was powerfully drawn to religion.  He had been moved by the Word as he and Sophia Auld read the Bible, and when he was twelve, having already met some of the free black boys who attended the Bethel chapel of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, he began attending the new Sabbath school for black children at the Dallas Street Methodist Church.  … Frederick himself began teaching in the Sabbath school when he was only about fourteen.  Three men greatly influenced his religious commitment, which he would eventually lose as he witnessed the corrupting influence slavery had upon the church.  One was a white itinerant evangelist, a “Mr. Hanson.”  Another was Charles Johnson, a black caulker and lay preacher in the Bethel chapel.  The third was “Uncle Lawson,” a drayman for a Fells Point ropemaker.  “Despite Hugh Auld’s threats—never carried out—to whip him if he didn’t stop wasting time in the alley, Frederick began spending long hours with Lawson, an only partially literate lay preacher.  As the boy, the better reader, searched the words of the Bible, Lawson sought their spirit.  He saw huge promise in the boy, spoke to him Douglass said, of ‘what I ought to be,’ …. He gave Frederick a sense of destiny” (McFeely 38).
 
But Frederick was profoundly disappointed in [Thomas] Auld and in the Methodist church.  Although one minister, George Cookman, much respected by his black congregants, adhered to the old tenet that slavery was a sin and urged its end, the majority of his fellow clergymen did not, and they saw to it that Cookman was moved out of Talbot County (McFeely 43-44).
 
We slaves loved Mr. Cookman.  We believed him to be a good man.  We thought him instrumental in getting Mr. Samuel Harrison, a very rich slaveholder, to emancipate his slaves …. When he was at our house, we were sure to be called in to prayers.  When the others were there, we were sometimes called in and sometimes not.  Mr. Cookman took more notice of us than either of the other members.  He could not come among us without betraying his sympathy for us, and, stupid as we were, we had the sagacity to see it.
 
While I lived with my master in St. Michael’s, there was a white young man, a Mr. Wilson, who proposed to keep a Sabbath school for the instruction of such slaves as might be disposed to learn to read the New Testament.  We met but three times, when Mr. West and Mr. Fairbanks, both class-leaders, with many others, came upon us with sticks and other missiles, drove us off, and forbade us to meet again.  Thus ended our little Sabbath school in the pious town of St. Michael’s (Douglass 68).
 
Frederick had been an active participant, a teacher.  He himself had gathered some of the other young black men in the vicinity to attend.  The mob of white men asked Frederick if he “wanted to be another Nat Turner.”  Standing with them was Thomas Auld.
 
Worse still was Auld’s treatment of Frederick’s crippled cousin, Henny.  Her inability to work because of her twisted hands, as well as her bitterness, was a source of constant guilt and frustration for Thomas.  When his wife complained, he tied Henny up and whipped her, reciting “with blood-chilling blasphemy” as he did, “That servant which knew his lord’s will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes.”  So much, thought Frederick, for the benevolence that flows from Christianity.
 
It was clear that Thomas was not going to rescue him through either manumission or the creation of some special world within slavery, and Rowena [Thomas’s wife], who was so stingy that her slaves were often desperate with hunger, was determined to make an obedient, profitable slave of Frederick. She succeeded in doing precisely the opposite.  Frederick’s sister Eliza taught him the time-honored ways of slave rebellion—an instruction forgotten, a tool misplaced, a task half-performed.  In exasperation, Rowena Auld, reminding Frederick of Aunty Katy, tried to starve the two into submission.  Their response was to steal (McFeely 43-44).
 
… We were therefore reduced to the wretched necessity of living at the expense of our neighbors.  This we did by begging and stealing, whichever came handy in the time of need, the one being considered as legitimate as the other
 (Douglass 66)..
 
My master … found me unsuitable to his purpose.  My city life, he said, had had a very pernicious effect upon me.  It had almost ruined me for every good purpose.  … One of my greatest faults was that of letting his horse run away, and go down to his father-in-law’s farm, which was about five miles from St. Michael’s.  I would then have to go after it.  My reason for this kind of carelessness, or carefulness, was, that I could always get something to eat when I went there.  Master William Hamilton, my master’s father-in-law, always gave his slaves enough to eat.  I never left there hungry, no matter how great the need of my speedy return.  Master Thomas at length said he would stand it no longer.  I had lived with him nine months, during which time he had given me a number of severe whippings, all to no good purpose.  He resolved to put me out, as he said, to be broken; and, for this purpose, he let me for one year to a man named Edward Covey (Douglass 69-70).
 
It would be one of the most important years of Frederick Douglass’s life.
 
 
Works Cited:
 
Douglass, Frederick.  Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.  New York, Penguin Books USA inc., 1968.  Print.
 
McFeely, William S.  Frederick Douglass.  New York, W. W. Norton & Company, 1991.  Print.