Frederick Douglass -- Spirit of Rebellion Renewed
There I was immediately set to calking, and very soon learned the art of using my mallet and irons. In the course of one year from the time I left Mr. Gardiner’s, I was able to command the highest wages given to the most experienced calkers. I was now of some importance to my master. I was bringing him from six to seven dollars per seek. I sometimes brought him nine dollars per week: my wages were a dollar and a half a day. After learning how to calk, I sought my own employment, made my own contracts, and collected the money which I earned. … When I could get no calking to do, I did nothing. During these leisure times, those old notions about freedom would steal over me again. … I have observed this in my experience of slavery,--that whenever my condition was improved, instead of this increasing my contentment, it only increased my desire to be free, and set me to thinking of plans to gain my freedom. …
… I was now getting … one dollar and fifty cents per day. I contracted for it; I earned it; it was paid to me; it was rightfully my own; yet, upon each returning Saturday night, I was compelled to deliver every cent of that money to Master Hugh. And why? Not because he earned it,--not because he had any hand in earning it,--not because I owed it to him,--nor because he possessed the slightest shadow of a right to it; but solely because he had the power to compel me to give it up (Douglass 103, 104).
Freed from the daily stress of combating hostile white carpenters and apprentices,
could now refocus his emotions. No
longer in danger of imminent harm, he could now reflect and plan. His reawakened spirit of rebellion demanded
that he find a way to circumvent the obligations forced upon him by his slave
master. It he could retain some of the
money he gave to Hugh Auld each week, eventually, he decided, he would
accumulate enough with which to make his final escape. Frederick
In the early spring of 1838, Thomas Auld was in
Baltimore buying goods
for his store, and
appealed to him for the right to not only hire himself out but keep some of his
pay, in return for providing his own room and board. This system was widely practiced in Frederick . … By hiring themselves out and taking
responsibility for their own keep, slaves obtained release from a master’s
daily discipline. The arrangement was
advantageous to masters because they continued to receive some income, but no
longer had to provide shelter and food to slaves who were of little use to a
changing rural economy (McFeely 64). Baltimore
He unhesitatingly refused my request, and told me this was another stratagem by which to escape. He told me I could go nowhere but that he could get me; and that, in the event of my running away, he should spare no pains in his efforts to catch me. He exhorted me to content myself, and be obedient. He told me, if I would be happy, I must lay out no plans for the future. He said, if I behaved myself properly, he would take care of me. Indeed, he advised me to complete thoughtlessness of the future, and taught me to depend soley upon him for happiness. He seemed to see fully the pressing necessity of setting aside my intellectual nature. …
About two months after this, I applied to Master Hugh for the privilege of hiring my time. … He, too, at first, seemed disposed to refuse; but, after some reflection, he granted me the privilege, and proposed the following terms: I was to be allowed all my time, make all contracts with those for whom I worked, and find my own employment; and, in return for this liberty, I was to pay him three dollars at the end of each week; find myself in calking tools, and in board and clothing. My board [which Hugh Auld had been paying
’s landlord] was two dollars and a
half per week. This, with the wear and
tear of clothing and calking tools, made my regular expenses about six dollars
per week. This amount I was compelled to
make up, or relinquish the privilege of hiring my time. Rain or shine, work or no work, at the end of
each week the money must be forthcoming, or I must give up my privilege. This arrangement … was decidedly in my
master’s favor. It relieved him of all
need of looking after me. His money was
sure. He received all the benefits of
slaveholding without its evils; while I endured all the evils of a slave, and
suffered all the care and anxiety of a freeman.
I found it a hard bargain. … I
bent myself to the work of making money.
I was ready to work at night as well as day, and by the most untiring
perseverance and industry, I made enough to meet my expenses, and lay up a
little money every week (Douglass 107-108). Frederick
Douglass never reported what his night work or non-shipyard work may have been. Only the snippets of rumor … survive to suggest that he tried being a domestic servant. Later gossip had it that recalling Wye House and how things in a fine house were done, the articulate, handsome, light-skinned young man hired himself out as a butler in the home of John Merryman, a stockbroker, at
48 Calvert Street. One of his tasks was said to have been to
conduct a Merryman child to a school described as the E. M. P. Wells School;
Mrs. Elizabeth Wells, on Caroline Street, conducted such a school.
Accompany his charge, Frederick Bailey—the story is that he was using the name “Edward” at the time, as if he did not want to accept this way of life as really his—may have gotten to know the teachers at the school. It was possibly from one of them that he learned to play the violin. One person whom we know encouraged him as he became a competent amateur violinist was Anna Murray, a free black woman who was working on
Frederick Douglass wrote tantalizingly little about his bride—how they met, what she was like. …
Anna Murray, five years Frederick’s senior, was also a child of the
Shore. She was born,
probably in 1813, on the far side of Betsy Bailey’s Tuckahoe Creek, near the
town of Denton, in . … Reportedly, Anna’s parents were Mary and
Bambarra Murray, who were manumitted just a month before her birth. Anna was the eighth of twelve children. At seventeen, she was in domestic service in Caroline County with a family
named Montell; later she worked for the Wellses for several years. It was in service that she became the adept
housekeeper which, proudly, she was to be for the rest of her life (McFeely
65, 66-67). Baltimore
Despite his heavy work schedule,
found enough time to court Anna and
to enjoy the friendship of a group of free black caulkers at Fells Point. He and they banded together and were members
of the East Baltimore Improvement Society. Frederick
In this organization, typical of many formed in black urban communities—North and South—in the effort to achieve both the respectability and the true intellectual challenge deprived them by white society, the ambitious young men engaged in formal debates. Frederick found his intellect stretched, and talking with the free caulkers—he was the club’s only slave—he could learn what it was like to live as they did or, more cautiously, he could explore the matter of escaping. “I owe much to the society of these young men,” he wrote (McFeely 68).
There was, of course, an alternative to escape, a manner of living that would have been an improvement upon how he presently lived.
With Anna securely placed as a domestic servant and putting some money aside out of meager wages, and with Frederick pocketing as much as six dollars a week after paying Hugh Auld, the two should have been able to set up a modest but satisfactory household. Frederick would, for a time at least, have remained a slave, but his children, as the offspring of a free woman, would have been free. … Articulate and, as was important now that he was an adult, economically independent, Frederick Bailey, with his bride, could look forward to fitting into respectable black
very well indeed (McFeely 68-69). Baltimore
Whether or not
seriously considered adopting this way of living we do not know. An oversight on his part in his relationship
with Hugh Auld, however, with sudden unexpectedness, destroyed its possibility
and made absolutely essential his need to escape bondage. Frederick
of the Life of Frederick Douglass.
New York, Penguin Books USA inc., 1968.
McFeely, William S. Frederick Douglass.
, W. W. Norton & Company, 1991. Print. New