Economics and Slavery in Frederick Douglass’ Narrative


Slavery and economics always go hand-in-hand. The state of currency, machinery, and capital which form the basis of economics determine the need of society in slavery as an economic force. Once more efficient means of them are covered, slavery loses its usefulness. Numerous historical examples show that slavery as a social and economic institution rises and falls by economic rather than political events.

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Numerous attempts were made by different writers to depict the economical basis of slavery in their works. Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (first published in 1845) is considered to be one of the most successful ones. This masterpiece of the author’s autobiography and documentation of American slavery along with numerous themes covered (like ignorance as a tool of slavery, knowledge as a means to become free, slavery and its damaging effect on slaveholders, slaveholding as a perversion of Christianity) reveals how economics affects concepts of race and human personhood.

The economical basis of slavery

The main problem that the work is concerned with is the treatment of slaves as property. Throughout the text, the author emphasizes the absurdness of the fact that slaves are treated by their owners as property. Slaves are human beings and they cannot be someone’s possession, instead, the book shows how frequently slaves are passed between their owners, irrespective of which families they originate from. Slaveholders are interested in their slaves only in terms of their productivity. They value slaves according to the extent they improve their economic situation, slaves’ productive labor is the main point of their owners’ concern. In exchange for the hard work of their slaves, the slaveholders treat them not better than livestock; the slaves are mere animals for them. The author’s message is that such a treatment of humans as objects or animals to satisfy one’s economic interests is cruel and absurd.

As far as the problem of economics in the work is concerned, we should admit that the author emphasizes the difference between slavery in the city and the rural area. Douglass’s narrative moves from the rural Eastern Shore of Maryland to the city of Baltimore. The latter is considered to be a site of relative freedom for the slaves. The thing is that freedom comes from the standards of decency that dominate in the non-slaveholding segment of the urban population of Baltimore. Normally, these standards prevented slaveholders from being extremely cruel to their property. Thus, the economics of the city influenced moral values set by those who were not slaveholders yet. Moreover, the city was a place that offered more opportunities to slaves. There they could see the whites who opposed slavery, whereas in the countryside people were strictly divided into slaves and slaveholders. In rural areas, slaves felt happy when having the least amount of freedom and mobility.

Speaking about Baltimore, we should also admit that the narrator faced strained race relations there as well. The essence of the problem was in the fact that the white and the black people worked together in the trade industry. But the whites became more and more worried because of the constantly increasing number of free blacks that could have taken their jobs. Douglass often faces intimidation from the whites he works with, and, as a result, he is forced to switch shipyards. Becoming an apprentice Douglass learns the trade of caulking and soon gets the first feeling of having money, still, he always turns over all the wages to Hugh Auld.

The story of slavery told by the former slave is full of the description of the luxury in which slaveholders lived: carriages, horses, stables, and the renowned garden owned by Colonel Lloyd serve as a constant reminder of how negatively wealth can affect its owners. For example, the garden mentioned was so big and so carefully taken care of that five men had to maintain it. The garden became a trap for slaves; they could not resist the overwhelming desire to steal the fruits from it and we’re constantly caught and punished severely by the owners of the garden.

The sixth chapter of the work shows how people’s moral values change as their property enlarges, especially it is true when they become slaveholders. At first, Douglass’s new owner, Mrs. Auld, appears to be a kind woman because she had never had slaves before. In her positive attitude to Douglass, she goes so far as to start educating him. Still, Douglass does not believe in the kindness of this woman, foreseeing that one day it will be changed because she owns a slave. He appears to be correct in his prognosis. Mrs. Auld’s husband explains to her that

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If you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell. A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master–to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world. Now,” said he, “if you teach that nigger (speaking of myself) how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy (Douglass VI).

Her attitude to the slave changes dramatically, she does not just stop teaching Douglass to read and to write, she starts preventing him from attempting to do it himself.

One more example of the influence of economics on slavery is suggested in the eleventh chapter when the author talks of the mechanisms that help slaves to escape. Douglass criticizes those who publish details of slave escapes through routes like the Underground Railroad. Thus, we observe that the development of economics was both beneficial for slaveholders and slaves.


From the mentioned above we conclude that Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave suggests the author’s view on the way economics affects slavery. This viable institution, as shown by the author, existed in close connection with economic development and it was in people’s hands to control this process so that the lech for power did not allow them to forget about their human origin. We believe that the works like the one we have discussed approached greatly the day of putting an end to slavery.


Douglass, F. (1997). Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, An American slave.

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