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Are We Citizens or Are We Slaves? (Frederick Douglass)

Updated on March 19, 2017

Jonathan Swift once said, “For in reason, all government without the consent of the governed is the very definition of slavery.” This quote shows the real-world perspective that a lot of people have of the government. Citizens are not represented well in the United States government; especially in the executive branch, which ratifies the legislature. Without the consent of the governed in the main operating branch, the government is run in the favor of the delegates that choose the president, who in some cases do have contradicting opinions with their constituents as seen in the election of 2000 with Al Gore winning the popular vote, but George Bush winning the electoral college votes. In this manner, the citizens are not always happy with the government, just like slaves were not always happy with their owners. Frederick Douglass shows this in the autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Thus, the life of a slave is like the life under the United States government.

The first comparison between slaves and citizens is that slaves were forced to do chores for their masters, which is like citizens paying taxes to the government. The slaves were punished when they did not fulfill their duties; just like citizens when they do not pay their taxes. Douglass shows this when he explains the consequences for a slave not attending his chores: “If a slave was convicted of any high misdemeanor, became unmanageable, or evinced a determination to run away, he was brought immediately here, severely whipped, put on board the sloop, carried to Baltimore, and sold to Austin Woolfolk, or some other slave-trader, as a warning to all the other slaves,” (Douglass 6). Similarly, if a citizen does not pay his taxes the Internal Revenue Service places penalties on the citizen until he proceeds to do so. These two punishments only vary in cruelty, are guaranteed.

Douglass also talks about how slaves get their monthly income and food from their owners. The slaves had to rely on their masters to live and in return they did their master’s chores. Douglass shows by saying, “the slaves of all the other farms received their monthly allowance of food, and their yearly clothing,” (Douglass 6). This compares to citizens in that, at the beginning of every new year, they file their taxes and in return they get back money that the government owes them. This situation is similar to that of the slaves’s because they are getting back their money that is owed to them. The slaves and the citizens both appreciate this because they are rightfully receiving the money that is owed to them from their superiors.

Furthermore, the slaves received national holidays to spend some time on their own with family and friends without worrying about work. They had the chance to do a lot of things a free man could do such as drink alcohol. But, the owners gave them whatever they wanted and after the national holidays the slaves had enough and were looking forward to work. For example, during holidays, if the slave loved alcohol and was willing to steal some and the owner caught him stealing, he would give the slave more alcohol and force the slave to drink it all. Douglass explains the circumstances of national holidays: “The days between Christmas and New Year’s day are allowed as holidays; and, accordingly, we were not required to perform any labor more than to feed and take care of the stock,” (Douglass 44). Douglass shows that many slaves did not like the holidays because of the owners’s behavior towards them by saying that, “The holidays are part and parcel of the gross fraud, wrong, and inhumanity of slavery,” (Douglass 44). This relates to citizens because they get national holidays and are not required to work during those holidays. The citizens start to enjoy their holidays and before they know it, they have to go back to work again. This is also what the slaves face.

Also, like citizens, slaves get into conflict with other slaves from different slave owners. The slaves under one owner argue against other slaves that their owner is better than the other. Douglass demonstrates this when he explains the rivalry between slaves of different masters: “Colonel Lloyd’s slaves contending that he was the richest, and Mr. Jepson’s slaves that he was the smartest, and most of a man. Colonel Lloyd’s slaves would boast his ability to buy and sell Jacob Jepson. Mr. Jepson’s slaves would boast his ability to whip Colonel Lloyd,” (Douglass 12). This is just like citizens after September 11th. American citizens started to racially profile American Muslims and this ended up creating hatred on both sides. The two governments did not feel the same way towards each other after that, but they did try to stop the racial profiling. The slaves and citizens are influenced by their owners and government so much that despite what they do to the citizens and the slaves, they still back up the owners and the government.

Finally, slaves cannot stop thinking about becoming free men. The slaves did anything they could in their power to become free. A great example of this was the Underground Railroad. Abolitionists aided this railroad, but just as Douglass had escaped, it was the slave’s determination that allowed this railroad to be successful. Douglass opens up his thoughts about this when he said, “The more I read, the more I was led to abhor and detest my enslavers. I could regard them in no other light than a band of successful robbers, who had left their homes, and gone to Africa, and stolen us from our homes, and in a strange land reduced us to slavery,” (Douglass 24). The diction he uses here shows how much he hates white men for doing this to African Americans. This parallels citizens in that they will do anything to stop paying taxes.

Throughout the book, Frederick Douglass consistently talks about the nature of the slaves in slavery and the conditions that they lived under. Those of citizens closely parallel these conditions. The government dictates the citizens to do many things, just as the owners did to the slaves. After looking at the conditions of both the slaves and citizens, the life of a slave is like the life of a citizen. Regardless of their individual concerns, they have to do whatever the government or the owner dictates. Douglass’s personal life and escape is also paralleled to the citizen’s lives. He was forced to work for his owners in his beginning years. He as well was limited in his lifestyle by what clothes and food he could get from his owners. And throughout his escape, he could not stop thinking about his new life as a free man. Douglass, in his later years, is all for anti-slavery and advocates freedom for the rest of the slaves who do not have the chance he had to escape.


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