Disenfranchisement in Frederick Douglass’ Narrative

The literary pieces addressing the times of the American Civil War bear significant information about the lives of African American population and the struggles they had to endure. Several works present a detailed account of black American slaves, including the actions perpetrated by their white masters in order to deprive them of civil rights. The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is one such writing, which encompasses the events in the life of Frederick Douglass, a former slave. Practices described by the author allow the audience to understand how slave owners attempted to disenfranchise African American individuals and sabotage their freedom, and the ability to express themselves and fight for their birthright. In his autobiography, Frederick Douglass thoroughly describes disenfranchisement techniques used against black American slaves, namely physical abuse, prohibition of literacy studies, and insufficient judicial involvement.

The mistreatment of African American population was one of the well-known methods of power deprivation. Manifestations of physical violence were prevalent during the historical period described, as they were extremely efficient in forcing the individuals to comply with existing orders. For example, Douglass discusses a farm overseer: “From the rising till the going down of the sun, he was cursing, raving, cutting, and slashing among the slaves of the field in the most frightful manner” (Douglass, 1999, p. 11). Demonstrations of brutal force allowed the overseers and masters to avoid misbehavior, displays of disagreement, and escape attempts, as well as hindered the workers’ desires to educate themselves.

An essential part of disenfranchisement practices consisted of restricting the enslaved individuals from receiving any kind of education. Most African Americans employed at plantations and cities were forbidden from learning to read and write, and teaching attempts were also considered illegal. Douglass presents in detail the words of his master regarding learning processes, where the owner states that “Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world” (Douglass, 1999, p. 33). He further explains that: “If you teach [Douglas] how to read, there would be no keeping him. He would at once become unmanageable and of no value to his master” (Douglass, 1999, p. 33). This quote perfectly summarizes the approach of slave owners in connection to rights deprivation, as forbidding the individual to acquire education and academic skills significantly decreases the levels of disobedience and the possibility of revolting.

Another practical strategy for African American population’s disempowerment was the lack of judicial involvement. The American justice system often disregarded instances of severe human rights violations toward black slaves, permitting the owners to continue their inhumane practices. Douglass reports how a black girl was horridly murdered by her master, but the offender never faced any consequences: “There was a warrant issued for her arrest, but it was never served” (Douglass, 1999, p. 25). The author concludes that “She scaped not only punishment but even the pain of being arraigned before a court” (Douglass, 1999, p. 25). It is evident that even extraordinarily cruel and unjustified behavior towards African American community members was ignored by the judicial system, with the authorities openly denying the affected individuals their human rights.

To conclude, three disenfranchisement methods utilized against the African American population in Frederick Douglass’ autobiography were thoroughly discussed in this paper. Apart from well-recognized physical abuse practices, slave owners resorted to additional means of maintaining authority over their workers, implementing various power deprivation strategies. Prohibitions to acquiring simple education and the absence of governmental support were prominent approaches to controlling the slave population, stripping them of their human rights, and enforcing compliance. Douglass’ narrative is remarkably educational for various societies, as it directly explains the atrocious nature of slave ownership and the necessity to provide individuals with inherent human privileges irrespective of their race, ethnicity, or birth.


Douglass, F. (1999). Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American slave. The University of North Carolina.

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