The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln


By John Stauffer

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Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln were the preeminent self-made men of their time. In this masterful dual biography, award-winning Harvard University scholar John Stauffer describes the transformations in the lives of these two giants during a major shift in cultural history, when men rejected the status quo and embraced new ideals of personal liberty. As Douglass and Lincoln reinvented themselves and ultimately became friends, they transformed America.

Lincoln was born dirt poor, had less than one year of formal schooling, and became the nation’s greatest president. Douglass spent the first twenty years of his life as a slave, had no formal schooling-in fact, his masters forbade him to read or write-and became one of the nation’s greatest writers and activists, as well as a spellbinding orator and messenger of audacious hope, the pioneer who blazed the path traveled by future African-American leaders.

At a time when most whites would not let a black man cross their threshold, Lincoln invited Douglass into the White House. Lincoln recognized that he needed Douglass to help him destroy the Confederacy and preserve the Union; Douglass realized that Lincoln’s shrewd sense of public opinion would serve his own goal of freeing the nation’s blacks. Their relationship shifted in response to the country’s debate over slavery, abolition, and emancipation.

Both were ambitious men. They had great faith in the moral and technological progress of their nation. And they were not always consistent in their views. John Stauffer describes their personal and political struggles with a keen understanding of the dilemmas Douglass and Lincoln confronted and the social context in which they occurred. What emerges is a brilliant portrait of how two of America’s greatest leaders lived.


Copyright © 2008 by John Stauffer

All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.


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First eBook Edition: November 2008

ISBN: 978-0-446-54300-2


Privileged Slave and Poor White Trash

The boy was sprung to manhood: in the wilds

Of fiery climes he made himself a home,

And his soul drank their sunbeams.

—LORD BYRON, "The Dream" (1816)

ON NEW YEAR'S DAY 1834, a rebellious fifteen-year-old boy walked seven miles to a poor wheat farm in Talbot County on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. As he made his way across a rutted dirt road on a peninsula shaped like a three-taloned claw, he felt weary and despondent. The biting January wind echoed the bleak winter in his soul, and he likened himself to a fish in a net that had been "allowed to play for a time" but was now being "drawn rapidly to the shore, secured at all points."1

Frederick was about to begin life as a fieldhand, the most common and brutal form of slavery in the United States. He was strong and fit and about six feet tall but knew nothing about fieldwork. He considered himself a city boy and still wore his soft cotton clothes from Baltimore, now thin and torn from overuse, rather than the coarse tow-linen shirt and pants of a fieldhand. As he approached the wheat farm he felt like a green country boy entering "the bewildering scenes" of a city for the first time.2

His initiation into fieldwork was a baptism of blood. On the third day of work his new master, Edward Covey, ordered him to hitch a wagon to a pair of oxen and retrieve a load of wood from the forest. It seemed like a simple enough task, but he had never been around oxen before. They were virtually untamed, and the instructions he was given for controlling them—"woa," "back," "gee," and "hither," Buck is the "in ox," Darby the "out ox"—all sounded like Greek to him.3 No sooner had he started when Buck and Darby ran off at full tilt for the woods, trampling over saplings, plunging into the underbrush, severing the wagon from its chassis, and finally coming to a halt against a stout tree. It took him hours to reconnect the wagon and untangle the oxen. Then he filled the wagon with a heavy load to prevent Buck and Darby from running off again and headed back to the farmhouse. But he had no idea how strong oxen were. As he neared the gate they started off again, charging like bulls, demolishing both wagon and gate and almost crushing him.

Frederick tried to explain what had happened, but Mr. Covey was not interested in explanations. He ordered him back into the woods, where Frederick watched as he cut three large shoots from a gum tree, a strong, tacky wood, and then expertly shaved off the bark and knotted the ends. Then he ordered the boy to take off his clothes. When Frederick refused he fell into a rage, rushing at him with the savagery of a wolf. He tore off Frederick's clothes and laid on the switches, one at a time, until he wore them out on the boy's back. "Under his heavy blows, blood flowed freely and wales were left on my back as large as my little finger," Frederick remembered.4

It was the cruelest beating of his life. He began to sympathize with the oxen, even though they had prompted the flogging. They were "the poor man's slave," according to a tradition that went back to Aristotle: "they were property, so was I; they were to be broken, so was I," Frederick concluded. "Break and be broken—such is life."5 He too was a beast of burden and the sport of the slave gods. Little did he know that this baptism of blood would set him on the path to freedom. One day he would rip off his shirt and bare his scarred back to shocked white audiences, revealing the "indisputable proof" that he had experienced the "living hell" of slavery.6 But today he was just one more slave getting whipped.

Until that moment Frederick had been a privileged slave. His first six years resembled those of a poor white boy; he lived in a log cabin with his grandmother at the edge of a small creek called Tuckahoe (pronounced "took-a-hoe") in Talbot County, where he ran wild, rarely saw whites, and was "freed from all restraint."7 About the only thing that distinguished him from a poor white child was that he didn't know when his birthday was (February 1818, according to a slave inventory by Frederick's owner).8

His first owner, Aaron Anthony, was a Southern version of the self-made man. An orphaned son of an illiterate tenant farmer, Anthony became a ship captain and then chief overseer of the Edward Lloyd family, a Maryland dynasty. Edward Lloyd V, Anthony's employer, was one of the wealthiest men in the country, owning thirteen farms and five hundred slaves spread across ten thousand acres. Anthony had ascended to the master class by the time Frederick was born; he owned two hundred acres and some thirty slaves. On such an estate, planters could afford to let their slave children run wild under the care of an older slave woman until they were old enough to be put to work.9

Frederick's first job was as a "domestic," where he worked around the Big House and its gardens and stables. It was one of the most coveted positions in the plantation hierarchy. After a few years he received an even better position; he was sent to Baltimore to be the playmate of a white boy, a relative of Anthony's. In Baltimore, he dressed well, ate well, and even learned to read. Until arriving on the wheat farm, he had rarely been whipped, could boast of having had only three owners, all in the same family, and he had never seen a slave auction. This was rare indeed for a Chesapeake slave: it was far more common to be sold like so many bales of cotton into the high-growth markets of Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, where the demand for slaves seemed insatiable.10

Even his name had the ring of privilege: Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey.11 The surname, unusual among slaves, dated back to the eighteenth century, and his two middle names reflected the tradition of great republican leaders.12 His mother, Harriet Bailey, a proud literate woman, had high hopes for her son, though Frederick barely knew her, for she worked as a fieldhand on a plantation twelve miles away and died when he was about seven.13 There were numerous rumors that Harriet was part Indian, and Frederick hinted as much in his exotic description of her: "remarkably sedate and dignified," she looked "Hindoo" (an Indian from India), Hindus being thought of at the time as close racial kin of Native Americans.14 As an adult he was sometimes asked "whether I was not part Indian as well as African and Caucasian?" And in one speech to Native Americans he announced, "I have been known as a Negro, but I wish to be known here and now as Indian."15

But aside from this rhetorical gesture, Frederick always publicly identified himself as black. Social customs at the time prevented people from declaring themselves black one day and Native American the next, or from self-identifying as both black and Indian. Race was defined by social custom and considered permanent. Moreover, Indians and blacks tended to distance themselves from each other: most Indians declared that they would die before submitting to bondage, and most blacks assumed that Indians were dying out, unable to live in "civilization." Without explicitly acknowledging any Indian ancestry, Frederick expressed pride in his mother and her genealogy, and he frequently said that most of what he inherited came from her.16

He never knew who his father was, but there had been whispers among the slaves that it was Aaron Anthony. Not only had Anthony never whipped him; he had acted "almost fatherly" toward the young boy, "gently leading me by the hand," "patting me on the head, speaking to me in soft caressing tones, and calling me his 'little Indian boy.' "17 As Frederick knew, Anthony had made advances on slave women and had beaten them when they spurned him.

Such a paternity would help explain Frederick's privileged status. After Anthony died, Frederick became the property of his daughter Lucretia. She died in 1827, and since then he had been owned by Thomas Auld, Lucretia's husband. Significantly, Anthony and Lucretia, possibly his father and half sister, had both treated him with care and affection.18

The older, famous Frederick Douglass never admitted that he was a privileged slave. To him the phrase was a virtual contradiction in terms, for it implied that a master could be humane, whereas Douglass sought to convince his readers that slavery was everywhere evil and that even "good masters" were beasts who relied on torture to maintain the system. The closest he came to acknowledging his privileged status was to say that as a slave, "my troubles from the beginning had been less physical than mental."19 To a strong and fit young man, the horrors of slavery were more in the mind than on the body.

Suddenly, however, Frederick's troubles were very physical indeed, for his privileged status had come to an abrupt halt. Nine months earlier, he had been ordered back to the town of St. Michaels on the clawlike peninsula of the Eastern Shore to live with Thomas Auld. Before that he had spent seven years in Baltimore working for Thomas's brother Hugh Auld and Hugh's wife, Sophia. But the brothers had quarreled and Thomas demanded his slave back. Frederick hated being back on the Eastern Shore. St. Michaels seemed filled with ignorant and vulgar whites who had no ambition, carried a jug or hipflask of rum everywhere they went, and lived in ugly unpainted homes. What a contrast from Baltimore, where he had interacted with people who sought to improve themselves through hard work, sharp dress, and reading! And he loathed living with Thomas Auld, a thin-lipped, white-haired forty-year-old whose "leading characteristics," according to Frederick, were "intense selfishness" and sanctimoniousness. Each morning Auld prayed that God would bless his home with bounty and basket; and then he starved Frederick while food rotted in the meat house.20

Thomas Auld thought that city life had ruined Frederick. The "happy slave" he sent to his brother had come back insolent and angry. Frederick refused to address him as "Master," constantly forgot to follow orders, and dared to look him in the eye and challenge him. Auld had no idea how to discipline Frederick. He had spent most of his career working with whites and did not understand the protocol of slave management.21 Reluctant to whip Frederick, he decided to rent him out for the year to someone well versed in the "art" of slave discipline.

Frederick's new master, Edward Covey, was legendary as a "nigger breaker."22 His sadistic trick of ordering him to retrieve wood using untamed oxen was an example of his method. Unlike many of his peers, Covey was a man on the make, his goal being to get rich through his notorious practices. In his late twenties and recently married, he was too poor to own his own farm but he worked hard and made efficient use of rental slaves to cultivate neighbors' wheat crops. He owned one slave, a female, whom he bred: he locked her up each night with a rented slave and she soon gave birth to twins, thus tripling his investment.

Covey had "the cunning of the serpent" and the craftiness of the fox, according to Frederick. Among blacks he was known as "the snake," and he looked the part. A few inches shorter than Frederick, he was thin and wiry, with small green-gray eyes that were set deep into his forehead. Instead of hissing, he spoke from the side of his mouth in a low growl, Frederick said, like a dog "when an attempt is made to take a bone from him."23 In essence Covey was a master at torturing and terrorizing slaves, and Auld considered him an ideal tenant for his "property": he would receive over $100 in annual rent (close to $7,500 in today's money); and Covey would break Frederick for him.24

Initially, Auld's hopes were fulfilled. Every week for six months Frederick was ritually flogged, either with a braided cowskin whip with flared knotted ends and a long handle for greater acceleration, or with a coarse wooden club about the length of a baseball bat but somewhat lighter. Often the beatings were more severe than the first encounter over the oxen. The old wounds did not even have time to heal before Frederick's flesh was ripped up all over again. He worked six days a week from dawn to darkness or longer, depending on the season, and Covey made him feel that he was spying on him, watching from the bushes or behind a tree to make sure that he was not slacking off. "A few months of this discipline tamed me," he said. "Mr. Covey succeeded in breaking me. I was broken in body, soul, and spirit." Sometimes he thought of killing Covey and himself but "was prevented by a combination of hope and fear." He hoped for something better in life and feared dying.25

Sunday was his only day of rest. He spent it "in a sort of beast-like stupor, between sleep and wake, under some large tree."26 Often he was hungover. It was a tradition for masters to give their fieldhands whiskey on Saturday night and during the week off between Christmas and New Year's; and Frederick "loved drink." It was one of his few pleasures, and he consumed more than his share. After working for Covey all week, Saturday night was about the only thing he had to look forward to. The whiskey made him feel "like a president," confident and "independent." One night he drank so much that he passed out near a pigsty. At some point he woke up cold and shivering, "crawled into the sty," and went back to sleep. When the sow and her young returned, they tried to shove him out. He woke up and started yelling "order! order!" as if he were an overseer or president of an unruly meeting. Years later, after he had become a teetotaler, Frederick realized why masters gave their fieldhands liquor: it kept them "in a state of stupidity" during their days off, so that they would not think about freedom, or else would equate it with drunkenness and a hangover. Either way, liquor checked the impulse to run away.27

Aside from drinking, his only other solace was to walk down to the banks of the Chesapeake near Covey's house on a summer's Sunday and watch the ships sail down the bay toward all corners of the globe. He was so struck with the contrast between his scarred body and enslaved condition and these beautiful unmoored vessels, moving freely across the water like "swift-winged angels," that he often talked to the ships, pouring out his "soul's complaint." "You move merrily before the gentle gale and I sadly before the bloody whip," he mumbled to them. They seemed almost ethereal as he watched them glide by, inspiring prayer: "O God save me! God deliver me! Let me be free!" His prayer to the ships was a Job-like lament and a source of solace and hope. Talking to them, he vowed to become like them and sail away: "I will run away," he declared; "God helping me, I will. It cannot be that I shall live and die a slave." His declaration briefly cleared his mind and clarified his future. Yet like so many prayers, this one seemed fleeting and invisible, like a tear in the rain; he sometimes wondered whether anyone heard it, and if so, whether it would ever be answered.28

One day in August 1834 Frederick was threshing wheat with three other men.29 It was an assembly-line operation that required everyone to work in unison: one man spread the wheat evenly over the ground in the treading yard; another man drove a horse over the wheat to crush it and separate it from the stalk; a third man fanned the wheat, sifting it through a large basket to separate the kernels from the chaff; and Frederick's job was to gather up the crushed wheat from the treading yard and bring it to the fan. Covey had promised the men that if they finished before sundown, they could go fishing, which spurred them on.30

In midafternoon, with only a few hours left to work, Frederick suddenly felt very sick. It was blisteringly hot, one of the hottest days of the year.31 He was dizzy, his body trembled uncontrollably, and his head throbbed so badly that he could barely see. He tried to keep working but suddenly collapsed from heatstroke. Forcing himself up, he staggered on for a while but finally fell again and crawled toward some shade near a fence. His sickness brought the whole operation to a halt.

Covey, who had been watching from the comfort of his house, hurried over and asked what the matter was. As Frederick tried to explain, he kicked him savagely and ordered him back to work. Frederick tried to get up but couldn't, and Covey kicked him again, then picked up a heavy slab of hickory and clubbed him in the head. "If you have got the headache, I'll cure you," he snarled.32 As the blood flowed onto Frederick's face and clothes, Covey left him to his fate and took his place threshing wheat.

Soon Frederick began to feel better. The blows had strangely alleviated the pain in his head, and he resolved to walk the seven miles back to Thomas Auld's home, inform him of Covey's sadism, and request a new master. He hoped that Auld, seeing him so bloodied and battered, would worry about the loss of property value and agree to release him from Covey's charge.

It was dark when the boy arrived at Auld's place. Covey had tried to pursue him, but Frederick kept to the woods to avoid detection. He looked like he had just "escaped from a den of tigers."33 His hair and shirt were caked with dried blood and new blood trickled down his legs from the briars and thorns. Auld was shocked at the sight of him, and Frederick saw a glimmer of humanity in his owner and hope for himself. As Auld paced the floor, he seemed to be grappling with a deep moral dilemma. Then suddenly he stopped, his mind made up.

"You deserved the flogging," Auld said. "Your sickness was pretense and your dizziness was laziness."34

"As sure as I go back to live with Mr. Covey again, I [will] be killed by him," Frederick responded. Covey will "never forgive my coming to you with a complaint against him." He has "almost crushed my spirit," and if I go back to him, he will "ruin me for future service." My life is "not safe in his hands."35

"Nonsense," Auld said. There is "no danger of Mr. Covey killing [you]; he is a good man, industrious and religious." I "would not think of removing" you from Covey's home. "You belong to Mr. Covey for one year, and you must go back to him, come what will." Besides, "if you leave Covey now," with the year only "half expired, I should lose your wages for the entire year."36

Auld was willing to risk his property for the annual rent on his slave. And he did not want to cancel a contract with a "good man" who was industrious, religious, and a neighbor. He did concede, however, to let Frederick stay the night. He ordered him to "swallow a huge dose of epsom salts"—"about the only medicine ever administered to slaves"—and return to Covey's first thing in the morning.37

Despite his exhaustion, Frederick did not sleep that night. He was certain, as certain as night followed day, that Covey would beat him so severely that it would make all the other floggings seem trivial. He felt like a condemned prisoner facing execution, and he pitied himself and hated the world for his futureless state: "To be shut up entirely to the past and present is abhorrent to the human mind," he concluded; "it is to the soul—whose life and happiness is unceasing progress—what the prison is to the body; a blight and mildew, a hell of horrors."38 Even while facing the prospect of a life-threatening beating, he seemed more concerned about his mental anguish than his physical well-being. He would have loved nothing more than a jug of whiskey that night, to silence his soul and stifle his senses. But there was no hope for the blissful oblivion of drink: it was Friday night, not Saturday, and there was no liquor around.

The next morning Covey was waiting for him with a rope in one hand and a cowskin whip in the other hand. When Frederick saw him, he darted into the woods and hid all day in a cornfield. He tried to pray but couldn't. He thought of Covey and Auld, both religious men, praying to the same God that he prayed to. It was hard to ignore the notion that God was on their side. Their "sham religion" made him doubt "all religion."39 His body was still caked with blood; he hadn't slept in almost forty-eight hours; and aside from the Epsom salts, it had been even longer since he had eaten anything. He knew enough not to eat the corn, which was unripe and would cause diarrhea. If he stayed in the woods, he might starve; but if he returned to the farm, he would definitely have his flesh ripped up. He stayed put, wishing he could exchange his humanity "for the brutehood of an ox."40 When night came he made a bed of leaves and tried to rest.

Then his luck began to change. Sandy Jenkins, a slave who worked on a nearby farm, was on his way to spend the Sabbath with his wife, a free black woman, when he spotted Frederick lying in the leaves. Sandy knew Frederick, liked him, and agreed to shelter him. It was a noble and risky gesture, for if caught Sandy would receive thirty-nine lashes and his wife a prison term.41 While Frederick washed the blood off his body, Sandy's wife cooked a meal of ash cake made from cornmeal, water, and salt, on which she sprinkled a fine layer of ash. Frederick devoured it, and would always remember it as the best meal of his life.42

With food in his belly hope returned. He asked Sandy about his chances of running north to freedom. Sandy, who knew the area, said it was impossible; there was no escape from slave-catchers on this narrow claw of a peninsula. But he was not without a solution to Frederick's predicament: a believer in African magic, he gave Frederick the root of a common herb. Wear it on your right side, he said, and it will "be impossible for Covey to strike" you.43 Frederick thought it absurd advice, but Sandy seemed so earnest in his belief and had been such a Good Samaritan that he put the root in his pocket to please him. And who knew? Perhaps Providence had led Sandy to him. Perhaps "the hand of the Lord" was in the root, Frederick thought.44 God worked in strange ways, took many forms.

The root seemed to work. On Sunday morning Frederick walked boldly back to the farm and met Covey and his wife, who were on their way to church. Covey was smiling like an angel. How are you? he asked with genuine concern, and then politely told Frederick to drive the pigs into their sty. Covey's gracious manner astonished Frederick. His "extraordinary conduct" made him think that maybe there was something to Sandy's root.45 Then he remembered that Covey considered himself a good Christian, which meant that he refused to whip a slave on the Sabbath.

Emboldened by his root and Covey's change of attitude, Frederick decided to put God to a test and make Him choose between the slaveholder and the slave: he would, if possible, "obey every order, however unreasonable"; but he vowed that if Covey still tried to beat him, he would "defend and protect myself to the best of my ability."46 He would, in other words, renounce a central tenet of slaveholders' Christianity: never resist the master. And he would act on the supposition that in God's eyes all humans are equal.47

Early Monday morning the low growl had returned to Covey's voice. Frederick was in the stables, feeding the horses as ordered, when Covey snuck up on him and seized him by the leg. As he tried to get a slipknot on him, Frederick lashed back and knocked Covey down. "The fighting madness had come upon me," he noted, "and I found my strong fingers firmly attached to the throat of my cowardly tormentor, as heedless of consequences . . . as though we stood as equals before the law." As he well knew, the punishment for resisting a master was death. But "I had reached a point at which I was not afraid to die." He felt "as supple as a cat and was ready for the snakish creature at every turn." He could have easily killed Covey, for he was bigger, stronger, and in better shape. But he went "strictly on the defensive, preventing him from injuring me, rather than trying to injure him." He flung Covey to the ground numerous times, like a wrestler humiliating his opponent, or a cat playing with a mouse. At one point he threw Covey into some cow dung, at another he "held him so firmly by the throat that his blood followed my nails." But he never seriously hurt him.48

The fight lasted two hours, a strange and epic pas de deux. "He held me and I held him."49

"Are you going to [continue to] resist?" Covey asked, trembling with fear and exhaustion.50

"Yes sir," Frederick politely responded.51

Midway through the battle, Covey called out for help, realizing that he could not vanquish Frederick alone. His cousin Bill Hughes, who lived and worked with him, came to his aid; but Frederick quickly turned aggressor and kicked Hughes in the crotch, which "sickened him." He staggered away, doubled over in pain, and didn't again interfere. Covey then yelled out for Bill Smith, another hired slave: "take hold of him—take hold of him!" he ordered. But Bill was not about to fight Frederick on Covey's behalf. "My master hired me to work, not to help you whip Frederick," he responded. When Covey saw his own slave Caroline, he ordered her to "take hold of him." She was a large, strong woman who "could have mastered me," Frederick noted, given how exhausted he was after fighting for over an hour. But she too refused to interfere. Such black solidarity made Frederick proud of his race and spurred him on.52

After two hours Covey was so exhausted he had to stop. Gasping for breath, he said, "Now, you scoundrel, go to your work; I would not have whipped you half so much as I have, had you not resisted." Frederick wanted to laugh at such pretense, for "the fact was, he had not whipped me at all."53 It was Covey's way of trying to save face. He knew that he had been beaten and never again laid a hand on the young man.

Frederick frequently said that his fight with Covey was "the turning point in my 'life as a slave.' " As he explained, "I felt as I never felt before. It was a glorious resurrection, from the tomb of slavery to the heaven of comparative freedom. My long crushed spirit rose, cowardice departed, bold defiance took its place; and I now resolved that, however long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact." A slave who refused to be flogged was already more than "half free."54

Of course Frederick's description of his fight as a "turning point" was essentially retrospective, written from the vantage point of having escaped slavery and looking back for clues to explain his rise. At the time, the fight gave him hope that this one victory might turn the tide after a string of beatings, much like an athlete feels after a big win. This hope (or belief) mattered greatly to Frederick, shaping his behavior and infusing him with confidence in the face of daunting odds.55


On Sale
Nov 3, 2008
Page Count
448 pages

John Stauffer

About the Author

John Stauffer is Professor of English and American Literature and Language at Harvard University. His first book, The Black Hearts of Men: Radical Abolitionists and the Transformation of Race (Harvard University Press, 2002), was the co-winner of the 2002 Frederick Douglass Book Prize from the Gilder Lehrman Institue; winner of the Avery Craven Book Prize from the OAH; and the Lincoln Prize runner-up. Other works include: Meteor of War: The John Brown Story (with Zoe Trodd, 2004); Frederick Douglass’ My Bondage and My Freedom (editor, 2003). Visit his website at

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