Frederick Douglass had escaped slavery and become a leader of the abolitionist movement by the time he wrote his 1848 public letter to Thomas Auld—on the anniversary of his escape. Douglass describes his experiences as a slave, his escape, and denounces the anti-human nature of slavery while urging all to respect each other as individuals.
- There is a foundational distinction between two types of rights: essential and conventional. The former are fundamental. They pertain to every person by nature and include a right to one’s life and one’s liberty.
- Slavery’s advocates believe owning slaves is their right, but their claims are “merely conventional” and, in fact, they violate the essential rights of all human beings.
- Just as “a man guilty of theft, robbery, or murder, has forfeited the right to concealment,” slaveowners have lost their claim to privacy and should be exposed to the public like murderers and thieves. That is necessary to achieving justice and restoring the dignity and humanity of those still enslaved or who have escaped. For that reason, Douglass is writing this letter.
- The decision to escape slavery is petrifying—“a leap in the dark”—but it is a moral act since all people are distinct and equal by nature. “I am myself; you are yourself; we are two distinct persons, equal persons.”
- The notion that slaves violate their masters’ property right by escaping is false, as there is no natural bond between the two. “In leaving you, I took nothing but what belonged to me.” A slave’s escape is a restoration of justice that does not “lessen [master’s] means for obtaining an honest living.”
- Any free work, no matter how arduous and demanding, is infinitely better than the conditions of slavery, which are “dreaded more than death.” Nothing is more valuable than personal freedom and the respect that it entails.
- Slaveholders are, therefore, despite their fervent religiosity, “agents of hell.” Their worst crime consists not in the physical violence towards the people they own, but in their deliberately inhumane fostering of ignorance.
- Nevertheless, while this “guilty nation” should be brought to “repentance,” abolitionists should take the moral high ground and treat all people, including slaveholders, as fellow men.
Read Frederick Douglass’s letter here. Summary by Andrei Volkov, 2020.