The sharp contrast between William Smith’s Lectures on the Philosophy and Practice of Slavery and Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave leads to important conclusions about the vast differences in perception between those who owned and those who were owned in the period of American slavery. Smith’s work implores his fellow White landowners to practice what he sees as a just treatment of African slaves.
However, his contempt for abolitionists and belief that Northerners are off the mark in understanding the state of slavery in the South show his belief that the institution itself is appropriate, even God-driven, and that only a minority of slave owners may require correction. Moreover, what drives Smith’s philosophy—the very religion from which Douglass saw the greatest brutality spring forth—causes him to assert and reassert the necessity of slavery for both White landowner and African slave. One cannot help but be struck by the stark contrast Smith’s work shows to the real-life experiences of the ex-slave Frederick Douglass as he recounts a life in which all of Smith’s proposals are brutally and routinely disregarded.
William Smith’s Lectures on the Philosophy and Practice of Slavery and Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave offer a stark contrast between the two men’s views on American slavery. Smith, a White proponent of slavery, outlines what he believes to be a proper and just relationship between master and slave, and disparages those slave owners who do not follow the tenets of this relationship. However, he never hesitates in stating his full support for the institution itself.
Douglass, who bears the burden of slavery firsthand, reveals to the reader a world vastly different from the “fat, sleek, and cheerful, and long-lived” (Smith, 1856, p. 291) slaves of some of Smith’s observances. His own journey from slavery to freedom affords the reader a view into a brilliant mind in contrast to what Smith (1856) believes can only be the equivalent of “minors, imbeciles, and uncivilized persons” (p. 282). It is Douglass’s account of his awakening, from a young slave ignorant of the reasons for his bondage to a learned man of inalienable self-respect, which topples the entire premise of Smith’s philosophy.
Smith believes the teachings of the Christian Bible dictate the proper relationship between master and servant. Smith (1856) also details what he sees as a moral imperative on the part of White landowners to have “guardianship” (p. 277) over “God’s poor, committed to [the benevolent White master]” (p. 309), believing that they must “control and protect them for their profit as well as work them for [the slave and slave owner’s] mutual profit.” (309). In Smith’s estimation, slavery is proper and just because he assumes White intellectual and moral superiority over the African slave. He never confuses his call for benevolent treatment of slaves with the idea that the institution itself may be unjust.
Smith lays out what he believes are the rights of slaves according to both Christian doctrine and the law of men in his society. He divides the duties of the master into 3 main categories: “the duty of masters to their slaves considered as ‘their money’, their duty to their slaves considered as social beings, and their duty to their slaves considered as religious beings” (Smith, 1856, p. 283). In the first part, concerning slaves considered as masters’ money, Smith includes all of the physical needs of the slave. Working conditions, food, clothing and bedding, sleep and rest, housing, and free time are all detailed according to what Smith sees as ideal treatment. Woven into the framework of these requirements is a Christian code that reminds the master that he, too, will have a master in heaven. (p. 277).
Smith begins by discussing the rights of the slave in regard to labor. Interestingly, Smith (1856) first focuses on what he calls a known “idleness” (p. 284) among slaves and warns slave owners to be dutiful in making their slaves accountable for their labor. He weaves a pattern that not only offers a sense of Christian duty on the part of the slave owner, but of the slave as well. It is Smith’s insistence upon the righteousness of slavery as a Christian imperative that continues to inform and guide his philosophy. Likewise, in all of the other physical comforts he asks the slave owner to provide the slave, he asks the slave owner to “give unto your servant that which is just and equal, knowing that ye also have a master in heaven” (Smith, 1856, pp. 278-279).
While Smith admonishes those he believes violate the Christian mandate, he shows some confidence that there is not a crisis in the treatment of slaves. In condemnation of the attitudes of Northern abolitionists, he says that “A most fanatical spirit is abroad in the land on the subject of domestic slavery. The inhumanity of masters at the South is greatly exaggerated” (Smith, 1856, p. 278). He goes on to compare the treatment of Southern slaves as equivalent to that of hired help in the North.
Smith seems on one hand to implore the White master to better the circumstances of his slaves in order to save his very soul from damnation, while on the other to denounce the efforts of the Northern advocates of freedom. He truly believes in a system of slavery wherein the slave is completely satisfied with his lot in life, and the landowner finds himself a benevolent overseer who will profit in life and in heaven. The other two sections of Smith’s call to righteous treatment of slaves follow a vein similar to the first. He repeatedly denounces those masters who violate his ideal image of slavery while insisting on the justness and necessity of the institution itself.
While Smith’s ideal slavery leads the reader to envision sunny pastures with young Black slave children frolicking and elders laughing and singing merrily, Douglass’s account of real slave life offers a startling contrast. All of the Christian mandates of Smith’s slavery are turned asunder, and, in fact, it is the very observance of the religion which causes some of the harshest abuses to occur. Born a slave on a Maryland plantation, Douglass witnesses repeated acts of brutality upon the adult slaves in his company. The rumored son of the master, Douglass is given some favor in his early years, although he is never fed or clothed enough. Held up to Smith’s view of slavery, Douglass’s constant hunger and discomfort seem all the more intolerable.
If one compares the specifics, Smith’s work calls for slaves to be offered a variety of the plantation’s food, cooked well and prepared ahead of time so that slaves may enjoy good nutrition and take two-hour lunches to properly digest their meal. Douglass’s reality, a measly monthly supply of pork or fish and corn meal doled out uncooked, makes Smith’s (1856) vision of the “early roasting ear, the ripe fruit, the melons, the potatoes, the fat stock”(pp. 297-298) seem like paradise for a slave. In contrast, Douglass, in chapter 3, describes a large and plentiful garden that slaves were routinely whipped for stealing from. Later, living with another master, Edward Covey, Douglass and his fellow slaves are afforded 5 minutes to eat before returning to the field to work until midnight.
Douglass’s account of his years in bondage read like a response to Smith at every turn. Douglass recounts continual starvation and discomfort, a world wherein his only clothing as a child was a linen shirt. While Smith talks of coats, hats, and shoes, Douglass speaks of children from 7 to ten years old running naked in winter for lack of clothing. While Smith discusses the necessity for comfortable beds and encourages the master to set up separate quarters to encourage fidelity and morality among slaves he believes are less geared toward fidelity than Whites, Douglass speaks with disgust of unrelated groups of people huddled together on dirt floors sharing a blanket in winter. Douglass’s journey lands him in completely different circumstances when he is taken to live in Baltimore with family members of his master, and he shows a different side of slave life in the city.
However, perhaps the greatest indictment against Smith’s Christian ideal comes when the mistress of the house changes her demeanor from warm, humane, and welcoming to harsh and cruel under the “fatal poison of irresponsible power” (Douglass, 1845, p 18). Douglass (1845) notes that “the cheerful eye, under the influence of slavery, soon became red with rage” (p. 18). Douglass shows how, no matter what steps one may take to set a proper course for slavery, to offer the best of worlds for all involved, the premise cannot but collapse under the weight of its injustice. Setting a proper course for slavery is suddenly seen as being as impossible as setting a proper and just course for murder or betrayal.
In Douglass’s experience, the inhumanity of slavery leads to dead souls performing hideous acts upon their subjects. There is no room for benevolent treatment in a reality based on the subjugation and demoralization of others. Perhaps the most striking difference between the two men’s view comes in the story of Douglass’s outcast grandmother. He describes how, after raising generations of a plantation owner’s family as well as her own, she is left alone in the woods in a hovel to fend for herself, far from the care of her extended family. Smith asks the reader why it should be difficult to afford the elderly the soothing hand of relatives in his or her final days, and he implores the master to see that the older slaves are given the respect and care they have a right to. There is a grave sadness in the story of Douglass’s grandmother who, treated like chattel, is offered no such comfort.
If Douglass’s account leaves the reader with anything, it is the impression that religion and the benefit of being on the fortunate side of a brutal reality have pulled the wool over Smith’s eyes. It is hard to imagine that Smith’s reflections are a mere cover for his undying support for slavery; he truly seems to believe that Christian charity, manifest destiny, and the rights of everyone involved can merge to form an ideal state of slavery. It is his undying belief in the inferiority of the African slave that ultimately makes him comfortable with the situation.
One sees, however, that it is no secret to even the least experienced master that “if you teach [a slave] how to read, there would be no keeping him” (Douglass, 1845, p. 20). That one fear alone—educating the slave—would not be a fear if the slave were truly the inferior creature described in Smith’s accounts. And Douglass, who eventually does just what the White master fears, provides evidence that there can exist no happy bondage, Christian or other, among human beings.
Douglass, Frederick (1845). Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Boston: The Antislavery Office.
Smith, William A. (1856). Lectures on the Philosophy and Practice of Slavery. Nashville: Stevenson and Evans.