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Rachel Maddow speaks on Frederick Douglass

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Rachel Maddow:

In 1845, Frederick Douglass, the great American abolitionist, published the first of what would become three autobiographical accounts of his life. The first one was called Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave.

Frederick Douglass is, of course, one of the greatest Americans of all time. His autobiographies about life as a slave and his struggle to become free, in addition to everything else he did in his life, those written works are some of the most influential written American accounts of anything on any subject.

In Narrative of the Life, which is the most widely read of the three of his three autobiographical accounts but also in the subsequent autobiographies he wrote as well, including the next one, My Bondage and My Freedom, one of the most harrowing things that Frederick Douglass describes about his own life is a yearlong period when the man who owned him as a slave decided that young Frederick Douglass was incorrigible.

Douglass’ owner decided that Frederick Douglass needed in effect to be tamed, to be broken. And so he shipped Frederick Douglass off to a man that is literally known as a slave breaker. The slave breaker was named Edward Covey. C-O-V-E-Y.

This is part of how Frederick Douglass describes him in My Bondage and My Freedom. He says, quote, “I have now lived with him [meaning his slave owner] nearly nine months, and he had given me a number of severe whippings, without any visible improvement in my character or my conduct. Now he was resolved to put me out as he said, quote, to be broken.”

There was, in the Bay Side, a man named Edward Covey, who enjoyed the execrated reputation of being a first rate hand at breaking young Negroes. Breaking.

Frederick Douglass then goes on in chapter after chapter after chapter in this autobiography. Look at this. The experiences at Covey’s, unusual brutality at Covey, driven back to Covey’s. You know, Covey’s manner of proceeding to whip, right? Chapter after chapter after chapter, he describes this experience, the way that Edward Covey tortured him and beat him nearly to death and worked him nearly to death all the try to destroy Frederick Douglass’ spirit, to try to destroy his mind, to turn him into a docile slave who would work out question whereupon he would then be returned to his owner.

And because Douglass is so capable and so brilliant, his own recounting of what happened to him in that period of his life, what happened to him when his slave owner sent him to Edward Covey, what happened to him at Edward Covey’s hands, what happened to him when he stayed for a year at Edward Covey’s farm and Covey was tasked there with breaking him, because Frederick Douglass is such a luminous, important, brilliant, inspiring, incredible figure, unparalleled figure in American history, because of what we know he is capable of, because of what we know what his mind was capable of and what he did for his country in his life, when he recounts what happened to him at the hands of Edward Covey, it is the most dispiriting and desolate and just miserable thing that Douglass writes about.

He wrote:

I shall never be able to narrate the mental experience through which it was my lot to pass during my stay at Edward Covey’s. I was completely wrecked, changed and bewildered, goaded almost to madness at one time and at another reconciling myself to my wretched condition. I suffered bodily as well as mentally.

“The overwork and brutal chastisements of which I was the victim, combined with that ever gnawing and soul devouring thought, I am a slave, a slave for life, a slave with no rational ground to hope for freedom, it rendered me a living embodiment of mental and physical wretchedness.

That was Frederick Douglass’ account of his own life in that lowest period in his own life. And that written account did more than any other to galvanize the American abolitionist movement to bring an end to slavery. Of course, it was not fiction. It really happened and it happened as Frederick Douglass said it did and Edward Covey was a real person who operated a slave breaking operation at his farm to which Frederick Douglass was sent.

Now, if you go back to that initial description, Douglass describes Covey’s farm as being on the Bay Side. What he meant by that is that the farm was on the far side of Chesapeake Bay, the far side of Chesapeake Bay from the mainland of Maryland, which is where Douglass was being sent there from.

Edward Covey’s farm, his slave breaking operation which he tortured Frederick Douglass and countless others was this house and its surrounding farmland on the eastern shore of Maryland, in a town that’s now called St. Michael’s.

The farm and the house at the farm itself had a name, a fitting name. It was called Mount Misery.
About 15 years ago now, a literature professor wrote a very thoughtful piece in the Baltimore Sun newspaper suggesting a new future for Mount Misery, suggesting that the United States of America should consider buying Mount Misery to make it a commemorative site. He argued, would not the most fitting outcome for Mount Misery be as a monument or museum wherein a key moment from the country’s past can find a rightful place in the public memory. The old Edward Covey house deserves our understanding and preservation, the fight between slave and slave breaker that took place there is emblematic of two of the elemental themes of American history, the horrors of legally sanctioned racial violence and also the nobility of the struggle against it.

And then her;`s actually the kicker from that piece. The professor writes, “Preserving Mount Misery as a public site of contemplation where the meanings of democracy and despotism are given a human face also would help keep St. Michael’s from being merely a resort for the wealthy.”

A resort for the wealthy? Check this out. The occasion for that call that well-argued piece in the Baltimore Sun that Mount Misery should be purchased and preserved by this country as a monument to the epic violence committed there against slaves in great numbers but specifically against one of the greatest Americans of all time, the key role that the torture in that house played in turning on our American conscious to eventually overthrow slavery, the occasion for that call to preserve Mount Misery as a monument to the hell that happened there, the reason the Baltimore Sun published that just less than 15 years ago now was this revelation that was published in the New York Times exactly 15 years ago today.

On June 30th, 2006, it’s titled “Weekends with the President’s Men.” It is kind of a kicky sidebar piece in the New York Times that was published in the summer of 2006. And that piece revealed that that site on the eastern shore of Maryland, Mount Misery, that house, that farm had actually been recently purchased and was now being lived in as a private home.

Can you imagine, right? First of all, the house is still called Mount Misery today. That`s still the name by which it is known. Who would want to live in a place called Mount Misery?

But then you get to the reason that it`s called Mount Misery, right? It was the home, the same building standing there since 1804. Frederick Douglass was tortured there in 1833 and 1834. It`s the same actual physical place in which the great Frederick Douglass was tortured and beaten and worked nearly to death every day for a year.

Whether or not you think that place should be purchased by this country and made into a memorial for the worst most violent evils of slavery and their role on turning on American’s conscious to end slavery, again, that’s a substantive and interesting proposal. Whether or not you are into that idea, would you want to live there yourself? Would you like to wake up there in the morning and plan breakfast, have that be your home? Who would do that?

That article published in the New York Times“15 years ago today was actually controversial at the time that it was published because in writing that piece it did reveal the exact home address of a senior government official who in fact had made Mount Misery his private home. His name is Donald Rumsfeld, and he was at the time, the summer of 2006, struggling to the end of his disastrous tenure as Secretary of Defense in the George W. Bush administration.

He lived at the time at Mount Misery. He bought the place in 2003 as he was leading the nation into the invasion of Iraq. That was where he went to get away from Washington while running two disastrous wars. He would like to have the Chinook helicopter drop him off at the slave breaker’s home where Douglass was tortured to death. He could relax there.

Written by Leisureguy

1 July 2021 at 10:31 pm

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