Patrick Henry said once to the senate, ” Give me liberty or give me death.” He was saying that, rather than living in a land where he is controlled, he wanted to live in a land where he had his own freedom, and if not, he would rather choose death. Frederick Douglass, in his book entitled My Bondage and My Freedom, views his position in life the same way. He replicates Henry’s statement by saying, “I believe there was not one?who would not rather have been shot down, then pass away in a life of bondage.” (284) Both of these statements were about freedom as an American. But what is an American? This is what we must explore first before we decide whether or not “A slave was a part of American society” or if “slavery was an American or anti-American institution.” With a clear definition of what an American really is, we will be able to realize how Douglass formed a sense of his own identity as an ex-slave and how he related the experience o slavery to broader conceptions of American identity. I say that an American is not just one who resides in the United States or the western hemisphere, an American is a person who can pursue his or her own ideals without being subject to persecution.
America was institutionalized in 1776 by the Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson. This document claimed that in America,”?all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of happiness.” American society in the 19th century proved this declaration to be untrue. These rights he outlined in the Declaration of Independence not pertain to slaves, white males who did not own property, and women. “Slavery in the United States is the granting of that power by which one man exercises and enforces a right of property in the body and soul of another.” (Douglass, 408) Property to that of whom? The property owning white male. In the early years of American society, it was he who’s skin color was white and owned the most property that was truly considered an American. It was Thomas Skidmore who said that, “If?Mr. Jefferson had made use of the word property, instead of ‘the pursuit of happiness,’ I should agree with him.” By this, Skidmore meant that property was a key element to those who considered themselves Americans, and those who did not own property, were not part of the society. This society that was formed was not that of what I believe to be an American. Slaves were not able to pursue their own ideals without being subject to persecution. If they were to express themselves, they were beaten up or even killed. Because they were different from our forefathers, who declared our independence from great Britain, they perceived them not true Americans. I justify that with the three-fifths clause of the constitution, which stated that blacks would only count as three-fifths the normal white person. With this clause in place, white males had begun to cave into changing society, but still dominated over blacks, claiming that they were the true Americans. Douglass, however, was conjuring up ways that he was an American long before thatDouglass, as a slave owning no property, considered himself an American, through his identity, and later, his practice. During his years as a slave, Douglass taught himself to read and write, and was afforded the right, in more ways than not, the freedom of speech. Douglasss writes that slaves think that, “It is alleged, that they are, naturally inferior; that they are so low in the scale of humanity, and so utterly stupid, that they are unconscious of their wrongs, and do not apprehend their rights.” (vii) Although persecuted in many ways for these things, Douglass persevered in attaining these rights to himself and let no one, until later, know that he had consummated these rights as an American and not as a slave. To pursue the goals of reading and writing should have been the right of every person in this country, but to slaves