In coming to a fixed determination to run away, we did more than Patrick Henry, when he resolved upon liberty or death.
This passage appears in Chapter X of the Narrative, in which Douglass relates his plans to escape with several fellow slaves from William Freeland’s. Several times in the Narrative, Douglass describes in detail the explicit dangers that slaves face in attempting escape. Slaves must confront natural enemies, such as the weather or dangerous animals, as well as human enemies in the form of their owners or slave hunters. Slaves are never sure of making it to free land and are not assured freedom even if they do escape and survive. Douglass focuses on the incredible dangers of escape to suggest that Northerners cannot simply rely on slaves fleeing injustice by themselves. Instead, Northerners must take political action against the institution of slavery to ensure that further escapees are not harmed.
In this quotation, Douglass alludes to patriot Patrick Henry’s declaration “Give me liberty or give me death,” which was made during the American fight for independence. Douglass suggests that his own bravery and that of his fellow slaves is more impressive than Henry’s. Whereas Henry chose between a desirable option and an undesirable option, escaping slaves must try to guess at the lesser of two evils. Douglass also implies that slavery often can be worse than death. Slaves suffer inordinately through either their escape or their continued existence as slaves.
Douglass uses the reference to Henry to compare the slaves’ quest for freedom and rights to the American Revolutionaries’ crusade for rights. On the one hand, this cultural context would make the abolitionist cause seem more recognizable and familiar as a fight for fundamental rights. On the other hand, Douglass’s use of Revolutionary references in the Narrative also ironically points to the hypocrisy of Americans. Americans take great pride in their historical establishment of a system of rights, yet they still deprive a large section of the population—slaves—of those very same rights.