After comparing and contrasting the two witnesses depicting the pivotal Covey brawl, Douglass seems to both humanize and individualize the characters in My Bondage My Freedom more so than in the Narrative of the Life of Fredrick Douglass. This change in MBMF, which I will go further in depth, suggests that Douglass is not merely retelling the events in order to unveil the ills of the slave institution as a whole, but rather he interposes important observations that bring both the participants of the fight and the observers to life.
In a broad sense, it would not be uncommon to assume that slaves tended to resist their owners for vengeful yet honorable causes. In NOTL, it is made clear that Douglass fought back for retribution when he says, “He asked me if I meant to persist in my resistance. I told him I did, come what might; that he had used me like a brute for six months, and that I was determined to be used so no longer.” Although this statement follows numerous vile encounters where Covey takes advantage of Douglass, such forthright defiance could be interpreted just as irrational as Covey’s excessive torment. The witness concludes without addressing the nature of the violence both men committed.
In MBMF, however, Douglass examines the fight as if all preconceived notions of why slaves would perceivably resist their masters were thrown out the proverbial window. Though he had years of built up frustration and tremendous justified reasons to fight, Douglass says, “The fighting madness had come upon me.” This is important because it proves that his instinct to fight was not natural. Douglass did not immediately feel the need to seek justice for Covey’s unfair treatment; rather, his actions seem to be a ‘fight or flight’ type response. Essentially, Covey brought forth threats on Douglass’s life to which Douglass responded with defensive reactions. This fact is further supported by the word “defensive” which is constantly repeated throughout MBMF. In NOTL, however, “defensive” is not mentioned once. This difference concerns a change in Douglass’s philosophy— he does not believe his violent actions were valid because he is a part of a group that is relentlessly oppressed, but because he is a man, and a man has the right to defend his life.
In addition, the two varying witnesses obscure the role Hughes plays in the brawl. In NOTL, Douglass says, “This kick had the effect of not only weakening Hughes, but Covey also. When he saw Hughes bending over with pain, his courage quailed.” With respect to this account, Douglass depicts the white men as a cohesive entity that crumbles when one fraction is wounded. In MBMF, that same sentence was altered to say, “When he saw that poor Hughes was standing half bent with pain—his [Covey’s] courage quite gone the cowardly tyrant asked if…” Of course, the difference does not seem like much on the surface, but after a couple of reads it becomes clear that Douglass does not explicitly say that Covey’s courage was depleted by Hughes’ helpless state. In fact, it almost reads as if Covey’ courage had already left him and then briefly looked to Hughes for backup as a last resort. Thus, Douglass individualizes Covey as his own man whose pride did not depend on another for support. This is a revolutionary observation because it is so easy to blindly characterize the slave institution or a group of slave owners as a strong force but the true reality of that single fight—it was between only two people, Covey and Douglass. And although Covey was a part of a robust slave organization, he had lost and he knew he had lost even before he sought help from Hughes.
Similarly, the portrayal of Bill Smith also differs. The order by Covey to “Take hold of him” is present in both accounts, but in MBMF, Douglass adds details that he failed to include in NOTL. Douglass writes in MBMF, “With a toss of the head, pecuilar to Bill, he said, ‘indeed, Mr. Covey I want to go to work.’ ‘This is_ your work,’ said Covey.” Aside from being incredibly comical, this humanizes and gives life to an otherwise lifeless slave. Again, it is so easy to view all slaves, due to the plentiful amount and the discriminatory ideologies of their time, as if they were machines with mechanical personalities. With this in mind, Smith does stay faithful to his job duties but is able to ironically turn Covey’s words against him. The wit in Smith’s response exemplifies a passive and acceptable form of resistance that the mature Douglass, I can only imagine, would have wanted to expose.
In conclusion, the differences in the two witnesses emphasize the way Douglass finds significance in the individual rather than making generalities about the slave system as a whole.