The great abolitionist Frederick Douglass observed that slavery degraded the slaveholder as much as it degraded the slave. Of his kind-hearted mistress who had never before owned a slave, he wrote:
“My mistress was, as I have said, a kind and tender-hearted woman; and in the simplicity of her soul she commenced, when I first went to live with her, to treat me as she supposed one human being ought to treat another. In entering upon the duties of a slaveholder, she did not seem to perceive that I sustained to her the relation of a mere chattel, and that for her to treat me as a human being was not only wrong, but dangerously so. Slavery proved as injurious to her as it did to me. When I went there, she was a pious, warm, and tender-hearted woman.”
Douglass described the transformation of innocence, naïveté, and goodness to cruelty as the result of the wielding of irresponsible power.
“There was no sorrow or suffering for which she had not a tear. She had bread for the hungry, clothes for the naked, and comfort for every mourner that came within her reach. Slavery soon proved its ability to divest her of these heavenly qualities. Under its influence, the tender heart became stone, and the lamblike disposition gave way to one of tiger-like fierceness.”
In other parts of his autobiography, Douglas describes how the character and moral fiber of the powerful degrade in spirit and humanity to the extent that ordinary people make excuses for, or even engage in, cruel acts that defy the imagination. Of the overseer, he writes:
“Mr. Severe was rightly named: he was a cruel man. I have seen him whip a woman. Causing the blood to run half an hour at the time… he seemed to take pleasure in manifesting his fiendish barbarity” (P. 55).