Frederick Douglass's statement from My Bondage and My Freedom sheds light on why a fugitive slave would voluntarily return to slavery:
A freeman cannot understand why the slavemaster's shadow is bigger, to the slave, than the might and majesty of a free state; but when he reflects that the slave knows about the slavery of the master than he does of the might and majesty of the free state, he has the explanation (Douglass 339).
On the surface, this statement seems unrelated to Edmund S. Morgan's historical analysis of the origin of European Americans in The Challenge of the American Revolution and Herman Melville's description of Ishmael in the opening pages of the novel Moby-Dick. However, this study will argue that the three perspectives are indeed related, and will help to suggest ways to overcome the effects of the past in the public arena.
Douglass's statement is in part meant be an
apology for the few slaves who have, after making good their escape, turned back to slavery, preferring the actual rule of their masters, to the life of loneliness, apprehension, hunger, and anxiety, which meets them on their first arrival in a free state. . . A man, homeless, shelterless, breadless, friendless, and moneyless, is not in a condition to assume a very proud or joyous tone (Douglass 339-340).
The few fugitive slaves who returned to slavery voluntarily, in a sense, possessed less as freed slaves than they had possessed as slaves. They had some form of security as slaves, but none as fugitives who could not trust whites or blacks and waited any moment to be discovered and returned to slavery under probably worse conditions than when they escaped.
Turning to Edmund Morgan's analysis, one finds a complex and contradictory explanation for the views of the Americans toward property and toward the human beings they saw as slaves and therefore as property. The value of property was greater than a mere standard to measure one'...