Being born into slavery was a common misfortune for countless persecuted African Americans. To not even being capable to fathom what freedom is from the day you are born to the day you die should be unimaginable, however in the Narrative of the Life of Thomas Cooper, Isaac T. Hopper displays the tribulations that Thomas Cooper faced in his lifetime in order to acquire the freedom that vast amount of slaves had never experienced.
Thomas Cooper, who was born into slavery in the state of Maryland, at the age of 25 he was able to escape to Philadelphia where he acquired a job and started a family. After some time, Cooper is betrayed and is recaptured by his master, right in front of his children, Hopper writes:
“…poor John was handcuffed, and a rope fastened to each arm across his back…All this took place in the presence of his wife and children, who witnessed the horrid transaction with the utmost distress…his wife and children wept bitterly” (7-9).
The events that transpired here demonstrates a form of torment that many faced during the slave trade and slave auctions in antebellum America. To be separated from the woman you cherish and the children you intend to dedicate your life to is what Thomas Cooper had to face in his lifetime.
Although in captivity, Cooper is able to escape and run to New Jersey where he is safely hidden by his friend and changes his name to John Smith. His master soon finds his location and intends to capture him, however Cooper chooses to stop fleeing any longer and intends to stand his ground, Hopper writes:
“He had already suffered much, and now finding himself again pursued, was driven almost to despair, and determined to resist by violence…It was not long before he beheld his master advancing…towards his house…he called out, “don’t cross that fence, for the first man does, I will shoot him.” So unexpected a salutation, coming from a man with a gun in his hand, struck them with terror, and they soon turned back to procure assistance” (24-25).
In that moment, Cooper is able to reverse the roles of slave and master, as he displays that he has power over the men who intend to capture him. This role reversal is significant due to the fact that slaves had always had less power than their masters, ergo causing them to bend to their master’s will, but Cooper intends to throw away those despicable roles and have to refer to no man as “master”.
Alexis Tocqueville refers to the mindset that Thomas Cooper may have been forced into had he not been able to escape enslavement and gain power over his master in order to pursue his individual freedom, Tocqueville writes:
“The Negro, plunged in this abyss of evils, scarcely feels his own calamitous situation…the habit of servitude gives him the thoughts and desires of a slave, he admires his tyrants more than he hates them, and finds his joy and his pride in the servile imitation of those who oppress him” (18).
After some time, Cooper goes to London where he makes a name for himself as a very popular preacher, however Cooper decides to take his family to Africa where he feels he belongs. Cooper is even able to give a farewell address to the people of London, showing how well renowned he was in Britain.
After living in Africa for a few years, Cooper succumbs to an illness and dies. Although saddened by his death, there were some happiness from the family considering that they know that Cooper has lived the latter years of his life the way he wanted, Hopper notes:
“Perhaps few men have ever lived, who experienced greater changes in their condition in life, than the person whose history we have been writing; we have seen him a poor menial…writhing under the lash of the tyrannical slave driver…[then] we see a minister of religion, pleading with the people to forsake the evil of their ways and shewing in his life, and by his own example, how far superior a life of virtue and integrity is, to that of vice and crime” (35).
Thomas Cooper was a man who was born into subjugation, but through perseverance and determination he was able to escape oppression and live an autonomous life right to the end.