A July 1 2021 Facebook image of an unassuming house was shared after the death of former United States Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, alongside a post and video link claiming that the Bush administration official purchased and had lived at a place called “Mount Misery”:
OMG! Rachel Maddow’s A section last night on MSNBC…
She’s famous for them: she lays down a long convoluted historical tease until you are howling for the big reveal and then, when it comes, it is pure jaw drop.
Last night she began with Frederick Douglass being one of the greatest Americans, and then she cited the great man’s My Bondage & My Freedom book. It seems that Douglass was a defiant young slave. After numerous “ineffectual” whippings, his master decided to send him to a Slave Breaker. Yes. That is what you just read, a slave breaker. Never heard of one. The idea that any such ‘vocation” ever existed is entirely disgusting; the infrastructure of slavery never ceases to shock.
Douglass’ memoir preserved the bastard’s name, Edward Covey, and described the house where Covey’s slave-breaking operation was located. The site is still known today as Mount Misery. Maddow spoke about the interest in preserving the site for the nation, as a museum to the evils of the nation’s original sin, but that bid was quashed by a private customer who wanted it for a residence. Of course, Maddow then asked, “What kind of person would want to live in such a place?” Indeed.
So here was the kicker: the resident was Donald Rumsfeld, and this is how Maddow chose to begin her Rumsfeld obit! Jaw very much on the floor. So that’s me off to read Douglass’ account of Edward Covey. Terrific because I am enormously under-read when it comes to Mr Douglass, but ‘KIN “ELL!!!
And thank you Rachel Maddow…
Linked in the body of the post was a July 1 2021 video on MSNBC’s verified channel and titled, “‘Who Would Do That?’: Rumsfeld Made ‘Mount Misery’ Plantation Getaway Home.” An appended description read:
Rachel Maddow revisits the story of Frederick Douglass being sent by his slave owner to a “slave breaker” to be made docile and have his will broken. The location of the horrific torture that entailed was a plantation called “Mount Misery” and at least one person was untroubled enough by its history to purchase it as a country home.
The clip was fairly long at just over ten minutes, and MSNBC provided a matching transcript on its website. Maddow’s transcribed comments began with backstory about Frederick Douglass’ autobiographies (relevant to the “Mount Misery” house) and his accounts of the abuses he endured:
In 1845, Frederick Douglass, the great American abolitionist, published the first of what would become three autobiographical accounts of his life. The first one was called “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave.”
Frederick Douglass is, of course, one of the greatest Americans of all time. His auto biographies about life as a slave and his struggle to become free, in addition to everything else he did in his life, those written works are some of the most influential written American accounts of anything on any subject.
In “Narrative of the Life,” which is the most widely read of the three of his three autobiographical accounts but also in the subsequent autobiographies he wrote as well, including the next one, “My Bondage and My Freedom,” one of the most harrowing things that Frederick Douglass describes about his own life is a yearlong period when the man who owned him as a slave decided that young Frederick Douglass was incorrigible.
Douglass’ owner decided that Frederick Douglass needed in effect to be tamed, to be broken. And so he shipped Frederick Douglass off to a man that is literally known as a slave breaker. The slave breaker was named Edward Covey. C-O-V-E-Y.
This is part of how Frederick Douglass describes him in “My Bondage and My Freedom.” He says, quote, I have now lived with him, meaning his slave owner, nearly nine months, and he had given me a number of severe whippings, without any visible improvement in my character or my conduct. Now he was resolved to put me out as he said, quote, to be broken.
Maddow continued describing Douglass’ accounts in detail, later continuing:
Now, if you go back to that initial description, Douglass describes Covey’s farm as being on the Bay Side … Edward Covey’s farm, his slave breaking operation which he tortured Frederick Douglass and countless others was this house and its surrounding farmland on the eastern shore of Maryland, in a town that’s now called St. Michael’s.
The farm and the house at the farm itself had a name, a fitting name. It was called Mount Misery.
About 15 years ago now, a literature professor wrote a very thoughtful piece in the “Baltimore Sun” newspaper suggesting a new future for Mount Misery, suggesting that the United States of America should consider buying Mount Misery to make it a commemorative site. He argued, would not the most fitting outcome for Mount Misery be as a monument or museum wherein a key moment from the country’s past can find a rightful place in the public memory. The old Edward Covey house deserves our understanding and preservation, the fight between slave and slave breaker that took place there is emblematic of two of the elemental themes of American history, the horrors of legally sanctioned racial violence and also the nobility of the struggle against it.
And then here’s actually the kicker from that piece. The professor says, quote, preserving Mount Misery as a public site of contemplation where the meanings of democracy and despotism are given a human face also would help keep St. Michael’s from being merely a resort for the wealthy.
From there, Maddow addressed a Baltimore Sun editorial from June 2006 about the history of Mount Misery, and its relevance to American history. She eventually tied Mount Misery to Donald Rumsfeld’s June 2021 death:
But then you get to the reason that it’s called Mount Misery, right? It was the home, the same building standing there since 1804. Frederick Douglass was tortured there in 1833 and 1834. It’s the same actual physical place in which the great Frederick Douglass was tortured and beaten and worked nearly to death every day for a year.
Whether or not you think that place should be purchased by this country and made into a memorial for the worst most violent evils of slavery and their role on turning on American’s conscious to end slavery, again, that’s a substantive and interesting proposal. Whether or not you are into that idea, would you want to live there yourself? Would you like to wake up there in the morning and plan breakfast, have that be your home? Who would do that?
That article published in “The New York Times” 15 years ago today was actually controversial at the time that it was published because in writing that piece it did reveal the exact home address of a senior government official who in fact had made Mount Misery his private home. His name is Donald Rumsfeld, and he was at the time, the summer of 2006, struggling to the end of his disastrous tenure as secretary of defense under the George W. Bush administration.
He lived at the time at Mount Misery. He bought the place in 2003 as he was leading the nation into the invasion of Iraq. That was where he went to get away from Washington while running two disastrous wars. He would like to have the Chinook helicopter drop him off at the slave breaker’s home where Douglass was tortured to death. He could relax there.
Donald Rumsfeld died [on June 29 2021] at the age of 88. He had a singular career. He made gazillions of dollars in business running companies that invented Nutrasweet and early HDTVs. He served four terms in congress, which is something that’s not frequently remembered about him, especially given his later overt and pronounced disdain for Congress.
As the Facebook post observed, Maddow coaxed viewers so deeply into the story of Douglass’ experience and the history of Mount Misery that the denouement of the segment served as something of an unexpected surprise. Further, Maddow alluded controversy involving the New York Times‘ “kind of a kicky sidebar piece” in the summer of 2006 — reporting which purportedly revealed the address of a senior government official at the time.
Maddow’s claims in the segment were backed up by an August 2006 Baltimore Sun article, “Douglass and the legacy of Mount Misery”:
Long ago, in the small Chesapeake Bay town of St. Michaels, a slave named Frederick Douglass beat up a white farmer named Edward Covey who had been hired to “break” the difficult young man. That fistfight was a turning point in Mr. Douglass’ life, liberating him from fear, and it set him on a path that would lead him out of slavery and into a career as the preeminent African-American spokesman of the 19th century and one of the truly remarkable figures of American history, black or white.
The fight took place at the farmer’s home, a relatively modest brick manor called Mount Misery. Today [in August 2006], the five-bedroom home is owned by U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, who bought it in 2003, as a weekend retreat, for $1.5 million. It sits on four beautifully landscaped acres.
A Realtor.com piece from September 2019 reported Rumsfeld’s listing Mount Misery for sale (at $2.45 million). On June 30 2021, The Intercept mentioned Rumsfeld’s Mount Misery purchase in a retrospective on his legacy.
A July 1 2021 Facebook post paraphrased an MSNBC segment, during which anchor Rachel Maddow described “Mount Misery” at length before revealing that former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who died in June 2021, purchased the home in 2003. Based on the popularity of the Facebook post, Rumsfeld’s purchase of the site was not widely known at the time of his death. The segment was accurate, as Rumsfeld indeed purchased the house in 2003.