Slavery and Abolitionism in the Period of National Expansion and Reform, 1815-1860
Chapter XI of The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave relates Douglass’ successful escape from Baltimore to New York in 1838. The chapter begins:
I now come to that part of my life during which I planned, and finally succeeded in making, my escape from slavery. But before narrating any of the peculiar circumstances, I deem it proper to make known my intention not to state all the facts connected with the transaction. My reasons for pursuing this course may be understood from the following: First, were I to give a minute statement of all the facts, it is not only possible, but quite probable, that others would thereby be involved in the most embarrassing difficulties. Secondly, such a statement would most undoubtedly induce greater vigilance on the part of slave-holders than has existed heretofore among them; which would, of course, be the means of guarding a door whereby some dear brother bondman might escape his galling chains.
- What reasons did Douglass give for not explaining exactly how he escaped from slavery? Do you think these reasons were compelling?
- Look at Douglass’ second and third autobiographies. When did he decide to reveal the entire story of how he made his way to freedom? What explanation did he give for not revealing this information earlier? Do you think he made the right decision? Why or why not?
In New York, Frederick changed his name from Bailey to Johnson and married Anna Murray. With his new wife, he moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts, where the couple soon changed their name to Douglass. In 1841 he was encouraged to speak to an antislavery meeting in New Bedford. William Lloyd Garrison was so impressed by Douglass’ address that he persuaded him to go on the speaking circuit. In 1845, after publishing his autobiography, Douglass toured Great Britain and Ireland as an abolitionist speaker. In a letter to Garrison from Dublin dated September 1, 1845, Douglass described a confrontation on board ship after he was asked to speak.
Yes, they actually got up a mob—a real American, republican, democratic, Christian mob,—and that, too, on the deck of a British steamer, and in sight of the beautiful high lands of Dungarvan! I declare, it is enough to make a slave ashamed of the country that enslaved him, to think of it.
U.S. newspapers, North and South, were critical of Douglass’ speaking about slavery in Britain. Douglass wrote to Horace Greeley from Glasgow, Scotland, thanking him for the support and encouragement Greeley had offered in the New York Tribune. In a letter dated April 15, 1846, Douglass wrote,
I am one of those who think the best friend of a nation is he who most faithfully rebukes her for her sins—and he her worst enemy, who, under the specious and popular garb of patriotism, seeks to excuse, palliate, and defend them. America has much more to fear from such than all the rebukes of the abolitionists at home or abroad.
In these sentences, Douglass addresses an issue that has persisted throughout U.S. history. What is this question? How might someone taking the opposing position respond to Douglass? Think of at least two other times in U.S. history that this question has emerged and look for quotes representing the opposing points of view. Do you think this question has been controversial in other countries? Why or why not?
While Douglass was abroad, English friends raised money to “purchase” Douglass’ freedom from Thomas Auld of Maryland. While in America, even residing in the North, Douglass was always faced with the possibility of being captured and returned to Maryland, as he explains in an essay written in 1846. Read the letter Douglass wrote to his former master, published in the Liberator in 1848. Douglass ends the letter with the words, “I am your fellow man, but not your slave.” The collection also includes the bill of sale for Frederick Bailey (Douglass).
- What was the tone of Douglass’ letter to Thomas Auld?
- How did Douglass attempt to get Auld to consider the horrors of enslavement?
- How did Douglass regard churchmen who trafficked “in the souls and bodies of men”?
- What can you discern of Douglass’ character from this letter?
Douglass returned to the United States in 1847 and moved his family to Rochester, New York.
Using funds raised in England and Ireland, Douglass purchased a printing press. Martin Delany, who had served as editor of an African American paper in Pittsburgh, joined in Douglass’ endeavor. The two editors named their paper The North Star. Read what Douglass said were the reasons for choosing that title. The masthead of the paper proclaimed, “Right is of no Sex—Truth is of no Color—God is the Father of us all, and we are all Brethren.” Volume I, No. 1 explained the purpose for publishing the paper.
…“common sense affirms and only folly denies,” that the man who has SUFFERED THE WRONG is the man to DEMAND REDRESS,—that the man STRUCK is the man to CRY OUT—and that he who had ENDURED THE CRUEL PANGS OF SLAVERY is the man to ADVOCATE LIBERTY. It is evident that we must be our own representatives and advocates, not exclusively, but peculiarly,—not distant from, but in connection with, our white friends.
- What were other recommended titles for the newspaper?
- Why did Douglass and Delany select the name The North Star?
- What would you have advised the editors to name the paper? Why?
- How did the slogan on the masthead of the paper relate to the goals of the paper?
- What was the reason for establishing an African American newspaper as the voice of abolition? Do you agree with this reasoning?
In the inaugural issue of The North Star, Douglass addressed a letter to Henry Clay. Read this letter, in which Douglas responded point by point to assertions Clay had made in a speech at a mass meeting in Lexington, Kentucky, in mid-November 1847. In a second letter in the January 1848 issue of paper, Douglas addressed the following comment to Clay:
This speech we have just finished perusing and confess to some excitement. We see in it a revival of that second enemy of the colored people, the Colonization Society, which, next to slavery, is the deadliest foe of the colored man, … unsettling his plans and improvements by teaching him to feel that this is not his home; disheartening and subduing his enterprise by causing him to feel that all effort at self-evaluation is in vain; that neither knowledge, temperance, patience, faith nor virtue can avail him anything in this land.
- What techniques did Douglass use to challenge Clay’s assertions in his Lexington speech? How effective was Douglass’s rebuttal to Clay?
- Why do you think Douglass was so adamantly opposed to colonization schemes?
- Why did he accuse Clay of “mock sympathy and sham philanthropy”?
- How did Douglass compare the two Clay speeches?
The pamphlet “The Constitution of the United States with all the Acts of Congress Relating to Slavery,” published in 1854, is among the public documents in the Douglass collection. Along with other documents, the pamphlet includes the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 and the Kansas Nebraska Act of 1854.
Douglass addressed the American Anti-Slavery Society meeting in New York on May 14, 1857. In his speech, Douglass attacked the Supreme Court for its decision in Scott v. Sandford, which had been rendered two months earlier. Read the speech and select excerpts to illustrate the depth of feeling aroused by the majority decision of the Court.
The world is full of violence and fraud, and it would be strange if the slave, the constant victim of both fraud and violence, should escape the contagion. He, too, may learn to fight the devil with fire, and for one, I am in no frame of mind to pray that this may be long deferred.
- What tone was set by Douglass’ address?
- What hope or promise was offered in the speech?
- What passages of the speech imply that slavery may only be overturned by violent confrontation?