Skip to main content

Frederick Douglass to William Lloyd Garrison, August 17, 1844



Philadelphia, [Pa.] 17 Aug[ust] 1844.

In the Liberator of yesterday, I find a communication from Providence, over the signature of L. D. Y.1The letter by “L. D. Y.” appeared in the Liberator on 16 August 1844. giving a very interesting account of the


celebration of British West India emancipation, held in Providence on the 2d of August.2According to articles and advertisements in the Liberator, Douglass seems to have agreed to speak at both the Concord and the Providence West Indies Emancipation Day celebrations. He attended the Concord gathering with Ralph Waldo Emerson, while organizers of the Providence meeting expressed perplexity that Douglass failed to appear at their meeting. Lib., 12, 19, 26 July, 16, 30 August 1844; NASS, 18, 25 July 1844. It was intimated in the letter, that my absence on the occasion caused some disappointment to our friends in that place, as I was to have been their chief speaker, and that notice had been given to that effect. Deeply regretting the disappointment, I feel it due to them, as well as to myself, to explain, through the Liberator, the reasons for my non-attendance; and that my task may not be too heavy, let me at once throw off a little of the responsibility placed upon me by L. D. Y. I did not understand that I was to be the chief speaker on that occasion. So far from it, I supposed that the[re] were two other gentlemen, who would precede me.

About two weeks before the contemplated celebration, I received from the committee of arrangements a letter, requesting me to attend, in company with Rev. Mr. Pennington3Born a slave in Maryland, James William Charles Pennington (1809–71) was a blacksmith until he ran away to Pennsylvania in his early twenties. After spending several months studying under a Quaker teacher who sheltered him, he moved to New York City, where he continued his education. Eventually he studied theology and became a pastor. Pennington kept his status as a runaway stave secret until the late 1840s, when he published his autobiography, The Fugitive Blacksmith. In 1850, he went to Europe, where Scottish friends purchased his freedom the following year. From 1847 to 1855, Pennington served as pastor of Shiloh Presbyterian Church, one of the most respected African American Presbyterian congregations in the United States. In addition to his involvement in the American Anti-Slavery Society, which he helped found in 1833, Pennington was an advocate of African American abolitionist and religious organizations. He also founded the Union Missionary Society, which later became the American Missionary Association. Pennington performed the marriage ceremony of Frederick Douglass and Anna Murray after Douglass’s escape from slavery in 1838. R. J. M. Blackett, Beating against the Barriers: The Lives of Six Nineteenth-Century Afro-Americans (Ithaca, N.Y., 1986), 52–53; Herman E. Thomas, James W. C. Pennington, African American Charchman and Abolitionist (New York, 1995), 3–27, 137–38, 171; Waldo E. Martin, Jr., The Mind of Frederick Douglass (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1984), 14–15; Rhoda G. Freeman, “The Free Negro in New York City in the Era efore the Civil War” (Ph.D. diss., Columbia University, 1966), 405; NCAB, 14:307; DAB, 7:441–42. of Hartford, and Rev. Mr. Lewis4Black minister John W. Lewis (?–1861) first gained attention in 1835, when he preached a series of revivals that led to the formation of a Free Will Baptist congregation at the Union Meeting House in Providence, Rhode Island. He also became active in the black education and temperance movements and frequently contributed articles and letters to Frederick Douglass’ Paper. James Redpath recruited Lewis to lead a colony of black migrants to Haiti, where he died in 1861. FDP, 5 May 1854, 12 January, 27 April 1855; Floyd J. Miller, The Search for a Black Nationality: Black Emigration and Colonization, 1787–1863 (Urbana, Ill., 1975), 245; Robert Glenn Sherer, Jr., “Negro Churches in Rhode Island before 1860,” Rhode Island History, 25:21–23 (January 1966). of Providence. I received the impression from this letter, that the services of these gentlemen had already been engaged, whilst mine were yet to be engaged. I certainly did not dream of being the chief speaker. To the letter I returned a very hasty answer, promising my attendance. Here the matter rested, until the week before the celebration, when, upon looking into a New-York paper, I saw that Mr. Pennington, instead of being at Providence on the 1st, was to be at New-York.5On 18 July 1844 the National Anti-Slavery Standard announced that Pennington would appear with Theodore Dwight Weld in New York City on 1 August for the celebration of British West Indies emancipation. Meanwhile, there was no notice given in any of the anti-slavery papers, of the contemplated celebration in Providence. This threw me into doubt as to whether the celebration would go on, as all the other celebrations were thus notified. I, however, was still resolved to go to Providence on the first, according to promise, and left home over night, that I might be in time in the morning to take the earliest train of cars from Boston to Providence. But, finding the morning exceedingly stormy, I deemed it useless to go. So much for the 1st of August. Now to the 2nd. On this day, I met Mr. Davis6Thomas Davis (1806–95), a wealthy jeweler, immigrated to Providence from Ireland in 1817. He first married Eliza Chase, a friend of Helen Garrison and sister to Providence wool merchant William M. Chase. After Eliza’s death, he married abolitionist and women’s rights activist Paulina Kellogg Wright in 1849. Davis served in both houses of the Rhode Island legislature and one term in the U.S. Congress (1853–55). Benjamin F. Moore, Providence Almanac and Business Directory for the Year 1843 (Providence, R.I., 1843), 46; Merrill and Rucharnes, Garrison Letters, 1:151n, 330n, 2:308n; Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, 1774–1989 (Washington, D.C., 1989), 882. from Providence, who informed me that your celebration took place on the 1st; so I concluded it was useless to go on the 2nd.

This statement may not entirely clear me from the charge of neglect of duty. I think, however, that my friends in Providence will see in it mitigating circumstances enough to exonerate me from the charge of any intentional neglect.

Yours, for truth and justice,


PLSr: Lib., 31 August 1844. Reprinted in JNH, 10:653–54 (October 1925); Woodson, Mind of the Negro, 389–90.



August 17, 1844


Publication Status