Frederick Douglass to Horace Greeley, April 15, 1846
FREDERICK DOUGLASS TO HORACE GREELEY1Horace Greeley (1811–72), a journalist, reformer, and Republican politician, was the founder and longtime editor of the New York Tribune. Born in Amherst, New Hampshire, Greeley moved to New York City in 1831 and became coeditor of a small literary periodical in 1834. With the sponsorship of William H. Seward and Thurlow Weed, Greeley entered the field of political journalism, editing Whig campaign weeklies in 1838 and 1840. In 1841 he launched the Tribune, which quickly outstripped its local competitors and attained a large circulation throughout the North. In addition to promoting reform causes ranging from Fourierism to the abolition of capital punishment to equal suffrage for free black males, the Tribune under Greeley became the leading editorial voice of the Republican party during the 1850s. Greeley clashed repeatedly with Douglass, James McCune Smith, and other black leaders because he remained openly hostile to abolitionism during the 1840s and 1850s. He believed blacks incapable of achieving social equality with whites, and gave periodic support to emigration schemes throughout the antebellum era. Horace Greeley, Recollections of a Busy Life (New York, 1868); Ralph Ray Fahrney, Horace Greeley and the “Tribune” in the Civil War (Cedar Rapids, Iowa, 1936); Glyndon G. Van Deusen, Horace Greeley: Nineteenth Century Crusader (Philadelphia, 1953); Eric Foner, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party before the Civil War (New York, 1970), 262–63, 297–300; DAB, 7:528–34.
Glasgow, Scot. 15 April 1846.
MY DEAR SIR:—
I never wrote nor attempted to write a letter for any other than a strictly Anti-Slavery press; but being greatly encouraged by your magnanimity, as shown in copying my letter written from Belfast, Ireland, to the Liberator at Boston,2Horace Greeley reprinted Douglass’s 1 January 1846 letter from Belfast in which Douglass wrote that he had been treated more as an equal in Britain than he had been in the northern United States. Greeley prefaced the letter with favorable comments. Douglass’s letter appears in this volume. New York Tribune, 2 February 1846. I venture to send you a few lines direct from my pen.
I know not how to thank you for the deep and lively interest you have been pleased to take in the cause of my long neglected race, or in what language to express the gratification I feel in witnessing your unwillingness to lend your aid to ‘break a bruised reed,’3A paraphrase of Matt. 12:20. by adding your weight to the already insupportable burden to crush, the feeble though virtuous efforts of one who is laboring for the emancipation of a people who, for two long centuries, have endured with the utmost patience, a bondage one hour of which, in the graphic language of the immortal Jefferson,4Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826), a planter and statesman from Virginia, was the third president of the United States (1801–09) and author of the Declaration of Independence. Noble Cunningham, In Pursuit of Reason: The Life of Thomas Jefferson (New York, 1987); DAB, 10:17–35. is worse than ages of that which your fathers rose in rebellion to oppose.5On 26 June 1786 Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to Jean Nicholas Demeunier, saying, “Who can endure toil, famine, stripes, imprisonment or death itself in vindication of his own liberty, and the next moment be deaf to all those motives whose power supported him thro’ his trial, and inﬂict on his fellow men a bondage, one hour of which is fraught with more misery than ages of that which he rose in rebellion to oppose.” Thomas Jefferson, The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Julian P. Boyd et al., 31 vols. (Princeton, N.J., 1950–2005), 10:63.
It is such indications on the part of the press—which, happily, are multiplying throughout all the land—that kindle up within me an ardent hope that the curse of Slavery will not much longer be permitted to make its iron foot-prints into the lacerated hearts of my sable brethren, or to spread its foul mantle of moral blight, mildew and infamy over the otherwise noble character of the American people.
I am very sorry to see that some of your immediate neighbors are very much displeased with you for this act of kindness to myself, and the cause of which I am an humble advocate, and that an attempt has been made on the part of some of them, by misrepresenting my sayings, motives and objects in this country, to stir up against me the already too bitter antipathy of the American people.6The New York Herald criticized Douglass’s mission to the British Isles, saying, “It is too bad that Americans can be found who will attempt to vilify our country as these wandering Abolition lecturers do, both at home and abroad.” New York Herald, 27 September, 6 October, 1 December 1845. I am called by way of reproach a runaway slave. As if it were a crime—an unpardonable crime—for a man to take his inalienable rights! If I had not run away, but settled down in the degrading arms of Slavery and made no effort to gain my freedom, it is quite probable that the learned gentlemen who new brand me with being a miserable runaway Slave, would have adduced the fact in proof of the Negro’s adaptation to Slavery and his utter unfitness for freedom! ‘There is no pleasing some people.’ But why should Mr. James Brooks7The New York Express was a daily newspaper owned and operated by brothers, James Brooks (1810–73) and Erastus Brooks (1815–86). Formerly from New England, the Brooks brothers founded the paper to advance the interests of the Whig party in the 1836 presidential election. The Express retained that political allegiance until the Whig party’s demise, then supported the fortunes of the American or “Know-Nothing” party, the Constitutional Union party, and finally the Democratic party. Throughout the antebellum era, the Express had a vehement anti-Catholic and antiblack editorial position. ANB, 3:613–14. feel so much annoyed by the attention shown me in this country, and so anxious to excite against me the jealousy and hatred of the American people? I can very readily
understand why a Slaveholder—a trader in Slaves—one who has all his property in human ﬂesh, blinded by ignorance as to his own best interest, and under the dominion of violent passions engendered by the possession of discretionary and irresponsible power over the bodies and souls of his victims—accustomed to the inhuman sight of men and women sold at auction in company with horses, sheep and swine, and in every way treated more like brutes than human beings, should repine at my success and in his blindness seek to throw every discouragement and obstacle in the way of the slave’s emancipation. But why a New-York Editor, born and reared in the State of Maine, far removed from the contaminated and pestilential atmosphere of Slavery, should pursue such a course, is not so apparent. I will not, however, stop here to ascertain the cause, but deal with fact; and I cannot better do this than by giving your readers a simple and undisguised statement of the motives and objects of my visit to this country. I feel it but just to myself to do so, since I have been denounced by the “New-York Express” as a ‘glib-tongued scoundrel,’ and gravely charged, in its own elegant and dignified language, with ‘running a muck in greedy-eared Britain against America, its people, its institutions, and even against its peace.’8This language denouncing Douglass appeared in the New York Express. NASS, 12 February 1846.
Of the low and vulgar epithets, coupled with the false and somewhat malicious charges, very little need be said. I am used to them. Their force is lost upon me in the frequency of their application. I was reared where they were in the most common use. They form a large and very important part of the vocabulary of characters known in the South as plantation ‘Negro-drivers.’9The “negro” drivers supervised the other slaves on the plantation, acting as foremen, taskmasters, or managers. They occupied a position just below or in place of the white overseer. With masters often absent for much of the year, the driver was often the only authority ﬁgure on the plantation. As such, he has been despised in historical interpretations and in literature by both blacks and whites alike. Drivers have been portrayed as traitors to their race, cruel disciplinarians with the whip, and menacing shadows of the master. In reality, they were actually both beneﬁciaries and victims of the slave system. They acted as intermediaries between the slaves and the master, often protecting the slaves, and were well respected and trusted as managers by the masters. William L. Van Deburg, The Slave Drivers: Black Agricultural Labor Supervisors in the Antebellum South (Westport, Conn., 1979); Randall M. Miller, “The Man in the Middle: the Black Slave Driver,” American Heritage, 30:40–49 (October/November 1979); Miller and Smith, Dictionary of Afro-American Slavery, 196–98. A slaveholding gentleman would scorn to use them. He leaves them to find their way into the world of sound through the polluted lips of his hired “negro-driver”—a being for whom the haughty Slaveholder feels incomparably more contempt than he feels toward his Slave. And for the best of all reasons—he knows the Slave to be degraded because he cannot help himself; but a white ‘negro-driver’ is degraded because of native, original, ingrained meanness. If I agree with the Slaveholders in nothing else, I can say I agree with them in all their burning contempt for a ‘Negro-driver,’ whether born North or South. Such epithets will have no prejudicial effect against me on the mind of the class of the American people whose good opinion I sincerely desire to cultivate and deserve. And it is to these I would address this brief word of explanation.
The object, then, of my visit to this country is simply to give such an exposition of the degrading inﬂuence of Slavery upon the master and his abettors as well as upon the Slave—to excite such an intelligent interest on the subject of American Slavery as may react upon that country and tend to shame her out of her adhesion to a system which all must confess to be
at variance with justice, repugnant to Christianity, and at war with her own free institutions. ‘The head and front of my offending hath this extent, no more.’10Othello, act 1, sc. 3, lines 80–81. I am one of those who think the best friend of a nation is he who the 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.
I am nevertheless aware that the wisdom of exposing the sins of one nation in the ear of another has been seriously questioned by good and clear-sighted people both on this and on your side of the Atlantic. And the thought is not without its weight upon my own mind. I am satisfied that there are many evils which can be best removed by confining our efforts to the immediate locality where such evils exist. This, however, is by no means the case with the system of Slavery. It is such a giant sin—such a monstrous aggregation of iniquity, so hardening to the human heart, so destructive to the moral sense, and so well calculated to beget a character in every one around it favorable to its own continuance, that I feel not only at liberty but abundantly justified in appealing to the whole world to aid in its removal. Slavery exists in the United States because it is reputable, and it is reputable in the United States because it is not so disreputable out of the United States as it ought to be, and it is not so disreputable out of the United States as it ought to be because its character is not so well known as it ought to be. Believing this most firmly, and being a lover of Freedom, a hater of Slavery, one who has felt the bloody whip and worn the galling chain—sincerely and earnestly longing for the deliverance of my sable brethren from their awful bondage, I am bound to expose its character, whenever and wherever an opportunity is afforded me. I would attract to it the attention of the world. I would fix upon it the piercing eye of insulted Liberty. I would arraign it at the bar of Eternal Justice and summon the Universe to witness against it. I would concentrate against it the moral and religious sentiment of Christian people of every ‘class, color and clime.’ I would have the guilty Slaveholder see his condemnation written on every human face, and hear it proclaimed in every human voice, till, overwhelmed with shame and confusion, he resolved to cease his wicked course, undo the heavy burden and let the oppressed go free.
The people in this country who take the deepest interest in the removal of Slavery from America and the spread of Liberty throughout the world, are the same who oppose the bloody spirit of war, and are earnestly laboring to spread the blessings of peace all over the globe. I have ever found the Abolitionists of this country the warmest friends of America and American
institutions. I have frequently seen in their houses, and sometimes occupying the most conspicuous places in their parlors, the American Declaration of Independence. An aged Anti-Slavery gentleman in Dublin, with whom I had the honor several times to dine during my stay in that city, has the Declaration of Independence11The Declaration of Independence was the formal document in which the Continental Congress of the united American colonies enumerated their grievances with the British government, and stated their logic for seceding from the empire. The initial author of the document was Thomas Jefferson, although the entire Second Continental Congress contributed to revisions. and a number of the portraits of the distinguished founders of the American Republic. He bought them many years ago in token of his admiration of the men and their principles. But, said he, after speaking of the sentiments of the Declaration—looking up at it as it hung in a costly frame—I am often tempted to turn its face to the wall, it is such a palpable contradiction of the spirit and practices of the American people at this time. This instrument was once the watchword of Freedom in this land, and the American people were regarded as the best friends and truest representatives of that sacred cause. But they are not so regarded now. They have allowed the crowned heads of Europe to outstrip them. While Great Britain has emancipated all her slaves, and is laboring to extend the blessings of Liberty wherever her power is felt, it seems, in the language of John Quincy Adams,12The eldest son of John Adams, John Quincy Adams (1767–1848) served as the American ambassador to the Netherlands, Berlin, Russia, and England during the early years of the republic. He also held ofﬁce as U.S. senator from Massachusetts (1803–08), secretary of state in James Monroe’s cabinet (1817–25), and president of the United States (1825–29). From 1831 until his death, Adams sat in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he opposed slavery and its extension and fought the “gag rule” on abolitionist petitions. In late 1831, he made his first antislavery speech on the ﬂoor of Congress when he introduced fifteen petitions from Pennsylvania Quakers praying for the abolition of slavery and the slave trade in the District of Columbia. Adams also defended a band of captured Africans before the Supreme Court in the Amistad case in 1841. Despite his association with the abolitionist cause, Adams said that he personally favored ending only the slave trade. Samuel F. Bemis, John Quincy Adams and the Union (New York, 1956); Leonard L. Richards, The Life and Times of Congressman John Quincy Adams (New York, 1986); Paul C. Nagel, John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, a Private Life (New York, 1997). that the preservation, propagation and perpetuation of Slavery, is the vital and animating spirit of the American Government.13A pamphlet published by the American Anti-Slavery Society included remarks by John Quincy Adams in which Adams condemned southern slaveholders for perverting the Constitution in order “to establish an artificial majority in the slave representation over that of the free people, in the American Congress; and thereby to make the preservation, propagation and perpetuation of slavery, the vital and animating spirit of the American Government.” William Ingersoll Bowditch, The United States Constitution (New York, ), 12. Even Hayti, the Black Republic, is not to be spared; the spirit of Freedom, which a sanguinary and ambitious despot could not crush or extinguish, is to be exterminated by the free American Republic, because that spirit is dangerous to Slavery. While the people of this country see such facts and indications, as well as the great fact that three millions of people are held in the most abject bondage, deprived of all their God-given rights—denied by law and public opinion to learn to read the sacred Scriptures by a people professing the largest liberty and devotion to the religion of Jesus Christ—while they see this monstrous anomaly, they must look elsewhere for a paragon of civil and religious freedom. Sir, I am earnestly and anxiously laboring to wipe off this foul blot from the otherwise fair fame of the American people, that they may accomplish in behalf of human freedom that which their exalted position among the nations of the earth amply fits them to do. Would they but arise in their moral majesty and might—repent and purify themselves from this foul crime—break the galling fetters, and restore the long lost rights to the sable bondmen in their midst—they would encircle her name with a wreath of imperishable glory. Her light would indeed break forth as the morning—its brilliant beams would ﬂash across the Atlantic and illuminate the Eastern world.
I am, dear Sir, very gratefully yours,
PLSr: New York Tribune, 20 May 1846. Reprinted in NASS, 21 May 1846; PaF, 21 May 1846; Lib., 26 June 1846; General Correspondence File, reel 1, frames 581–85, FD Papers, DLC; JNH, 10:686–91 (October 1925); Foner, Life and Writings, 1:144–49. PLe: Douglass Papers, ser. 2, 2:218.