Frederick Douglass to Abigail Mott, April 23, 1846
FREDERICK DOUGLASS TO ABIGAIL MOTT1The editor of the Albany Evening Journal introduced the letter as an extract from Douglass “to a Friend, dated April 23, 1846,” whom Douglass identifies only as “A” at the end of the letter. In all probability the recipient of the letter was Abigail Mott (1803–50), who lived in Albany, New York, and whom Douglass addressed as “A” in a letter dated 21 February 1846, which appears in this volume. A cousin to Lucretia Mott’s husband, James, little is known of Abigail other than that she was a domestic companion to her sister, Lydia (1807–75), whom she assisted in antislavery activities. Lydia taught school in Philadelphia, where Susan B. Anthony was among her students, before moving to Albany in 1824. For several years she ran a “gentleman’s furnishing store” or shirtmaking business with her sister. Their home served as a waystation for fugitive slaves and a boardinghouse for itinerant lecturers on abolitionism and women’s rights. From 1845 to 1848, Douglass sent his daughter Rosetta to Albany to live and study with the Mott sisters. Although the two sisters supported Douglass early in his career, being among the first subscribers to the North Star, a quarrel whose source remains unknown alienated them from him sometime before the death of Abigail on 5 September 1850. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, The Selected Papers of Elizabeth Cody Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, ed. Ann D. Gordon, 3 vols. (New Brunswick, N.J., 1997–2003), 1:28; Lewis G. Hoffman, Hoffman’s Albany Directory, and City Register, for 1844–45 (Albany, N.Y., 1844), 255; idem, Hoffman’s Albany Directory, and City Register for 1848–49 (Albany, N.Y., 1848), 291; Thomas Clapp Cornell, Adam and Anne Mott, Their Ancestors and Descendants (Poughkeepsie, N.Y., 1890), 218–19, 283, 321; Merrill and Ruchames, Garrison Letters, 4:272n; Sterling, Ahead of Her Time, 159.
[Ayr, Scot. 23 April 1846].
I am now in the town of Ayr.2Ayr, Scotland, lies on the Firth of Clyde at the mouth of the Ayr River, about thirty miles southwest of Glasgow. Seltzer, Gazetteer of the World, 131. It is famous for being the birth-place of Robert Burns,3Considered the national poet of Scotland, Robert Burns (1759–96) was born in the nearby village of Alloway at the mouth of the Doon River, and Ayr is the center of Burns country. As the son of a tenant farmer with little formal education, Burns captured the imagination of the Scottish people with his deep roots in folk culture and his ability to blend ancient and modern verse. His first published volume of poetry, Poems Chieﬂy in the Scottish Dialect (1786), drew upon traditional Scottish songs and epic poems and quickly won him critical praise. In 1789, after a brief tenure in Edinburgh, Burns settled on a farm in Ellisland. There he devoted his last years to collecting and writing songs. Among the most renowned works of Burns are the narrative poem “Tam O’Shanter, A Tale” and the song “Auld Lang Syne,” which he modernized from an old Scottish tune. David Daiches, “Robert Burns,” in British Writers, vol. 3: Daniel Defoe to the Gothic Novel, ed. Ian Scott-Kilvert (New York, 1980), 310–23; L. Russell Muirhead, ed., Scotland (London, 1959), 172; DNB, 3:426–39. the poet, by whose brilliant genius every stream, hill, glen and valley in the neighborhood have been made classic. I have felt more interest in visiting this place than any other in Scotland, for, as you are aware, (painfully perhaps) I am an enthusiastic admirer of Robt. Burns. Immediately on our arrival, Friend Buffum4James N. Buffum. and myself were joined by the Rev. Mr. Renwick,5On the evenings of 23 and 24 March 1846, Douglass lectured at the Relief Church on Cathart Street in Ayr, Scotland. The Reverend Robert Renwick, pastor, presided over both meetings, giving Douglass enthusiastic support. Ayr (Scot) Advertiser, 26 March 1846; Ayr (Scot) Observer, 31 March 1846; Annie I. Dunlop, ed., The Royal Burgh of Ayr: Seven Hundred and Fifty Years of History (Edinburgh, Scot., 1953), 129–30, 159. the Minister in whose meeting house we are to lecture during our stay, and proceeded forthwith to see Burns’ Monument.6The Burns Monument in Alloway stands about one-half mile beyond the poet’s birthplace near the Doon River. Built in 1820, the rounded temple with nine pillars houses artifacts from Burns’s life. Muirhead, Scotland, 174. It is about three miles from town, and situated on the south bank of the river “Doon,”7The thirty-mile-long Doon River flows northwest through Ness Glenn, connecting Loch Doon to the Firth of Clyde. Muirhead, Scotland, 177; Cohen, Columbia Gazetteer, 1:857. and within hearing of its gentle steps as it winds its way over its pebbled path to the Ocean. The place of the monument is well chosen, being in full view of all the places mentioned and referred to in the Poet’s famous poem called “Tam O’Shanter,”8“Tam O’Shanter” (1790) is one of Robert Burns’s most famous works. Originally composed to accompany an engraving of Alloway Kirk, this poem tells the story of Tam O’Shanter, who narrowly escapes witches while riding home from a late night of drinking and storytelling. Robert Burns, Poems and Songs, ed. James Kinsley (London, 1969), 443–49. as well as several others of his most popular poems. From the Monument (which I have not time to describe,) may be seen the Cottage where Burns was born9The father of Robert Burns, William Burnes, built the cottage with his own hands. Located in the center of Alloway, the cottage served as the family’s home from 1757 to 1766, when they moved to Mount Oliphant, a farm a little over a mile away. Muirhead, Scotland, 174.—the old and new bridge across the Doon10Two bridges cross the Doon River in Ayr. The Auld Brig, built in the thirteenth century, served as the only bridge for nearly five hundred years. The New Bridge, built in 1788, crossed the river slightly downstream and had to be replaced in 1877. The bridges are the subject of Burns’s poem “Twa Brigs.” Muirhead, Scotland, 173; Seltzer, Gazetteer of the World, 131.—“Kirk Alloway,”11Alloway Kirk was in ruins long before Burns’s birth. Located near Bums’s birthplace, it consisted of four walls and two gables, one with a bell cote. His parents’ graves are in its yard. Muirhead, Scotland, 174. called by Burns the “Haunted Kirk.”12The “haunted kirk,” as Burns described Alloway Kirk in line 32 of “Tam O’Shanter,” is the site where Tam sees the witches’ orgy. Burns, Poems and Songs, 444; Muirhead, Scotland, 174. The banks of “Doon” rising majestically from the sea toward the sky, and the Clyde stretching off to the highlands of Arran,13Arran is a twenty-mile-long and ten-mile-wide mountainous island in the Firth of Clyde and visible from the city of Ayr. Muirhead, Scotland, 149; Seltzer, Gazetteer of the World, 103, 422. whose dim out-line is
scarcely discernable through the fog by which it is almost constantly overhung, makes the spot admirably and beautifully adapted to the monument of Scotland’s noble bard. In the Monument there is a finely executed marble bust of Burns14On a terrace on the southern part of the monument is a bust of Burns, sculpted by Patric Park. Maurice Lindsay, The Burns Encyclopedia (London, 1970), 8.—the finest thing of the kind I ever saw. I never before, looking upon it, realized the power of man to make the marble speak. The expression is so fine, and the face so lit up, as to cause one to forget the form in gazing upon the spirit.
In another room, there are two statues carved out of free-stone—the one of Souter Johnny15Souter Johnnie was a drinking companion of Tam O’Shanter in the Burns poem “Tam O’Shanter.” The character was reportedly based on Burns’s friend John Davidson, a shoemaker known for his good sense of humor. Burns, Poems and Songs, 444; Lindsay, Burns Encyclopedia, 100. and the other of Tam O’Shanter,16Sculpted by a local artist, James Thom, the statues of Tam O’ Shanter and Souter Johnnie are located in a grotto in the garden of the Burns Monument. Muirhead, Scotland, 174. two characters named in his most famous poem. These were also finely executed and shared my attention, but I was drawn to Burns. In a glass case near his bust there was a bible, given by Burns to his “sweet Highland Mary”17“Sweet Highland Mary” is Mary Campbell (1763–86), thought to be a former lover of Robert Burns. Campbell worked as a dairymaid in Coilsfield and died under unconﬁrmed circumstances in 1786, possibly during childbirth. That same year, Burns immortalized her in the song “The Highland Lassie, O.” Lindsay, Burns Encyclopedia, 64.—there is also in the same case a lock of her hair neatly fastened to a card. As I gazed on the hair of her he so dearly loved, and who by death was snatched from his bosom, and up to his bust glowing with expression, I received a vivid impression, and shared with him the deep melancholy pourtrayed in the following lines:—
“Ye banks and braes of bonnie Doon,
How can ye bloom sae fresh and fair;
How can ye chant, ye little birds,
And I sae weary, fu’ o’ care?
Thou’ll break my heart, thou warbling bird,
That wantons through the ﬂowering thorn;
Thou ’ minds me of departed joys,
Departed never to return’.
“Oft hae I rov’d bye bonnie Doon
To see the rose and woodbine twine,
And ilk a bird sang o’ its luve,
And fondly sae did I o’ mine;
Wi’ lightsome heart I pu’d a rose
Fu’ sweet upon its thorny tree,
And my fause lover stole my rose
But ah! he left the thorn wi’ me.”18With slight alterations of spelling and punctuation, Douglass quotes the complete text of Burns’s poem “The Banks o’ Doon.” Burns, Poems and Songs, 456–57.
On our way to the Monument we enjoyed a pleasure and privilege I shall never forget. It was that of seeing and conversing with Mrs. Beggs,19Isabella Begg (1771–1858) was the youngest sister of Robert Burns. After her husband’s death in 1816, Begg settled at Bridge House in Alloway, where she lived with her six sons and three daughters. She often provided visitors with recollections of her brother. Lindsay, Burns Encyclopedia, 49. an own sister of Robert Burns, and also seeing and talking with the poet’s two nieces, daughters of Mrs. Beggs. They live by the road side in a small
thatched cottage, humble but comfortable. When Mr. Renwick made them acquainted with the fact that we were from America they received us warmly. One of the nieces said her uncle was more highly esteemed in America than in Scotland.—Mrs. Beggs is the youngest sister of Robert Burns, and though now approaching 80, she does not look to be more than sixty. She enjoys good health, is a spirited looking woman, and bids fair to live yet many days. The two daughters are truly fine looking women. Coal black hair, full, high foreheads, and jet black eyes, sparkling with the poetic fire which illumined the breast of their brilliant uncle. Their deportment was warm and free, yet dignified and lady-like. They did every thing to make our call agreeable, and they were not ignorant as to the means of putting us fully at ease. Two letters in their uncle’s own hand writing, was early put into our hands. An original portrait, said to be excellent, was discoursed upon; I thought it much like those we usually see in his works.
We sat fifteen or twenty minutes. It might have been longer, as happy moments pass rapidly. Took leave—bade farewell. I saw in them so much of what I love in every body else, I felt as if leaving old and dear friends. I have ever esteemed Robert Burns a true soul, but never could I have had the high opinion of the man or his genius, which I now entertain, without my present knowledge of the country to which he belonged—the times in which he lived, and the broad Scotch tongue in which he wrote. Burns lived in the midst of a bigotted and besotted clergy—a pious, but corrupt generation—a proud, ambitious, and contemptuous aristocracy, who, esteemed a little more than a man, and looked upon the ploughman, such as was the noble Burns, as being little better than a brute. He became disgusted with the pious frauds, indignant at the bigotry, filled with contempt for the hollow pretensions set up by the shallow-brained aristocracy. He broke loose from the moorings which society had thrown around him. Spurning all restraint, he sought a path for his feet, and, like all bold pioneers, he made crooked paths. We may lament it, we may weep over it, but in the language of another, we shall lament and weep with him. The elements of character which urged him on are in us all, and inﬂuencing our conduct every day of our lives. We may pity him but we can’t despise him. We may condemn his faults, but only as we condemn our own. His very weakness was an index of his strength. Full of faults of a grievous nature, yet far more faultless than many who have come down to us on the page of history as saints. He was a brilliant genius, and like all of his class, did much good and much evil. Let us take the good and leave the evil—let us adopt his virtues but avoid his vices—let us pursue his wisdom but shun his folly; and as death
has separated his noble spirit from the corrupt and corruptible dust with which it was encumbered, so let us separate his good from his evil deeds—thus may we make him a blessing rather than a curse to the world.
Read his “Tam O’Shanter,” “Cotter’s Saturday Night,”20“Cotter’s Saturday Night” depicts a peasant family at the end of a work week. The father returns from the fields to be greeted by his family, the mother prepares a simple meal, the daughter receives a suitor who speaks with the prospective father-in-law about farming matters, and the family ends the evening with a prayer. Burns concludes the poem by lauding the family as the embodiment of Scottish character, spirituality, and patriotism. Burns, Poems and Songs, 116–21 . “Man was Made to Mourn,”21In “Man Was Made to Mourn, A Dirge,” Burns uses the character of a “rev’rend Sage” to criticize “Man’s inhumanity to Man.” Douglass may have been particularly drawn to the ninth stanza, in which the narrator says, “If I’m design’d yon lordling’s slave, / By Nature’s law design’d, / Why was an independent wish / E’er planted in my mind?” Burns, Poems and Songs, 92–94. “To my Mary in heaven.”22“To My Mary in Heaven” was an untitled song written by Burns in 1789 and tells of a man remembering and mourning his dead lover. Burns, Poems and Songs, 390–91. Indeed, dear A., read his poems, and, as I know you are no admirer of Burns, read it to gratify your friend Frederick. So much for Burns.
PLe: Albany Evening Journal, 13 June 1846. Reprinted in NASS, 25 June 1846; New York Daily Tribune, 9 July 1846; Lib., 17 July 1846. PLeSr: Foner, Life and Writings, 1:151–53.