Frederick Douglass to James Wilson, July 23, 1846
FREDERICK DOUGLASS TO JAMES WILSON1James Wilson edited the Belfast Protestant Journal (1844–50). Wilson criticized absentee landlords for their inattention to the suffering of tenants during the potato famine. Belfast Protestant Journal, 14 November 1846.
Belfast, [Ire.]2The placeline of the letter also includes “Victoria Hotel.” 23 July 1846.
TO THE EDITOR OF THE “PROTESTANT JOURNAL.”
My attention has just been called to an attack upon myself in your paper of the 18th July, which seems deserving a word of reply. The attack is contained in an article from an American newspaper, the Boston Traveller.3The original editorial actually appeared in the New England Puritan, which the Boston Traveller subsequently reproduced. Published in Lynn, Massachusetts, the New England Puritan was a secular and religious paper edited by Parsons Cooke from 1840 to 1862. Cooke was a graduate of Williams College and minister of the First Church of Lynn. Known for his combative style, he advocated temperance and opposed Universalism and women’s rights, especially in regard to female ministers. His opinions and his reputed colorful expression of those opinions caused Maria Weston Chapman to lampoon him in her 1848 poem “The Times That Try Men’s Souls.” New England Puritan, 25 June 1846; Maria Weston Chapman, “The Times That Try Men’s Souls,” Living Age, 18:424 (26 August 1848); Parsons Cooke, Female Preaching, Unlawful and Inexpedient: A Sermon (Lynn, Mass., 1837); idem, The Antidote; or, The Ministry Worth Preserving (Boston, 1838); Leverett W. Spring, “Williams College,” New England Magazine, 15:161–80 (October 1893); Merrill and Ruchames, Garrison Letters, 2:723n. Were I in the United States, I should deem a reply to any assault coming through that journal entirely uncalled for. I should regard its bitterest abuse as a compliment rather than a condemnation. I know the paper, and am fully justified in declaring it to be notorious for its slaveholding malignity, and reckless disregard of truth, in every thing affecting the question of slavery in the United States. In the article before me I am pretty strongly accused of allowing the chairman of a meeting recently held in Finsbury Chapel, London, to state of me that which I knew to be false. The statement referred to is in the following words:—“Our friend, Douglass, has been obliged to escape from America, leaving his wife and four, children there, for fear of being seized by his late owner, who is vowing vengeance. He is, therefore, an exile from that country, because there is not an inch of it upon which he can with safety set his feet.”4Except for minor changes in punctuation and spelling, Douglass accurately quotes in this letter from an editorial printed in the Belfast Protestant Journal on 18 July 1846. The writer of the assault upon me says this statement “was not corrected by Douglass.” I admit it was not, and for the best of all reasons—it was essentially true, and needed no correction. The writer professes to have lived in the same village with me for several years, and that the above is the first intimation he has ever seen or heard that I had any occasion to seek for concealment or expatriation to avoid being again reduced to bondage. All I have to say to this is, that the writer’s ignorance is through no fault of mine. I have repeatedly given as one of the reasons for leaving the United States, a fear, that in consequence of publishing a narrative of my experience in slavery, and exposing the conduct of my owner, he might, to gratify his revengeful disposition, attempt to reduce me to slavery. My object was to be out of the way during the excitement and exasperation which I had good reason to apprehend would follow the publication of my narrative. The wisdom of this course has been fully confirmed by what has transpired since I left the United States. My former owner, Mr. Thomas Auld, has transferred his legal right to my body, to his brother, Hugh, who has publicly declared that, cost what it may, as sure as I set my feet upon American soil, so sure I shall again be
reduced to slavery. The laws of the land, and the Constitution of the United States, give him full power to arrest me any where in that country. There is not a state in the whole American Union, from Texas to Maine, in which I am not overshadowed with this terrible liability; and this my assailant very well knows, if he be not totally ignorant of the Constitution of the country. I think he had two purposes to serve in making the attack, and both are equally mean: one was to place me in an unfavourable light before the British public, in making me out a deceiver, and the other was to cover up the disgraceful fact, that in the United States, the land of boasted liberty and light, there is not a single inch of ground upon which a runaway slave may stand in safety. The writer speaks of my allegations against the American Board.5Founded in 1810, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions was a cooperative venture of evangelically oriented Congregationalists and New School Presbyterians. The board gathered contributions to support missionaries sent to stations worldwide as well as among western Indian tribes. Since the late 1830s, abolitionists had protested that the board accepted donations from slaveholders and that its missionaries admitted slave-owning Indians into their congregations. In 1845 the board’s annual meeting voted to reject abolitionist entreaties to change those policies. Douglass criticized the board’s stance in his address to the annual meeting of the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society in London on 22 May 1846. McKivigan, War against Proslavery Religion, 112–13; Douglass Papers, ser. 1, 1:284. He does not say what they are, but he says they have been nailed to the counter6To “nail to the counter” is to prove a lie or expose a sham for all to see, The phrase derives from the tradition that shopkeepers would nail to the counter any counterfeit currency tendered to them. Stevenson, Book of Proverbs, 1649. here (meaning in the United States). I have never made a single charge against that body which I am not prepared to prove. I have charged them with neglecting to give the Bible to the slave, and of taking the price of human ﬂesh and blood, with which to send the gospel to the heathen. They admit it, and justify themselves by the conduct of the Free Church of Scotland. The writer says—“But our American readers will be amused at the course which things are taking, in reference to this high priest of Anti-ministry, Anti-churchism, and Anti-sabbathism.’[’]7During the Jacksonian era criticism of longstanding prohibitions on most forms of commercial and recreational activity on the Sabbath emerged. The cause of “anti-sabbatarianism” attracted the support of William Lloyd Garrison and some of his abolitionist associates, especially Henry C. Wright, as well as a scattering of other mid-century reformers. Douglass had not been strongly associated with that view before the date of this letter, and he explicitly repudiated it after his break with the Garrisonian camp in the early 1850s. Martin, Mind of Frederick Douglass, 24, 41. If the writer means by this, that I have ever opposed the institutions named, as such, the whole charge is false; but if he means that I have unmasked the slave-holding and woman-whipping churches and clergy of America, I plead guilty to the charge. The writer exclaims, with apparent extacy—“He is lost to his country for ever; for one of the speakers said that they would never let him come back, but would support him handsomely during life in England.’[’] Not quite so fast young man. No inducement could be offered strong enough to make me quit my hold upon America as my home. Whether a slave or a freeman, America is my home, and there I mean to spend and be spent in the cause of my outraged fellow-countrymen.—
PLSr: Belfast Protestant Journal, 25 July 1846. Reprinted in Lib., 28 August 1846; JNH, 10:691–93 (October 1925); Woodson, Mind of the Negro, 427–29; Foner, Life and Writings, 1:179–81. TLSr: General Correspondence File, reel 1, frames 611–12, FD Papers, DLC.