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Henry C. Wright to Frederick Douglass, December 12, 1846

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HENRY C. WRIGHT TO FREDERICK DOUGLASS

Doncaster, [Eng.] 12 Dec[ember] 1846.

DEAR FREDERICK:

This is the first letter of advice I ever wrote to you—it is the last. I like to bear the responsibility of my own existence. I like to see others bear theirs. I say what I am about to say, because I think it is my right and duty to say

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it; at the same time, not wishing to interfere with your right to follow my advice, or not, as you shall see fit. That Certificate of your freedom, that Bill of Sale of your body and soul, from that villain, Auld,1British abolitionists began negotiations for the purchase of Douglass’s liberty in July 1846, when he announced in the pages of the Protestant Journal that he planned to return to the United States in spite of Hugh Auld’s threat to reenslave him. The following month Anna Richardson, a Quaker and the wife of Henry Richardson of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, wrote to Hugh Auld, asking him the price of Douglass’s freedom. In October Auld replied that he would manumit Douglass for £150 sterling. She and her sister-in-law, Ellen Richardson, took steps to raise the purchase money and made arrangements with American abolitionist and attorney Walter Lowrie of New York City to handle the details of the negotiation. On 24 November 1846 Lowrie notified Hugh Auld that the £150 had arrived in New York and directed Auld to produce proof of legal ownership of Douglass. Less than a week later Thomas Auld filed a bill of sale in Talbot County, transferring the ownership of Douglass to Hugh Auld. On 5 December 1846 Hugh Auld filed Douglass’s manumission papers in Baltimore County. One week later Lowrie received a copy of the bill of sale from Hugh Auld, a deed of manumission for Douglass, and a receipt showing he had received $711.66 for Douglass’ s freedom. All of these papers were placed in Douglass’s hands shortly thereafter. Talbot County Records, V. 60, 35–36, 30 November 1846, MdTCH; Deed of Manumission for “Frederick Bailey, otherwise called Frederick Douglass,” 12 December 1846; Hugh Auld’s Receipt of Payment, 12 December 1846; Walter Lowrie to Ellis Gray Loring, 15 December 1846, all from General Correspondence File, reel 1, frames 637–43, FD Papers, DLC; Douglass to Editor, Belfast Protestant Journal, n.d., in Lib., 28 August 1846; NASS, 11 November 1847; NS, 3 December 1847; Glasgow Christian News, 23 December 1847; Douglass Papers, ser. 2, 2:215–17. who dared to claim you as a chattel, and set a price on you as such, and to demand and take a price for you as such, I wish you would not touch it. I cannot bear to think of you as being a party to such a transaction, even by silence. If others will take that paper, and keep it as an evidence of your freedom, you cannot prevent them; but I wish you would see it to be your duty, publicly to disown the deed, and never to recognize that hateful Bill!—nor to refer to it, as of any authority to establish the fact that you are a Freeman, and not a Slave—a Man, and not a Chattel.

The moment you entered a non-slave State, your position ceased to be Frederick Douglass, versus Thomas Auld, and became Frederick Douglass, versus the United States. From that hour, you became the antagonist of that Republic.

As a nation, that confederacy, professing to be based upon the principle, that God made you free, and gave you an inalienable right to liberty, claims a right of property in your body and soul—to turn you into a chattel, a slave, again, at any moment. That claim you denied; the authority and power of the whole nation you spurned and defied, when, by running away, you spurned that miserable wretch, who held you as a slave. It was no longer a contest between you and that praying, psalm-singing slave-breeder, but a struggle between you and 17,000,000 of liberty-loving Republicans.2In 1840 the population of the United States was 17,069,453. U.S. Bureau of the Census, Historical Statistics of the U.S., 8. By their laws and constitution, you are a not a freeman, but a slave; you are not a man, but a chattel. You planted your foot upon their laws and constitution, and asserted your freedom and your manhood. You arraigned your antagonist—the slave-breeding Republic—before the tribunal of mankind, and of God. You have stated your case, and pleaded your cause, as none other could state and plead it. "Your position, as the slave of that Republic, as the marketable commodity, the dehumanized, outraged man of a powerful nation, whose claim and power over you, you have dared to despise, invests you with influence among all to whom your appeal is made, and gathers around you their deep-felt, absorbing, and efficient sympathy. Your appeal to mankind is not against the grovelling thief, Thomas Auld, but against the more daring, more impudent and potent thief—the Republic of the United States of America. You will lose the advantages of this truly manly, and, to my view, sublime position; you will be shorn of your strength—you will sink in your own estimation, if you accept that detestable certificate of your freedom, that blasphemous forgery,

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that accursed Bill of Sale of your body and soul; or, even by silence, acknowledge its validity. So I think. I cannot think of the transaction without vexation. I would see you free—you are free—you always were free, and the man is a villain who claims you as a slave, and should be treated as such; and the nation is a blasphemous hypocrite, that claims power over you as a chattel. I would see your right to freedom, and to a standing on the platform of humanity, openly acknowledged by every human being—not on the testimony of a bit of paper, signed and sealed by an acknowledged thief, but by the declaration of a penitent nation, prostrate at your feet, in tears, suing to you and to God for forgiveness, for the outrages committed against God and man, in your person.

That slave-breeding nation has dared to claim you, and 3,000,000 of your fellow-men, as chattels—slaves—to be bought and sold; and has pledged all its power to crush you down, and to keep you from rising from ignorance to knowledge—from degradation to respectability—from misery to happiness—from slavery to freedom—from a Chattel to a Man. As an advocate for yourself, and your 3,000,000 brethren, you have joined issue with it—and, in the name of God and humanity, you. will conquer! The nation must and shall be humbled before its victims,—not by a blasphemous bill of sale, alias Certificate of freedom, for which £150 are paid, but by renouncing its claim, blotting out its slavery-sustaining constitution, acknowledge itself conquered, and seek forgiveness of the victims of its injustice and tyranny. The plea, that this is the same as a ransom paid for a capture of some Algerine pirate,3Algerine or Barbary pirates in the employ of kingdoms in northern Africa, such as Tripoli and Algiers, raided European ships in the Mediterranean Sea and eastern Atlantic Ocean. In the early years of the republic, the United States paid tribute to these governments in order to prevent attacks on American ships. Demands for increased payment by the pashas of these kingdoms led President Thomas Jefferson to invade northern Africa and extract treaties more favorable to the United States. Robert W. Tucker and David C. Hendrickson, Empire of Liberty : The Statecraft of Thomas Jefferson (New York, 1990), 264, 294–99. or Bedouin Arab;4Bedouins, nomadic tribes of Arabs, wandered the deserts of the Middle East and were instrumental in the spread of Islam to Saharan Africa. In this harsh environment, the Bedouins survived by raiding or exacting tolls from caravans passing through their territory and operated independently of any government beyond that of their own clans. Kwame Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., eds., Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience (New York, 1999), 210. is naught. You have already, by your own energy, escaped the grasp of the pirate Auld. He has no more power over you. The spell of his influence over you is forever broken. Why go to him? Why ask the sacrilegious villain to set a price upon your body and soul? Why give him his price? The mean, brutal slaveholder—daring to price your freedom, your soul, in dollars and cents, and with cool, consummate impudence, and villa[i]ny unsurpassed, saying, ‘I’ll be satisfied with 750 dollars—I’ll give up my right of property in your person, and acknowledge you to be a freeman, and not a slave,—a man, and not a beast—for £150.’ ‘Satisfied,’ forsooth! You cancelled his villanous claims, when you turned your back upon him, and walked away. But the nation claims you as a slave. It does! Let it dare to assert that claim, and attempt your re-enslavement! It is worth running some risk, for the sake of the conflict, and the certain result.

Your wife and children are there, it is true, and you must return to them; but the greater will be your power to grapple with the monster; the shorter

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and more glorious will be the conflict; the more sure and complete the victory, if you go as the antagonist of a nation that claims you as a slave, as a chattel, a man turned into an article of merchandise. You would be armed with an irresistible power, when, as a self-emancipated captive, you arraigned that piratical Republic before the world. You would be sheltered and sustained by the sympathies of millions. The advantages of your present position should not be sacrificed to a desire for greater security.

But I will go no further. You will think that what I have said has more of indignation than of reason in it. It may be so. Feeling is often a safer and a wiser guide than logic. Of all guilty men, the American slaveholder is the most guilty, and the meanest, the most impudent, most despicable, and most inexcusable in his guilt; except, it may be, those, who, in the non-slave States, and in Scotland and England, stand sponsors for his social respectability and personal Christianity, and who thus associate our Redeemer in loving fellowship with men who are the living embodiment of the sum of all villany.

Before concluding, I wish too add, that, in what I have said, I would not arraign the motives of those who have, as they believe, sought to befriend you in this matter. I believe Anna Richardson, and all who have taken part in this transaction, have been actuated by the purest motives of kindness to you and your family, and by a desire, through the purchase of your freedom, to benefit the American slaves. But they have erred in judgment, as it appears to me. Forgive this, if it needs forgiveness. I delight to see you loved and honored by all, and to see you made an instrument by the God of the oppressed, of humbling in the dust, that gigantic liar and hypocrite, the American Republic, that stands with the Bible and Declaration of Independence in its hands, and its heel planted on the necks of 3,000,000 of slaves.

Thine sincerely,

H. C. WRIGHT.

PLSr: Lib., 29 January 1847. Reprinted in NASS, 4 February 1847; PaF, 4 February 1847; ASB, 19 February 1847; JNH, 10:712–15 (October 1925); Woodson, Mind of the Negro, 448–51.

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Date

December 12, 1846

Type

Publication Status

Published