Skip to main content

Frederick Douglass to John Hardinge Veitch, January 22, 1847

1

FREDERICK DOUGLASS TO JOHN HARDINGE VEITCH1John Hardinge Veitch was the proprietor of the Durham Chronicle in 1847. George Walker, Jr., Durham Directory and Almanack (Durham, Eng., 1847), 40.

[Coventry, Eng.] 22 January 1847.

MR. EDITOR,

Having received numerous letters condemning in unmeasured terms the transaction by which I am now free from the power of my former owner, Mr Hugh Auld, and expressing deep regret that I should accept the Manumission papers, I beg you will allow me space in your paper for a brief explanation of the transaction, and to answer certain objections deemed insuperable by the parties who have written and spoken to me on the subject.2Douglass makes similar points concerning the purchase of his freedom in a letter to Henry C. Wright. dated 22 December 1846. That letter also appears in this volume. The facts which led to the purchase of my freedom were simply these.

I am in England,—my family are in the United States, my sphere of usefulness is there—my public and domestic duties are there—and there it seems my duty to go. But I am legally the property of Hugh Auld; and if I go the United states, no matter to what partfor there is no city of refuge3Num. 35:9–15. there, no Spot sacred to freedom thereHugh Auld, supported by the law and Gavemment of the United States, can hunt, seize, and fetter me, and drag me from my wife and children, feed his cruel revenge and doom me to amending slavery.4Both article IV of the U.S. Constitution, also known as the “fugitive slave clause,” and the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 provided for the legal return of slaves who had eseaped to freedom. The Constitution states, “No person held in service or labor in one state, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall . . . be discharged from such service or labor, but shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due.” The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 stated, “The person to whom such labor or service may be due . . . is hereby empowered to seize or arrest such fugitive from labour. and to take him or her before any judge . . . of the United States.” In view of this state of facts, a few kind friends, unasked, being desirous of seeing me released from this terrible liability, and to relieve my wife and children from the painful anxiety and

2

trepidation consequent upon the liability; to enable me to return from my present exile to my family and friends; and to place one on an equal footing with all others labouring for the emancipation of my race in the United States; and to enhance my usefulness in the anti-slavery cause, by enlarging the field of my labours, have nobly and generously paid to Hugh Auld, £150; in consideration of which, Hugh Auld, and the United States government, agree that I may return to America, free from all legal liability to slavery.

These are the whole facts of the case. The motives of my friends need no defence, they have never been called in question. Their object was to secure me from a liability fraught with horrible forebodings to myself and family. With this object all the friends of freedom and humanity cordially unite. But many of them object to the mode of attaining it, as a violation of the anti-slavery principle. To such, I will now address my argument.

The fundamental objection urged against the transaction, in all the letters which I have received, may be stated as follows, to wit:—Every man has a natural, unalienable right to himself. The inference from this is, that man cannot rightfully hold property in man,55A quotation from the Declaration of Sentiments of the American Anti-Slavery Society (1833).neither Hugh Auld nor the United States can have any right of property in me; and having no right of property in me, they have no right to sell me; and having no right to sell me, no one has a right to buy me.

Now, the question upon which the whole controversy turns, is simply this:—Does the transaction, by which I am now free from the legal power of Hugh Auld, really violate the principle in question? I think it does not. And though I own, at first sight, it would seem to do so, I think I am prepared to Show that, so far from being a violation of that principle, it is a noble vindication of it; and, did I not so regard it, I would instantly denounce, disavow, and abandon the whole transaction.

In order to set the matter distinctly and plainly before your readers, I will state what kind of a purchase would have been a violation of the principle aove set forth.

First, then, it would have been a Violation of that principle had those who purchased me done so to make me a slave instead of a freeman.

Secondly. It would have been a Violation of that principle had those who purchased me done so with a view to compensate the slave-holder for what he and they regarded his rightful property.

And, thirdly. It would have been a violation of that principle had any recognition of Hugh Auld’s right of property in my person been required and complied with on the part of those who paid the money.

In none of these ways was my purchase effected. The £150 was paid

3

to the remorseles[s] plunderer, not because he had any just claim to it, but to induce him to give up legal claim to something which my friends deemed of more value than money. The liberty of myself, and the happiness of my family, were, in their judgment, of more consequence than the paltry gold. It was not to compensate the wicked slave-holder, but to release me from his cruel power; not to establish my natural right to freedom, but to place me beyond all legal liabilities to slavery. It was not a recognition of his right to hold me, but a declaration of his duty to let me go. The very letter proposing terms of purchase to Hugh Auld, informed him that those who offered the money denied his right to receive it. And no man knows better than Hugh Auld that that money was given him on the principle that an unprotected merchant-man would give his purse to a bloody pirate: take my purse, but spare my life.

The error of those who condemn this transaction, consists in confounding the atrocious crime of buying men into slavery, with the truly meritorious act of buying men out of slavery; and the purchase of legal freedom, with abstract right and natural freedom. They say, if you buy, you recognise the right to sell; and if you receive, you recognise the right of the giver to give; and this has a show of truth as well as of logic. But a few plain cases will suffice to show its entire fallacy.

There is, now, in this country, a duty on corn. The government of this country has imposed it; and, though I regard it as a most unjust and wicked imposition, no man of common sense will charge me with endorsing or recognizing the right of the government to impose this duty, simply because I buy and eat this corn. Take another case: I have had dealings with a man; I have owed him one hundred pounds, and have paid it; but, by accident, have lost the receipt. He comes upon me again for the money. I know, and he knows, he has no right to it; but he is a wicked man, and has me in his power; the law is with him, and against me; and I must pay, or go to prison; I choose to pay the bill a second time. To say I sanction his right to rob me, because I preferred to pay rather than go to prison, is to utter an absurdity so evident, as to need no exposure. And yet, the principle involved is the same as that involved in the case of my ransom from slavery. The most that can be said of the latter is, that it is, on my part, and on the part of my friends, a submission to injustice, under circumstances which place it beyond our power to do better than submit; and submission, in such a case, I deem to be both right and proper. Some have objected to the transaction on the ground that it will make a change in my circumstances, unfavourable to the successful advocacy of the anti-slavery cause.

4

They seem to think I shall lose the influence of my position as a fugitive slave; and this would be quite an objection in my own mind if I thought there was any truth in it. I anticipate no such results as those apprehended by my friends who have objected to the ransom. I shall be Frederick Douglass still; and once a slave still. I shall neither be made to forget, nor cease to feel the wrongs of my fellow countrymen, who are yet in chains. My knowledge and recollection of the horrors of American slavery will be the same; and I can never forget that, though free, I am not so because of any virtue in the American people. No credit is due to that people for the freedom which I enjoy. Indeed, the fact that it was necessary for humane people, living under a monarchial government, to rob themselves of £150 to free me from the power of a nation boasting of a republican form of government, will be useful to the anti-slavery cause. It is the government of the United States that claims me as a slave. Hugh Auld had no power over me, but what was conferred by the United States government; his claim having been guaranteed by that government, he has at his disposal the whole civil, naval, and military force of the United States. Had I ventured into America, he had the power to summon the entire force of the nation to subject me to his will. From every view of the subject I have been able to take, I am persuaded to receive the papers; not, however, as a proof of my right to be free, for that is self-evident, but as a proof that my friends have been legally robbed of £150, to secure for me that which is the birth-right of every man. And I will hold up those papers before the world, in proof of the plundering character of the American people. Those papers shall be the brand of infamy, stamping that nation as a nation of plunderers and hypocrites; and their condemnation is just. They wish to be known in the world as honest and liberty-loving men, and declare, in their declaration of independence, that they "hold it to be a self-evident truth, that all men are created free and equal, and are endowed by their Creator with: certain natural and inalienable rights; and that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness;"6The preface to the Declaration of Independence. and yet they rob my friends of £150, as the condition of my enjoying any one of those rights! Those papers will be their condemnation in their own handwriting; and may be held up to the world, not only as an evidence of brazen hypocrisy, but as a means of humbling that haughty republic into repentance.

Yours, &c.,

FREDERICK DOUGLASS.7The editor of the. Durham Chronicle added the following comment after Douglass’s signature: “In considering this question, it ought to be remembered that the manumission of a slave in Maryland does not involve the enslavement of another, the foreign slavetrade being prohibited.”

PLSr: Durham Chronicle, 5 February 1847. Reprinted in London Patriot, 22 February 1847; Fifeshire (Scot.) Advertiser, 6 March 1847.

5

Date

January 22, 1847

Type

Publication Status

Published