Frederick Douglass to Thomas Van Rensselaer, May 18, 1847
FREDERICK DOUGLASS TO THOMAS VAN RENSSELAER1Thomas Van Rensselaer, Van Renselaer, Van Raenslaer, or Van Rensellaer, was a leading black abolitionist in New York City and a cofounder of the Ram’s Horn. A former slave from New York’s Mohawk Valley, Van Rensselaer ran away from his master in 1819 and later operated a New York City restaurant called the “Temperance House.” He was active in the New York Vigilance Committee and in campaigns for equal educational and political rights for blacks. Though not an adherent of nonresistance, Van Rensselaer sided with the Garrisonians and served on the executive committee of the American Anti-Slavery Society (1840–43). Around 1849, he moved to Philadelphia, where he continued to attend antislavery and black conventions. New York Colored American, 18 March, 28 October, 9 December 1837; NS, 8 December 1848, 26 October, 2 November 1849; FDP, 15 July 1853; I. Garland Penn, The Afro-American Press and Its Editors (Springfield, Mass, 1891), 61–65; Jane H. Pease and William H. Pease, They Who Would Be Free: Blacks’ Search for Freedom, 1830–1861 (New York, 1974), 79–80, 100–101, 138, 178, 185; Freeman, “Free Negro in New York City,” 71, 98, 100, 193–95, 197, 200, 284–85, 353, 365.
Lynn, Mass. 18 May 47.
MY DEAR SIR—
I am at home again; and, in compliance with your earnest request, avail myself of this, my first opportunity, to send you an article for your gallant little sheet. I have to thank you for the file you sent me on board the ‘Hendrick Hudson.’2The Hendrick Hudson was a 1,170-ton steamer built in 1845 to travel between New York City and Albany. David Lear Buckman, Old Steamboat Days on the Hudson River: Tales and Reminiscences of the Stirring Times That Followed the Introduction of Steam Navigation (1907; New York, 1909), 61, appendix. I have given each number a hasty perusal, and have quite satisfied myself that you are on the right ground—of the right spirit—that you possess the energy of head and of heart to make your paper a powerful instrument in defending, improving, and elevating our brethren in the (so called) free States, as well as hastening the downfall of the fierce and blood-thirsty evangelical tyrants in the slave States. Blow away on your ‘Ram’s Horn’!3Thomas Van Rensselaer and Willis A. Hodges published the abolitionist newspaper Ram’s Horn in New York City in 1847 and 1848. Few issues survive. Douglass acted as a corresponding editor for the paper before establishing his North Star. No evidence, however, suggests that he made a financial commitment to or alliance with the Ram’s Horn. Frankie Hutton, The Early Black Press in America, 1827–1860 (Westport, Conn., 1993), 11, 141; Ripley, Black Abolitionist Papers, 3:482–83n. Its wild, rough, uncultivated notes may grate harshly on the ear of refined and cultivated chimers; but sure I am that its voice will be pleasurable to the slave, and terrible to the slaveholder. Let us have a full, clear, shrill, unmistakeable sound. ‘No compromise—no concealment’—no lagging for those who tarry—no ‘slurs’ for popular favor—no lowering your tone for the sake of harmony. The harmony of this country is discord with the ALMIGHTY. To be in harmony with God is to be in open discord and conﬂict with the powers of Church and State in this country. Both are drunk on the warm blood of our brethren. ‘Blow on—blow on,’ and may the God of the oppressed give effect to your blowing.
Through the kindness of a friend, I have before me the ‘New-York Sun’ of 13th May. It contains a weak, puerile, and characteristic attack upon me, on account of my speech in the Tabernacle, before the American Anti-Slavery Society on the 11th instant.4Douglass was one of the featured speakers at the annual meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society held in New York City’s Broadway Tabernacle on 11 May 1847. He described his treatment aboard the Cambria on his return voyage from England and the support that he received from the British press in the wake of the incident. Lib., 14, 21 May 1847. The article in question affords me a text from which I could preach you a long sermon; but I will neither trespass on your space, nor weary the patience of your readers, by treating the article in that way. I do not call attention to it, because I am anxious to defend myself from its malevolent contents, but to congratulate you upon the
favorable change in the public mind which it indicates, and to enjoy a little (I trust innocent) sport at the expense of the editor.
We have been laughed at and ridiculed so much, that I am glad, once in a while, to be able to turn the tables on our white brethren. The editor informs his readers, that his object in writing the article is, to protest against ‘the unmitigated abuse heaped upon our country by the colored man Douglass.’ Now, who will doubt the patriotism of a man who will venture so much on behalf of his country? The Sun is truly a patriot. ‘The colored man Douglass.’ Well done! Not ‘nigger’ Douglass—not black, but colored—not monkey, but man—the colored MAN Douglass. This, dear sir, is a decided improvement on the old mode of speaking of us. In the brilliant light of the Sun, I am no longer a monkey, but a MAN—and, henceforth, I may claim to be treated as a man by the ‘Sun.’ In order to prepare the patient for the pill, and to prove his title to be regarded an unmixed American, he gilds the most bloody and detestable tyranny all over with the most holy and beautiful sentiments of liberty. Hear him—‘Freedom of speech in this country should receive the greatest LATITUDE.’ This sounds well; but is it not a strange text, from which to preach a sermon in favor of putting down freedom of speech by mob violence? ‘If men do not speak freely of our institutions, how are we to discover their errors or reform their abuses, should any exist?’ A pertinent question, truly, and worthy of the thought and study of the profound and philosophical editor of the ‘Sun.’ But now see a nobler illustration of the story of the ‘cow and the milk pail’5The story of the cow and the milk pail dates to the sixteenth century and is an English fable about a cow that, after producing a full pail of good milk, kicks the pail over. Stevenson, Book of Proverbs, 446.—blowing hot and blowing cold, and blowing neither hot nor cold.6An allusion to Rev. 3:15. The editor says—‘There is, however, a limit to this very freedom of speech. We cannot be permitted to go into a gentleman’s house, accept his hospitality, yet ABUSE his fare, and we have no right to abuse a country under whose government, we are safely residing and securely protected.’
Here we have it, all reasoned out as plain as logic can make it—the limit of freedom of speech accurately defined. But allow me to throw a little light upon the Sun’s logic—if I can do so without entirely spoiling his simile. Poor thing, it would be a pity to hurt that. Does it not strike you as being first rate? To my mind, it is the best thing in the whole piece, and lacks only one thing—(but this probably makes no difference with the ‘Sun’—it may be its chief merit,) and that is, likeness—it lacks likeness. A gentleman’s house and the government of this country are wholly dissimilar. Let me suggest to him—without meaning any disrespect to you, that a cook shop (a thing which I am surprised he should ever forget) bears
a far greater resemblance to the government of this country, than that of a gentleman’s house and hospitality. Let cook shop represent Country— ‘Bill of Fare’—‘Bill of Rights;’ and the ‘Chief Cook’—Commander-in-Chief.—(I fancy I hear the editor say, this looks better.) Enters editor of the ‘Sun’ with a keen appetite[.] He reads the bill of fare. It contains the names of many palatable dishes. He asks the cook for soup, he gets ‘dish water.’ For salmon, he gets a serpent;7A paraphrase of either Luke 11:11 or Matt. 7:9–10. for beef, he gets bull-frogs; for ducks, he gets dogs; for salt, he gets sand; for pepper, he gets powder; and for vinegar, he gets gall;8A reference to Matt. 27:34. in fact, he gets for you the very opposite of everything for which you ask, and which from the bill of fare, and loud-mouthed professions, you had a right to expect. This is just the treatment which the colored people receive in this country at the hand of this government. Its Bill of Rights is to practise towards us a bill of wrongs. Its self-evident truths are self-evident lies.9Douglass plays upon the wording of the passage of the Declaration of Independence that reads, “We hold these truths to be self-evident. . . .” Its majestic liberty, malignant tyranny. The foundation of this government—the great Constitution itself—is nothing more than a compromise with man-stealers, and a cunningly devised complication of falsehoods, calculated to deceive foreign Nations into a belief that this is a free country; at the same time that it pledges the whole Civil, Naval and Military power of the Nation to keep three millions of people in the most abject slavery. He says I abuse a country under whose government I am safely residing, and securely protected. I am neither safely residing, nor securely protected in this country. I am living under a government which authorized Hugh Auld to rob me of seven hundred and fifty dollars, and told me if I did not submit, if I resisted this robber, I should be put to death. This is the protection given to me, and every other colored man from the South, and no one knows this better than the Editor of the New York Sun. And this piece of robbery, the ‘Sun’ calls the rights of the Master, and says that the English people recognised those rights by giving me money with which to purchase my freedom. The ‘Sun’ complains that I defend the right of invoking England for the overthrow of American Slavery. Why not receive aid from England to overthrow American Slavery, as well as for Americans to send bread to England to feed the hungry?10Organizations, many formed by Irish immigrants, collected money and in-kind contributions of food and clothing in many areas of the United States to aid the famine stricken in Ireland. Efforts grew to such an extent that organizations became large and sophisticated. Kissane, Irish Famine, 134–35. Answer me that! What would the ‘Sun’ have said, if the British press had denounced this country for sending a ship-load of grain into Ireland, and denied the right of the American people to sympathize, and succor the afﬂicted and famine-stricken millions of that unhappy land? What would it have said? Why, it and the whole American Press would have poured forth one ﬂood of unmixed censure and scathing rebuke. England would have been denounced; the British public would have been branded as murderers. And if England
had forbidden Captain Forbes to land his cargo,11Robert Bennet Forbes (1804–89), the head of the shipping operation Russell and Company, engaged in trade with China. In 1847 he was captain of a ship that brought grain to Ireland to relieve the victims of the potato famine, an experience that he wrote about in The Voyage of the “Jamestown” on Her Errand of Mercy (to Ireland) (1874). Robert Bennet Forbes, Personal Reminiscences (1876; Boston, 1882); DAB, 6:508–09. it might have been regarded just cause for war. And yet the interference in the one case is as justifiable as in the other. My Dear Sir, I have already extended this letter to a much greater length than I at first intended, and will now stop by wishing you every success in your noble enterprize.
Ever yours in our righteous cause,
PLSr: Lib., 4 June 1847. Reprinted from Ram’s Horn, (n.d.).12The Liberator indicates that this letter is from the New York Ram’s Horn. No extant copy of the Ram’s Horn containing this letter has been located. Reprinted in ASB, 18 June 1847; JNH, 10:728–31 (October 1925); Woodson, Mind of the Negro, 464–67; Foner, Life and Writings, 1:243–46.