Frederick Douglass to William Lloyd Garrison, June 7, 1847
FREDERICK DOUGLASS TO WILLIAM LLOYD GARRISON
Lynn, [Mass.] 7 June 1847.
MY DEAR FRIEND:
A severe illness of two weeks’ duration, from which I have now but partially recovered,1On 1 July 1847 Samuel May, Jr., wrote, "Douglass has been very ill with scarlet fever, cankered throat, etc. He is now quite smart again, and will soon be at work." Samuel May, Jr., to John B. Estlin, 1 July 1847, Anti-Slavery Collection, MB. has prevented me from replying to, and explaining certain representations and charges, which have recently found their way into the public press, seriously affecting my moral character.2Garrison reprinted several recent press attacks on Douglass in the Liberator's "Refuge of Oppresion" column. One writer called Douglass a "negro imposter" and condemned the protests against Douglass's forced segregation on board the steamship Cambria. In a letter to the Boston Post, another critic attacked the speech Douglass delivered at a recent meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society and referred to him as a "demagogue in black," but conceded that he should be left alone because "the idea of resisting such a man with popular fury and contumely is preposterous." Lib., 4 June 1847.
Many reasons might be urged in favor of treating this mean and scandalous fabrication with silent contempt. The character which I have maintained for six years, open to the most searching investigation—the disgusting nature of the imputations, and obvious motive for making them—and the well-known impurity and filthiness of the quarter from which they emanated—might afford some justification for pursuing a course of absolute silence; leaving the public to form what judgment they pleased of the truth or falsity, the justice or injustice of the attack upon me.
There is, however, something so direct, so impudent, and so apparently consistent in this malicious assault, that I feel that duty to the cause with which I am connected, to myself, and to the noble band of friends who have ever thrown around me the broad shield of their protection, requires at my hand a full, free and open explanation of the ground of the assault; and as complete a vindication of myself as the real facts in the case will permit me to make.
My first impulse, on being informed of this bold attempt to destroy my inﬂuence, and ruin me forever, was in favor of bring[ing] the slanderers before some legal tribunal of the country. But upon reﬂection, I felt that such a course would be unwise, perplexing, and fruitless. This was not, however, because I lacked confidence in the law or its administrators, but from a knowledge of the loathsome creatures who stand forth as my accusers. The unscrupulous wretches who could string together such a list of
lies, are not to be expected to have any very sacred regard for an oath. As a lawyer once said—‘When a case originates in Pandemonium, we are to expect none but demons for witnesses.’ If, however, it shall be found necessary to bring the matter before a legal tribunal, I shall not hesitate to adopt the necessary means to bring both the perpetrators and the circulators of this foul slander, where they may have an opportunity of making good their charges, if they can. Meanwhile, I will take up their articles, all filthy as they are, and examine every material sentence in them.
The first notice of my passage from Albany to New-York,3Douglass traveled through Albany on his way to the annual meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society, held at the Broadway Tabernacle, where he gave a speech on 11 May. The following day he attended a reception in his honor at the New York Zion Church. PaF, 20 May 1847; ASB, 28 May 1847. I found in a paper called ‘The Switch,’ and purporting to be published in Albany.4Irish-American journalist Hugh J. Hastings (1818–83) published the Switch, which was edited by John New, weekly from about 1841 to the early 1850s in both Albany and New York City. Few issues survive from the period of Douglass's 1847 visit to Albany, but the New York Subterranean carried a comparable hostile account of the incident, parts of which were reprinted in the Liberator. Lib., 4 June 1847; Frederic Hudson, Journalism in the United States, from 1690 to 1872 (1873; London, 2000), 185–95. But on inquiry where it was printed, by whom edited and published, I found that those whereabouts are prudently kept unknown. The editor is unknown, and it is the policy of the managers to keep unknown, that they may lie and slander with impunity. In any other country making pretension to civilization, such a nuisance would be speedily ferreted out, and abated. But, alas for the freest nation on the globe! liberty is too often made to license all conceivable brutality, and to give impunity to the vilest slanderers. The article in the ‘Switch’ begins as follows:
[“]NIGGERS AND NASTINESS.
[“]‘The offence is rank—it smells to Heaven.’5Hamlet, act 3, sc. 3, line 36.
[“]A depraved portion of the people, and of the press, have for some time past been gratifying their morbid tastes in lionizing a disgusting, impertinent negro, who styles himself Frederick Douglass. The feelings of the decent portion of the community have, times without number, been outraged by having this ‘soot head’ thrust into their midst. It is a needless task for us to recapitulate the instances of this ‘wool head’s’ sauciness.[”]
Comment on this is only necessary to fix attention upon the animus of the writer. It is a fit introduction to what follows. Mark! ‘depraved portion of the people and press’ —‘disgusting and impertinent negro’—‘soot head’—‘wool head’s sauciness,’ &c. These hail from the lowest of the American mould. Those who kindly regard me in this country are the purest and best in the world; they are in truth, the salt of the earth, the lights of the world;6A reference to Matt. 5:13–14. and therein is a motive for assaulting me.
My ‘impertinence and sauciness’ have ever consisted in presuming to be, and behaving as a man—in paying no more deference to a white man, than to a black man of equal moral and intellectual worth—in bowing to no skin-deep superiority, but rendering honor only where honor is due. I am said to be ‘disgusting.’ How, when, where, and to whom? Not as a coach-
driver, dressed in tinselled livery, driving some delicate white ladies through Albany, or Broadway, New York. Not as a footman, on some gilded carriage. Not as a waiter in some fashionable hotel. Not as a servant, a barber, a cook, or a steward. No! I am never disgusting to the most refined white Americans, in any of these capacities! Even a white lady—a white American lady—might be seen near me, in these capacities, without exciting vulgar abuse and filthy insinuations. But when does white complacency, in this matter, cease, and ineffable disgust commence, in the bosoms of our alabast[e]r fellow-countrymen? Just when the colored man’s inequality is dropped, and his equality is assumed. The negro then becomes horribly disgusting! I am not insensible to this feeling of disgust. There are constant occasions for calling it forth. I was never more disgusted in my life than when in Albany, low, filthy, tobacco-chewing, slobbering white blackguards presumed to insult me on account of the color of my skin. This, I think, is something at which we may properly be disgusted.
One word more about disgust. There is a strange diversity in its manifestation, indicating how completely a pure taste may be perverted. Some animals, for instance—and man among the number—display the strangest perversity of taste. The buzzard and the condor are utterly disgusted with sound meat, and prefer to ﬂesh their talons in carrion. These birds go around, like the editor of the ‘Switch,’ dealing largely in the most disgusting and putrid ﬂesh! A dog afﬂicted with hydrophobia, is utterly disgusted with the sight and scent of pure cold water; and a white man afﬂicted with colorphobia will invariably manifest signs of disgust at the sight of a respectable colored man. ‘Colorphobia’ and buzzards—mad dogs and condors—‘think of these things!’
I will now pass to the next extract. Speaking of me, he says—
‘Last week he was here, and was gallanted to the Assembly Chamber by a female of this city, who so far forgot what was due to the community and to the delicacy of her sex, as to introduce this offensive creature into the Ladies’ Gallery, where she left him. Mr. Stoutenburgh,7Mike Walsh, editor of the New York Subterranean, reported that a “Mr. Statenburg” had “promptly and unceremoniously ejected Douglass from the New York assembly Chamber’s Ladies Gallery.” Lib., 4 June 1847. the gentlemanly and attentive officer having charge of that department, on discovering him, immediately told him that a place was especially designated for colored persons, and pointed it out to him, but Sambo refused to go, on which Mr. S. was compelled to eject him forcibly. The lady soon after returned, and asked Mr. S. where her ‘friend and companion’ had gone, on which Mr. S. informed her that he had turned him out, and directed him to the place appropriated to such as he. The female subsequently found her ‘friend and companion,’ and they left the Capitol ‘cheek by jowl.’8Midsummer Night’s Dream, act 3, so. 2, line 338.
It is perfectly true, that I was in Albany at the time here mentioned; and quite true, that I was accompanied to the Assembly Chamber by a lady—a white lady,9This “white lady” was likely Abigail or Lydia Mott, white female friends of Douglass, both of whom lived in Albany at this time. (very criminal!)—and, naturally enough, she took me to that part of the House to which, as a lady, she felt herself entitled to go. It is not true, that when Mr. Stoutenburgh discovered me, he told me that a place was especially designated for colored persons. He did point me to the gentleman’s gallery, and there was no hesitancy, on my part, in going to it; and nothing imperious in his manner in pointing it out to me. Not an unfriendly word passed between us. The whole story of my being ‘forcibly ejected’ is a deliberate lie, to serve a purpose. I went into the gentlemen’s gallery, and enjoyed a sight of the assembled wisdom of the great state of New-York, as I have frequently enjoyed a similar sight of the assembled wisdom of Great Britain. After having been permitted freely to enter Parliament—both Lords and Commons—and witness their deliberations, in company with white persons, it was not to be expected that I should be afraid to enter an Assembly Chamber, where that living embodiment of ‘Subterranean’ filth and fury, Mike Walsh,10Mike Walsh (1815–59) was an Irish-born politician and journalist who grew up on the streets of New York City. As a leader of New York’s “subterranean democrats,” so called because they felt neglected by the city’s political leadership, Walsh emerged as a prominent leader of white working-class politics. Using his own newspaper, the Subterranean, and its fellow traveler, the Workingman’s Advocate, as his pulpit, Walsh bitterly criticized “business-as-usual” politicians, abolitionists, and other groups he considered on the wrong side of his own brand of reform. In 1846, 1847, and 1852, Walsh served in the New York State Assembly and in 1853 became a U.S. congressman. In both journalistic and political circles, Walsh was renowned for his colorful and vicious attacks upon his enemies and his extreme hatred of African Americans and abolitionists. Following his unsuccessful bid for a second term in Congress, Walsh traveled abroad as a representative of a shipbuilder and attempted to revive his career in journalism. He died in New York following a night of revelry in 1859, most likely a victim of foul play. Lib., 30 October 1846; Sean Wilentz, Chants Democratic: New York City and the Rise of the American Working Class, 1788–1850 (New York, 1984), 326–35; Robert Ernst, “The One and Only Mike Walsh,” New York Historical Society Quarterly, 36:43–65 (January 1952); DAB, 19:390–91. is recognized as an honorable member.
Having now glanced at the lighter shades, I come at once to the darker and more important aspects of the subject. The ‘Switch’ says—
‘Shortly after this, these ‘friends and companions’ went to New-York in company. On the morning of their arrival, Captain Cruttenden11A captain of Hudson River steamboats since the 18203, R. G. Cruttenden was captain of the Hendrick Hudson at the time of Douglass’s passage. Buckman, Old Steamboat Days, 61, appendix. observed that a negro came down from the state rooms with a white woman, and was indignant on learning that the pair had occupied state rooms which communicated with each other by a door, and cautioned his assistant against permitting the like occurrence. On a return trip of the Hendrick Hudson, a few days afterwards, the same oddly matched companions were again on board, and the woman sent the chambermaid to the captain’s office for two state rooms, the keys of which the chambermaid delivered to her. The female, on inspection, told the chambermaid that the rooms were not what she wanted—that they must have a door leading into each other. The person in charge of the office, without hesitation, changed their location, and gave the same rooms which these friends and companions had occupied the night before. Capt. Cruttenden discovered it in the morning, and on their coming down told the nigger never to darken the saloon of any boat commanded by him again, and ordered him ashore. The fellow’s wool bristled somewhat, and his companion colored slightly, and they departed in company.’12Walsh criticized Douglass as “an impertinent black vagabond” and condemned his attendance of the New York legislature in the company of a white woman, whom Walsh called “his pious lady love.” His editorial further charged Douglass and this woman with occupying the same stateroom on a steamer on two separate occasions, specifically noting that the two were “caught in bed together.” Lib., 4 June 1847.
I will now state the circumstances of this transaction, in my own way,
and shall admit all that I know to be true, and deny all that I know to be false in the above statement. On Monday, May 10th, I was in company with my wife, at Albany, where I went to see my daughter, whom I had not seen for nearly two years. Having been announced to speak the next morning at the anniversary meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society in New-York, and suffering under severe cold and hoarseness, and well knowing the brutal manner in which colored persons are uniformly treated in steamers on the Hudson river—compelled sometimes to stroll the decks nearly all night, before they can get a place to lie down, and that place frequently unfit for a dog’s accommodation—and being unwilling to risk my health to any such chances, I availed myself of the kindness of my friend alluded to, who secured for me a state room on board of the Hendrick Hudson; and also secured the adjoining one for herself. On going into mine, in the evening, I found, as above stated, that the two rooms communicated with each other by a door. But a thought of its propriety or impropriety never crossed my mind; and, at that time, I did not know but that every state room on board communicated in a similar manner. Myself and friend conversed together during the evening, when she went to her state room, and I remained in mine. I neither saw nor heard my friend till next morning, when we landed at New-York. I then went to her state-room door to assist her with her baggage; and after walking about a full half hour in the presence of the Captain, while the crowd was pressing on shore, we left the steamer together, without the slightest sign of disapprobation that I could see from any quarter. On my return from New-York, my friend secured similar state rooms, and we occupied them, without the least interruption from the Captain, or any officer, servant or passenger on board. When we left the steamer in the morning, the Captain did utter some filthy remarks, calling me a ‘nigger,’ &c., and telling me never to take a state room on board his steamer again. I made no reply, but went off about my business, well knowing that my color was the cause of his brutality, and that, had I been a white man, I might have occupied the state rooms a dozen times over, without calling forth any foul imputations from himself, or any one else. As to what is alleged to have been said by my friend to the chambermaid, it may or may not be true; and, true or false, it is a small matter. We needed neither bolts, bars, nor locks, to keep us in the path of virtue and rectitude. The ‘Switch’ closes its article as follows, which shows that, vile and proﬂigate as it is, it is a shade less atrocious than the ‘Subterranean’:
‘We wish it distinctly understood, that we cast no imputations on the character of the white woman, who thus gads about the country with a
negro, but she certainly manifests a depravity of taste, that should induce her friends to look sharply after her—and as for this thunder-cloud, he should be kicked into his proper place, and kept there.
[‘]We shall resume this subject next week.’
Having disposed of the ‘Switch,’ I come to that loathsome dabbler in ‘Subterranean’ pollution, Mike Walsh. The depravity of the man is marvellous. My work with him will be necessarily short; for his statement is made up from the ‘Switch,’ and improved upon to suit his own impure fancy.
My answer to it is, that, aside from the simple fact that myself and friend occupied adjoining and communicating state rooms—and the fact that the Captain was indignant that I, a colored person, should do so—this whole story, from beginning to end, in gross and scope, in letter and spirit, in principle and inference, is a foul, deliberate, unmixed, and malicious fabrication. The whole narration, in all its details, particulars and specifications—so far as they relate to my conduct—is a series of the most daringly wicked falsehoods; and none, but one over whom the sway of the devil is complete, could have invented and penned them.
Ever yours in the cause of purity and liberty,
PLSr: Lib., 11 June 1847. Reprinted in JNH, 10:706–12 (October 1925); Woodson, Mind of the Negro, 442–48; Foner, Life and Writings, 1:246–52.