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Frederick Douglass to Sydney H. Gay, August 8, 1847


FREDERICK DOUGLASS TO SYDNEY H. GAY1Born in Hingham, Massachusetts, Sydney Howard Gay (1814–88) abandoned the study of law in his father’s office to embrace the nonviolent principles of Garrisonian abolitionists. After lecturing for the American Anti-Slavery Society in the early 1840s, Gay edited its official New York City–based newspaper, the National Anti-Slavery Standard, from 1844 to 1858. From there he went to work for the New York Tribune, serving as that Republican party paper’s managing editor during the Civil War. Gay held the same position at the Chicago Tribune (1868–71) and then devoted most of his energies to writing popular histories and biographies. Raimund Erhard Goerler, “Family, Self, and Anti-Slavery: Sydney Howard Gay and the Abolitionist Commitment” (Ph.D. diss., Case Western Reserve University, 1975); ACAB, 2:618; NCAB, 2:494; DAB, 7:195.

[Harrisburg, Pa. 8 August 1847].


I regret that my first letter for the Standard2This letter was the first in a series of letters that Douglass wrote to Sydney H. Gay as a correspondent for Gay’s newspaper. Douglass agreed to be a regular corresponding contributor for the National Anti-Slavery Standard while on a western speaking tour with William Lloyd Garrison and others in the fall of 1847. The terms of his service to the paper, however, revealed the growing alienation between Douglass and the Garrisonians. Edmund Quincy, who negotiated the assignment for Douglass, asked Douglass what he considered a fair price for his corresponding services. When Douglass asked for $2.50 for each column, Quincy initially balked at the steep rate. Fearing that Douglass might jump to another publication, Quincy concluded that it was safer to overpay him for the letters. Upon the advice of Wendell Phillips, Quincy accepted Douglass’s asking price, but he placed a cap of $100 on the amount of annual compensation the paper would pay Douglass. NASS, 12 August, 2 September 1847; McFeely, Frederick Douglass, 147. should be such an one as I am now about to write, and that I have to record facts which may create anxiety among the Anti Slavery friends in the East, on account of the safety of friend Garrison, and myself. We were last night confronted by a most


brutal and disgraceful mob—the first fruits of our Western tour, a sort of foretaste of what may await us further West. To the everlasting shame, and infamy of the people of Harrisburg, I record the fact that they are at this moment under the dominion of mob law;3On Saturday, 7 August 1847, Douglass and Garrison arrived in Harrisburg, where the courthouse had been engaged as a speaking hall for two evening meetings. Garrison spoke first, without incident, but the crowd turned violent when Douglass took the platform, shouting racial epithets and throwing rotten eggs, firecrackers, and other items at the speakers. Neither man was seriously injured, although Garrison reported that his clothes were soiled with rotten eggs and Douglass was struck in the back with a stone. Merrill and Ruchames, Garrison Letters, 3:506–08. that the freedom of speech and the right of peaceably assembling is cloven down; and that the officers appointed to preserve order and to protect the rights and privileges of the people, have basely, by their indifference, consented to this sacrifice to the Moloch4The Canaanite and Israelite followers of the cult of Moloch supposedly burned children as sacrifices. 2 Kings 23:10, Jer. 32:35; Freedman, Anchor Bible Dictionary, 4:895–97. of Slavery. Let this infernal act of devotion to tyranny be published and republished at home and abroad, in the New and in the Old World, that all may learn the true character of American freedom, and our republican love of law and order. But to the facts.

A meeting was convened in the court house of this town last night, to hear addresses on Slavery by Mr. Garrison and myself. At the time appointed Mr. Garrison was present, and commenced the meeting by a calm statement of facts respecting the character of Slavery and the slave power, showing in how many ways it was a matter deeply affecting the rights and interests of the Northern people. He spoke with little or no interruption for the space of an hour, and then introduced me to the audience. I spoke only for a few moments when through the windows was poured a volley of unmerchantable eggs, scattering the contents on the desk in which I stood, and upon the wall behind me, and filling the room with the most disgusting and stifling stench. The audience appeared alarmed, but disposed to stay, though greatly at the expense of their olfactory nerves. I, thinking I could stand it as well as my audience, proceeded with my speech, but in a very few moments we were interrupted and startled by the explosion of a pack of crackers, which kept up a noise for about a minute similar to the discharge of pistols, and being on the ladies’ side, created much excitement and alarm. When this subsided, I again proceeded, but was at once interrupted again by another volley of addled eggs, which again scented the house with Slavery’s choice incense. Cayenne pepper and Scotch snuff were freely used, and produced their natural results among the audience. I proceeded again and was again interrupted by another grand influx of rotten eggs[.] One struck friend Garrison on the back, sprinkling its essence all over his honoured head. At this point a general tumult ensued, the people in the house became much disturbed and alarmed, and there was a press toward the doorway, which was completely wedged with people. The mob was now howling with fiendish rage. I could occasionally hear amid the tumult, fierce and bloody cries “throw out the nigger, THROW OUT THE NIGGER.” Here friend Garrison rose, with that calm and tranquil dignity,


altogether peculiar to himself, and said—(speaking for himself and me.) Our mission to Harrisburg is ended. If there be not sufficient, love of liberty, and self respect in this place, to protect the right of assembling, and the freedom of speech, he would not degrade himself by attempting to speak under such circumstances and he would therefore recall the appointment for Sunday night, and go where he could be heard. The wise ones knew the meaning of his speech. They saw that the character of the town was about to be consigned to deserved infamy and one of their number, a thin, delicate looking man rose, much excited. It was Mr. Petrigen,5Henry Petriken was the deputy secretary for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Robert Sobel and John Raimo, Biographical Directory of the Governors of the United States, 1789–1978, 6 vols. (Westport, Conn., 1978), 3:1305. a private Secretary of the Governor of the State.6Francis Rawn Shunk (1788–1848), a Democrat, served as governor of Pennsylvania from 1845 to 1848. He supported the Mexican-American War and the growth of the railroad in his state. Although he won a second term in 1847, tuberculosis forced him to resign his seat to the Whig speaker of the senate, William F. Johnston, in 1848. Jacob A. Spofford, Harrisburg Directory for 1845: Containing the Names of the Inhabitants, Their Occupations, Places of Business and Residences (Harrisburg, Pa., 1845), 22. He said that he for one, wished to hear Messrs. Garrison and Douglass speak, but he must defend the character of the people of Harrisburg from the charge of mobocracy, brought against them by Mr. Garrison. Nobody was to blame, as nobody could prevent the mob. It consisted of blackguards; the people of Harrisburg had nothing to do with it, nor could they prevent it, and he hoped that that gentleman (alluding to Mr. Garrison) would not go away and slander the people by making them responsible for the mob. He would repeat it, the people had nothing to do with it, and they could not prevent it. Now all this was saying to the mob—go on, mob on, there is no power anywhere to prevent you. This infamous incitement to the mob, was nobly rebuked by a gentleman of great respectability[,] of the name of Rawen.7Charles C. Rawn (c. 1810–?) was a Harrisburg attorney. 1840 U.S. Census, Pennsylvania, Dauphin County, Harrisburg, 208; Spofford, Harrisburg Directory for 1845, 23. He said, he rose to defend Harrisburg from the charge of incapacity to quell a mob, and protect the right of speech. They could do it, and if they did not do so, it was because they did not choose to do so. He asked Mr. Petrigen where was the police? If they had not the power to disperse a few blackguards and boys? Mr. Garrison again rose and said, his remarks were entirely hypothetical, and if a meeting could be conducted with order and propriety he was quite willing to remain and hold, another meeting agreeable to public notice. In the midst of this discussion there was thrown in another volley of rotten eggs, and cries of “throw out the nigger, throw out the nigger,” was repeated about the doors and windows of the house. It was now impossible to proceed with the meeting, and there being no attempt on the part of anybody to disperse the mob, Mr. Garrison announced the close of the meeting. The audience however remained for some time. Very few seemed willing to venture out; the doorway continued crowded and for a long time it was difficult to pass out at all. The stones now began to fly, a pile of which had been brought near the door; causing much trepidation for my safety. At this time a white lady kindly offered to walk with me and protect me, from the mob, I felt it best to decline her very disinterested offer, as I had good reason to believe


that such an arrangement would exasperate the mob, and only enhance my danger. I finally took the arm of a coloured gentleman, Mr. Wolk,8Garrison described the same visit to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in a letter to his wife, Helen E. Garrison, on 9 August 1847. Garrison noted that a black abolitionist, identified as “Mr. Wolf, an intelligent and worthy man,” hosted Douglass at his home. Wolf may have been John Wolf (1821–?), a mulatto schoolteacher and later a North Star subscriber. 1850 U.S. Census, Pennsylvania, Dauphin County, Harrisburg, 86; 1848 Mail Book of the North Star, 116, FD Papers Project, InIU; Merrill and Ruchames, Garrison Letters, 3:506–08. and several coloured friends filling up the rear, we walked out. As soon as I reached the steps I was discovered by the cowardly mob, who from their holes of darkness uttered infernal yells crying out “there he goes there he goes,” and at the same time throwing stones, and brick-bats at me—one went humming by my head and another striking me on the back, but without doing me serious injury. “Give it to him, give it to him,” they cried, “let the d—d nigger have it.” Two friends behind me received heavy blows, one of them was quite stunned and bruised, but they stood around me and received the blows intended for me. I very soon succeeded in disengaging myself from the crowd and by turning a corner I succeeded in very soon eluding my pursuers, and thus saved myself. All credit is due to a few coloured friends who seemed willing and glad to be ramparts for me and to receive all the blows intended for me. Mr. Garrison was not discovered by the mob. My coming out first drew off the mob from the door before he came out[.] I am happy to find he received no blows except the eggs, the stench of which was bad enough. Comment here, is unnecessary, the atrocious character of the proceedings is sufficiently palpable, and Harrisburg one day will be ashamed of it.

Friend Garrison and myself leave here to-morrow morning for Pittsburg,9Douglass and Garrison traveled together by train from Harrisburg to Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, on Monday, 9 August 1847. There the pair split temporarily; Douglass obtained passage on the 2:00 P.M. stage directly to Pittsburgh, but Garrison had to wait for an evening coach. During the trip Douglass was refused food service and arrived at Pittsburgh having hardly eaten for two days and nights. Merrill and Ruchames, Garrison Letters, 3:508–09. where we hope to meet with a more cordial welcome.

In great haste, very sincerely yours,


PLSr: NASS, 19 August 1847. Reprinted from Ram’s Horn.10The issue of the Ram’s Horn containing Douglass’s letter to Gay has not been located, and the reprint of the letter in the National Anti-Slavery Standard serves as copy-text. Reprinted in ASB, 3 September 1847; Ayr Advertiser, 16 October 1847; London Patriot, 21 October 1847; JNH, 10:731–34 (October 1925); Woodson, Mind of the Negro, 467–70; Foner, Life and Writings, 1:256–59.



August 8, 1847


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