Frederick Douglass to Sydney H. Gay, September 17, 1847
FREDERICK DOUGLASS TO SYDNEY H. GAY
Cleveland, O[hio]. 17 September 1847.
MY DEAR FRIEND:—
Mr. Garrison and myself are still pursuing our Western course, and steadily persevering (though much worn with our labours) in the fulfilment of our appointments, which are only like angels[’] visits in that they are “far between.”1In his 1799 poem “The Pleasures of Hope,” Thomas Campbell uses the expression “Like angel-visits, few and far between.” Thomas Campbell, The Complete Poetical Works of Thomas Campbell, ed. J. Logie Robertson (London, 1907), 33; Stevenson, Book of Proverbs, 66. Our industrious and devoted friend, the general agent,2The Reverend Samuel May, Jr., of Leicester, Massachusetts, took over the responsibilities of general agent of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society from Loring Moody in June 1847. Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, Fifteenth Annual Report: Presented to the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society (Boston, 1847), 47. in making our appointments thus far, has studied more the wants of the cause than the weakness of our frames. We have an appointment for every day, and some of these are thirty and forty miles apart. I know that these distances will
appear quite paltry to our Eastern friends, in the land of railroads and steam-boats. But as the Rev. Bishop Meade says, in his celebrated sermon, on reconciling slaves to evangelical ﬂoggings, “if you consider it right you must needs think otherwise of it.”3William Meade (1789–1862), an Episcopal bishop from Virginia, was a member of the American Colonization Society and one of the founders of the Protestant Episcopal Theological Seminary in Alexandria, Virginia. Considered a leader in the Episcopal evangelical movement, Meade established “clerical associations” sometimes lasting as long as ten days and resembling Methodist or Baptist revival meetings. In 1847 he helped to establish the Protestant Episcopal Society for the Promotion of Evangelical Knowledge to further the evangelical appeal of the Episcopal church. Douglass quotes one of Meade’s tracts that was published together with the sermons of the Reverend Thomas Bacon in 1813. William Meade, ed., Sermons Addressed to Masters and Servants and Published in the Year 1743 (Winchester, Va., 1813), 132–33; ANB, 15:219–20. We are carried by horses, fed with corn instead of fire—bone instead of iron. And you know, as said a certain rather windy orator, when a locomotive passed the house in which he was holding forth, and completely drowned his voice, “wind must yield to the superiority of steam.” We have any number of railroads, but they are quite similar to those you passed over four years ago, during the ever memorable “One Hundred Conventions.” The mention of these conventions will be sufficient to initiate you into some of the hardships of our journey.
The enthusiasm of our friends, out here, is glorious.—They cannot wait for our arrival into their towns, but come twenty, thirty, and even forty miles, with their own teams, to meet us. They generally commence their kind communications to us by giving us some idea of the great importance of their locality, and of the importance of being promptly on the ground, and occupying every available moment in the propagation of our principles and measures; and when we are about to leave we are sympathetically informed, sometimes by the same persons, that we are fast wearing ourselves out, and that we ought to stay a day or two longer, omitting some appointment ahead, and thus secure time for necessary rest. These speeches, though somewhat inconsistent, are the natural outpourings of kind hearts. Thus far, we have resisted this sort of eloquence, and fulfilled all our appointments. Since the meetings at Medina and Richfield, of both which I believe you have been informed, we have held four meetings at Massillon and four at Leesburgh.4Douglass and Garrison spoke in Richfield, Ohio, on 29 and 30 August 1847, in Medina on 30 and 31 August, and in Massillon on 1 and 2 September. Although their next stop was listed as Marlboro on their official schedule, the group actually spoke next in Leesburgh on 3 and 4 August, before moving on to Salem, Ohio, on 5 September. NASS, 26 August 1847; Merrill and Ruchames, Garrison Letters, 3:522–25. Our meetings in these places were not so large as those held in other parts of this State, yet they would appear large in any part of New-York or New England.
This State is very justly called the giant of the West.5The “giant of the west” was specifically the Ohio River, but the term was also associated with the state of the same name. The phrase refers both to the Native American origins of the word “Ohio” and to the size of the river. The Iroquois called the Ohio River the “large” river, while the Wyandotte called it the “great” or the “grand” river. The river itself is 981 miles long from its source at the conﬂuence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers at Pittsburgh to its mouth at the Mississippi River. Entirely navigable, the Ohio River was the main water route west in the nineteenth century. Kelsie B. Harder, Illustrated Dictionary of Place Names: United States and Canada (New York, 1976), 389; Cohen, Columbia Gazetteer, 2:2266–67; Shearer and Shearer, State Names, 13. Everything connected with it is on the most gigantic scale. She is a giant in population, in energy, and in improvement. She possesses, too, those moral elements of greatness which might easily make her the pioneer State, in resisting, successfully, the aggressions of Slavery on the North, and leading the way to the redemption of millions in the South. Her contiguity to a slave State gives her many advantages over States more removed from Slavery. Ohio may, if she will, abolish Slavery in Kentucky, and Western Virginia. At present her hands are tied,—the fetters of Slavery are on her giant limbs,—she is corrupted by Slavery. The moral pestilence that walketh in darkness6Ps. 91:6. along her southern border, has spread blight and mildew over her
legislation. Her statute-book is polluted,—she is disgraced by her villainous black laws. Let her repeal those infernal laws—blot them forever from her statute-book, and thus cease to afford impunity to every white ruffian who may desire to insult, or plunder, who may desire to rob, or commit other outrages on her coloured population, and her power to do good would become apparent, and her moral greatness would be equal to her numerical and political strength. Till this is done, she is not in a position to exert much moral inﬂuence on the South. Before she can ask freedom for the coloured man of Kentucky, she must do justice to the black man of Ohio.
You are aware that what are called the black laws of this State, disallow and prohibit the testimony of coloured persons against white persons in courts of law. By this diabolical arrangement, law, as a means of protecting the property and persons of the weak, becomes meaningless, since it gives a “Thug”7“Thug” comes from the Hindustani word for thief, or cheat. The Indian group originally designated “thugs” stalked and robbed their victims as part of an organized crime unit. The term soon became associated with any sort of violent criminal. Wilfred Funk, Word Origins and Their Romantic Stories (New York, 1950), 69. commission to any and every white villain, and permits them to insult, cheat, and plunder coloured persons with the utmost impunity. A score of facts might be mentioned of cases where persons having the fortune to have a white skin, have, in the presence of coloured persons, taken away their property without remuneration, and the guilty persons could not be brought to condign punishment, because their victims were black.
These shameful laws are not the natural expression of the moral sentiment of Ohio, but the servile work of pandering politicians, who, to conciliate the favour of slaveholders, and win their way into political power, have enacted these infernal laws. Let the people of Ohio demand their instant repeal, and the complete enfranchisement of her coloured people, and their gallant State would speedily become the paragon of all the free States, securing the gratitude and love of her coloured citizens, and wiping out a most foul imputation from the character of her white citizens. She might then well boast that justice within her borders, like its author in Heaven, is without respect to persons.81 Peter 1:17. I may mention that our friends here have it in contemplation to get up an agitation this winter, against those laws, which it is hoped will end in their repeal. Should they succeed, a staggering blow will be given to Slavery in Kentucky. The slaveholders will begin to feel that the North is fast combining against them, and must soon make their calling a bye-word and a hissing throughout all the land.9A paraphrase of various verses in Jer. 18, 19, 25, and 29. Should Ohio take the step, Indiana may follow; this done and Kentucky is forsaken. The work must be done soon, or the moral effect will be lost; for the time is coming, when it will be but small work to repeal such laws, even in the slave States. The power to do good, if not soon embraced, must soon be taken from the North.
Since the above was written, we have held meetings at Salem, New
Lisbon, Ravenna, Warren, and Cleveland.10Douglass and Garrison held four meetings in Salem, Ohio, on 4 and 5 September 1847. The rest of their time in Ohio included speaking in New Lisbon on 6 September 1847, in Warren on the 7 and 8 September 1847, in Ravenna on the 9 and 10 September 1847 , and finishing in Cleveland on 11 and 12 September 1847. Lib., 17 September 1847; Merrill and Ruchames, Garrison Letters, 3:524–25. Our meeting at Salem was a great one—in some respects the greatest of the series. It was held two days, commencing Saturday morning, and continuing till late Sunday afternoon, deepening in interest to the last. In addition to the lofty appeals and powerful eloquence of Messrs. Garrison and Foster,11Stephen S. Foster. we had with us, James12James Mott (1788–868) was born to a Quaker family in North Hempstead, New York. Educated at the Friends’ boarding school at Nine Partners, New York, he also served for two years as an assistant teacher and there met Lucretia Coffin, marrying her in 1811 and settling permanently in the Philadelphia area. Initially a partner in the Coffin family’s business, he left in 1822 to enter the cotton commission business. This he quit after eight years because of its connection with slave labor, making a successful transition to the wool commission business. Mott was one of the founders of the American Anti-Slavery Society and, with his wife, was a delegate to the 1840 World’s Anti-Slavery Convention held in London, where he advocated for the admission of women. An early supporter of women’s rights, he presided over the first women’s rights convention at Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848. Always interested in education, he was one of the founders of the Quaker Swarthmore College, which was chartered in 1864. Anna Davis Hallowell, ed., James and Lucretia Mott: Life and Letters (Boston, 1884); Margaret Hope Bacon, Valiant Friend: The Life of Lucretia Mott (New York, 1980), 24–26, 86–89, 127; DAB, 13:288; NCAB, 6:158; ACAB, 4:441. and Lucretia Mott.13Lucretia Coffin Mott (1793–1880) was one of the foremost abolitionists and women’s rights activists of the early nineteenth century. Born among the independent Quaker women of Nantucket, Massachusetts, and educated in a coeducational Quaker school in New York, Mott soon became a noted speaker at Quaker meetings in Philadelphia, where she moved with her husband, James Mott, in 1811. Her inclination toward abolitionism grew to a passion after she met William Lloyd Garrison, and she became one of the founders of the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society and a frequent antislavery lecturer. Mott first became aware of the need for a women’s rights movement when she and other female delegates, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton, were refused their seats at the World’s Anti-Slavery Convention in England in 1840. Although she and Stanton believed that the cause of women must also be the concern of those interested in the cause of the slave, they were unable to act upon their ideas until their second meeting at the McClintock home eight years later. From that meeting, attended also by Mott’s sister, Martha Coffin Wright, came the first women’ s rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York. Bacon, Valiant Friend, 8–9, 86–93; Lucretia Coffin Mott, Selected Letters of Lucretia Coffin Mott, ed. Beverly Wilson Palmer (Urbana, Ill., 2002), xiii–xxviii; Hewitt, Women’s Activism and Social Change, 108, 130–32; NAW, 2:592–95; DAB, 8:288–90; ANB, 16:21–23. I have never seen Mrs. Mott under more favourable circumstances. It was admirable to see her rise up in all her elegance and dignity of womanhood—her earnest but tranquil countenance, overshadowedand animated with the inspiration of sincere benevolence—at once arresting attention, dispelling prejudice, and commanding the entire respect of the assembled thousands. A slight pause, and all eyes are fixed, and all ears turned—a deep stillness pervades the audience, and her silvery voice, without effort or vehemence, is distinctly heard, even far beyond the vast multitude. Her truthful words came down upon the audience like great drops of summer rain upon parched ground. Mrs. Mott attended the meetings at Warren, Ravenna, and New Lisbon, and greatly added to the interest of the meetings in all these places. She parted with us at Ravenna, and pursued her course toward Indiana, where she is intending to hold religious meetings. Our meetings in this place have been well attended, and exceedingly spirited, and nothing occurred (as we somewhat feared from intimations thrown out in the Plaindealer)14A brief item in the Cleveland Daily Plaindealer of 7 September 1847 suggested that Douglass, Garrison, and Foster might be attacked when speaking at Cleveland and implied that they had been mobbed at other speaking engagements. The editor noted that “this trio have made sale for a great many unmerchantable eggs in other places, but we hope they will be let alone severely here.” The editor later denied that his remarks suggested the abolitionists were regularly mobbed at speaking engagements. Cleveland Daily Plaindealer, 7, 13 September 1847. to mar the harmony and beauty of the occasion.
We shall leave here this morning for Buffalo, N.Y. where our next meeting is to be held. But one hasty word before we leave, with respect to western hospitality. Our tour thus far has been made very agreeable and happy by the noble generosity, and the kind and affable deportment of all with whom we have come in contact. There is nothing mean, narrow, or churlish about a true Buckeye—find him where or how you will, rich or poor, in a miserable log cabin, or a magnificent mansion, he is the same open, free, and truly generous man. Agreeing with or differing from you, of the same religious faith and politics, or differing from you in both, it makes no difference. Once make him feel you are an honest man and you are welcomed with all the fullness of genuine hospitality, to his heart and his home.
“I ask not for his lineage
I ask not for his birth
If the stream be pure what matters it,
The source from which it burst.”15Douglass misquotes two couplets of Robert Nicoll’s 1842 poem, “The Questioner, A Chant,” which reads, “I ask not for his lineage, / I ask not for his name” and “If pure the stream, it matters not / The spot from whense it burst.” Robert Nicoll, Poems (Providence, R.I., 1853), 192–93.
Since we have been in this State, we have been as warmly welcomed and as cordially received at the homes of Liberty party men, as by Old
Organizationists; and so may I say of Whigs, and sometimes Democrats.16Douglass in the company of Garrison, and sometimes of Stephen S. Foster and James and Lucretia Mott, held at least fifteen abolitionist meetings in the state of Ohio from mid-August to mid-September 1847. Although the Garrisonian Western Anti-Slavery Society had requested the tour, all brands of opponents of slavery in the state attended the meetings. Whig congressman Joshua R. Giddings and the religiously inclined abolitionists of Oberlin College, in particular, cordially welcomed the eastern abolitionist visitors. Merrill and Ruchames, Garrison Letters, 3:514–28; Gamble, “Moral Suasion in the West,” 339–50. And in no case was there unfaithfulness or shunning to declare the whole truth, with reference to each and all these parties.
PLIr: NASS, 23 September 1847. Reprinted in JNH, 10:745–49 (October 1925); Woodson, Mind of the Negro, 481–85; Foner, Life and Writings, 1:265–69.