Skip to main content

Frederick Douglass to Sydney H. Gay, September 26, 1847

1

FREDERICK DOUGLASS TO SYDNEY H. GAY

West Winfield, [N.Y.] 26 Sept[ember] 1847.

MY DEAR FRIEND:—

Since what has appeared in the Standard, copied from the Cleveland True Democrat, respecting the state of Mr. Garrison’s health,1During their western tour, William Lloyd Garrison fell ill and remained in Cleveland for several weeks to recuperate, while Douglass and Foster continued their speaking engagements. A short paragraph in the Cleveland True Democrat asserted that Garrison was “so unwell as to be unable to proceed to Buffalo,” raising concern about his health. He was first believed to be suffering from a stomach flu known in the nineteenth century as “bilious fever.” Dr. Charles Williams of Cleveland diagnosed Garrison as having typhoid fever, but later reports claimed that he suffered from the more serious brain fever, possibly a form of meningitis. NASS, 23 September 1847; Lib., 24 September, 1, 22, October 1847; Merrill and Ruchames, Garrison Letters, 3:527–28. I have deeply regretted that I omitted all mention of his illness in my last letter.2Douglass’s previous letter to Sydney H. Gay, dated 17 September 1847 from Cleveland, Ohio, appeared in the 23 September issue of the National Anti-Slavery Standard. In that letter, which appears in this volume, he described his speaking tour across the West and antislavery meetings in Ohio. I refrained from referring to it because I feared that such mention would create anxiety and apprehension in the bosom of his dear family, and among his friends generally. When that letter was written, I hoped and believed that friend Garrison would be well enough in a day or two to take passage for Buffalo, and to attend the meetings at Rochester on the 17th of September;3Douglass and Garrison were scheduled to speak at Rochester on 16 and 17 September 1847. In Garrison’s absence Charles Lenox Remond and Joseph C. Hathaway joined Douglass. NASS, 29 July 1847; Lib., 13 August 1847. and well-knowing how prone one’s family and friends are to exaggerate the illness of a far-off beloved one, I deemed it prudent to pass over his illness in silence. But since the alarming notice taken of it by the papers, I fear that my prudence has served to produce and increase the alarm and apprehension which it was intended to suppress and prevent.

I will now give you all the information respecting our beloved friend and co-worker of which I am in possession. It may be too late for any good purpose, and this you will and may determine, by publishing or suppressing it, as you may deem best.

On Sunday, 12th of September, I was with our friend in Cleveland.4Douglass and Garrison were scheduled to speak at Cleveland on both Saturday and Sunday, 11 and 12 September 1847, with meetings held in the Advent Chapel on Wood Street on both days. Lib., 17 September 1847; Merrill and Ruchames, Garrison Letters, 3:526–28. At that time he was, to all appearance, in good health, and in good spirits, though somewhat worn with his unceasing public efforts. On the morning of that day, he spoke to a large and crowded audience, in the Second Advent Tabernacle, and would have spoken in the same place in the afternoon, but that the religious society worshipping there desired the house for religious services. Our meeting in the afternoon was held in the open air, no house being open to us. At three o’clock, P.M. the meeting assembled, and was addressed by friend Garrison for an hour and more, with more than his usual earnestness and power. While he was speaking, there came on a drizzling rain, and the Wind being from the north and from the Lake,5Lake Erie. the afternoon was cold and exceedingly disagreeable. After the delivery of his address, he sat down on the side of a wagon, which served as a platform; and here, I apprehend, he contracted his sickness. At about five o’clock, our meeting closed, and I accompanied him to his lodgings, at the house of Mr. Jones,6Thomas Jones, a marble cutter and native of England, immigrated to Cleveland, Ohio, with his wife, Mary Ann. During the 1840s, he served as treasurer of a local antislavery organization, the Liberty Club of Cleveland. He was the father of John Percival Jones, who would serve as a U.S. senator from Nevada. Garrison stayed at his home during his illness in Cleveland. Elijah Peet, Peet’s Business Directory of the City of Cleveland, for 1846–7 (Cleveland, 1846), 88; Merrill and Ruchames, Garrison Letters, 3:528n. on Eric street. We expected to leave Cleveland that night, for Buffalo, so as to be fresh for the meeting at that place on Tuesday morning; but the wind being high and adverse, no steamer

2

ventured out. Between eight and nine o’clock that night, Mr. Garrison appeared much exhausted, and complained of feeling a general soreness in his limbs, and somewhat feverish. Supposing that he merely needed rest, I left him, and went to my lodgings, at the house of my kind friend, Mr. Wall.7The business directory for Cleveland, Ohio, for this period lists four men named Wall. Thomas Wall was a philosophical instrument maker, Edward Wall worked in a shoe store, Robert Wall was a mason, and a second Thomas Wall was an edge tool manufacturer. Peet, Directory of the City of Cleveland, for 1846–7, 124. About the hour of eight in the morning of Monday, I called upon our friend at his lodgings, and much to my pleasure I found him up, and ready to leave for Buffalo. Between eight and nine, we started toward the wharf from which we expected to sail for Buffalo; but before reaching it, we were informed that the steamer would not leave before twelve o’clock. On learning this, I went back to Mr. Wall’s, and Mr. Garrison returned to his lodgings in Erie street. Between twelve and one o’clock, Mr. Garrison went on board of the steamboat St. Louis,8The steamer mentioned is one of several nineteenth-century vessels named the Saint Louis. Built at Perrysburg, Ohio, in 1844, this Saint Louis provided regular passage from Buffalo to lake ports in Ohio. The steamer remained in service until 1852, when it was stranded at Sandusky, Ohio. C. Bradford Mitchell, ed., Merchant Steam Vessels of the United States, 1790–1868 (Staten Island, N.Y., 1975), 191, 295. intending to remain on board rather than to run the risk of losing his passage by being too late; but after remaining on board a considerable part of the afternoon, and seeing no prospect of getting off, the wind being high, and a heavy sea setting right in upon the shore, and feeling quite unwell withal, he left the vessel, and returned to his lodgings and went to bed. Here I left him for that day. On Tuesday morning, 14th of September, I called upon friend Garrison in company with Dr. Peck,9David Jones Peck. a coloured young gentleman, who had journeyed with us through our whole tour in Ohio. We found him in bed, and very unwell, and manifesting symptoms of intermittent fever. He was, as he always is, cheerful. He had gained no sleep that night, and had made up his mind to remain in Cleveland till the wind abated and he felt better. I then proposed to remain in Cleveland with him, though such an arrangement would cause much disappointment and regret at all the meetings in Buffalo and Rochester. He, however, desired me to go on and do the best I could, hoping to meet me at some one of the meetings appointed through New York. Not deeming my beloved friend dangerously ill, and hoping that he would be able to come on in a few days, I left him in the care of our friends in Cleveland, and our friend, Dr. Peck, remaining with him. I reached Buffalo, after a stormy passage, early on Wednesday morning, 15th of September. Here I met with our friends Hathaway10Joseph Comstock Hathaway (1810–73) was a Quaker farmer from Waterloo, New York. He was an active Garrisonian abolitionist in the 1840s, holding various offices in the American Anti-Slavery Society as well as the Western New York Anti-Slavery Society. In the 1850s Hathaway, like Douglass, became a supporter of the remnant of the Liberty party led by Gerrit Smith. Philadelphia Friends’ Review, 27:328 (10 January 1874); Merrill and Ruchames, Garrison Letters, 2:606n; Ripley, Black Abolitionist Papers, 4:95–96n. and Remond,11Charles Lenox Remond. and with them held three meetings, and spoke three times, though of course with but little success or vigour, being worn out by constant labours, and enfeebled by sea-sickness, produced by the confused motion of lake seas. On Thursday morning, September 16th, at 6 o’clock, I went to Rochester. Here I hastened to the Post Office, in the hope of getting a line from Dr. Peck, who kindly promised to keep me informed respecting our friend’s health. I however found no letter. This I construed into a

3

hopeful circumstance and judged that he might then be on his way to the meeting, and that we should soon clasp his warm hand and look again into his earnest and healthful face. But in this we were disappointed, and the disappointment was deeply felt by us all. On Friday morning, I went again to the Post Office, and was again disappointed; I received no letter. My next ground of hope was that a letter had been sent to me at Buffalo, but failed to reach there before I left. On Saturday morning, 18th of September, I received the following:

CLEVELAND, 15th September, 1847.

DEAR FREDERICK:—I drop you a line, according to promise, to inform you of Mr. Garrison’s health, which as yet is quite poor. He is, indeed, quite ill, and unable to sit up; and he thinks he shall not attempt to speak any more, but, as soon as he is able, he thinks of starting for home. He desires me to say to you not to write home in reference to his illness, but hopes soon to be on his way there. There is a homoeopathic physician attending him. Yours sincerely, D. PECK.

I have not received any intelligence from my friend since the above. On Thursday, September 23d, I sent a telegraphic inquiry from Auburn to Cleveland, but left there for Syracuse before I could get a reply.12Douglass spoke in Auburn on Thursday, 23 September 1847, and in Syracuse on 23 and 24 September 1847. An article in the 30 July 1847 issue of the Liberator, however, originally reported him as scheduled to speak in each place a day earlier. NASS, 29 July 1847; Lib., 30 July, 6 August, 22 October 1847. Our friend, David Wright, Esq.13David Wright (1806–87), a lawyer from Auburn, New York, was a regular subscriber to the North Star and the husband of Lucretia Mott’s sister, Martha Coffin Wright. In 1846 he was among the court-appointed lawyers who defended William Freeman, an Auburn youth of African American and Indian heritage, charged in the murder of several members of a white farm family. Other members of the defense team included former New York governor William H. Seward and his law partners, Christopher Morgan and Samuel Blatchford. Freeman was convicted, but an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court resulted in the granting of a new trial. Freeman was never retried, because of his mental illness, and he died in jail the following year. NS, 30 June 1848, 14 December 1849, 30 May 1850; Benjamin Hall, The Trial of William Freeman for the Murder of John G. Van Nest (Auburn, N.Y., 1848). of Auburn, assured me that he would forward the reply to me at Little Falls to-morrow, and cause the same to be inserted in the Auburn papers. I now think of returning to Cleveland from Albany, if the intelligence from Cleveland should be, (which God grant it may not,) unfavourable to his restoration to health. I have reproached myself for leaving him at all.

Our meetings in this State have been very encouraging, though by no means so large as those held in Ohio. Our poorest meeting was held in Buffalo; I can account for this on no other ground than that we had been immediately preceded in that place by a meeting of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions.14Founded in 1810 and incorporated by the Massachusetts General Assembly in 1812, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions was the largest American agency sending missionaries abroad in the first half of the nineteenth century, accounting for 40 percent of all missionary personnel in the 1850s. Relying heavily on the religious fervor of the Second Great Awakening, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions recruited missionaries from Congregational strongholds of New England and New York. Although the group acted as a federation for numerous denominations, Presbyterians and Congregationalists dominated it. The organization’s goal was to encourage the spread of Christianity and trade to less developed regions of the world. By the mid-1820s, the group established a successful mission in the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii). Other major venues for the board’s activities included East Asia, Africa, and the islands of Micronesia. The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions held its annual meeting in Buffalo, 8–10 September 1847. Lib., 8 October 1847; John A. Andrew, Rebuilding the Christian Commonwealth: New England Congregationalists and Foreign Missions, 1800–1830 (Lexington, Ky., 1976), 1–3, 20–23; William R. Hutchison, Errand to the World: American Protestant Thought and Foreign Missions (Chicago, 1987), 45–46; William E. Strong, The Story of the American Board (Boston, 1910), 3–16. They may have so completely engaged the sympathies of the people of that city in behalf of the heathen of the South Sea Islands,15Soon after its organization, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions turned its attention toward the Sandwich Islands. Advance recruitment for the campaign began as early as 1816, with the publication of a narrative of life in the islands and other promotional material, and the first group of missionaries set sail in 1819. At its high point in 1837, the board had ninety American and several hundred native missionaries actively working in Hawaii. Missionaries established schools and strove to convert native rulers to Christianity. In the late 1830s, the Hawaiian constitution included a prohibition on laws “at variance with the word of the Lord Jehovah,” and the American Board claimed at least 18,000 converts. Samuel C. Bartlett, Historical Sketches of the Missions of the American Board (1876; New York, 1972), 14–15; Andrew, Rebuilding the Christian Commonwealth, 97–119; Hutchison, Errand to the World, 69–70; Strong, American Board, 56–69. as to leave none for the heathen of our own Southern States.

The meetings at Rochester were all that we could desire. They continued two days, and were interesting and spirit-stirring to the last. I have seldom seen more intellectual looking persons than those who attended our afternoon and evening meetings in that place. The papers of that city are

4

expressing much regret that so many respectable persons attended, and encouraged the fanatical and treasonable designs of the speakers on that occasion. I presume that respectable people may be safely left to decide for themselves the character and quality of the meetings which they will encourage by their presence, without advice or direction from a priest who will defend man-stealing under any circumstances.

Our next meeting was held in Farmington,16Douglass and Remond were scheduled to speak in Farmington, New York, on Sunday, 19 September 1847 at 2:00 P.M. NASS, 23 September 1847. and in what house, do you think? In Friends' Meeting-house—a house which has been hermet[i]cally sealed against Anti-Slavery meetings for more than five years. A change has come over those in authority in that region, which promises much to the cause of the slave and the character of that society. There are a number of the truest friends of the slave connected with that society, whose hearts will leap up with delight at this pleasing indication.

Since the Farmington meeting, we have held meetings in Canandaigua, Waterloo, Seneca Falls, Auburn, Syracuse, and West Winfield,17The remaining dates on the speaking schedule included Canandaigua on 20 September, Waterloo on 21 and 22 September, Auburn on 23 September, Syracuse on 24 September, and West Winfield on 25 and 26 September 1847. NASS, 29 July 1847. all of which were well attended, and left a good impression.

I never more than now saw the importance of sending forth lecturing agents. The people are anxious to hear, and I believe are ready to embrace the truth, as they have never been before. The bloody war with Mexico, the extension of Slavery, the aggressions of the slave-power, and the mean and servile cringing of the Northern press to Southern dictation, and the cowardly backing out, on the part of Northern politicians, from the Wilmot Proviso,18First introduced in August 1846 by Congressman David Wilmot, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, the Wilmot Proviso proposed banning slavery from all territory gained as a result of the Mexican-American War. The proposal sparked a heated debate in Congress between southerners and northern advocates of free soil. The proviso found backing in a bipartisan coalition of northern Democrats and Whigs. Although the bill passed in the House, the session adjourned before the Senate had the opportunity to vote. In 1847 northern Democrats reintroduced the proviso. Once again, the bill passed in the House, but the Senate defeated the measure. James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (New York, 1988), 52–54; Roger L. Ransom, Conflict and Compromise: The Political Economy of Slavery, Emancipation, and the American Civil War (Cambridge, Eng., 1989), 97–99; Sewell, Ballots for Freedom, 131, 143–48. is leading the people to investigate for themselves the cause of all this.

In haste, yours,

PLIr: NASS, 7 October 1847. Reprinted in PaF, 14 October 1847.

5

6

FREDERICK DOUGLASS TO SAMUEL J. MAY1

West Winfield, [N.Y.] 27 Sept[ember] 1847.

MY DEAR FRIEND.
Allow me to thank you for the sermons which you gave me before parting with you at Syracuse.2 I have read both, and should be glad had I time to speak of them at length, but time I have not. I was pleased with the Cambredge discourse3 but the one on woman's rights4 is the best thing I ever read on the subject. The oneness of our common family is brought out as I never saw it before. Great Good must follow it.

In great haste Yours Sincerely
F. DOUGLASS

ALS: FD Papers (1847-1891), NRU.

Date

September 26, 1847

Type

Publication Status

Published