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Frederick Douglass Gerrit Smith, May 21, 1851



Rochester, [N.Y.] 21 May 1851.

Gerrit Smith Esq.


It needs no ghost to assure me, that I am to be made for a time, an object of special attack. I am not afraid of it—do not personally dread it—nor shrink from it—and yet I regret it and am pained in view of it. I know too well the temper of my old companions to hope to escape the penalty which all others have received paid who have ventured to differ from them. The leaders in the American Antislavery Society are strong menm—noble champions in the cause of human freedom—and yet they are not after all the most charitable in construing the motives of those who see matters in a different light from themselves. Insinuations have already been thrown out—and will be again.

There are two ways of treating assaults from that quarter and of that character. They can be replied to—or be allowed to spend their force unanswered. Judgement is needed here. A word of advice from you will at any time be most welcome. You will do me the kindness—and the cause of truth and freedom, the service of giving a little attention to any controversy which may arise between my old friends and me, in regard to my present position, on the constitutional question.1In early 1849 Douglass began to reject the Garrisonian interpretation of the U.S. Constitution as an inherently proslavery document. By spring 1851 Douglass openly supported the idea that the Constitution allowed political action whereby slavery could eventually be abolished. Gerrit Smith, a founding member of the antislavery Liberty party, and William Goodell influenced Douglass’s shift toward political abolitionism. This shift increased the rift between Douglass and the Garrisonians, who rejected political or religious means in achieving the common goal of the abolition of slavery. NS, 23 May 1851; Foner, Life and Writings, 52–54; Martin, Mind of Frederick Douglass, 36–39. That my ground is correct I am satisfied—and can easily, I think, defend it against the strongest. But I am persuaded that the war will be waged not against opinions—but motives—especially if the union of papers which we contemplate shall go into effect. If in this, time shall prove me correct—I shall need a word from you—which I am sure you will generously give. You can prove that even in the “North Star” more than two years ago I gave up the ground that the Constitution when strictly construed is a proslavery document—and that the only points which prevented me, from declaring at that time, infavor of voting and against the disunion ground, related to the intentions of the


framers of the Constitution. I had not made up my mind then, as I have now; that I am only in reason and in conscince bound to learn the intentions of those who framed the Constitution—in the Constitution itself.

You yourself do know, that before I could have had the slightest hope of affecting the union of papers which we now contemplate—that I destinctly assured you, of the change in my opinion which have now publicly avowed. For months I have made no secret of my present opinion. I talked the matter over with S. S. Foster.2Douglass and Stephen S. Foster, along with George Thompson, lectured in Gerrit Smith’s hometown of Peterboro, New York, on 28 February, then in Syracuse on 5 and 6 March, and in Rochester on 13 and 14 March 1851. The conversation to which Douglass refers probably took place during this period. NS, 20 March 1851. I told him soon after leaving your house this spring that I no longer held to the no voting theory. I assured S. J. May3Samuel Joseph May. of the same thing. The only reason which I have had in not publicly avowing before, the change in my mind—was a desire to do so in open court. I espoused the doctrine among my old companions. I wished to reject it in their presence. I write from the office or I am sure that my wife4Anna Murray Douglass. would unite with Miss Griffiths5Julia Griffiths. (who is industriously wielding her pen at another desk) in sending love to yourself and Dear Lady6Ann Carroll Fitzhugh Smith.

Yours most truly


ALS: Gerrit Smith Papers, NSyU. PLSr: Foner, Life and Writings, 2:156–57.


Douglass, Frederick (1818–1895)




Yale University Press 2009



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