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I Am Unwilling to Be an Idler: An Interview Given in Baltimore, Maryland, on September 6, 1891



Baltimore American, 6 September 1891. Another text in Washington Evening Star, 7
September 1891.

While visiting Baltimore, Maryland, to speak at the Centennial Methodist
Episcopal Church, Douglass answered questions from a Baltimore American
reporter concerning his life in retirement from public office.

Hon. Frederick Douglass, ex-United States Minister to Hayti, came over
from Washington, D.C., on the 12:45 P.M. to visit his Baltimore friends.
Incidentally he was to address the Sunday school and congregation of
Centennial Methodist Episcopal Church, Caroline and Baltimore streets,
Rev. I. L. Thomas, pastor. He was met at Camden Station by Dr. W. E.
Harris, Wm. H. Daniels and C. F. Vodery, a committee of the Centennial
Church, who accompanied him to the home of his hostess, Mrs. Sarah J.
Vodery, at 333 South Caroline street, where he remains until to-day. Mr.
Douglass looks about the same as usual, but complains that he does not feel
quite as strong as he did when he left for Hayti.

In an interview as to the proposed purchase of the Mole St. Nicholas by


the United States government, and as to his relations thereto when minister
to Hayti, Mr. Douglass said: “I have made my defense in the North
American Review1Douglass alludes to his essay, “Haiti and the United States: Inside History of the Negotiations for the Mole St Nicolas," which appeared in two parts in the North American Review in September and October 1891. North American Review, 153 : 337–45 (September 1891), 153: 450–59 (October 1891). of the charge that I did not exhibit sufficient ability in
negotiating for the purchase of the Mole St. Nicholas, and I think I need say
very little more on that subject. I certainly was an able advocate for the
purchase, even as during General Grant’s2Ulysses S. Grant. administration I advocated and
worked for the purchase of San Domingo, as advised by President Grant.
As to my relations with Admiral Gherardi3Bancroft Gherardi. and the matter generally, I have
written an article for future publication, and, therefore, decline to speak
further at present. I cannot say whether the negotiations for the purchase of
the coaling station will be continued by the new minister or by a special
envoy on the part of the government. I think Mr. Durham,4John Stephens Durham. the newly-
appointed minister to Hayti, is quite a bright man, and he will do credit to
the position.”

Continuing his talk to The American reporter later, in answer to a
question, Mr. Douglass said: “I am seventy-four years of age,5Because of lack of precise information about the date of his birth, Douglass incorrectly reports his age at the time of this interview as seventy-four rather than seventy-three years old. and I can
say, as to my future, that I think I have arrived at an age when I have a right
to retire from all official duties, though I certainly shall continue to take an
active interest in and to do my part in shaping the current events. I am
unwilling to be an idler, but hope to exert whatever influence I may possess
so long as my life lasts. But otherwise I have determined to devote my
future to literary work, preparing for publication reminiscences of my long
life, in connection with the stirring events of my times and my relations
thereto. I shall do this, for I feel it as a duty I owe to my children and my
grandchildren, so that they may see what their father and grandfather has
done, and that I may leave it as a monumental record of my life.

“My life has been rather a remarkable one, coming, as I have, from the
slave cabin and the cornfield to the prominent position which I hold,
especially as a representative of my race. Thus, I can tell to my descendants
a little something of what I have seen and experienced and how I have acted
in the world. Especially is this to me an important duty, for being past
seventy years I have not in the course of nature long to stay here. I began my


lectures in favor of abolition fifty-two years ago, in 1839, at New Bedford,
Mass., when some white gentlemen persuaded me to travel and lecture in
behalf of abolition.6In other places, Douglass more accurately remembers these events as occurring in the summer of 1841 not in 1839. Douglass, Life and Times, 239–40. I went to England, and money was raised to buy my
freedom. They presented me with myself in recognition of my ability as a
speaker, and sent me back to America to lecture.”

Mr. Douglass then said, laughing heartily: “It is true I am now growing
old, but I can say like Dr. Jackson77. Douglass probably alludes to abolitionist and physician James Caleb Jackson. said to President Quincy,8Members of a distinguished Massachusetts family, Josiah Quincy (1772–1864) graduated from Harvard College in 1790 and then practiced law in Boston. Elected to the U.S. House of Representatives as a Federalist, Quincy served there from 1805 to 1813. In Congress, Quincy revealed himself to be a strong partisan and a vocal critic of slavery. He later served in the Massachusetts state senate (1813–20) and state house (1820–21) and as mayor of Boston (1823–27). From 1829 to 1845, Quincy held the post of president of Harvard College where he modernized administrative procedures and improved the reputation of the Law School. He devoted his later years to writing a history of Boston and a biography of John Quincy Adams. ACAB, 5: 151–52; DAB, 15: 308–11. of Harvard
University, when asked when he expected to die[,] ‘I shall die, I suppose,
when I am in need of a doctor, when I am about ninety years old and not
before then.’ But I certainly shall wear, and not rust out.”9Henry IV, Part II, act I, sc. 2, lines 249–50. The interview with Douglass concludes at this point. The remainder of the Baltimore American article describes Douglass's speech at the Centennial Methodist Episcopal Church on 6 September 1891.


Douglass, Frederick, 1818-1895


September 6, 1891


Yale University Press 1992



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