Frederick Douglass Gerrit Smith, January 21, 1851
FREDERICK DOUGLASS TO GERRIT SMITH
Rochester, [N.Y.] 21 Jan[uary] 1851.
Gerrit Smith, Esq.
MY DEAR FRIEND,
I thank you sincerely for your donation,1Gerrit Smith donated fifteen dollars to the North Star sometime during the week of 9–16 January 1851. NS, 16 January 1851. and feel much pleased—that amid the multitudenous demands made upon your purse, you yet find the means of encourageing me in my humble labors in the cause of human redemption.
I have thought much since my personal acquaintance with you—and since hearing your reasons for regarding the constitution of the United States an antislavery instrument and although I cannot yet see that instrument in the same light in which you view it—I am so much impressed by your reasoning that I have about decided to let slaveholders and their Northern abbettors have the Labouring oar2The laboring oar is the one requiring the most strength and exertion, often used figuratively with respect to a difﬁcult undertaking. in putting a proslavery interpretation upon the constitution. I am sick and tired of argueing on the slaveholder side of this question although they are doubtless right so far as the intentions of the framers of the constitution are concerned. But these intentions you fling to the winds—your legal rules of interpretation override all speculations as to the opinions of the constitution makers and these rules may be sound and I confess I know not how to meet or refute them on legal
grounds. You will now say I have conceded all that you require and it may be so. But there is a consideration which is of much importance between us. It is this. May we avail ourselves of legal rules which enable us to defeat even the wicked intentions of our constitution makers. It is this question which puzzles me more than all others involved in the subject. Is it good morality to take advantage of a legal ﬂaw and put a meaning upon a legal instrument the very opposite of what we have good reason to believe was the intention of the men who framed it? Just here is the question of difficulty with me. I know well enough that slavery is an outrage, contrary to all ideas of justice, and therefore cannot be law according to Blackstone3Best known for his Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765–69), Sir William Blackstone (1723–80) was a British legal writer, judge, and Oxford professor of common law. In his Commentaries, Blackstone describes liberty as the right to own property undisturbed. All propertyless members of society, including wives, servants, and slaves, fall “under the immediate dominion of others,” primarily their husbands, fathers, and masters. Yet, because of the inherent freedom that Blackstone saw as residing in English soil, he posited that slavery could not exist in that country. He commented, “The law of England abhors, and will not endure the existence of, slavery within this nation. . . . A slave or negro, the instant he lands in England, becomes a freeman.” William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, 2 vols. (New York, 1844), 1:171, 424; Teresa Michaels, “ ‘That Sole and Despotic Dominion’: Slaves, Wives, and Game in Blackstone’s Commentaries,” Eighteenth-Century Studies, 27:195–216 (Winter 1993–94); DNB, 2:595–601. but may it not be Law according to American legal authority?
You will observe by reading the resolutions adopted at the annual meeting of the Western N.Y. Antislavery Society—that I have already ceased to affirm the proslavery character of the Constitution.4At its 16 January 185 1 meeting, held in Rochester’s Irving Hall, the Western New York Anti-Slavery Society passed a series of resolutions, including one addressing the proslavery nature of the U.S. Constitution. Not only did the Constitution protect slavery, the organization agreed, but those who defended the Constitution themselves inadvertently supported slavery. The society applauded various members of Congress for their “manly stand” against the proslavery measures included in the Compromise of 1850. Hence, as Douglass says, they were not condemned as having made “proslavery compromises.” Nonetheless, the society deemed those representatives “shorn of their moral strength” and “rendered comparatively powerless in the presence of slaveholders” by the very fact that the Constitution permitted slavery. NS, 23 January 1851. In drawing up the resolutions for that meeting—I purposely avoided all affirmation of the proslavery “compromises” as they are termed.
My good friend Julia Griffiths forwarded to your address one copy of my two first lectures in Rochester5Douglass delivered a series of nine speeches in Rochester’s Corinthian Hall on Sunday evenings from December 1850 through February 1851. He delivered the first and second. lectures on 1 and 8 December 1850, and published them together as a pamphlet in January 1851. NS, 5 December 1850, 16, 23 January 1851; Douglass Papers, ser. 1, 2:249–72, 279–325. this morning. I hope it will reach you. I am greatly pleased by your good opinion of those lectures. I sometimes fear that being delivered by a fugitive slave—who has never had a days school constitutes the only merit they possess. Yet I am so much encouraged by my friends here—and elsewhere that I am seriously intending if I can command the money to publish them in Book form. Your generous offer of 25-dollars for that purpose, was timely and very thankfully received. I shall give four or five more lectures to complete the course. The fact that negroes are turning Book makers may possibly serve to remove the popular impression that they are fit only for Boot blackers & although they may not shine in the former profession as they have long done in the latter, I am not with out hope that they will do themselves good by making the effort.
I have often felt that what the colored people want most in this country is character. This they want more than all things else. They want manly aspirations and a firm though modest self reliance and this we must have or be like all other worthless things swept a way before the march of events.
I see now that a strong effort is being made to get us out of this country—the speech of Mr. Clay in the senate the other day6On 15 January 1851 Henry Clay of Kentucky presented two petitions to Congress in favor of the colonization of African Americans to Liberia. Clay supported colonization as a way to suppress the Atlantic slave trade and argued, “I see no other remedy than of sending them back to the land whence their ancestors were taken, and I can conceive of no portion of the population of the United States which not be benefitted by such transfer of the free people of color from the United States to Africa.” Clay remained a ﬁrm supporter of colonization in his later years, claiming it was the only realistic solution to American slavery. On 21 January 1851, less than a week after presenting the petitions to Congress, he made a speech at the American Colonization Society’s annual meeting and proclaimed that “the time has now arrived when some considerable acceleration may be given to the transporting of emigrants from the United States to Africa.” Congressional Globe, 31st Cong., 2nd sess., 1851, 246–47; Clay, Papers of Henry Clay, 10:844–46.—an article in the New York Tribune7An article endorsing colonization appeared in the New York Daily Tribune on 17 January 1851. The unattributed author noted, “We trust the time is coming when the divinely directed example of the Exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt will be understood and appreciated by the Blacks—that they will come to realize that Colonization is the means whereby oppressed Races and Communities renew their youth and strength.” now before mew—on the subject, the starting up of a New Colonizeation
Society paper in New York, are facts which all point one way—wand that is “out with the negroes,” and I really fear that some
whose presence in this country is necessary to the elevation of the colored people will leave us—while the degraded and worthless will remain behind to help bind us to our present debasement.
But I have already trespassed upon your time long enough. I know how closely your time is occupied. Miss Griffiths writes with me in kind regards to yourself and Mrs. Smith.8Ann Carroll Fitzhugh Smith.
Very gratefully yours.
[P.S.] I would say excuse my writing—but that your own writing suggests that consideration so often that I do not wish to weary you by such a reminder. I am however rapidly getting over the difficulty of reading letters from your pen and am always glad to get one at any rate.
ALS: Gerrit Smith Papers, NSyU. PLSr: Foner, Life and Writings, 2:149–51.