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Frederick Douglass Gerrit Smith, May 1, 1851



Rochester, [N.Y.] 1 May 1851.

Gerrit Smith.


I feel honored and pleased by the contents of your favor of 27th April.1Smith’s letter of 27 April 1851 to Douglass has not been located. It is not impossible that I am too much elated with the plan you propose to consider of it as calmly as its great importance plainly demands. I am grateful to you that you have thought of me in such a connection. As well as I have known your generous character—and as much as you had taught me to expect at your hands—I never expected such an offer as that which you have now suggested. I agree with you as to the character of the “National Era.”2Based in Washington, D.C., the National Era was an antislavery newspaper edited by Gamaliel Bailey from 1847 until his death in 1859. As an antislavery newspaper printed on slave soil, the National Era labored under the constant threat of mob violence; but Bailey, nonetheless, built a subscription base of over 25,000 readers. Harriet Beecher Stowe aided in this popularity when the National Era serialized her novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin from late May 1851 through April 1852. Despite this notoriety, Bailey’s moderate editorial style drew severe criticism from abolitionists like Douglass, who in 1851 referred to the National Era as “powerless for Good.” Five years later, when Lewis Tappan suggested to Bailey that he add Douglass as a coeditor of the National Era, Bailey refused, citing his personal differences with Douglass’s radical abolitionism and the potential uproar in Washington over the appointment of a black editor to his paper. Stanley Harrold, Gamaliel Bailey and Antislavery Union (Kent, Ohio, 1986), 140–41, 192; Duane Mowry, “The National Era, an Abolition Document,” Publications of the Southern History Association, 8:462–64 (November 1904). It is most attractive and fair seeming to the eye—but it is as cold—and lifeless as marble. Were it but half as faithful as it is beautiful it would shake this guilty land, but alas!—wit is dead. No living heart throbs beneath its pure white ruffles. It is powerless for good—and only remains to taint the Anti Slavery atmosphere.

But let the “Era” pass. Let the dead bury their dead.3Matt. 8:22, Luke 9:60. You want a good looking—as well as a good paper, established in western N.Y. & have a plan to accomplish that object. I like the plan. You may rely upon me to answer the part you have assigned for me, in the mode of attaining such a paper. I am in favor of such a union of papers—and talents of which you speak. What we want is a good paying subscription list. But in order to get this we must send forth a Sheet such as will take the eyes of friends—and such as they will not be ashamed to solicit Subscribers for even among foes. To get such a Sheet money is necessary. We must have money to buy


good clean white paper. It must not be so flimsy as that upon which the North Star—and Liberty party paper4After the bulk of political abolitionists defected to the new Free Soil party in 1848, Gerrit Smith struggled to keep alive the remnant of the Liberty party. He financed veteran reform editor John Thomas’s effort to launch a weekly abolitionist newspaper, the Liberty Party Paper, in August 1849. Published in Syracuse, the Liberty Party Paper never developed a large subscription list and depended on regular subventions from Smith to stay in print. Thomas’s advocacy of innumerable causes besides abolitionism, as well as his sloppy typography, annoyed many readers and disappointed Smith, who invested nearly $3,500 in the failing publication. The final issue of the Liberty Party Paper was 5 June 1851, after which it merged operations with Douglass’s North Star. Milton C. Sernett, North Star Country: Upstate New York and the Crusade for African American Freedom (Syracuse, N.Y., 2002); Harlow, Gerrit Smith, 187–88. are published. We must have as good paper as that upon which the [“]National Era” is printed. Money we must have or fail to command the needful talents to make our columns full rich and fresh. Money must be at hand or the Editor will have his brains more puzzled about the means than about the end. Now I believe that by uniting the “Liberty party paper”—and “North Star”—saying nothing of the “Citizen”5Samuel Ringgold Ward’s short-lived Impartial Citizen, published in Syracuse, New York, from 1849 to 1850, voiced Ward’s views on such issues as African American religion, the Fugitive Slave Law, and Liberty party politics. In particular, Ward’s depiction of the U.S. Constitution as an antislavery document in the pages of the Citizen drew the ire of Douglass and other Garrisonian abolitionists. The Impartial Citizen skirted bankruptcy throughout its existence, suspending publication during the summer of 1850 and only briefly resurfacing in Boston in 1851. When Ward fled the United States for Canada following his involvement in a fugitive slave case, the Impartial Citizen ceased publication altogether. Ronald Kevin Burke, “The Impartial Citizen of Samuel Ringgold Ward,” Journalism Quarterly, 49:759–60 (Winter 1972).—we shall shall have a very good start—and with your donation monthly for two years—be able to move forward firmly.

The “North Star”—sustains itself, and partly sustains my large family. It has just reached a living point. Hitherto the struggle of its life has been to live. Now it more than lives—and was just as your letter came to hand about to make some little improvement in the quality of the paper upon which it is printed. I have now decided to pause. The first two years of the “Star” spent the whole two thousand dollars sent to me from England by my dear friends there—and stript me of all but a very valuable experience in manageing money in connexion with a newspaper.

The condition of the “Star” is not such as to make me anxious to seek a union with any other paper—and yet I see that a great gain will flow to me—and to the cause by the union which you have kindly proposed and I go for it. In regard to the place of publication I think Rochester the place—besides general reasons in its favor—I have private ones. My house home and family are here. My house will be paid for in the course of a few months.6In April 1848 Douglass purchased a typical middle-class home on Alexander Street in Buffalo for $1,000. Despite the best efforts of Anna Douglass, known for her frugality, he had difficulty in making his mortgage payments because of the ambiguous delineation between his business and his household finances. Eliza Griffiths bought Douglass’s mortgage for $1,000 in August 1849. In April 1851, after Eliza’s marriage to Douglass’s printer, John Dick, she signed the mortgage over to her sister, Julia. Julia Griffiths declared the debt “redeemed, paid off, satisfied and discharged” in March 1853. The acts of the two sisters protected the Douglass home from his business creditors for four years. McMillan, “Mr. Editor,” 19; McKivigan, “Frederick Douglass—Gerrit Smith Friendship,” 208; Palmer, “Partnership in the Abolition Movement,” 5. My family are averse to moving—and I am unprepared for living at a distance from them. If I should leave Rochester I should leave an important work incomplete—the breaking down of prejudice. I wish to live here and cheer the hearts of those who have Stood by me—and Silence opposition. But I will not be to strongly wedded to Rochester.

As to princeples—Mine are well expressed in the admirable address Submitted by you to the Antifugetive Slave Law Convention held in Syracuse.7Gerrit Smith addressed the New York State Anti-Fugitive Slave Bill Mass Convention, held at City Hall in Syracuse, New York. NS, 23 January 1851. I am prepared to treat Slavery as a System of “Lawless violence” incapable in its nature of being legalized. I am prepared to contend for those rules of interpretation which when applied to the Constitution make its details—harmonize with its declared objects—in its preamble. I am satisfied on these points, and my heart is strong. The change in my views on this question has not been sudden—nor brought about with reference to any emergency. I have arrived at my present position after months of thought and investigation. I am therefore free from embarassment in accepting this part of your proposal. This is the only point that has separated me from you for the last three years. But to the practical parts.


I find it almost impossible to get my paper printed without errors—and inaccuracies—which greatly mortify me. The reason is, that we are compeled to get our paper printed in another office on a Steam press8William B. Clough, whose office was located in the Talman Building at 25 Buffalo Street, above the offices of the North Star, printed the newspaper. Many other newspaper and printing offices were located in the immediate vicinity. Directory for Rochester, 1851, 96.and they are unfriendly—and in an unfriendly office[.] That press once in motion—they will not stop it—for corrections. Now should our plan work—I purpose to build a printing office on my own Lot. It will not cost more than three hundred dollars—and buy me shall set up a good press. I should need about one hundred and fifty dollars worth of type. This would do quite well with what I now have—and enable me to produce a beautiful Sheet. All sorts of horse medicines—would be swept from our columns. And my advertising type—might be used—for let items and quotations.

The money matters of the paper might well be left to the care of my industrious and vigelent friend and co-worker Julia Griffiths.9Julia Griffiths acted as Douglass’s unofficial partner at the North Star. In addition to providing articles and copyediting text for the periodical, she set its finances in order and raised money by energetically soliciting donations and subscribers to the paper after the departure of Martin R. Delany in mid-1849. Drawing on her English connections and tapping the interest in antislavery that lay outside the Garrisonian circles in New England, Griffiths doubled the number of North Star subscribers and significantly reduced the paper’s debt. Diedrich, Love across Color Lines, 179–84; McKivigan, “Frederick Douglass—Gerrit Smith Friendship,” 208; Palmer, “Partnership in the Abolition Movement,” 1–17. With her eye on the Subscription list—I think very little would go wrong in that quarter. Had she had the management of my books at the commencement, I feel sure that I should have had double the number of subscribers I now have. To her the credit belongs that the “Star” is now out of debts. In twelve months, She paid off a debt of between Seven and Eight hundred dollars. She ought to have this credit for you need not be told that she has much to annoy—and at times to weigh down her spirit. She feels happy at the prospect now before her and will doubtless enter upon her duties with much spirit. I shall count much upon her assistance in any event.

As to the Name of the paper I am willing that the paper should take my own, if that shall be thought best. Frederick Douglass will be rather a long name to preceed paper—but we will think of it.

I wish to make a remark which I hope will meet your approval. I have an impression that there are many abolitionists who have very narrow views—and some who have a share of meanness in their composition. There are some who would not feel free to air a paper if they knew that Gerrit Smith had set his heart on making it successful. They will gladly stand by and subscribe for a single copy, but they have no idea of doing more. They say Gerrit Smith is rich—and he will not let the effort fail for want of funds. Now the thought has struck me that your financial help to the paper should not at once be made public—but that the paper should be flung out and among the people as needing their help. This is policy—and it may be sound policy. Then again it would disarm evil surmisers—until we get in a position to cope with them. I only fling out the thought.

The motto—which you have selected is good, very good.10The motto of Frederick Douglass’ Paper was “ALL RIGHTS FOR ALL.” NS, 12 June 1851.

Now then for a paper, the right sort of a paper. A paper which Shall be highly respectable in appearance—warm and sound in heart—generous


and free in spirit—demanding for universal humanity all the rights of human nature.

Hoping soon to see you and hear you further I am your grateful friend


ALS: Gerrit Smith Papers, NSyU. PLSr: Foner, Life and Writings, 2:151–54.



Douglass, Frederick (1818–1895)




Yale University Press 2009



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