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Bob Markle to Frederick Douglass, August 20, 1851


BOB MARKLE1The identity of “Bob Markle” cannot be determined. In his only other letter to Douglass, written on 10 September 185 l, he reveals that he is black. Markle gives numerous examples of prejudice against free African Americans in the northern states. In particular, he cites having witnessed whites walk out of the Presbyterian Church of Corning, New York, when the black Reverend Samuel Ringgold Ward helped preside at services. FDP, 18 September 1851. TO FREDERICK DOUGLASS
Markledom, [N. Y.] 20 Aug[ust] 1851.
Dear Sir:—
Though the humble name attached to this communication will not be recognized by you or your readers, as that of one whose scribbling can add any interest to your valuable paper, still, you will allow a very obscure individual, perhaps, to congratulate you upon the change of sentiment which you have been pleased recently to announce in regard to the Federal Constitution.2As early as 1849 Douglass indicated that he considered the Constitution to be antislavery in its purest construction when he wrote, “Suppose a man from another country should read [the fugitive slave] clause of the American Constitution, with no other knowledge of the character of American institutions than what he derived from the reading of that instrument, will any one pretend that the clause in question would be thought to apply to slaves? We think not. Nor would he dream of such an outrage on reading any other part of the Constitution—Blot slavery from existence, and the whole frame—work of the Constitution might remain unchanged. There is, therefore, nothing in the Constitution which means slavery—only slavery—and nothing else than slavery.” In 1851 Douglass wrote, “More than two years ago, we were compelled to admit—as we believe every candid, unprejudiced person must admit—that the Constitution of the United States, strictly construed according to its language, is not a pro-slavery instrument.” NS, 9 February 1849, 12 June 1851. It has been to me, for many years, a matter of profound astonishment and deep regret, that so many men of the school of abolitionists called Garrisonians, should allow the pro-slavery folks to construe for them the Federal Constitution, while they will not allow pro-slavery authority to control them in anything else-while boldly and manfully questioning the dicta of public sentiment on so many other points, they should bow to the weight and influence of them on this point-while hoary-headed opinions, on almost all the subjects of public discussion, should be discarded by them, they should cling to notions a little too venerable on this very important matter.
Neither the principle nor the policy of this course, is, to me, at all commendable.—do not like the policy of admitting to a nation of idolaters to the constitution who are far more controlled by that instrument than by anything else, human or di vine, (I now refer to the more honest of the people,) that their idol is just the villainous thing they deem it to be, and so presenting to them a most insurmountable obstacle in the way of their joining us. As Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence observes, the history of the world proves that men are more apt to submit to governmental abuses with patience, than to take steps to correct them.3In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.” It follows that if you shall show to men that their organic law is a piece of scoundrelism, they will be more apt to suffer it to remain so than to address themselves to the Herculean task4According to Greek mythology, the hero Hercules would become immortal if he would serve Eurystheus, the Argive king, for twelve years. The king gave Hercules twelve extremely difficult tasks to perform, requiring superhuman strength and visits to the underworld. A Herculean task, therefore, is one of great difficulty and danger. Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable (New York, 1963), 4-48. of reforming it. It is just so with the policy of preaching disunionism. And I think the number of converts and advocates of this doctrine, which the preaching of it has produced within the last ten years, if shown, would be ample justification of my idea. And then, the principle of retailing those notions and provisions of the supreme law of the land which interested men-stealers and their northern instruments choose to invent and maintain, is to my mind, anything else than reformatory. It is expressive of great confidence in the legal learning


and the constitutional interpretation of men who have shared every breathe God Almighty ever gave them to draw, by trampling under foot every good law, human and divine, and establishing a code of piracy instead thereof. Pirates, indeed, do many decent things, and do not many indecent things which are among the key-stones and armor-stones of the system, which these fellows dignify by the name of institution. For instance, pirates do not beget children of their own bodies, propagate and perpetuate the species on purpose to furnish victims for their own hellish system. But to beget children, propagate the species, and perpetuate their own race for the sake of, and as a means of multiplying the victims of their diabolism, is not only done, but done with an unsullied reputation by the very men who call it all constitutional, and whose constitutional constructions and interpretations some abolitionists would have us receive as valid! I like not this on principle or policy. I choose not to be entangled in the inconsistency of denouncing these creatures as unfit to live within the same political system, and at the same time elect them as my teachers of law and constitution.
Indeed, my dear Douglass, I cannot see for the life of me, why the rules of legal interpretation applied to all other human laws should not be applied to this document. No man has ever shown me, any why, for this. And until I shall be shown it, I shall continue in future, as I have for the last ten years, to demand of my fellow-citizens (through your paper and Mr. Ward’s, if you will) that they should regard the Federal Constitution as no
exception to the laws so to be interpreted.5In an article titled “Samuel R. Ward,” Douglass describes a speech made by Ward in Rochester, New York, in which “part of his first discourse was an able argument, showing every law adopted in the free States, in any way abridging the rights and privileges of colored citizens, to be contrary to the Constitution of the United States.” FDP, 21 August 1851.
At present, I make but a single point more in answer to an objection commonly urged against this View of the subject by some abolitionists. They say that the actions of the government under the constitution, show what the constitution is, and inasmuch as those are pro-slavery, they are proof of having been performed by virtue of the pro-slavery authority of the constitution. But so far as I can learn, all the laws passed by the Federal Government, favoring and fostering slavery, are unconstitutional. The same remark applies to other acts of that government of a pro-slavery character, as for instance, its negotiations in behalf of slavery and war-making, for the furtherance of that accursed interest. To assume that these deeds have been done pursuant to constitutional authority, is at once to make the constitution contradict itself, and to throw a shield (in law) better than Ajax,6The most famous Greek hero of the Trojan War after Achilles, Ajax was the king of Salamis, a man of great stature, daring, and self-confidence. When the armor of Hector was awarded to Odysseus instead of to him, Ajax turned mad and stabbed himself. Phrase & Fable, 17. over the government in its basest apostacy from true republican principle. So far am I from believing that the pro—slavery deeds of Congress are, or ever were, authorized by the constitution, that I regard a man to be guilty of what comes precious near perjury, who swears to support the constitution, and then


wields the power of the office into which that oath inducted him to lengthen the cords and strengthen the stakes of slavery. But why receive the dark and damnable deeds of such officials, hirelings and tools of despotism as Fillmore,7Millard Fillmore Webster8Daniel Webster and H. K. Smith,9Henry Kendall Smith (1811—54) was U.S. commissioner appointed by the Circuit Court of New York under the Fugitive Slave Law to deal with cases of fugitive slaves. He presided over the Daniel case in Buffalo and remanded Daniel Davis to be sent back to his owner in Kentucky. Smith was born in St. Croix, the Virgin Islands, but educated in Baltimore. He moved to Buffalo in 1833 to practice law. After a number of unsuccessful runs for political positions, Smith won the Buffalo mayor’s office (1850-51) as a Democrat. FDP, 21 August 1851; Melvin G. Holli and Peter d’Alroy Jones, Biographical Dictionary of American Mayors, 1820-1980 (Westport, Conn., 1981), 333 as expositions of the constitution? As well might one risk the moral training of his children in the hands of such preachers of the gospel of bloodhoundism, as Cox,10Samuel H. Cox Lord[,]11Nathan Lord (1792-1870) was a Congregational minister and president of Dartmouth College from 1828 to 1863. Lord had at first backed the Liberty party, but soon after the Mexican-American War he became a decided supporter of slavery as an institution. Lord believed that slavery was sanctioned by the Bible and was therefore divinely ordained and not to be questioned. He published his views in Letter of Inquiry to Ministers of All Denominations on Slavery (1854) and A Northern Presbyter’s Second Letter (1855). In 1863 Lord published views denouncing John Brown’ s raid at Harpers Ferry, and the ensuing censure, particularly from his board of trustees, forced him to resign his position. DAB, 11:409. Taylor,12Nathaniel William Taylor (1786–1858), a preacher and educator at the Yale Divinity School, was a promoter of New School Calvinism, or New Haven theology, which strove to make New England Congregationalism compatible with revivalism. Taylor and like-minded clergymen such as Lyman Beecher posited that sin was not predestined, but that humans could choose to do good or evil. On the issue of slavery, New England Congregationalists tended to support the American Colonization Society and its methods, and generally, Taylor seemed to be a colonizationist and antiabolitionist. At the end of his life, Taylor joined those who protested the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 and became active in the Republican party. Sidney Earl Mead, Nathaniel William Taylor, 1786–1858: A Connecticut Liberal (1942; Hamden, Conn, 1967); John Terrill Wayland, “The Theological Department in Yale College, 1822–1858” (Ph.D. diss., Yale University, 1933), 78–79, 419–22; NCAB, 7:187; DAB, 18:338–39. Spring13Gardiner Spring (1785–1873), a Presbyterian clergyman, was born in Newburyport, Massachusetts. He began his career as a lawyer, but later became a minister in New Haven, Connecticut. Spring held that slavery was recognized in the Constitution and opposed the abolitionists, but when the Civil War began, he committed himself to the Union cause and persuaded the Old School Presbyterian General Assembly to support the federal government. DAB, 17:479-80. and Hawks.14Francis Lister Hawks (1798–1866) was an Episcopalian minister born in New Bern, North Carolina. He first became a lawyer, then entered the ministry in 1827. Hawks served in churches in Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and New York before moving to Mississippi, where he was one of the original trustees of the University of Mississippi. He also served churches in Louisiana, but later moved back to New York, where in 1862 his sympathy for the South led him to resign and move to Baltimore. DAB, 8:412–16. In future letters, if acceptable, I shall argue these points in detail.
I was at Buffalo a day or two after the bloody brutality of Daniel’ s arrest was perpetrated. Rust, the paid bloodhound, (but too dishonest to go on all fours,) is a most cowardly knave.15In 1851 a bounty hunter named Benjamin S. Rust and three other men attacked Daniel Davis, an accused fugitive slave working as a second cook aboard the steamship Buckeye State near Buffalo, New York. In the ensuing struggle the four men beat Davis, severely burning his face. Davis appeared before U.S. Commissioner Henry K. Smith, where Rust proffered an affidavit declaring him to be an agent for George J. Moore of Louisville, Kentucky; authorizing him to pursue Moore’s slave Davis, who had escaped on 25 August 1850; and describing Davis physically. The affidavit was signed by the Jefferson County, Kentucky, clerk and judge of the county court. In his hearing Commissioner Smith did not allow Davis to produce witnesses who could attest that he was not the slave described in the affidavit. Under the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, Judge Alfred Conkling of the New York district court found in favor of Davis’s status as a free man. Douglass and others lauded the decision in the case as proof that the Constitution could be used as a tool to fight slavery and the Fugitive Slave Law. FDP, 21 August, 4 September 1851. You will judge as much, when I tell you, that, though armed to the teeth, he took besides a billet of wood, to strike poor Daniel over the head as he mounted the ladder from the kitchen to the deck. The dastard, though thoroughly armed, did not dare to wait for his victim to come upon deck. A dogberry16Dogberry is the name of the inept and self-important constable in Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing. Justice named Gold, fined this fellow but $50.17George J. Moore, Daniel Davis’s alleged owner, hired Benjamin S. Rust of Louisville, Kentucky, to find his fugitive slave. The police arrested Rust for assaulting Davis and brooght him before Police Justice Gold. Gold issued a writ of habeas corpus so that Davis could be brought into court to testify against Rust. Both Davis and Rust spent a week in jail. Gold fined Rust fifty dollars for assault. FDP, 21 August 1851. What do you think of that? Henry K. Smith was as sober as usual when he sat on the judgment seat. How sober that is, those who know his habits can tell you. The wretch was but a short half hour in consigning this man to bondage. He overruled the long established doctrine of the courts, that a man bringing, or suffering to be brought, his slave into a free state, thereby frees him.18In 1842 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Prigg v. Pennsylvania that state officials were not required to assist in the return of fugitive slaves, rendering efforts to recover slaves essentially ineffective. Also, Connecticut passed a law that forbade judges and justices of the peace to take cognizance of such cases; Indiana, New York, and Vermont had laws that provided for trial by jury in cases involving fugitive slaves; and Pennsylvania and Ohio had passed laws to prevent kidnapping. John Hope Franklin and Alfred A. Moss, Jr., From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans (New York, 1994), 192; Campbell, Slave Catchers, 10. He then threatened that any of our people who should resist the law, should be shot down (a game that two can play at.) You know that black men fought in the Revolutionary War, and in the war with Great Britain.19Blacks served in both the U.S. Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. Approximately 3,000 of the 300,000 soldiers in the Revolutionary War were blacks, most coming from the North. In the War of 1812 the military allowed blacks to serve, but until 1814 there was no real push to recruit them. Then, New York passed an act to raise two regiments of men of color, with each consisting of about 1,000 men. The soldiers received the same pay as whites, and if a slave served with the permission of his master, he received his freedom at the end of the war. Franklin and Moss, From Slavery to Freedom, 76–77, 108.—Jackson, who was Smith’s pattern of a President and a General, called out black men to aid him twice.20In 1814 Andrew J ackson (1767–1845) led the Tennessee militia against a rebellion of Creek Indians. After being commissioned a major general in the U.S. Army and needing to strengthen his forces in the autumn of 1814, Jackson appealed to the free blacks of Louisiana to join him. He promised them the same pay as whites and said their noncommissioned officers would be chosen from their ranks. Several units joined, and they played an important role in the Battle of New Orleans. Jackson placed black troops on the left bank of the Mississippi River, just to the right of the advancing left column of the British. As the British assaulted Jackson’s position, these troops opened up a counterattack that was disastrous for the British. Franklin and Moss, From Slavery to Freedom, 109–10. Now this bloated son of an alien21Henry K. Smith’s father was an Englishman who owned a sugar plantation on St. Croix in the Virgin Islands. Holli and Jones, American Mayors, 333. talks about shooting down the men whose fathers fought for the liberties he enjoys, at second hand. Thank God, there is a Hell for such fellows hereafter!
The Mayor of Buffalo22James Wadsworth (1819–91), a Democrat and supporter of slavery, was mayor of Buffalo in 1851 and 1852. Ann Hoffman, Complete Listing of Buffalo Mayoral Candidates, 1832–1873 (Buffalo, N.Y., 1975), 1. was probably elected by the votes of the black men. He promised them friendship, in the matter of the Fugitive Law. No half-paid subaltern of the police, no waferish lackey, no paid or unpaid tool of despotism, no regular, professional man-hunter, could, or did, howl upon the track of the poor, down-stricken, helpless Daniel, as did Mayor Wadsworth—He did so in clear and manifest violation of the statute of New York. Had he his deserts according to the law, he would be fined and imprisoned.
Daniel has sued Rust for civil damages.—The uncircumcised have subscribed almost enough to purchase Daniel. They can afford that. But the whole matter is to be argued before Judge Conkling,23Alfred Conkling (1789–1874) is best known as a New York jurist. In 1825 John Quincy Adams appointed him as a federal judge for the northern New York district. He sat on the bench for twenty-seven years. In 1851 Conkling drew the ire of many antislavery activists when he bound over for trial the rescuers of William “Jerry” McHenry and then allowed himself to be removed from the subsequent trials. Conkling later served as U.S. minister to Mexico (1852) and practiced private law upon his return. His son, Roscoe, became a Republican U.S. congressman and senator and sometime political ally of Douglass after the Civil War. FDP, 30 October 1851, 5 February 1852; BDAC, 816; DAB, 4:345–46. not Lundy. Whether


the issue be or be not favorable, I do not believe Daniel will be taken back to slavery. If he can be re-enslaved after having been made free by his master’s permit[t]ing him to come into a free state, then a man born free, or a man emancipated, or a man bought, can be re-enslaved.
Now mark! Both of the political parties as such, stand by this law and H. K. Smith’s decision. And what is more, both of them will, in ’52, present to the people candidates who do the same. They will present such candidates in ’54. The Round Robin Pledge has succeeded after all!24The Round Robin pledge was a public letter signed by forty-four U.S. congressmen in late 1850, pledging not to support any political candidate opposed to the full enforcement of every provision of the Compromise of 1850. Although six Democrats participated, most signers were southern Whigs hoping to create a new political coalition in their region—to counter the rising Southern Rights forces. Michael F. Holt, The Political Crisis of the 1850s (New York, 1978), 92–95. Cannot the honest masses be made to see all this? Can you not have meetings in every ward in Rochester, to rally the working masses under the banner of
Your obedient servant,

PLSr: FDP, 28 August 1851.


Markle, Bob




Yale University Press 2009


Frederick Douglass' Paper



Publication Status



Frederick Douglass' Paper