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.
F. DOUGLASS. ESQ.:
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
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!
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
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.