Frederick Douglass Gerrit Smith, April 15, 1852
FREDERICK DOUGLASS TO GERRIT SMITH
Rochester, [N.Y.] 15 April 1852.
Gerrit Smith Esq:
MY DEAR SIR.
I am not unmindful of the favor you did me; nor of the debt I owe you, for giving me the chance, of seeing James G. Birney as he passed through
Rochester. I had seen Mr. Birney once before. I saw him in New York, in the “Apollo Saloon”1Douglass attended the anniversary meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society in New York City each year in May from 1842 to 1845. Garrisonian abolitionists held public sessions of these conventions in the Apollo Saloon in 1843 and 1844. Reports of these gatherings do not indicate that Liberty party leader James G. Birney attended any of these events. Nevertheless, the Liberator carried a brief mention in its account of the 7 May 1844 session, reporting that “a large assembly was in attendance, including along with the Society many third party abolitionists, strangers and dropper-ins.” This is the most likely occasion when Douglass could have observed Birney. Lib., 19 May 1843, 7 June 1844; Fladeland, James Gillespie Birney, 236–41.—and altho’—the day was bright, the Hall was dark, and, owing to that darkness, or the darkness of my own prejudices—I did not get a very good daguerreotype of the man. It is true that I was struck with the honest expression—calm and dignified bearing of the man, even then, and that glance at him though made in a dark place, left me in doubt if, he had not had great wrong—in the bitter assaults made upon him by my particular friends. I, however, at that time, lived in the whirl and excitement of a lecturing life, and soon forgot the meeting with Mr. Birney—and the meeting with him here seemed like meeting one I had not seen before. I have a large share of veneration for great men; and will go further to see one than I would to see all other sights besides. I was glad to find Mr. Birney’ s speech so little impaired.2James G. Birney had suffered from strokes in August 1845, June 1849, and February 1851, as well as heart attacks in November 1850 and February 1851. Losing his voice for a time after each stroke, he found speaking and writing difficult and sought help from practitioners who prescribed courses in bleeding, electrical shock, and hydropathy. In 1853 he even visited a clairvoyant for a cure to his disabilities. Fladeland, James Gillespie Birney, 255–56, 267–68. I could understand him well, and the interview left upon me the impression—that he has never been overestimated, even by his best friends. This is saying a great deal for Mr. Birney. For, of whom has more been said than of him?—I have not time to give you a detailed account of my visit to Mr. B.—I spent about one hour with him, and, on rising to leave, both Mr. B. and Mrs. Talman3Mary E. Fitzhugh Talman (1809–?), born in Hagerstown, Maryland, was the daughter of William Fitzhugh and the sister of Ann Carroll Fitzhugh Smith, Gerrit Smith’s wife. She married John T. Talman, a Rochester businessman who owned the building in which Douglass ran his newspapers. John Talman died before 1850, and his wife inherited his share of the building. 1850 U.S. Census, New York, Monroe County, Rochester, 3rd Ward, 97; Directory for Rochester, 1851, 250. invited me to dine there—and there, let me tell you, I did dine. Now, what is the world coming to! Besides, I was not treated with a mere formal courtesy—but with evident kindness, such as I should receive under your own comprehensive roof. The Dear Little Daughter of Mrs. T., a lovely child, came to me, smiled, and played willingly with my sable hand; —Seeing apparently nothing in my color, form or features, to repel her. “Except ye become as little children, ye cannot enter into the kingdom of Heaven.”‘4Matt. 18:3, paraphrased. I take Mrs. Birney5Elizabeth Fitzhugh Birney (1803–69), born in Hagerstown, Maryland, was the daughter of William Fitzhugh and the sister of Mary Talman and Ann Carroll Fitzhugh Smith. She became the second wife of James G. Birney in 1840. Harlow, Gerrit Smith, 146; ANB, 2:816–18. to be one of the happiest of women,—just the Saint, to throw light, and joy, all around her. I saw her but for a few minutes, as I was called away (to assist a colored man who had got into trouble,) before dinner was over—but in that time, I became so well acquainted as to feel—if I ever I should visit Michigan I should go to Saganaw—with an assurance of welcome.6In November 1841 James G. Birney and his family moved from New York to Lower Saginaw, Michigan, where his wife’s brother, Daniel Fitzhugh, was engaged in land speculation. There, Birney practiced law and worked as a land agent, introducing cattle to the area and becoming one of the town’s leaders. James G. Birney, The Letters of James Gillespie Birney, 1831–1857, ed. Dwight Dumond, 2 vols. (Gloucester, Mass., 1966), 1:xvi; Fladeland, James Gillespie Birney, 213, 241, 266; ANB, 2:816–18.
I am now preparing for my journey to Cincinnati. I should go to that convention with a firmer head, were I sure of meeting you there.7Douglass was among those scheduled to address an antislavery convention held in Cincinnati, Ohio, on 27 through 29 April 1852. Douglass spoke to great applause on each of the three days. Initially, convention organizers obtained a “partial promise” of participation from Gerrit Smith, but the absence of his name from reported convention proceedings suggests that he was unable to make the trip to Cincinnati. FDP, 15 April, 6 May 1852; Douglass Papers, ser. 1, 2:341–52. There are three subjects upon which I should like for you to speak before the abolitionists of the West. 1st. The true sphere of human or civil Government. 2dly. The unconstitutionality of slavery every where in this Republic. 3dly. The right, power, and duty of this Government to abolish slavery in every State in this Union. Such an exposition as you might give of these subjects, could not fail to open up new trains of thought among the men and women
of the West, who will assemble, at that convention. I see that our Friend C. C. Burleigh8Charles C. Burleigh also attended the Cincinnati antislavery convention, addressing the crowd during the afternoon sessions of the first and second days. FDP, 6 May 1852. is to be there, and will, doubtless, press his non voting theory. He has talents of a superior order—and eloquence—as fervid and showy as that of any orator—of the no-voting school. He will make an impression doubtless, at this convention and it does seem to me, considering the importance of the occasion, there ought to be some strong man on the ground to stand up for the truth. Men should not, under the guidance of a false philosophy—be led to ﬂing from them such powerful instrumentalities against slavery as the Constitution and the ballot. Should you be there our cause
will would be safe. I should really like to see you rise there—after one of Burlieghs arguments—and in one-half the words used by him, break every link of his non-voting Logic. I shall take with me a number of copies of your argument—and should you be absent, I will try to give tongue to them. I have received the “Non Conformist”9Edward Miall (1809–81) edited and published the Nonconformist, a British reform newspaper, in London between April 1841 and December 1879. Miall was an Anglican minister in Hertfordshire and Leicester, where he became sympathetic with the plight of the working classes and an outspoken critic of the church. After resigning from the ministry, Miall began publishing the Nonconformist, in which he criticized not only the church, but also the Tory party and the monarchy, and he supported the Chartists, the Anti-Corn Law League, the National Complete Suffrage Union, and the abolition of slavery. Throughout the 1840s he ran for Parliament, finally winning a seat representing Rochdale in the House of Commons in 1852. Although he lost the seat five years later, he returned in 1869 until his retirement from politics in 1874. Succeeded by his son, Arthur, as editor in 1879, Miall continued to publish the successful Nonconformist until his death. Bradford (Eng.) Observer, 30 April 1881; Alexander Andrews, The History of British Journalism: From the Foundation of the Newspaper Press in England, to the Repeal of the Stamp Act in 1855, 2 vols. (1859; London, 1998), 2:333–34; Michael Wolff, ed., The Waterloo Directory of Victorian Periodicals, 1824–1900 (Waterloo, Ontario, 1977), 764; Merrill and Ruchames, Garrison Letters, 3:374n; DNB, 13:324–26.—bearing the mark of Peterboro. I thank you for that paper—also for the “Banner”10The British Banner was a reform newspaper published in London between January 1848 and December 1858. The daily’s masthead proclaimed a devotion to “Literature, Liberty, Humanity, Religion.” British Banner, 7 January 1852; Wolff, Directory of Victorian Periodicals, 142. you have several times sent to me. I get the latter regularly in exchange. I see, by the Non Conformist—that G. Thompson attaches some importance to Politics in England—however he may scout that subject or science in America. The address, read by him before the Reform Conference is quite a political document.
I have been asked why I never replied to the nine columns of Mr. Farmer.11British Garrisonian William Farmer was a London journalist who traveled with and reported on Douglass, Garrison, and George Thompson in 1846 when the three abolitionists campaigned against the Evangelical Alliance. Farmer befriended other African American exiles in Britain, including William and Ellen Craft and William Wells Brown. Farmer wrote a letter to the Liberator in which he discussed the editorial attacks by Douglass and others on Thompson. Lib., 2 January 1852; Ripley, Black Abolitionist Papers, 1:360n; Blackett, Building an Antislavery Wall, 32–33. My answer is, that Mr. Farmer conceded all I said of Mr. Thompson—to be true. He admitted that Mr. Thompson—swore to support the Queen as the [“]rightful Sovereign.” Now what is this, but to support the Queen, as the head of the Church, as well as of the State? I found that his friends looked upon every thing that I said of Mr. Thompson as a personal quarel and that the proslavery papers were exulting in the controversy. I, therefore, felt willing to remain buried under nine heavy columns rather than do harm to a good cause.
You will, I am sure, be pleased with the able [“]Address, from the Executive Committee of The New York State Antislavery Society”, published in this weeks paper. It is from the pen of Wm. Goodell, one of the soundest reasoners in this, country.12William Goodell wrote an address of the executive committee of the New York State Anti-Slavery Society, which formed at Rochester on 19 March 1852. In this lengthy address Goodell outlined the main propositions of the organization’s constitution, afﬁrming that slavery was a crime, denouncing religious leaders who supported slavery, and declaring it morally wrong to vote for slaveholders or those who failed to use their powers to support abolition. FDP, 15 April 1852. There are those who think him prosy, and so he may be to some minds—but to my mind he is always interesting and at times rises to
a lofty hight strains of purest eloquence—of eloquence—not of foaming torrents—gentle showers—or beautiful ﬂowers—but the eloquence of the sturdy bark which, after outriding the pelting storms of a perilous ocian—brings cargo and crew safely into port.
Since beginning this letter, I have seen yours to Julia Griffiths[.] I am
glad that I was able to behave like a “gentleman” with Mr. Birney. The fact of my having been a slave made him overlook any awkwardness on my part.
Please remember me kindly to Mrs. Smith13Ann Carroll Fitzhugh Smith.—and believe me affectionately and gratefully Yours,
ALS: Gerrit Smith Papers, NSyU. PLSr: Foner, Life and Writings, 2:176–78.