Frederick Douglass Gerrit Smith, May 15, 1852
FREDERICK DOUGLASS TO GERRIT SMITH
Rochester, [N.Y.] 15 May 1852.
Gerrit Smith Esq.
MY DEAR SIR.
I was unable last week to write such an article—as I wished to have accompany my call upon you, for your views in respect to the mission and course of Louis Kossuth. The case shall appear next week.1On 20 May 1852 Douglass invited Smith to express his opinion publicly in the pages of Frederick Douglass' Paper on the Louis Kossuth case. Smith responded with a lengthy letter on 25 May. FDP, 20 May, 3 June 1852. The American A. S. So. closed its annual meeting here thursday night.2In May 1850 a proslavery mob had disrupted the annual meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society in New York City. Unable to find a suitable meeting place in that city for several years, the Garrisonians held their annual meeting in Syracuse in 1851 and in Rochester's Corinthian Hall on 11–13 May 1852. NASS, 6 May 1852; Douglass Papers, ser. 1, 2:235–36, 330–31. I am hardly qualified to give an opinion of its proceedings, for the reason that I have been pretty roughly handled by some of the “Choice and Master Spirits”3Julius Caesar, act 3, sc. 1, line 163. of the Society. Taken as a whole the meeting was far from a happy one and has done little to strengthen
itself in the Society in the good opinion of the friends of the slave in this vicinity. The first morning of the meeting was very properly devoted to the memory of the humane I. T. Hopper—tidings of whose death had just reached us.4Isaac T. Hopper died Friday, 7 May 1852, at the age of eighty-one. NASS, 13 May 1852. The afternoon meeting was mainly occupied by a speech from Friend Garrison, defining the position of the Am. So. towards the world at large and to its own members in particular.5On the afternoon of 11 May 1852, in his address to the American Anti-Slavery Society, Garrison outlined the society's position on its "unceasing war against Slavery," and made a resolution that the society "gladly welcome all (however they may differ in other respects) who will aid faithfully in our great work," regardless of religious or party affiliation. NASS, 20 May 1852. I was pleased with his exposition—but while the theory was sound I felt that the practice of the Society had not been according to its theory. I found myself treated as an enemy to the American Society—a deserter from its fold—and I was bound to know the cause. I therefore took occasion to place myself before the Society the next morning in such a manner—as to enable—my fellow abolitionists to search me and to probe me to the bottom.6The second morning of the annual meeting was "occupied in an informal discussion amongst the members of the society," for which no official record was kept. In his newspaper, however, Douglass reported that the session devolved into a personal attack on him, and that he "was in effect hailed no longer as a friend of the American Anti-Slavery Society." NASS, 20 May 1852; FDP, 20 May 1852. I enquired why I was treated as an alien there? You may depend this was enough. They were already, and more than ready to meet me and to show cause for coldness towards me. My accusers stood full seven men deep.7The phrase "seven men" refers to a group of New England selectmen with authority over local matters. When using the expression, Douglass indicates that his opponents held the semblance of such institutional power. Mathews, Dictionary of Americanisms, 1501. There were many things alledged against me. My whole course was brought under review and my old friends were far from mealy mouthed.8First appearing in English in the mid-sixteenth century as "meal mouth," the phrase "mealy-mouthed" derives from carrying meal, or coarsely ground grain, in the mouth, rendering someone unable to be direct or clear in speech. Thus the phrase denotes an unwillingness or inability to state facts or opinions in a simple and direct manner. Stevenson, Book of Proverbs, 1635. My spirit and acts were criticised fully and, I am happy to be able to say, that, for the most part, I was as strengthened to bear it without perturbation. I have time only to set down a few of the points made against me.
1st I had changed my opinion in respect to the US. Consti[tutio]n.
2d I had acquainted Gerrit Smith with that change before I said any thing about it in my paper.
3d I had joined in forming a Society in this State—not aux. to the American Society.9The New York State Anti-Slavery Society resolved that slavery was “sinful, and ought to be immediately and unconditionally abandoned.” The society was open to both men and women of all races and was independent of the American Anti-Slavery Society. At the first meeting, the society chose Gerrit Smith as president, with Douglass as corresponding secretary. Most members supported Smith and the Liberty party. FDP, 18, 25 March, 15 April 1852.
4th I had allowed myself to be patted on the shoulder by John Scoble at our Buffalo Convention.10In his newspaper's account of the American Anti-Slavery Society's recent annual meeting, Douglass reported that Garrison had made this charge about Douglass's friendly encounter with John Scoble. Both Scoble and Douglass had attended and addressed the Liberty party's national convention held in Buffalo in September 1851. FDP, 25 September 1851, 20 May 1852.
5th I had accepted a bribe from Benjamin Coates a Colonizeationist.11Benjamin Coates of Philadelphia made a donation to Frederick Douglass’ Paper shortly before the American Anti-Slavery Society’s annual meeting. Many Garrisonians characterized Coates as a supporter of colonization, because he had written a letter in February 1852 in which he advocated colonization as a means for black people to escape racial oppression. Following the attack on his character at the meeting, Douglass reprinted Coates’s letter in Frederick Douglass’ Paper, defending Coates as “a humane and benevolent man, a sincere philanthropist, and no more a negro hater than we.” FDP, 11 March, 20 May 1852.
6th I had been in fellowship with the deadliest enemies of the American Society.
7th My paper was no longer antislavery but a liberty party paper.
That John Thomas had used its columns to uphold Louis Kossuth.12In an editorial on the efforts of European monarchs to crush all assertion of democratic rights, Douglass’s corresponding editor John Thomas praised “the rising spirit of freedom in Europe.” He noted that Hungarian exile Louis Kossuth was among them to blend the sympathies of America with the sympathies of Europe in regard to common rights, and strengthen them “to sweep from two continents the powers that oppress them.” Samuel Ringgold Ward immediately wrote to Frederick Douglass’ Paper to “bring Mr. Thomas back to sanity,” noting that Kossuth had conspicuously rejected all abolitionist entreaties to condemn slavery in the hopes of winning the widest possible support in the United States. FDP, 12, 19 February 1852.
That he had said that slavery was a matter of less importance than land reform.13John Thomas, the corresponding editor of Frederick Douglass’ Paper, had long supported the cause of land reform, as had Gerrit Smith. Douglass possibly refers to a remark by Thomas taken out of context in a recent editorial in which he wrote that “there is no subject more interesting to the people of this country, than the land question.” FDP, 1 April 1852.
That Gerrit Smith had vertualy made the same declaration in Corinthian Hall[.]14Gerrit Smith, who inherited significant acreage in upstate New York, was one of the state’s preeminent landowners. Despite his wealth of real property, Smith opposed land monopoly, ownership of land by a few wealthy whites, and personally donated plots of land to several thousand free blacks and poor whites. Between 1846 and 1850 he gave away approximately 200,000 acres. The philanthropist saw land reform as more than a personal cause and pursued land reform politically. When the Liberty party formulated its platform in 1 848, he ensured a land reform plank, and as a congressional candidate in 1852, he gave speeches asserting that access to soil should be a right, the same as light and air. Although Smith often stated that he wished to rid himself of all real estate, he gave away less than a third of his holdings. Harlow, Gerrit Smith, 241–58; Stauffer, Black Hearts of Men, 127–30, 135–42.
That my paper is a political—and not an antislavery paper—only in the same sense that the Tribune15The New York Tribune. is.
[8th] Two of the Agents, Mr & Mrs Foster, said that they had and should continue to labor, to have my paper supplanted by the Standard,16The National Anti-Slavery Standard. just as they would have abolitionists to drop the Tribune
for any or any other paper partly an antislavery paper for one wholly so.17In his account of the meeting, Douglass reported that Stephen S. Foster claimed that Frederick Douglass' Paper had praised Louis Kossuth and endorsed the position of John Thomas and Gerrit Smith, who "thought Land Reform a greater question than Slavery." Opposition to Douglass led several American Anti-Slavery Society members, including Robert Purvis, to discontinue their subscription to the newspaper. FDP, 20 May 1852.
9th That I had attacked George Thompson &c.
You must know that these naked points were argued with any amount of side blows—inuendo—dark suspicions—such as avarice—faithlessness treachery—ingratitude—and what not.
I will not tell you how I met the onset. Suffice it to say—that I stood it all, with Spirit unrufﬂed—and have now the pleasing satisfaction—to know that I was elected a manager in the Society18Douglass was one of seven managers of the American Anti-Slavery Society elected from the state of New York at the May meeting. NASS, 20 May 1852.—with but one dessenting vote—and that was the vote of my old jealous friend, Remond.19Charles Lenox Remond.
You will see some further account of this meeting in my next paper.20On 13 May 1852 Douglass printed a one-column editorial outlining the highlights of the annual meeting. The following week he published a five-column account of the meeting, relating both his version of the "attack" on his character at the meeting and the details of resolutions and sessions. FDP, 13, 20 May 1852.
Ever truly yours— grateful and affectionate Friend—
ALS: Gerrit Smith Papers, NSyU. PLSr: Foner, Life and Writings, 2:180–81.