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Benjamin Coates to Frederick Douglass, June 17, 1850


Philadelphia, June 17th, 1850.

Frederick Douglass:ーI have often thought that I should like to converse with you on a subject on which we seem to differ in opinion very materially; and aware, as I am, of the great prejudice that you entertain (in common with most of your colored brethren, as well as most of the white [illegible] with which you associate) on [illegible] that I take a great interest in [illegible] full well that both you [illegible] would esteem it a great [illegible] part to attempt to di[illegible] with any prospect of con[illegible] opinion, (and no doubt yo[illegible] [illegible]cur with these friends in that [illegible] to characterize it more strongly,) [illegible] you the subject that I wish to present to [illegible] with all your prejudice, is African colonization. Were you a less intelligent man than you are, I acknowledge that I should consider the task a hopeless one; but I cannot bring my mind to believe that Frederick Douglass, with his power of judging between cause and effect, can fail to see that the elevation of the colored man, in any part of the world, must have a favorable influence on his race, and that the establishment of an independent republic of colored men on the west coast of Africa, acknowledged by the most powerful and the most civilized nations of Europe, having commercial intercourse with all parts of the civilized worldーthus bringing the citizens, through the medium of their commerce, into social communication with the citizens of every clime, and particularly with the United States, as the country from whence they emigrated, whose language they speak, and where some of their friends and relations still resideーthus appealing directly and powerfully to the sense of justice, and all the nobler feelings of our nature, by proving to what the colored man can attain under favorable circumstances, conclusively destroying the only argument that many honest and good men entertain, that he cannot take care of himself, and must therefore be kept in slavery; but also, and which perhaps (I am sorry to say it) is of more we[illegible], appealing to the self-interest of the whites, the love of gain, which is a powerful incentive in the American character, and so strong in it as to overcome even the prejudice of color or caste arising from slavery, that this must be the case, and is the case already, to some extent, I know; and having seen the evidence myselfーhaving had occassion very often to aid my Liberian friends in their purchases, both in this city and New York, where their money has obtained for them, in many cases, a consideration that their color alone would not, and with the increase of Liberia, in the power of her government, and her extended commerce, must naturally flow a much greater intercourse.

Think you not, Mr. Douglass, that the man who may be turned out of a railroad car, or is not allowed to get into an omnibus today, on account of his color, should he return from Africa next year with his camwood, his palm oil, or his gold dust, consigned to his commission merchant, here, and goes out through our cities to make his purchases, is a different man in the estimation of the community from him who is content to stay here and sell old clothes, black boots, or dress fine, and drive the young ladies along Broadway, or, with their white aprons on, make such good servants at our hotels? Which of the two, let me ask you, Mr. Douglass, is doing most for his race, for his brethren in bonds, the servant or the boot-black here, or the freeman, the farmer or merchant of Liberia? I do not ask you to praise the Colonization Society, nor to speak well of those who have sustained it through all its difficulties and embarrassments. If it pleases you best, and accord with your taste and inclination to impute unworthy motives to those engaged in it, do so. I am very willing, for one, to bear my


full share of the odium that you may think proper to throw on colonizationists, and for a private individual, my zeal will entitle me to not a very small portion of the wrath that should be visited on the heads of those who have aided (by their exertions, their influence, their money) this most diabolical and wicked scheme, as it has been termed. It is not to deprecate your wrath or your censure that I write, although I believe the time will come, and that before many years, when Frederick Douglass will be convinced, that African colonization is one of the most powerful means not only for regenerating Africa, but for regenerating America, in effecting the abolition of slavery, and aiding largely in the emancipation of the free colored population of the United States from the weight of prejudice that keeps them down, paralyses their exertions, and crushes their hopes; and that being so convinced, he will have the manliness and independence to acknowledge that the men who have accomplished this are not quite such bad men as he had taken them to be, not altogether such an association of fools and knaves as they are represented. I am fully aware of the difficulties you would encounter after overcoming the deep-rooted prejudice of your own mind in going counter to the general sentiment of your friends, in acknowledging your error and their error in this respect. Had I time, and was it important to my present purpose, I could prove to you that the most zealous colonizationists, those on whom the cause depends for support, and who have sustained it through all its difficulties, are the friends of the colored man in America, as well as in Africa, that the most prominent friends of the Colonization cause in one State were among the truest friends of the colored man in advocating his rights to citizenship in Pennsylvania, by resisting the introduction of the world white, in our late convention for revising the constitution a few years since. Who are the friends of the Emancipation cause in Kentucky; and who have labored so hard and persevering to accomplish it the last year, against the proscriptive influence of the pro-slavery party? Nearly every man of them colonizationists (the Breckeridges, Young, Cassius M. Clay, and so on. And in your own State, who has more manfully advocated the right of the colored man than Horace Greeley? I presume that you are ready to say, as I believe you have said before, that there are honorable exceptions, and that in charging upon colonizationist a hatred to the black man, you do not mean to include some good, well meaning men, who have been misled by the scheme. Now, sir, here is where I think you make the mistake. You are accustomed to consider colonization as a southern scheme, got up and sustained by slaveholders, to "get rid" of the few colored population, that they may the more scarcely hold their slaves; and in support of this opinion you will quote from speeches from Southern men, made in favor of African colonization, where the free man of color is spoken of as a "nuisance," or "unworthy of [illegible]" &c., forgetting at the [illegible] is probably the [illegible] to be consider[ illegible] friend of [illegible] support [illegible] have [illegible] en- [illegible] the [illegible] It [illegible] friends [illegible] part nobly [illegible] its principal aid [illegible] and from the very men that colored people are in the habit of calling upon for aid, looking to as their friends at times of difficulty.

As a case in point: I see in the last number of the North Star, of June 13th, a letter from Mr. J. B. Vashon, of Pittsburgh, calling colonization the "twin-sister of slavery, and denouncing every man who allows himself to be colonized in Africa, as an enemy to the slave, and a traitor to the anti-slavery cause." Yet when in Pittsburgh, a few years since, I saw Mr. Vashon, and had a conversation with him on the subject of colonization in the course of which I asked him who he called upon when they wanted to build a church, or for aid to the colored man ー whether it was not such men as Hon. Walter Forward, or Charley Brewer, Esq.? (the only colonizationists that I happened to know.) Yet he said these very men; that his son was then studying law with Mr. Forward, and that Mr. F. had endorsed his note at a bank for several thousand dollars. Mr. Brewer, too, they looked upon as a friend in need. Yet both these men do more for colonization than nineteen-twentieths of the whole population of South Carolina. Mr. Vashon informed me, at the same conversation, that his son intended to emigrate to France or Mexico; and has since then, I learn, gone to, or "suffered himself to be colonized" in, Haiti. Has he thus proved himself "an enemy to the slave," and "an enemy to the anti-slavery cause?" Or is it only going to Africa that makes this great difference?

But I see that you do not make this distinction, as you say in the same paper in reply to Horace Greeley: "To our apprehension, it is far more noble on the part of the free colored people to remain here, struggling against the adverse winds of prejudice and slavery, than selfishly to quit the country with a view of bettering their own condition." You say further, "Let Mr. Greeley complain as much as he may of our determination to remain here. It shall go hard with us, before we shall consent to leave these shores, while three millions of our countrymen are in chains. We are resolved to fall or flourish with them."

Well, sir, I can hardly suppose that Horace Greeley, or any other right-thinking man, does wish Frederick Douglass to leave these shores. Such men as yourself, Samuel R. Ward, H. H. Garnet, adn a few others, are no doubt doing as much good for your race, and probably a good deal more, than if you were in Africa. But is that a reason for preventing those who are not so favorably circumstanced, who have not had the opportunity for displaying their native talents here, and are so situated as not readily to acquire the education necessary thereto, from emigrating to Africa, or say where else, if they desire it, without being denounced as "selfish," as "an enemy to the slave," and "a traitor to the anti-slavery cause?" I think you would hardly like to be judged by your own principles. Were you not born in Maryland? Does not slavery exist there? And have you not left your brethren in bonds, to settle (call it colonize or emigrate, as you please) in Western New York, to breathe the air of freedom, while your brethren are suffering under the lash in Maryland? Was that selfish? Are you thereby an enemy to the slave," and a "traitor to the anti-slavery cause?" I should say, by no means; that although you are enjoying a state of freedom and equality that you could not have done in Maryland, yet you have acquired an education and move in a society that you could not obtain in a slave state. You edit a paper, and can lecture to your countrymen, both white and colored, on the evils of slavery, and accomplish, in this way, a thousand-fold more for your oppressed brethren, than if you had remained in your native State. Is it not so? Is not every colored man who leaves the South when he was born, and when his brother in chains yet remain, enabled to do more for them here, with greater opportunity of acting on public sentiment, than by remaining there? Yet, according to your doctrine, (for the principle is the same precisely,) no one should leave the Southern States, while slavery exists. You not only came away from it yourself, but if I mistake not, you are willing to aid others in doing the same, even to colonizing in Canada, in a cold, uncongenial climate, and where their efforts cannot so well tell on slavery in the Southern States. All this I by no means object to.ーAny condition, in my opinion, is better than slavery. But if you can see the consistency of denouncing those who escape from slavery, or from the prejudice arising from slavery, which cramps all their energies to a county where they can enjoy all the rights of manーto a country governed entirely by slaveholdersーwhere they can make themselves respected, and bring all their talents, all their industry, all the influence of their associated force, through the government established by themselves, to bear directly on slavery, and in favor of their oppressed brethren, both bond and free, and be satisfied with yourself for doing the same thing, is more than I can understand.

Do you blame the pilgrims who settled New [illegible] or the followers of Fox and Penn, who, to escape persecution in England colonized Pennsylvania? Would they have accomplished more by remaining in England, where they were oppressed and taxed to sustain what their conscience could not consent to, by colonizing America, and building up a government based on the principles of freedom? I cannot believe that you so think.ーAnd why you should not be willing that your colored brethren should enjoy the privileges that you could accord to your white brethren, is to me a mystery. The fact isーallow me to say soーthat you do yourself injustice in this matter, as well as your brethren. You have looked at one side of the picture so long and so intently, that you cannot see the other. A few weeks since, in publishing the account of the mass meeting of colored men in St. Louis in favor of colonization, when Mr. Bell declared his intention to remove to Liberia, and saying that the few months he spent there was the only real freedom that he had known in his life, you asked, "What ails the man?" "Has he been to Africa since he published his pamphlet?" Allow me to say, sir, the error was with yourself. You published only part of his remarks, and that part the most unfavorable to Liberia; and in endeavoring to give a wrong view to others, you got a wrong view yourself, and perhaps really convinced yourself that Mr. B. had given a discouraging account of the country. Should you give as an excuse for doing so, that colonizationists gave too flattering an account, and that you only wished to give the other side, I would remind you that two wrongs never make a right, and that the only proper way is, to tell "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth."

I have spun out a long letter, and spoken my mind very plainly; but I trust that if you do not agree with me in all my views, you will consider the subject of sufficient importance to the welfare of your race, to be a sufficient apology for my writing [ ] to one that I feel sure is interested in all that concerns the interest, both present and future, of his oppressed brethren.

I am, very respectfully,

Benjamin Coates.







Coates, Benjamin




Benjamin Coates to Frederick Douglass. PLSr: NS, 27 June 1850. Argues in favor of colonization.


This document was calendared in the published volume and has not been published in full before.


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