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Frederick Douglass Charles Sumner, September 2, 1853


FREDERICK DOUGLASS TO CHARLES SUMNER1Best remembered as the victim of a vicious attack by a congressional colleague, Charles Sumner (1811-74), U.S. senator from Massachusetts (1851-74), was dedicated to the cause of emancipation. Born in Boston, Sumner attended and then taught at Harvard College. He engaged in a semi-successful law practice until his outspoken opposition to the United States war against Mexico thrust him into politics. He was a founder of the Free Soil Party in Massachusetts, and a coalition of Free Soilers and Democrats elected him to the U.S. Senate in 1850. Immediately embroiling himself in the heated topic of slavery, Sumner became an outspoken advocate of emancipation and repeatedly refuted compromises proposed by Henry Clay and others. After one particularly scathing speech in the Senate against slavery, Sumner was brutally beaten with a cane by a Southern representative, which necessitated years of recovery before Sumner was able to reenter the Senate. Sumner’s lasting legacy was to turn popular sentiment in the North toward emancipation, and after the Civil War, he continued to fight for the individual freedoms of blacks until his sudden death in 1874. Frederick J. Blue, Charles Sumner and the Conscience of the North (Arlington Heights, Ill., 1994); David Donald, Charles Sumner and the Coming of the Civil War (New York, 1960); DAB, 18:208-14.

Rochester[, N.Y.] 2 Sept{[ember] 1853.
Accept my thanks for your note of Aug 31st2This letter has not survived. The speech3Perhaps Douglass alludes to the report by Watkins of a meeting of Boston blacks on 2 August 1853, published in Frederick Douglass’ Paper on 12 August 1853. Both Douglass and Watkins spoke at the meeting. FDP, 12 August 1853. of mr. Wakins,4William James Watkins (c. 1826—?), a freeborn African American, was a machinist during his younger years, but in 1865 he became one of the first African American lawyers. Originally a Garrisonian, Watkins broke with that organization and later joined Douglass as a political abolitionist. In 1853 he moved to Rochester and served as associate editor of Frederick Douglass’ Paper. Watkins was also active in the Underground Railroad and supported migration to Haiti as a means of hastening abolition. Douglass Papers, ser. 1, 2:442; Walter M. Merrill and Louis Ruchames, eds., The Letters of William Lloyd Garrison, 6 vols. (Cambridge, Mass., 1971-81), 4:428n; Miller, Search for a Black Nationality, 139-40, 243-47; Pease and Pease, They Who Would Be Free, 243, 275-76; Quarles, Black Abolitionists, 178, 187—89, 230; Ripley, Black Abolitionist Papers, 4:155—56n.
found its way into my columns. Simply as the production of a colored man. I dissent from its Spirit and its philosophy. It evinced the possession of talent by its Author—and for this it was published.
I saw your Speech on [the] Militia question,5In June 1853 delegates assembled in Boston to write a new constitution for Massachusetts. Since most states maintained militias in the nineteenth century, the composition and duties of the Massachusetts Militia were on the list of revisions. Delegate Henry Wilson moved to include a provision in the new constitution to make “no distinction of color or race” in the composition of state militias. Delegate Charles Sumner rose and spoke in favor of the new provision, but held reservations. So that the provision would comply with the U.S. Constitution and its requirements for a national militia, Sumner suggested that Wilson amend his motion and replace any mention of “militia” in the new State constitution with “military companies.’ Sumner concluded, “Massachusetts may proudly declare that in her own volunteer military companies, marshaled under her own local laws, there shall be no distinction of color or race.” Charles Sumner, Recent Speeches and Addresses by Charles Sumner, (Boston, 1856), 191-202. and marked it for publication—but I am so much on the wing—so much from home—and with al—have so little order, that—The paper Containing your Speech Slipped through my fingers—and is gone.6Douglass is in error. He had already published the remarks by Sumner on the militia provisions in the new Massachusetts state constitution in Frederick Douglass’ Paper, 15 July 1853. You will, therefore, do me a Service by Sending the Speech—, It Shall be published at once. I understand your views and feelings on the subject of peace and war exactly—and am prepared with every disposition, to do you justicefully.
Mr Watkins—is a young man—a man of some promise—I should think. He is now in a School of reformers7Douglass alludes to his prior connections with the Garrisonian, or “old organization,” abolilionists. Douglass broke with his original antislavery mentors in the early 1850s when he embraced political abolitionism and repudiated the Garrisonian tenet that the U.S. Constitution was a proslavery document. Watkins made a similar change in his abolitionist allegiances shortly thereafter. Martin, Mind of Frederick Douglass, 36-39; Ripley, Black Abolitionist Papers, 4:155-56.
—a School through which I have passed—a School which has many good qualities—but a School too narrow in its philosophy—and too bigoted in Spirit to do justice to any who venture to differ from it. I am at this moment assailed with more bitterness by that School than from any other quarter—I need much of your self possession and patience. I am often tempted to Strike back and I am not Sure that I will not do So at Some future time. For the present, however, I propose for myself Silence under every provocation. Especially do I wish to maintain Silence under whatever Mr Garrison8William Lloyd Garrison. may Say. I stand in relation to him something like that of a child to a parent.
But not so in relation to any other man of the party.
You will bear with me if I take this occasion to explain the cause of much ill feeling in that quarter towards me. My first offense was Starting my paper against their advice—My 2d offense—was refusing to make it the organ of their Society—My third offense the abandonment of the non voting theory.
It will be news to you—when I tell you that Mr. Garrison—and Mrs Chapman9Maria Weston Chapman (1806-85), known as “Garrison’s lieutenant,” was a forceful writer and editor of several antislavery periodicals. Daughter of wealthy Bostonians who educated her and her sisters in Europe, she briefly supervised one of the nation’s first female high schools. After marrying the merchant Henry Grafton Chapman in 1830, she became active in the abolitionist movement. When her husband died in 1842, abolition became the consuming work of her life. Chapman was a driving force in both the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society and the American Anti-Slavery Society. Although she shunned public speaking, she served on committees and organized bazaars and other fund-raising events for the Garrisonians. She edited the annual report of the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society, and she assisted in editing both the Liberator and the National Anti-Slavery Standard. Clare Taylor, Women of the Anti-Slavery Movement: The Weston Sisters (New York, 1995); Catherine Clinton, “Maria Weston Chapman,” in Portraits of American Women, comp. G. J. Barker-Benfield and Catherine Clinton, 2 vols. (New York, 1991), 1:147—67; Jane H. Pease and William H. Pease, Bound with Them in Chains: A Biographical History of the Antislavery Movement (Westport, Conn., 1972), 28-59; Edward T. James et al., eds., Notable American Women, 1607-1950: A Biographical Dictionary, 3 vols. (Cambridge, Mass., 1971), 1:324—25; DAB, 4:19.—upon the Starting of my paper10An estrangement between Douglass and Boston Garrisonians had been growing since the former returned from Great Britain in early 1847 with enough money donated from abolitionists there to begin his own newspaper. Garrison, Edmund Quincy, and other Boston abolitionists believed that they had persuaded Douglass to abandon this plan in early summer. A warm public reception during a western tour later that year, however, convinced Douglass to begin his own newspaper in Rochester, a considerable distance from the Garrisonians’ East Coast bases of strength. In a letter to his wife, Helen, in October 1847, Garrison branded Douglass’s decision to launch the North Star “impulsive, inconsiderate, and highly inconsistent with his earlier decision in Boston against doing so,” and predicted that the British abolitionists would be offended by “such a strange somerset” (i.e., somersault). Only a few weeks after this letter to Sumner, the feud between Douglass and the Garrisonians became more public and acrimonious, and the two parties were never reconciled. Benjamin Quarles, Frederick Douglass (Washington, D.C., 1948), 58, 78; Merrill and Ruchames, Garrison Letters, 3:532-33
—wrote, immediately to my friends in England—counseling the with draw ment of all support from it, on the ground that there was no need of Such a paper—and that the "Standard"11The American Anti-Slavery Society published the New York-based National Anti-Slavery Standard as the society’s official publication from 1840 to 1870. Merton L. Dillon, The Abolitionists: The Growth of a Dissenting Minority (DeKalb, Ill., 1974), 213. and “Liberator”12William Lloyd Garrison published the weekly Boston newspaper the Liberator from 1831 to 1865. The paper advocated women’s rights, temperance, pacifism, and a variety of other reforms in addition to immediate emancipation. Thomas, Liberator, 127-28, 436; DAB, 7:168-72. were quite Sufficient. They wrote in various directions predicting the failure of the paper—complimenting me as


a speaker—decrying me as a writer—and regretting the loss of me in the lecturing field. This was the best possible way to undermine and destroy my paper. Yet the attempt failed—and ought to have failed—Not that I can boast of the power they deny me—I mean the power to write, but they might have given me a fair opportunity to try my hand without their volunteer disparagements. They might have allowed my friends to ascertain, for themselves, how far I was capable of Serving the anti Slavery Cause with my pen.
But I am taking up too much of your precious time. Pardon the freedom of this note, and believe me,
[ Y Jour Sincere and Grateful friend—


ALS: Charles Sumner Correspondence, MH-H.



Douglass, Frederick, 1818-1895




Yale University Press 2018



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