The Speech That Launched Frederick Douglass’s Life as an Abolitionist
In August 1841, Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave, stood in front of a crowd of whites in Nantucket. While a handful of Blacks appeared among the crowd, Douglass thought the whole group was a sea made up of all white people. “Accustomed to consider white men as my bitterest enemies,” he later recalled, he trembled as he prepared to address them.
Three years hadn’t passed since Douglass escaped Maryland slavery. “There is no spot on the vast domains over which waves the star-spangled banner where the slave is secure,” Douglass would later explain. “Go east, go west, go north, go south, he is still exposed to the blood hounds that may be let loose against him.” No fugitive slave was safe in the United States—not even at an abolitionist convention. Douglass believed he was forced to speak out. He had been a part of the movement that relied only on words. Quaker William Coffin was his host. He had heard Douglass speak in a New Bedford Black church. “Tell your story, Frederick,” Coffin urged Douglass now, as the abolitionists waited. The strikingly handsome man—strong chin, chiseled mouth, and wide-set eyes—usually dressed in a waistcoat, formal jacket, and high-collared white shirt, rose reluctantly to his feet. Douglass couldn’t remember the exact words he used that night.
Although journalists from various antislavery publications attended the conference, there is no record of Douglass’s remarks. The room was unanimous in their agreement that Douglass had brought down the house. “Flinty hearts were pierced,” Lydia Maria China reported for the abolitionist newspaper National Anti-Slavery Standard, “and cold ones melted by his eloquence. Our best pleaders for the slave held their breath for fear of interrupting him.”
As soon as the meeting ended, John A. Collins, theology school dropout and then-vice president and general agent for abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison’s Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, invited the newcomer to become an antislavery agent. Douglass would tell the story and travel. Although she was not present at Douglass’s maiden appearance on Nantucket, Maria Weston Chapman, the beautiful, wealthy Bostonian from a prominent abolitionist family, would manage much of Douglass’s new career. Weston Chapman, nicknamed “the Contessa” by one of her admirers, was perhaps Garrison’s closest comrade. Her fashionable Boston home was the heartbeat of the Society, which had been fueled by her stunningly-dressed socialite. She had stunned the rest of the modest world with her entrance to a meeting in 1834.
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At the center of the meeting on that remote Massachusetts island in August 1841—a kind of snapshot of the movement for the abolition of slavery—was the fugitive, with his indelible story of life in the slave South, the inexcusable wrongdoing at the heart of the American republic. The historian Manisha Sinha would later call these stories “the movement literature of abolition.” Also in the picture was the audience of white northerners, who had been gathering for over a decade to argue for the immediate, unambiguous abolition of slavery. Finally, there are a handful of important but embarrassingly small Black abolitionists. They were the core of the movement’s foundation. The action centered on Douglass’s “heart-piercing” speech, reflecting the outsized power of rhetoric for the abolition movement. The scene opened up the possibility of an alliance that was, at its very apex, interracial and sex-integrated—the first such major public movement in the history of the nation. This alliance was a force for change that worked 12 years. As with any alliance, the question of who gets what would soon arise. In 1853 the Garrison-Daussy and Weston Chapman partnership was complete.
Nantucket was already aware of the tensions between Douglass and New England’s abolitionists. Douglass became famous and well-known as the best speaker for a movement that was built on words. His appearance that night, 1841, became an iconic moment in American history. At the time, however, Garrison took only passing notice of the slave’s debut in his abolition newspaper The Liberator, not even giving Douglass the dignity of using his proper name. “Messrs. Bradburn, Collins, Quincy, Pillsbury, Whiting, and other speakers were present, (among them several talented colored young men from New-Bedford, one of them formerly a slave),” Garrison reported, “whose addresses were listened to by large and attentive audiences with deep interest.” Nevertheless, in the summer of 1841, Douglass joined Garrison and Weston Chapman in the anti-government Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society faction. The relationship between them raises the question of whether it is possible to have an alliance that transcends race, gender, and class.
Unsurprisingly, the answer to that question is “Yes.” No. This alliance was a key factor in the growth of the movement’s rise over the next decade. But there were problems right from the very beginning. Douglass became a star almost instantly and refused to tolerate racist treatment by Weston Chapman or other Boston abolitionists. He had a heated exchange with his tour manager two years later. The latter was using the abolition movement to promote other causes. Douglass was scolded by Weston Chapman for his fracas, and threatened with losing his salary. Douglass warned Weston Chapman and his other managers: “I trust I have as far as one can have, a just sense of their claims to my gratitude and respect.”
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Four years later, when he found out Weston Chapman was secretly directing his hosts in Ireland to manage him so he wouldn’t try to capitalize on his fame, or, worse, assist a competing British faction, he wrote more plainly “If you wish to drive me from the [Massachusetts] Anti-slavery Society, put me under overseership and the work is done.” As it turned out, the breakup went more slowly than Douglass anticipated. In order to work with the New York section, he first made a move to Rochester, New York. He then admitted openly in 1851 that he had chosen their political turn as a way to abolish slavery.
When Garrison discovered that Douglass had gone over to the political New York faction of abolitionists, he shamefully retailed gossip about Douglass’ personal life, and the breach was sealed. They never spoke again.
However, the ending is happy. The breakup, sending Douglass to the New York abolitionists, more driven to political engagement than the anti-government Bostonian branch, perversely led to triumph—for the abolitionist and the movement. Douglass was driven from Douglass by Garrisonians 12 years ago. He went to Washington for the Inauguration of Emancipation author, who had been elected through the political rise and fall of abolition.
Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated again on March 4, 1865. Douglass was now America’s most powerful Black man and had provided the President with the political and strategic wartime support he needed.
As a sign of the changes in the world, Salmon P. Chase (abolition lawyer) and politician had taken the place of the author Dred Scott v. SandfordRoger Taney on the Supreme Court. Chase had been a friend of Douglass for many years on the abolishment-lecture circuit. And so Douglass, a Black man who Taney said had no rights that white America needed to respect, went to Chase’s chambers to help him try on the robe he would wear to swear in Lincoln. After that, he went up to the Capitol and watched the ceremony.
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After the ceremony, Douglass determined to “present himself” at the White House reception, “though no colored person had ever ventured” to do so. After all, he thought, freedom had become the law of the land, and “colored men were on the battle-field mingling their blood with that of white men in one common effort to save the country.” No one else “of his own color” would go. The unhappiness that would come with rejection was not something they were willing to take on. Douglass was expected to be the leader. Like always, he was firm in his determination. Did he feel that going to White House for the inaugural celebration fit with his image of himself as a man. “I had for some time looked upon myself as a man,” he reminisced later, “but now in this multitude of the elite of the land, I felt myself a man among men.”
He was turned away by two police officers at the front door. He was recognized by someone who relayed the message to Lincoln. Douglass was soon standing with Lincoln in the East Room. Lincoln was curious to hear what other great orators thought of his speech. When Douglass demurred at taking so much of the president’s time, Lincoln answered: “There is no man in the country whose opinion I value more than yours. I want to know what you think of it?”
Douglass lived another quarter of a century after the 1870 dissolution of their society by the abolitionists. The work to undo Lincoln’s great work in emancipation began with Lincoln now dead. The fragile hope of a Black and white movement—embodied for a time in the alliance between Douglass and the Boston abolitionists, and then in the friendship of Douglass and Lincoln—would have to wait. Douglass persevered. He was on the midst of his anti-lynching campaign when he died in February 1895. He never gave up fighting against the evil of American slavery, from the moment he stood in Nantucket to the end of his days.