Recent research has suggested that Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) was the most photographed American of the nineteenth century. The former slave who became a leading intellectual and civil rights campaigner of his age, was captured on camera more times than George Custer, Walt Whitman, even Abraham Lincoln.
There are certainly photographs of Douglass that predate his tours of Scotland as a fiery young orator in 1846, promoting his stunning new autobiography and denouncing the hateful system of slavery in the United States. But the only surviving images of him from this overseas trip are engravings. This might surprise us.
If there is currently no evidence that they photographed Douglass, they did take portraits of many eminent Scots of the day. They included several whom Douglass met – or at least sparred with on the page or lecture platform – as he engaged with the country’s literature, science, history and politics.
Here are ten of them.
Isabella Burns Begg. Douglass had long been an admirer of Robert Burns. When he made the obligatory pilgrimage to his birthplace near Ayr, he met the poet’s youngest sister. ‘Though approaching 80,’ he wrote, ‘she does not look to be more than sixty. She enjoys good health, is a spirited looking woman, and bids fair to live yet many days.’ She and her daughters ‘did everything to make our call agreeable.’
Robert Candlish. When this Free Church minister expressed misgivings over the American churches’ relaxed attitude to slavery, one of its principal donors in South Carolina was furious. Candlish soon toed the line and worked hard with Cunningham to win over the sceptics with the fudging declarations at the General Assembly in 1846 that so disappointed Douglass and the abolitionists.
Thomas Chalmers. Revered as the man who led the exodus from the established church to form the Free Church of Scotland in the ‘Disruption’ of 1843, Chalmers cultivated the support of evangelical Presbyterians in the United States. The tortuous distinctions between ‘sin’ and ‘sinner’ he used to justify the relationship were roundly mocked by Douglass (‘Oh! The artful Dodger’), who quoted him sarcastically, showing how his words lent succour to the pro-slavery cause.
Robert Chambers. The (anonymous) author of the best-selling Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844) and, with his brother William, one of the most influential publishers and editors of the period. The Chambers’ Edinburgh Journal reviewed Douglass’ Narrative in January 1846 and Douglass probably met them that summer. He may have wanted to explore the possibility of a Scottish edition of his book, although in the event this did not come to pass.
George Combe.The leading British exponent of phrenology invited Douglass to breakfast in June 1846, reporting that ‘he has an excellent brain. His benevolence and veneration are both large and his conscientiousness is full, while his intellect is vigorous and practical.’ For his part, Douglass later recalled with ‘much satisfaction the morning spent with this singularly clear-headed man,’ whose most celebrated work, The Constitution of Man, ‘had relieved my path of many shadows.’
William Cunningham.Leader of the Free Church fund-raising delegation to the United States. With Chalmers in failing health it was left to him and Candlish to manage dissenting voices in the church who were uncomfortable with the donations from slaveholders. Of Cunningham’s manoeuvres, Douglass remarked, ‘I tell you why he does it. He’s got the bawbees.’ But even Douglass recognised his ability. ‘He was the only man in the Assembly who put forward anything like an argument.’
George Gilfillan. In January 1846 the Secession minister welcomed Douglass to Dundee and had him speak at his church in School Wynd, despite the objections of some of those on the managing committee, who subsequently resigned. The author of three volumes of Literary Portraits, who counted Carlyle and de Quincey among his friends, Gilfillan later proclaimed Douglass ‘the Burns of the African race’.
George Lewis. A member of the Free Church delegation that solicited funds in the United States, he wrote memorably about the trip in Impressions of America (1845), but was the target of Douglass’ withering wit, especially in Dundee where he was minister of St David’s Church. ‘Mr Douglass’s mimicry of the Rev. Mr Lewis was in very bad taste,’ remarked the Perthshire Advertiser. His audience, though, were thrilled by the impersonation.
John MacNaughtan. The Free Church minister in Paisley described Douglass as an ‘ignorant runaway slave who had picked up a few sentences.’ Douglass promptly replied: ‘The man whose pockets are lined with the gold with which I ought to have been educated, stands up charging me with ignorance and poverty. I should like to see the inside of his breast; there cannot be a heart of flesh there. Shame on him.’
Hugh Miller. Editor of the Witness, a widely-read twice-weekly newspaper sympathetic to the Free Church. Miller devoted many column inches to satirising Douglass and his fellow campaigners who ‘set, by their extremeness, a fool’s cap on a good cause.’ Their irreligious brand of abolitionism, he claimed, was ‘not indigenous to Britain’ but ‘exported wholesale across the Atlantic.’
One of the more colourful stories to emerge from Frederick Douglass’s time in Edinburgh in 1846 is the one about him carving a provocative slogan on the hillside above the city with two women abolitionists. The full details of the episode are probably lost to history and may require imaginative reconstruction. What do the archives tell us?
At City Hall in Glasgow on Tuesday 21 April, the English abolitionist George Thompson whipped up the audience with the slogan that had come to dominate the campaign to persuade the Free Church of Scotland to break its ties with pro-slavery Presbyterians in the United States, ties symbolised by the donations it had accepted after a fund-raising mission had visited there two years before.
Yes, send back the money! Let that be the cry – and teach it to your children, and that when they see one of Scotland’s ministers in the street, they may in infantile accents cry – ‘Send back the money! Women of Scotland! let the words become so familiar to you, that you shall in mistake say to those who sit at your table – ‘Will you please to send back the money?’. (Laughter and loud cheers.) Let every corner cover its walls with capitals, a foot square in size, ‘Send back the money.’ (Cheers.) Inscribe upon the pedestal of John Knox’s statue – ‘Send back the money.’ (Cheers.) Write upon the tombs of those who died (Cheers.) From the summit of Arthur’s Seat, let a banner perpetually float, with the watchword, – ‘Send back the money.’ (Cheers.) Carve deep into the Salisbury Crags the words ‘ Send back the money.’ Inscribe on the Calton Hill, in characters that may be seen from St. George’s Hall, ‘Send back the money.’ (Immense cheering.).1
The slogan had already made its appearance in towns where Douglass had addressed meetings. ‘We understand that, in Glasgow and Paisley, the old plan of advertising blacking had been resorted to, and on every wall and public place is chalked up the significant phrase, “Send back the money”,’ noted the Aberdeen Herald.2 Douglass himself enjoyed telling audiences of the consternation such graffiti had provoked in Arbroath where
there was painted in blood red capitals, SEND BACK THE MONEY. A woman was sent to wash it, but the letters still remained visible, SEND BACK THE MONEY. (Great applause.) A mason was afterwards got to chisel it out, but there still was left in indelible characters, SEND BACK THE MONEY. (Cheers.)3
The John Knox statue that George Thompson mentions was undoubtedly the one towering over Glasgow Necropolis (hence the reference to the tombs). But the other sites Thompson recommends to the would-be graffiti artist – Arthur’s Seat, Salisbury Crags, Calton Hill – are all in Edinburgh. Why? Because he and his fellow activists, including Douglass, were about to move to the capital the following week, and hold a series of public meetings through May in advance of the General Assembly of the Free Church which would open at the end of the month. As he expected, his speech was reported in both the Edinburgh Evening Post (on 2 May) and the Caledonian Mercury (on 5 May).
The idea may have tickled Douglass, who shared the platform with Thompson in Glasgow. Perhaps they joked about the possibility as they warmed themselves by the fire at the York Temperance Hotel on Nicolson Street once they arrived in Edinburgh. Surely there would be no shortage of willing co-conspirators, inspired after coming across Thompson’s suggestion in the Edinburgh papers. At any rate, a Rev Dr Campbell told a meeting in London later that month:
In one of the Scotch papers this man (Douglass), this mighty man, is represented as going to the foot of Arthur’s Seat, with a spade, and two fair Quakeresses as his companions, where he began to carve out with the spade, on the green grass, very beautifully ‘Send back the money.’ (Laughter, and loud cheers.) The paper goes on to say, that he was apprised in the midst of the philanthropic work that it was a felony, and that he would be at the tender mercies of a Mr. Baillie Gray. I do not think that a man who has braved the fury of the slave-holder, would be likely to tremble at the name of Bailie Gray. (Cheers).4
But to my knowledge, no one so far has discovered which of the ‘Scotch papers’ Campbell relied on for his story. In fact it appears to have been the Witness, the twice-weekly newspaper sympathetic to the Free Church, edited in Edinburgh by Hugh Miller.
SEND BACK THE MONEY. – It was magniloquently urged by Mr Geoge Thompson upon his admiring auditors a few weeks ago, that they ought to carve upon the front of Salisbury Crags, in conspicuous characters, ‘Send back the money,’ and we have no doubt there were amongst his audience individuals foolish enough to attempt the arduous task, but as little can we doubt that the callous and obdurate rock would mock their impotency. Mr Frederick Douglas, however, forgetting that the hills and dales of Scotland are not quite such commons as the praries of his own native wilds, hit last week upon a simpler expedient for engraving upon the face of our picturesque scenery these notable words, and immediately hied, spade in hand, accompanied by two ladies belonging to the Society of Friends, to a spot in the vicinity of the Queen’s Drive, which is at present being laid out around the base of Arthur Seat, and began to carve this vulgar cry in graceful characters upon the green sward. Information having reached the persons entrusted with the charge of the grounds, we understand that Mr Douglas was immediately taken to task, and given to understand that he was liable to be made answerable for the offence to Bailie Gray, ‘one of the Magistrates of Edinburgh,’ upon which the philanthropic man of colour expressed deep contrition for the crime, and here the matter at present rests.5
The Witness regularly attacked Douglass and his associates, and Miller no doubt seized on this event as an unmissable opportunity to poke fun yet again. Miller is best known today for his contributions to the science of geology, suggesting that he particularly enjoyed portraying the trio as stupid enough to want to etch the ‘vulgar cry’ in the ‘obdurate rock’ itself before realising that turf might prove more malleable.
That their efforts were apparently halted by the authorities gives him the excuse to end his report with the ‘philanthropic man of colour’ humiliated and having to apologise for his ‘crime’. That Douglass was assisted by ‘two ladies belonging to the Society of Friends’ would have further diminished him in Miller’s estimation given the editor’s previous mockery of the radical abolitionists for their support for women’s rights, confident his readers would have been amused when he invited them to imagine
armed regiments of equalized women charging in petticoat breeches some male anti-equal-right enemy, who had come to invade their country from without; and squadrons of female dragoons emancipated from matrimonial thrall and the side-saddle, trampling all horrid into dust, broken cohorts of imperative husbands and despotic lovers, who had assailed them in unnatural rebellion from within.6
But while we should be cautious of the way Miller shaped his account to suit his agenda, did he made it up? The detail of the location (‘in the vicinity of the Queen’s Drive’) and the naming of ‘Bailie Gray’ (who was certainly on the City Council at this time) lends an air of verisimilitude, even if the incident was open to an interpretation more favourable to Douglass, such as the heroic (though still masculinist) narrative offered by Campbell in London.
Following his third visit to Europe in his late sixties, Douglass recalled his role in the ‘Send Back the Money’ campaign forty years earlier. According to a report of a speech published in October 1887 he said:
The debate was sharp and long – the excitement was great. Nearly everybody in Scotland outside the Free Church, were on the side of freedom, and were for sending back the money. This sentiment was written on the pavements and walls and sung in the streets by minstrels. The very air was full of send back the money. Forgetting that I was in a monarchy and not in this republic I got my self into trouble by cutting, send back the money in the back of a seat. I was soon thereafter arrested for trespassing on the Queen’s forests, and only got off by a written apology.7
This appears to be the only occasion Douglass publicly referred to the incident, though it is still possible that, with the passage of years, he may have been reciting an abolitionist legend rather than remembering an actual event.
The reference to the encounter with the grounds-keepers is curious, however. It echoes another confrontation recounted a few months before by James Buffum, the Massachusetts abolitionist who had accompanied Douglass across the Atlantic the previous year. Buffum, speaking in Dundee, told his audience:
He had sailed down the Clyde. On landing, a beautiful hill was before him; he wished to climb this hill to obtain a prospect around him, but was stopped in his attempt by Lord Blantyre’s gamekeeper. If the Black population in America were not free, the hills of america were so.8
Douglass more than once expressed the pleasure he took in dwelling amid ‘the free hills of old Scotland’, partly to accentuate the prejudice and intimidation he had endured in the United States – and would again when he returned. But sometimes those hills proved to be less free than the rhetoric demanded.
Last updated 10 June 2020
Free Church Alliance with Manstealers (Glasgow: George Gallie, 1846), 34-5.
Aberdeen Herald, 16 May 1846.
Frederick Douglass, Paisley, 25 April 1846 as reported in the Renfrewshire Advertiser, 2 May 1846, reprinted in The Frederick Douglass Papers. Series One: Speeches, Debates, and Interviews, Volume 1: 1841–46, edited by John W. Blassingame (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979), pp. 242-3.
American Slavery: Report of a Public Meeting Held at Finsbury Chapel, Moorfields, to Receive Frederick Douglass, the American Slave, on Friday May 22, 1846, with a Full Report of His Speech (London: C. B. Christian, 1846), 27.
Witness, 20 May 1846. The report was reprinted elsewhere, including the Fife Herald (21 May 1846), which corrected the spelling of Douglass’s name.
Witness, 25 December 1844.
Christian Recorder, 13 October 1887. The reporter, presumably unaware of Edinburgh’s topography, rendered Douglass’ ‘Arthur’s Seat’ as ‘a seat’, as the closest approximation that made sense.
Dundee, Perth and Cupar Advertiser, 30 January 1846.