Following his lecture at Bell Street Chapel in Dundee on Friday 30 January, Frederick Douglass must have returned to Glasgow for a few days.
There is no record of any public appearances by him there, but it is likely that he went primarily to make the necessary arrangements for a second Irish edition of his Narrative. He was running short of copies to sell at his lectures and over the previous weeks had written several times to his publisher Richard D. Webb urging him to send more to Glasgow, even though Douglass had taken a strong disliking to the portrait of himself that Webb had inserted in the most recent copies of the Narrative. The portrait had been made of him by Bessie Bell, a family friend of Webb’s, while he was in Dublin two months earlier. Webb then had it engraved by Henry Adlard in London. Douglass’ objections dismayed Webb, but he had made his point.
When the second edition was issued in May, it carried a new frontispiece portrait. Or, to be more precise, a close copy of the engraving that featured in the original Boston publication. This one bore the signature of Glasgow engraver Joseph Swan, no doubt commissioned by Douglass when he was in the city during the first week of February. The new edition also carried a new preface by Douglass, which was dated ‘Glasgow, Feb. 6th, 1846.’1
We held a very good meeting here last night, crowded to overflowing with a people whose influence cannot but be felt by the free church. Our faithful dealing with this church has at length had the effect to compel them to a defence of their conduct. They have until a few days since affected to despise our effort, deeming this the best mode of silencing and defeating our exposures […] The agitation goes nobly on – all this region is in a ferment.2
We reproduce below the reports in the Dundee Courier and the Dundee, Perth and Cupar Advertiser which appeared the next day.
Last night, a public meeting was held in Mr M’Gavin’s Chapel, Tay Square, for the purpose of again hearing Messrs Frederick Douglass and J. N. Buffum lay open the secrets of American slavery. The church was crowded in every part with a most respectable and attentive audience.
Mr Douglass took for his subject the great moral evils resulting from the institution of slavery in America – to the slaveholder as well as to the slave. In seeking the overthrow of American slavery he was actuated by love to the slaveholder as well as to the slave. They were not the enemies of the slaveholder because they told him the truth, but rather his best friends, as they would remove him from a position where he was liable to be tempted to do wrong every day of his life.
[The Power of Slaveholders]
The first moral evil was the absolute power enjoyed by the slaveholder. Such a power was never intended for man, and it soon destroyed in a greater or less extent the best faculties of his nature. It heightens that love of domination which is entirely inconsistent with that humility which is both the exponent and element of happiness in man, and without which no man can be happy. It begets a character in the slaveholder favourable to this love of domination over the slave.
He was also in a position by which he was made a liar. The very moment he asserts his right to hold property in man that very moment he proclaims himself a liar, and the truth is not in him.
The next position in which he is placed is that of a thief and a robber, not only a thief stealing the gains, but a robber stealing the bodies, the arms, and the sinews of his fellow-men. If a person were to attack an old woman in the street and not only steal her basket, but also carry off her person, would he not be a thief and a robber; and is the slaveholder not in the position of a person stealing the gains, and carrying off the persons of his fellow-men? The slave had no property of his own, all was his master’s.
The slaveholder was not only a thief and a robber, but he was in open rebellion against God. God says to the slave as he does to all men, honour thy father and thy mother; but the slaveholder comes in and says, heed not thy parents, honour and serve me. God may speak to the slave as he does to others, bidding him go through all the world to proclaim his name, but the slaveholder binds a bar of iron about his neck, he may not obey God when his master wills. The slave is not ranked among sentient beings, but as chattels personal. He may not even approach his God in prayer. There is not a command in the decalogue but is broken directly or indirectly by the institution of slavery. The law that thou shalt not covet is violated, and so is thou shalt not steal. Thou shalt not commit adultery – that is violated indirectly. Although a legal marriage is not known in the slave States, there are even cases among slaves of faithful, honest, chaste, and virtuous pairs. If, however, such cases occur, it is because slavery has not succeeded in annihilating all that is good within them; but the great mass herd together by the will of their masters in one great mass of concubinage. There is not a single precept of God’s law but is violated. Search the Scriptures, says the Word of God: Ye shall not search, says the slaveholder. If ye do, ye may be punished with death for the second offence. Mr Douglass here read extracts from the civil law of various States, showing the severe punishment to which, in every case, a party was rendered liable for teaching a slave to read.
He then described at considerable length, and with graphic skill, many of the various additional evils resulting from slavery – a hardening of the hearts even of the females of the slaveholding population. An instance of this he narrated – the murder of a female friend of his own by her mistress. In this case long watchfulness and fatigue, while in charge of a sick child, had brought on the slave heavy sleep; and the mistress, irritated at her not immediately awakening on the cry of the child, struck her so severely on the forehead and breast, with a heavy piece of wood, that she expired in a few minutes, and was buried long before morning. The culprit was not even once called to be examined, although, in consequence of the numerous reports, the body was examined, and death pronounced to have proceeded from violence. She still lives in freedom, and as much respected by her circle of friends as if no crime of blood had dyed her hands.
The evil effects of such a state on the slave were also pourtrayed. Could they expect that he, whose body, whose labour, whose every thing was his master’s, could suppose himself guilty of stealing when he took from that master and appropriated to his own use. It was but a transfer. Could they be supposed to adhere strictly to truth, when on no occasion was the word of a coloured man to be taken in evidence unless supported by that of a white person?
As an instance of this, he referred to the fact of his own left eye having been nearly put out in a shipbuilding yard in which he was employed; and although done in the presence of 1000 persons, his master could obtain no redress for the damage, because no white person would give evidence in his favour.
[Rebutting the Arguments of Slaveholders]
He also glanced at the arguments advanced by slaveholders for keeping their victims in bondage. They kept them ignorant, and then assigned that as a reason. They brutalized and degraded them, and then referred to their brutality and degradation as marks of their unfitness for a state of freedom. Even if this were true, it should, with properly constituted minds, be an inducement to aid and assist them to raise themselves in the scale of human beings; but although he admitted that there was necessarily great ignorance, still there were instances of slaves even, with all the difficulties they had to surmount, acquiring learning, and exhiniting no common powers of mind.
An instance of this kind, mentioned by Mr Lewis, and with which he himself was acquainted, he then narrated. In that case the party was bought by a religious body – not for the purpose of instructing his fellows, but to be sent to Liberia, where the slaveholders were anxious to have all the free blacks sent, that their slaves might not be induced to rebel, from seeing persons of their own colour at freedom among them. He also mentioned the case of black men – negroes with all their marked developments of head and other peculiarities – having received classical educations by the kindness of an abolitionist, and being now very talented and eloquent preachers.3 These were evidences that, put the negro in the same position as the white man, he would rise to the same scale of civilization and cultivated intellect.
As an instance of negro domestic affection, of which they were declared to be void, he mentioned the case of Maddison Washington, who, after escaping from bondage, again braved all its woes with the view of getting away his wife. He was retaken and put on board a ship, with upwards of a hundred others, to be despatched to a slave market. On the passage they burst their chains, took possession of the ship, and carried her to the British possession of New Providence, where they gained their liberty, and were permitted to retain it notwithstanding the efforts of the American democrats to cause the British to give them up.4
Mr Douglass concluded by a few eloquent observations on the evils of American slavery.
Mr Buffum began by some remarks on the attack which was made on them last week in the Northern Warder.5
He gave a graphic narrative of the efforts which had been long making [sic] by abolitionists in America to effect a revolution in public opinion there – the effect of their labours had had – the arrival of the Free Church deputation among them – the endeavour which was made to prevent the deputation visiting the Southern States, – endeavours which were altogether ineffectual from that party’s love of the dollars – and the paralysing and withering influence which such a step had on their exertions for freedom to the negro.
After narrating that this had induced them to visit Britain to see if they could enlist the good people of old Scotland in their sacred cause – to see if the Free Church deputation spoke truth in representing themselves as the representatives of the religious people of Scotland, – an assertion which was not believed, he mentioned that he had called on the editor or reporter of the Warder (he could not say which) – had requested him to invite Mr Lewis to a discussion – had offered to speak before an audience entirely selected by Mr Lewis, if he would give the use of his place of worship.6 All he wanted was the elucidation of the truth. To this it was replied that he and Mr Douglass were not known – that there was no certainty what sort of characters they were – and that it was impossible to separate a man’s statements from his character.
Mr Buffum then offered numerous references – references of a most unexceptionable kind – in order that this might not prove a loop-hole for them to get out by; and told them it was not his character, but the character of Mr Lewis and the other members of the deputation which were at stake, and if they had been as anxious in their inquiries after character on visiting America, his journey would have been unnecessary.
After detailing some father particulars of his conversation, Mr Buffum took up the statements in the Warder, and showed them to be a series of misrepresentations – of assassin-like attempts to stab and injure, while they dared not meet a single argument or statement advanced. He made no pretensions to eloquence or to logical reasoning, but let them come and confute him if they could. He then eulogised the American advocates of emancipation to the slave as men of vast intellect, and warmest and kindliest affection to the cause, with many of whom he was unworthy to be classed.
To show the truth of the various statements which had been made by Mr Douglass and himself, he read several extracts from Mr Lewis’ ‘Impressions of America and American Churches,’ commenting on them as he went along; and pointing out clearly and explicitly that in that very book, which he recommended to general perusal, would be found abundant evidence of the unmitigated horrors of slavery and the great inconsistency of the Free Church seeking an alliance with the perpetrators of such crimes – the upholders and supporters of such a dreadful system.7
Mr Douglass also made a few remarks on the attack made on him in the Warder – referred to the many tokens of esteem he had received from the most eminent Philanthropic and Benevolent Societies, and from persons in high and honoured stations in the kingdom, as ample refutation of the Warder‘s lies – to call things by their right name. He ridiculed the attempt to get off in this sneaking paltry manner, by distracting attention from the subject of dispute – by attempting to throw dust in the people’s eyes. He concluded by an earnest and eloquent appeal to the people of the Free Church in behalf of his brethen in bondage.
Dundee Courier, 10 February 1846
LECTURES ON AMERICAN SLAVERY
Last night another meeting was held relative to this subject, in Tay Square Chapel. The chapel, as usual, was crowded to excess.
Mr DOUGLASS, in speaking of the evil effects of slavery, illustrated some of its moral, religious, and intellectual effects on the slave-holder. He confined himself at first to the moral effects which it had on the slave-holder himself; and, in seeking the entire overthrow of slavery, he considered himself no more the enemy of the slave-holder by publishing its enormities to the World than was Jesus the enemy of mankind in promulgating the truths which he taught. Slavery laid the slave-holder under the greatest moral temptation to do wrong.
First, let us look to the evils arising from the absolute power of the slave-holder: Absolute power was not intended for any man, and all who had seized it had been overthrown by it. He had as much confidence in himself as he could place in any other man; but, high as this confidence was, he could not dare to assume absolute power with safety to himself. Such power induced haughtiness, a love of domination, and a wish to tyrannize over the slave; and, from his situation, the slave-holder had every inducement to exercise such power.
He started first as a liar: He asserted that the hands, the head, and the heart of the poor Negro was his; and the moment any mortal asserted such right, he asserted a lie – he misconstrued his own situation of life, so as to make a lie of all life, and became a thief as well as a liar. Who was a thief? It was one who appropriated the property of another; and the slave belonged to no slave-holder – for he belonged to himself. God gave him to himself. Singly he came into the World – he got powers for himself – he was responsible to none but God and his own conscience and the laws of his country, which made one man amenable for his transgressions to another. But the slave-holder had assumed the right of God, – he had taken that which only belonged to God. The Bible said – honour father and mother; the slave-holder said – honour me, your obedience to me must be absolute; God said – go over the whole World and preach the gospel; the slave-holder placed a band of irons over his limbs so that he could not go. The slave-holder went to the cradle and claimed the child that slept in it; the deed made him a thief; when he asserted his rights by violence he became a robber. Was not the man a robber who knocked an old woman down in the street and took not only her property but herself? and the slave-holder robbed the slave of his very identity.
By the existing laws of America, the slaves were not ranked among the human family; the slave-holders had as absolute a right over them as he had over brute beasts – they were not allowed to marry, but were forced by the laws of America to live in a state of concubinage. The right of the master being absolute in all things, the slave could not even assume to have the fetters taken from his feet that he might pray – and such are the laws of slavery. There was no law in the New Testament which slavery did not violate; it transgressed every commandment written by the finger of God on the two tables of stone. The pernicious example of the slave-holders had a withering and baneful influence on the feelings of the slave. By the existing laws of America, a slave could not steal – he did not own or possess anything – he was a brute beast, not amenable even to God, and could not be responsible for his actions. No man could act virtuously without freedom. There was no virtue in the deed of rescue done by his arm when forced by a neutral power. The slave said he was not responsible; he was compelled by the laws of his country to live in concubinage; from his situation he was compelled to transgress all moral laws.
These were three powers which the slave-holder held constantly over his head – force, fraud, and fear. By means of these the slave-holder contrived to uphold his power, and it was impossible for him to sustain his power without these. The slave-holder said it was decreed by Heaven for the Black Man to remain a slave, and the Christian Churches of the States sustained the sentence by the sanctity of its altar.
He had seen the slave holding lady weep lack-a-daisy tears over a sentimental novel, whose delicate nerves would not be moved by seeing a poor slave lashed in the field, and who at the slightest offence could draw a heated poker from the fire and apply it to the bare shoulders of the Black. He illustrated how slavery brutalized the slave-holder – the very frequency of the lashings and other punishments inflicted hardened his feelings.
[Tyranny and Ideologies of Inferiority]
He had often witnessed the baneful influences of the habit. Many persons had gone from this country to America, with a hatred of slavery – they had seen the poor Negro hated – they had seen him foolish – they had seen him a person everywhere despised – and, from the very frequency of such manifestations, they had felt their own abhorrence of slavery melting away. He alluded to a phrenological fact – that, the more one organ was used to the exclusion of the others, the organ became so much stronger, and acquired a preponderance over the others; and the slave-holder, by exercising self-esteem, which engendered love of dominion, lost the proper balance of his mind – the better feelings of the man were absorbed in the propensities of the tyrant; and from such causes might probably be traced the American propensities for duelling and using the bowie knives, which were of necessity the accompaniments of such an education.8
Mr Douglass then read passages from a book of Mr Jefferson‘s, illustrative of the pernicious effects of slavery on all observing it.9 He next read an extract from a South Carolina Paper, entering into details of the laws of duelling. He next referred to the reasons assigned for the rights of slave-holding; and the most common of these were the allegation that the Negro was of an inferior race, – but, though such were the case, he thought it no right for slave-holding; the holy Bible inculcated the doctrine for the strong to help the weak, and for all mankind to live in one common brotherhood, – and he regretted to meet in Scotland with men who could give support to such reasons. But the Negro had all the feelings which identify him with the White men – he had a mind capable of the same improvement.
It was an old custom of tyrants to prove the inferiority of those over whom they tyrannized, and all tyrants had adopted the same method. He then referred to the present state of Ireland. England at present held out that Ireland was an inferior race; but, if ever he had met in with gentlemen, it was in Old Ireland.
Mr Douglass then read the laws of the various States relative to the punishment of slaves for offences. Their laws expressly prohibit all evidences from slaves being taken. A White man might commit the most disgusting crimes in the presence of a thousand Blacks, and there was no redress possible to be obtained.
[Evidence of Black Achievement]
Mr Douglass next read an extract from a Work of Mr Lewis’s, of a Negro blacksmith, who had gained, by hard perseverance, a knowledge of letters – Arithmetic, Mathematics, Latin, and Greek. The ‘Black Light’ was soon found to be rather dangerous to the slave holding interests of the Church; and that Church, rather than clasp him in her Christian embrace, sent him off to the regions of Liberia.
He next related a story of Maddison Washington, a slave by birth, who made his escape from the United States to Canada, but felt that he could not be free while his wife and little ones remained in slavery. Against the united remonstrances of friends, that his mission prove hopeless, he returned to the United States, to wrest his wife from the possession of the man who dared to call her his property; but, so close was the guard placed over her, that in attempting to save her, he was seized himself. Maddison next appears a slave, bound down with heavy irons in the ship Clio.10 Love of liberty still prompted him on – he wrested his irons from him, and released others. At twilight, as he gazed out on the calm sea, a signal was heard; the liberated slaves rushed on deck, struck down the captain, and guided the vessel to a British island, and again felt himself free. Mr Douglass referred to the commotion which this incident had created in the American Congress and the British Parliament; and, after a long and eloquent speech, sat down admist great cheering.
Mr Buffum had commenced speaking when we had to leave.
Dundee, Perth and Cupar Advertiser, 10 February 1846.
- For a detailed discussion of the frontispiece portraits in the Irish edition of the Narrative see Alasdair Pettinger, Frederick Douglass and Scotland, 1846: Living an Antislavery Life (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2019), pp. 223-32.
- Frederick Douglass to Richard D. Webb, Dundee, 10 February 1846, The Frederick Douglass Papers, Series Three: Correspondence, Volume 1: 1842–52, edited by John R. McKivigan (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), p.92.
- The instance Douglass refers to is to be found in George Lewis, Impressions of America and the American Churches (Edinburgh: W.P. Kennedy, 1845), p. 176.
- Douglass later told the story of Madison Washington – including the mutiny he led on the Creole in 1841 – in his novella ‘The Heroic Slave’ in Autographs for Freedom, ed. Julia Griffiths (Boston: John P. Jewett, 1853). See also George Hendrick and Willene Hendrick, The Creole Mutiny: A Tale of Revolt Aboard a Slave Ship (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2003).
- As well as its report of the meeting of 30 March, the Northern Warder of 5 February, 1846 carried an article entitled ‘The Free Church and Slavery’ which referred to ‘hired bravoes from the ranks of the American abolitionists, who are at present perambulating the country, retailed columns of the most extravagant absurdities, and which, in so far as they at all bear upon the position of the Free Church, or the conduct of its ministers, are mere wild farragoes of mingled falsehood and slander.’ It went on to accuse these ‘foul-mouthed clamourers’ of perpertrating ‘impieties, fooleries, and extravagancies.’
- Lewis was the Free Church minister of St David’s Church on Ward Road, Dundee.
- Lewis’ book was found to be a useful source by historians of US slavery in the 1970s and 1980s: see Alasdair Pettinger, ‘George Lewis and the American Churches’ in Travel Writing in the Nineteenth Century: Filling the Blank Spaces, ed. Tim Youngs (London: Anthem, 2006), pp.145–62, esp. pp153–54.
- In his third autobiography Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, His Early Life as a Slave, His Escape from Bondage, and His Complete History to the Present Time (Hartford, CT: Park Publishing, 1881), Frederick Douglass recalled meeting the leading Scottish phrenologist George Combe in Edinburgh in 1846, and praised his book The Constitution of Man, ‘the reading of which had relieved my path of many shadows’ (pp. 245-46). The language of phrenology permeated much mid-century literature on both sides of the Atlantic, although Douglass drew on it rarely. Combe identified over thirty moral and intellectual ‘organs’ or ‘faculties’. ‘Self-Esteem’ was one of the ‘lower propensities’ which, if allowed to predominate, ‘presided over the slave trade and other institutions.’ And while the relative strength or weakness of the various faculties in a given individual could be discerned from a careful examination of the head, they were not fixed, but dependent on the opportunities available for their exercise, and thus amenable to reform: George Combe, The Constitution of Man Considered in Relation to External Objects. 7th edition (Edinburgh: Maclachlan & Stewart, and John Anderson, Jun., 1836), pp. 68, 240. For a fuller discussion of Douglass’ relation to Combe and phrenology see Pettinger, Frederick Douglass and Scotland, 1846, pp. 171–96.
- Douglass may have quoted from the passage in Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia (Philadelphia: R.T. Rawle, 1801) in which he writes: ‘Deep rooted prejudices entertained by the whites; ten thousand recollections, by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained; new provocations; the real distinctions which nature has made; and many other circumstances, will divide us into parties, and produce convulsions, which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race’ (p. 269). But Douglass would certainly not have endorsed Jefferson’s view that the best way to avoid such conflict was the forced emigration of emancipated slaves.
- The reporter here mishears the name of the vessel, Creole.