On Wednesday 27 May, Frederick Douglass and George Thompson again addressed a crowded meeting at the Music Hall in George Street. Thompson again responded to the recently-published pamphlet entitledThe Free Church and Her Accusers, addressed to him, and signed by ‘A Free Churchman.’1
Of particular interest is the intervention of Mr John Orr, a city missionary employed by the United Secession Church in Broughton Place.2 Although not a member of the Free Church, and sharing the speakers’ condemnation of it for having accepted financial support from churches in the United States, he nevertheless urged that ‘it was the laws of the states, and not the slaveholders which should be denounced.’ The report in the Edinburgh Evening Post adds: ‘He candidly admitted at the same time that he was the descendant of a slaveholder, whose property he inherited, but of which he was deprived at the time of the West India emancipation.’ If so, he would have been entitled to compensation from the government, although no one of that name is listed as an awardee in the Legacies of British Slave Ownership database.
The Evening Post also indicates that Douglass invited his audience to imagine a didactic theatrical performance depicting an auction of enslaved people in the United States, attended by Free Church ministers, identifiable as the members of the fund-raising deputation that visited there in 1844, portrayed ‘as accurate as any of the caricatures in Punch.’3 Douglass had himself acted out a similar scenario (impersonating the various characters) in speeches in Dundee (10 March), Perth (12 March) and Paisley (20 March). Here, he contents himself with suggesting it as a performance that might be undertaken by others.
Briefer reports of the meeting in the Scotsman and Caledonian Mercury are appended.
For an overview of Douglass’s activities in Edinburgh during the year, see Spotlight: Edinburgh.
FOURTH ANTI-SLAVERY MEETING.
A fourth meeting was held on Wednesday evening in the Music Hall, and as usual was crowded to excess. Councillor Stott presided.
Mr Douglass, who first addressed the meeting, concluded an animated speech with the following facetious sugestions:– I think a very good caricature of the Free Church deputation could be marked out, if we only had the genius willing to do it. He could form an auction in one of the states of the American Union, where slaves, men, women, and children, were bought and sold. An auction block might be set up in the midst, and a number of good Christian people standing around. A Church would look well on the one side, and on the other the Church members busily engaged in disposing of their black slaves. Near to them might be placed the deputation of the Free Church, dressed in their sacred dresses (Laughter.) Have them so that we could distinguish each individual – let them be as accurate as any of the caricatures in Punch – (laughter and applause[)] – just as near to life as possible, and attending the American sale of human flesh, with a subscription list in their hands, and seeking for donations to aid the cause of Christianity in Scotland. (Continued laughter and cheering.) We think this would be a legitimate means of operating on the public mind at this time. It may be considered a coarse mode of proceeding, but what we want is, to show up their doings in their true light, for they have taken the price of blood, and put it into their treasury. And have they not? Have they not taken the price of human blood, and put it into their treasury? When we all know this to be the fact, and that they defend their right to having taken it, there is nothing wrong in us showing up in the most vivid manner how they took it. I do hope that some individual will take up the matter, and exhibit a slave of human flesh, where the ministers of the Free Church may be seen waiting to receive the proceeds of the sale to carry home to their treasury. (Laughter and cheers.)
The Chairman then asked if any gentleman holding opposite views was desirous to address the meeting, whereupon
Mr John Orr came forward. This gentleman, although he reprobated the conduct of the Free Church in taking the money, and acknowledged his abhorrence of slaveholding in all its bearings, still he maintained that it was the laws of the states, and not the slaveholders which should be denounced. He candidly admitted at the same time that he was the descendant of a slaveholder, whose property he inherited, but of which he was deprived at the time of the West India emancipation. He produced a copy of the Post containing a report of the meeting of Friday, and read that portion of Mr Wright’s speech where he defined a ‘sheep stealer.’ Mr Orr maintained that Mr Wright had taken an erroneous view of the question, and that a man who inherited the crime of theft himself, could not be branded as a ‘manstealer.’ On this ground he endeavoured to vindicate, amidst much disapprobation, the present generation of slaveholders in the United States, as having acquired possession of their property from their ancestors. He contended that it was the duty of the British Parliament to interfere, for a great portion of the wealth of Britain was derived from sources connected with slavery, and in fact the flourishing condition of our commercial system might to a certain extent be ascribed to the existence of slavery.
Mr Thompson commenced a sweeping reply in the following terms: – Did you ever hear of a clerical court in Scotland consisting of divines who came out of the Established Church because they could not obey the law of the land? Did you ever hear of public meetings being held in Edinburgh, and from Berwick-on-Tweed to John o’Groats House, which was attended by certain distinguished members of the ecclesiastical conclave in Edinburgh, holding up the existing law of the land to contempt, and denouncing it as having contravened the laws of the living God. (Applause.) Did you ever hear of a new Church being formed? Did you ever hear of that church calling itself the Free Church because it would not submit to the bondage of the law of the land?
Now the gentleman has only to look down to Canonmills and ask the reverend court at present sitting there whether this applies to them.4 He can preach to them and inform them that to obey the law of the land is merely to render a passive obedience to the will of the State. The gentleman appears to be a great respecter of laws, both temporal and spiritual. Is he aware that the General Asembly of the Church of Scotland and the venerable Assembly of Divines who sat at London in the time of the Revolution came to the conclusion, that, according to the Apostle Timothy, every slaveholder was a ‘man-stealer.’
What does he say? Is it that the law has made them ‘man-stealers?’ The words as used in the original, comprehends all concerned, both those who force human beings into slavery, as well as those who keep them in that state. What was the honourable gentleman himself before the year 1834 but a ‘man-stealer’ according to the Apostle Timothy, according to the General Assembly of Divines, and according to the Larger Catechism, and if he quarrels with me for calling him a man-stealer, he will have to quarrel with the Assembly of Divines who sat at the time of the Revolution, with his Larger Catechism, and with the Apostle Timothy, and with every reason venerated and acted upon by the Presbyterian Church. (Applause.)
He, then, was a ‘man-stealer’ to all intents and purposes, for he never had a right to those slaves – his father never had a right to them. No elapse of time can sanctify a wrong. The sheep were no less stolen sheep, when handed over to another, as those slaves which he inherited were when his father bought them at the shambles from the man who sent to Africa to steal them. According to law, receivers are punished as well as the thieves; and we may venture further and assert that, if there never was receivers we would never have thieves. (Cheers.)
Mr Thompson, after completely annihilating the argument of this gentleman, proceeded to reply to the remainder of the Free Church pamphlet, and, among other extracts, he read the following from the 11th page: – ‘Dr Thomson not only admitted slaveholders to membership, but even associated with them in his kirk session.’
In rebutting this assertion, Mr Thompson repeated the following statement which he had in writing from one who was a leading member at the time. There never was, during Dr Andrew Thomson’s lifetime, any member of his session that had any connection with slaveholding or slave property, nor, to my knowledge, after Dr Thomson’s death, was there any person of the description connected with St George’s session. The only one who ever was a member, was a Mr Murray, who was introduced by Dr Candlish, and went out with him. It was a daughter, I believe, of this Mr Murray’s that, since the disruption, married and made a rich man of Mr A. Dunlop, one of the prime movers of the secession of 1843. (Great cheering and laughter.)
Mr Thomson, after replying to every statement and charge, concluded by denying the whole, as a mass of as gross falsehoods and calumnies as ever were committed to paper. He advised them to prepare for some artful movement, for the Free Church were gradually shifting ground, and they might calculate for some piece of jugglery immediately, but he would be ready to receive them. Let them not rest satisfied with any terms but the sending it back, and let the bye-word constantly be, ‘Send back the Money!’
Mr James Ballantyne moved the following resolution: – ‘That this meeting is decidedly of opinion that George Thompson, Esq., has fully met and refuted the statements made regarding him in an anonymous pamphlet recently published by his accusers.’
While the Chairman was taking a show of hands, Dr Alexander rose, and, after ascending the platform, denied ever having given the writer of the pamphlet any authority to make the assertions made regarding himself, and he declared that any word which he had ever spoken or written never sanctioned such an opinion as the one adopted by the Free Church pamphleteer. Dr Alexander concluded by cordially seconding the resolution, which was carried with acclamation. Thanks were then awarded to the Chair, and the meeting separated.
Edinburgh Evening Post, 3 June 1846
AMERICAN SLAVERY AND THE FREE CHURCH.
On Wednesday night Messrs Fred. Douglass and George Thompson again addressed a meeting in the Music Hall. As on previous meetings, every part of the house was crowded with a numerous, respectable, and attentive audience. Councillor Stott was called to the chair, and after announcing that an opportunity would be afforded to any minister or member of the Free Church to speak at an early hour in the evening. Mr Douglas spoke at considerable length. He rebutted the statement of the Free Church party, that Mr Thompson and his friends had been coarse, ungentlemanly, and unchristian in their language towards them. At the conclusion of Mr Douglas’s speech, the chairman repeated his invitation for any Free Churchman or other to address the meeting, and Mr Orr, Broughton Place, immediately stepped upon the platform, and in a short address, endeavoured to overthrow the assertion of the opposite party that slaveholders were manstealers, during which the meeting at times became uproarious. Mr Thompson succeeded Mr Orr, in answer to the arguments of that gentleman; after which he proceeded at considerable length to answer the pamphlet lately published by a Free Churchman. The Rev. Dr W. L. Alexander said a few words in support of the views of Mr Thompson and his coadjutors. The meeting then broke up.
Scotsman, 27 May 1846
AMERICAN SLAVERY AND THE FREE CHURCH. – On Monday night Mr George Thompson, who has returned from London again appeared in the Music Hall, and, in a speech of three hours’ duration, replied to the arguments that have been circulated by the Free Church party, in defence of their connection with the American Churches which countenance slavery. The hall was crowded to overflowing, not only the seats but the orchestra and lobbies being crammed to excess. – Last night Messrs Fred. Douglas and Thomson again addressed a meeting in the Music Hall. As on the previous meeting, every part of the house was crowded with a numerous, respectable, and attentive audience. Councillor Stott was called to the chair, and after announcing that an opportunity would be afforded to any minister or member of the Free Church to speak at an early hour in the evening, Mr Douglas spoke at considerable length. He commenced by rebutting a statement of the Free Church party, that Mr Thomson and his friends had been coarse, ungentlemanly, and unchristian in their language towards them; and quoted from the Scottish Guardian and Witness expressions which he considered more unbecoming Christians than any that the anti-slavery party had ever used. He then went over the different reasons which had induced him to visit this country, the principal of which was, that a fair statement of slavery as it exists in the Southern Districts of America might be presented to the people of Scotland by one who had himself experienced all the horrors of the system, and because of the moral influences the opinion of the Scottish public would have upon the minds of the Americans and slaveholders. At the conclusion of Mr D.’s speech, the chairman repeated his invitation for any Free Churchman or other to address the meeting, and Mr Orr, Broughton Place, immediately stepped upon the platform, and in a short address, endeavoured to overthrow the assertion of the opposite party, that slaveholders were manstealers, during which the meeting at times became uproarious. Mr Thomson succeeded Mr Orr, and the tendency of his speech was to overturn the arguments of that gentleman. After which he proceeded at considerable length to answer the pamphlet by a Free Churchman.
Caledonian Mercury, 28 May 1846
- The Free Church and her Accusers in the Matter of American Slavery; Being a Letter to Mr. George Thompson, Regarding His Recent Appearances in this City (Edinburgh: John Johnstone, 1846).
- Orr was appointed city missionary following the death of Peter Fearns in 1843. See History of Broughton Place United Presbyterian Church With Sketches of its Missionary Operations (Edinburgh: William Oliphant, 1872), p. 286.
- On Douglass’s analyses of Punch cartoons see Michael A. Chaney, ‘Heartfelt Thanks to Punch for the Picture: Frederick Douglass and the Transnational Jokework of Slave Caricature,’ American Literature Vol. 82, No. 1 (2010): 57-90.
- The 1846 General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland had opened on 18 May at Tanfield Hall, Canonmills, Edinburgh. Douglass, Thompson and James Buffum would attend the debate on American slavery on Saturday 30 May.