In Fenwick on Saturday 4 April, Frederick Douglass did not speak at length, ‘on account of the exhaustion of his body,’ according to the newspaper report. And no wonder. He had given at least twelve lectures in the previous three weeks. Nevertheless, after only one day’s rest, he returned to the Secession Church, Abbey Close in Paisley to address his fifth meeting there, again attracting a large audience.
For an overview of Frederick Douglass’ activities in Paisley during the year see: Spotlight: Paisley.
ANTI-SLAVERY MEETING IN PAISLEY
On Monday evening last, Mr Frederick Douglass, whose eloquent appeals on behalf of the anti-slavery cause have attracted such crowded audiences here, again addressed an overflowing meeting of the inhabitants in the Secession Church, Abbey Close.
Mr Douglass on rising said – one of the greatest evils of slavery is the degrading influence which it exerts upon the moral and religious feelings of those communities in which it exists. Before this, its physical evils dwindle into nothing, and there probably never was a better illustration of it than in the past history of the United States. Where will you find people with higher aspirations than the Americans?
[SLAVERY AND THE UNITED STATES CONSTITUTION]
They have set forth a declaration – one of the most precious expositions of human rights which the world has ever witnessed. Early they proclaimed man’s capacity to enjoy the greatest freedom, and in defence of this, declared they had bared their bosoms to the storms of British artillery. They started from a high, a noble position – their constitution based upon human equality. With equal rights emblazoned on their fronts, they were determined to establish freedom; but they committed a fatal mistake, they allowed a compromise with slavery. They attempted to secure their own freedom while neglecting that of others. They thought they could bind the chain round the feet of others without binding the other end round their own neck.
Slavery in the United States was but a small thing seventy years ago, but going onward it has gained strength, till now it threatens wholesale destruction to everything connected with it. It may be seen corroding their vitals, their morals, and their politics, and linking itself with the very best institutions of America. It destroys all the finer feelings of our nature – it renders the people less humane – leads them to regard cruelty with indifference, as the boy born and bred within the sound of the thundering roar of Niagara, feels nothing strange because he is used with the noise; while a stranger trembles with awe, and feels he is in the presence of God – in the midst of his mighty works. People reared in the midst of slavery become indifferent to human wrongs, indifferent to the entreaties, the tears, the agonies of the slave under the lash; all of which appear to be music to the ears of slaveholders. Slavery has weakened the love of freedom in the United States – they have lost much of that regard for liberty which which [sic] once characterised them. It has eaten out of the vitals from the hearts of the Americans.
The Northern States are but the tools of slaveholders; a man belonging to the Free States cannot go into the Southern or Slaveholding States, although the law says he shall enjoy equal rights in all states, he cannot go into these states with the declaration in the one hand and the word of God in the other to declare the rights of all men, but he makes himself liable to be hung at the first lamp post. People talk here o[f] the political rights enjoyed by the Americans, the suffrage, &c. I admit that they enjoy suffrage to a considerable extent. Who are the voters of America? The slaves of slaves.
Our history shows the domination of slavery. It has elected our President, our senators, &c., and one of the first duties of our minister was to negotiate with Britain for the return to bondage of Maddison Washington, who braved the dangers of the deep; who, with one mighty effort, burst asunder the chains of one hundred and thirty-five fellow-men, and after much fatigue and many severe struggles, steered them into a British port, and there found shelter under the British lion. Our whole country was thrown into confusion by the fact of him liberating himself and so many of his brethren, and Britain thus aiding them in their emancipation. I can well remember the speeches of Messrs. Clay, Calhoun, Webster, and others, on that occasion. Mr Clay called attention to a most appalling occurrence on the high seas, and a breach of that law between nation and nation, &c.; but now Maddison Washington and his compeers are treading upon British soil, they have fled from a republican government and have chosen a monarchial, and are basking under the free sun amid the free hills and valleys of a free monarchial country.1
I think I may boldly tell you I am a republican, but not an American republican. I am here as a reviler of American republicanism. Aside from slavery I regard America as a brilliant example to the world; only wash from her escutcheon the bloody stain of slavery, and she will stand forth as a noble example for others to follow. But as long as the tears of my sisters and brother continue to run down her streams unheeded into the vast ocean of human misery, my tongue shall cleave to the roof of my mouth ere I speak well of such a nation.
[THE RISE OF ABOLITIONISM]
It is often asked, what have the abolitionists done? We find that the slaveholder is as cruel and rapacious as he was ten years ago – we find that slaves are as numerous as they were ten years ago. But people forget what we had to do. We had other things to do than merely abolish slavery. It had so woven and interwoven itself with the religion and the politics of America, that the abolitionists had an arduous and difficult path to pursue. The first man who started up to denounce slavery as a heinous crime, felt his task no easy one, for the whole nation sprung up into an organised mob to crush the cry for freedom.
The right of speech was then called into question. The members of society in general said – this shall not be discussed. The members of society in general said – this shall not be discussed. The abolitionists then fell back on the constitution – that constitution which declares that they all have equal rights – that every citizen has a right to speak. They then commenced their glorious warfare, not with carnal weapons, but with weapons too sharp and pointed for them to resist.2
In 1835, a few ladies convened in Washington, for the purpose of offering up their prayers in behalf of their oppressed sisters, and to listen to that mighty advocate of liberty, George Thompson. These ladies were broken in upon. Five thousand gentlemen stood on the outside, while the rest drove out the ladies from the hall, and this merely for praying for freedom to their own sisters.3
In 1835, there was scarcely one of the press who dared to advocate our cause – now we have upwards of one hundred of them teeming with anti-slavery doctrines – now we can hold meetings with men standing round to protect us.
In 1835, we could not get a hall, no one would hazard his property so far, except the old cradle of liberty, the Yanuel hall. But now we can go into the very state-house itself, and there advocate our anti-slavery doctrines.
What have the abolitionists done? Why, they have done a great preparatory work for emancipation. We must now utter the true word and then slavery will die – it cannot exist amid light. We must expose in all their its [sic] horrid colours, its unjust and inhuman oppressions, so as to make the whole world see the villany of such a system. There is not a single church in the United States but is tainted with it. The reason that slavery exists is, because it is popular. There is something respectable in holding a number of slaves, and until it becomes more unpopular, it will not be easily knocked down. Whatever tends to make slavery respectable, tends to perpetuate it. Well, what have we found making slavery respectable? It is the Free Church of Scotland.
[THE FREE CHURCH OF SCOTLAND]
The Free Church has attempted to make slaveholders be deemed respectable, and whatever makes the slaveholder respectable, makes the system respectable also. And where is the Free Churchman who will dare to deny that the Free Church Assembly made them respectable? Where is the Free Churchman who dares deny this? He’ll not do it while I am in town I’ll warrant you. (Laughter.) They bar their doors against me – they say don’t let that fellow Douglass in – he is rather a dangerous character.
The Free Church minister in Duntocher had a class on the evening previous to that on which I was there. He advised them not to go and hear me. But, says he, ‘if any of you do go, listen attentively to what he says, and come and tell me, and I will explain it to you.’ (Laughter.) The coward, could he not come himself?
This reminds me of the story of an American colonel who addressed his soldiers before going to the field:– ‘Soldiers,’ says he, ‘fight nobly, fight for your country, fight bravely, fight gloriously; but if the enemy come and appear too many for you, I advise you by all means to retreat; and as for myself, as I am rather lame, I had better be going just now.’ Mr Douglass resumed his seat amid much applause.
Mr Buffum then rose and said, that the question of slavery is so simple that even I can venture to discuss it. It is so simple that the smallest child before me can understand it. Henry C. Wright once asked a little girl what slavery was. She replied, it will not allow little girls to go home to their mothers. This little girl knew how well she loved her own mmother, and she knew what must be the agonies of those who were not allowed to go home to their mothers.
Mr Buffum then related a few facts concerning the prejudice against colour in the United States. Mr Douglass and I, said he, once took out tickets for the first class of a railway car, but we had not been long seated before the guard came in and ordered Mr Douglass to get out. He asked for what reason he was to go out. The guard said he had told us before. Mr Douglass said, he wished to be told again, as he had paid for his seat and meant to keep it. The guard then went and procured assistance, and pulled Mr Douglass and me out, and told him he must go into the Jim Crow car. I asked them why they made such an unjust distinction, and told them to get a shade of colour put up, so that we may know the exact standard.4
Some time after, I was travelling on the same road, and found that a monkey was allowed to travel with a sailor. I could not understand how they allowed a monkey to travel free, and would not permit a man whose skin was a little darker than their own, to get into the carriage, although he was willing to pay. The only clause under which the monkey could come in, was, that which provided for the free travelling of the directors and their relatives and friends. (Laughter.)
In a burying ground in America, they have one side laid off for blacks and the other for whites. A red Indian who came among them to negotiate some matters, happening to die, they were placed in rather peculiar circumstances. They did not know whether to bury him among the whites or the blacks, he being neither. But after a long consultation, they came to the conclusion of burying him exactly between the two.
There will be a remonstrance on the subject of slavery sent for signature in every town in Scotland, and I think from my experience here, it will be numerously signed; and when I go home, I will be able to stand boldly up and protest against the Free Church being the representative of the moral and religious feeling of Scotland. (Loud and long continued cheering.) If you cheer me, I am afraid I was never used to such applause in America; but if you were to throw a brick bat or a rotten egg at me, I would get on well, as I am used with that sort of applause. It was as the representative of the religion of Scotland that the Free Church delegates received the money, but now I know that they were not, and I believe that the majority of its members themselves are for the money sent back. When Daniel O’Connell sent back the money, the slaveholders were quite astonished.5 They could not understand why a politician like him would think of refusing the money, and if the Free Church were to send back the three thousand pounds what would they think?
Mr Buffum concluded a long and interesting address, by stating, that he had heard of Paisley before he came into this country. He had heard that its inhabitants were a thinking people, and he now wished them to think seriously of this matter, and to use all the influence in their power to get the Free Church to SEND BACK THE MONEY. (Applause.)
Mr Douglass said, that as this was probably the last opportunity he would have of addressing them, he had been requested to direct their attention to the unjust and ungodly distinction observed in the British steamers plying between America and England. Before leaving America, Mr Buffum had gone to the agent of the Cambria steamer in New York, and asked if I could be allowed to go in the cabin to England. His answer was, that I could not be allowed to go in the cabin in case it would give offence to some of the American passengers. I thought (said Mr D.) the British would not bow to the bloody dictum of American prejudice. Mr Buffum told the agent, that if I could not go in the cabin he would not go either, so that we both took a steerage passage.
If Britain would only speak out, if she would only let her voice be heard, she would soon shake those prejudices and send them tottering to the dust. Why not sweep away such distinctions from the decks of British vessels, as well as from British soil. Petition those companies to abolish this horrid practice, and if they will not give in, you may soon see rivals start up proclaiming equal privileges to all.
Mr Douglass concluded by giving a graphic description of his voyage across the Atlantic in the Cambia, which drew from his audience the most rapturous applause.6
Renfrewshire Advertiser, 11 April 1846
- 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). On the mutiny and the diplomatic row that followed see George Hendrick and Willene Hendrick, The Creole Mutiny: A Tale of Revolt Aboard a Slave Ship (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2003).
- Douglass’s reference to ‘carnal weapons’ echoes the language of William Lloyd Garrison‘s ‘Declaration of Sentiments’, outlining his doctrine of moral suasion: see ‘Declaration of the National Anti-Slavery Convention,’ Liberator, 14 December 1835.
- This incident did not occur in Washington, D.C., but outside the offices of the Liberator on Washington Street in Boston, where Thompson was scheduled to address a meeting of the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society: ‘A Boston Mob,’ Liberator, 31 October 1835. See also C. Duncan Rice. ‘The Anti-Slavery Mission of George Thompson to the United States, 1834-1835,’ Journal of American Studies 2.1 (1968): 13-31.
- On the campaign to end the racial segregation of the Massachusetts railroads (in which Douglass, Buffum and others were involved) see Elizabeth Stordeur Pryor, Colored Travelers: Mobility and the Fight for Citizenship before the Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016), pp. 76–102.
- In a notorious speech at a meeting of the Repeal Association in Dublin on 11 May 1843, Daniel O’Connell declared his intention to refuse ‘blood-stained money’ from pro-slavery Repeal groups in the United States. The speech was reported in the Liberator, 9 and 30 June 1843, and in the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Reporter, 9 August 1843.
- For a detailed account of Douglass’s outward voyage to Liverpool in 1845 see Alasdair Pettinger, Frederick Douglass and Scotland, 1846: Living an Antislavery Life (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2018), pp. 3–6, 17–24. Some primary sources are reprinted here.