Douglass speeches condemned American slavery and suggested how people in Scotland could help the movement calling for its abolition. A striking man and a powerful speaker, Douglass won many to the cause. He was even the subject of several songs.
Frederick Douglass arrived in Liverpool on the Cambria on 28 August 1845 and departed from Liverpool on the same ship in April 1847.
In over 18 months he travelled extensively in Britain and Ireland, giving lectures in dozens of cities and towns. He was in Scotland for most of the first half of 1846, returning again in July, September and October the same year.
Home to some of the more radical anti-slavery sentiment in Britain, Scotland gave Douglass a warm welcome. The Edinburgh and Glasgow Emancipation Societies had been formed in 1833 and – in the wake of the abolition of slavery in the British West Indies – they called for the abolition of slavery in other parts of the world, especially the United States. When the American abolitionist movement began to split in the late 1830s, the Scottish Societies tended to take the side of William Lloyd Garrison, whose uncompromising followers stood aloof from party politics and held radical views on women’s rights.
Douglass spoke at public meetings across the country. For further details see the list of speaking engagements.
Many of these meetings drew large crowds. On the 1 May at the Music Hall, Edinburgh, an audience of 2000 had bought tickets at sixpence each. Douglass was not always the only speaker on these occasions, but undoubtedly the main attraction. Other anti-slavery campaigners with whom he shared the platform included:
- James Buffum, his travelling companion from Massachusetts
- Henry Clarke Wright, the American activist who had been in Britain since early 1843
- William Lloyd Garrison, the leader of the American Anti-Slavery Society and editor of its influential magazine, The Liberator – who toured Britain in 1846
- George Thompson, an English militant who had long been associated with the Glasgow Emancipation Society
Douglass was a powerful, charismatic speaker, and a talented mimic who could rouse the indignation of the crowd as well as make them laugh.
Above all Douglass spoke about American slavery. He could speak about it from first-hand experience – and of course could rely on an appreciative audience when telling of his own escape from it.
But he also approached the subject more generally. For as well as raising his listeners to a deep sense of injustice of slavery, he wanted to get them to think what could be done about it. Again and again he stressed the value of the moral pressure that Britain could put on the United States. The example of its own act of abolition of slavery in the West Indies was itself a powerful way of isolating the Americans on the international scene. The anti-slavery propaganda of travel books – such as Charles Dickens’ American Notes(1842) was important too, as were the protests that resulted in reduced sentences or improved conditions for anti-slavery campaigners who fell foul of the law.
But he was also keen to identify those who seemed to undermine this strategy, those British writers and church leaders who – wittingly or not – reassured the slaveholders of the American South that their sins were not so bad as some made out. One of Douglass’ targets was the geologist Charles Lyell, whose recent travel account was one of the ‘misrepresentations of slavery as would have the effect of cooling that British indignation against slavery which had existed for many years’.
However the main target of his withering sarcasm during his visit was the Free Church of Scotland. The Free Church had formed when a large minority of ministers – and with them their congregations – seceded from the established Church of Scotland in 1843, tired of the way the government was interfering in their internal affairs. Deprived of public money, the breakaway church sought to raise funds among friendly Presbyterians in England, Wales, Ireland and the United States. But the fact that some of the funds raised in the United States came from churches in the slaveholding South drew strong criticism from the abolitionists. Convinced that this gesture amounted to an uncritical endorsement of the churches there, who refused to condemn slavery or expel slaveholding members, a campaign calling for the Free Church to return the money was well under way when Douglass arrived in 1846.
‘Send back the money’ was to be a recurring slogan at many of the meetings he addressed in Scotland. In Dundee in March 1846 he ends his speech with these words:
When the Free Church says – Did not Abraham hold slaves? the reply should be, Send back that money! (Cheers). When they ask did not Paul send back Onesimus? I answer, Send you back that money! (Great cheering). That is the only answer which should be given to their sophistical arguments, adn it is one which they cannot get over. (Great cheering). In order to justify their conduct, they endeavour to forget that they are a Church, and speak as if they were a manufacturing corporation. They forget that a Church is not for making money, but for spreading the Gospel. We are guilty, say they, but these merchants are guilty, and some other parties are guilty also. I say, send back that money! (Cheering). There is music in that sound. (Continued cheering). There is poetry in it.
Douglass was clearly a sensation. ‘Send Back the Money’ set the country alight. The slogan was apparently carved out of the turf of Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh, and there were a number of songs that were inspired by the campaign.
Not surprisingly he made some enemies among the supporters of the Free Church of Scotland. Hissing was reported in some newspaper accounts – to which the orator cleverly responded:
it was said by a very learned man that when the cool voice of truth falls into the burning vortex of falsehood there would always be hissing.
And it is probably true that in some quarters it was his stand against the Free Church rather than his stand against slavery that impressed. The radical speeches of Garrison and Wright probably alienated some of those they might otherwise have reached. A small minority in the church did voice concern about the propriety of the American donations: James Macbeth and John Willis founded the Free Church Anti-Slavery Society in May 1847, but it had little impact. The money was not returned and eventually Macbeth, Willis and others emigrated to Canada.
Nevertheless Douglass did help to keep the anti-slavery issue alive in Scotland – and other former slaves from the United States followed in his footsteps in the 1850s. He remembered his time in Scotland with some fondness and before he returned to the United States, friends and supporters raised funds which enabled him to buy his freedom, sparing him of the fear of recapture, and also made it possible for him to set up his own newspaper, The North Star in 1847.