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The lives of Douglass: Part II
Originally posted on Tuesday, December 21, 2004
As I explained in [Part
Frederick Douglass's
marked the highpoint of his collaboration with the radical abolitionists
who identified with William Lloyd Garrison, the fiery editor of the
*Liberator*. Both Garrison and Wendell Phillips, another prominent white
abolitionist, wrote glowing prefaces for the *Narrative*, which they
rightly identified as a powerful new weapon in their armory of
antislavery polemics. The *Narrative* also catapulted Douglass to fame,
first as a Garrisonian lecturer but then as a celebrity in his own
right. As James McCune Smith put it in the introduction to Douglass's
second autobiography, [*My Bondage and My
"It is not too much to say, that he formed a complement which [the
Garrisonians] needed, and they were a complement equally necessary to
his 'make-up.'"
Yet by the time *My Bondage and My Freedom* was published in 1855, both
complements and compliments had given way to open conflict between
Douglass and the Garrisonians. Part of the blame belongs to the
persistence of racial prejudice among some white Garrisonians -- a
condescension of which Douglass became acutely aware while he toured
Great Britain in 1846. Yet prejudice alone does not explain the rift
between Douglass and his former friends. Nor should we patronize
Douglass with the condescension of posterity by assuming that he was but
a passive victim, who played no active role in the rift. As McCune Smith
also suggested in his foreword to *My Bondage and My Freedom*, one of
Douglass's own personality traits may have been an extreme sensitivity
to any hint of patronization -- a trait that certainly would have been
understandable in a man with his history and in his circumstances. "The
same strong self-hood," wrote Smith, "which led him to measure strength
with Mr. Covey," (the slave driver immortalized by [the famous fight
in Douglass' *Narrative*) "and to wrench himself from the embrace of the
Garrisonians, and which has borne him through many resistances to the
personal indignities offered him as a colored man, sometimes becomes a
hyper-sensitiveness to such assaults as men of his mark will meet with,
on paper."
It may be impossible, however, to judge finally whether Garrisonians'
insensitivity or Douglass's sensitiveness was most to blame for the
complex personal friction between the two parties. What *is* clear is
that the friction only encouraged Douglass's desire for independence.
And however justified or understandable that desire might have been, it
is also clear that Douglass framed his break with the Garrisonians in
the most provocative of ways by publishing *My Bondage and My Freedom*.
The title itself was edgy. It claimed Douglass's narrative, his life, as
his own property: "*My* Bondage and *My* Freedom." In the introduction,
Smith's implicit comparison between Covey and the Garrisonians also
suggested that Douglass's "Freedom" from *Southern* "Bondage" would not
be the book's only plot. The book would also conclude by framing
Douglass's relationship with the Garrisonians as itself a kind of
"Bondage," and his decision to found his own newspaper in Rochester as a
new birth of "Freedom."
Sparks flew in the closing chapter of the book, when Douglass recounted
the objections that many Garrisonians had to his newspaper. These
objections were interpreted by Douglass as accusations that he was
"ambitious and presumptuous." Such words certainly had not been unknown
in Garrisonian circles when the subject of Douglass's new venture came
up. Although he tried hard to convince his former allies that he knew
what he was doing, Douglass wrote that he was "not sure that I was not
under the influence of something like a slavish adoration of my Boston
friends." Douglass knew that the Bostonians would be pricked by the word
"slavish," no matter how carefully it was swaddled in awkward syntax
(the double negative that began the sentence) and qualifications
("something like" ... "adoration" ... "friends"). The inflammatory word
was "slavish." And in the years after 1855, Douglass fanned the flame.
In 1857, he declared:
> I know, my friends, that in some quarters the efforts of colored
> people meet with very little encouragement. We may fight, but we must
> fight like the Sepoys of India, under white officers. This class of
> Abolitionists don't like colored celebrations, they don't like colored
> conventions, they don't like colored Anti-Slavery fairs for the
> support of colored newspapers. They don't like any demonstrations
> whatever in which colored men take a leading part. They talk of the
> proud Anglo-Saxon blood, as flippantly as those who profess to believe
> in the natural inferiority of races. Your humble speaker has been
> branded as an ingrate, because he has ventured to stand up on his own
> right, and to plead our common cause as a colored man, rather than as
> a Garrisonian. I hold it to be no part of gratitude to allow our white
> friends to do all the work, while we merely hold their coats.
> Opposition of the sort now referred to, is partisan opposition, and we
> need not mind it. [From "West India Emancipation," in The Life and
> Writings of Frederick Douglass, ed. Philip S. Foner, vol. 2, pp.
> 436-37.]
Comparing Garrisonians to the colonial officers of the British empire?
These were strong words indeed, especially when one considers that they
were uttered in the year of the "[Sepoy
Mutiny](" in India. (That
quote was for you,
[Sepoy](!) But Douglass's
1857 speech also brings us to a second important dimension of the
Garrisonian rift, for it suggests that the break had to do not only with
personal offense, but also with "partisan opposition." Douglass's break
occurred at the same time that the antislavery movement as a whole was
fracturing, and not just along faultlines dividing white and black
In the 1840s, many white abolitionists, like Gerrit Smith, James Birney,
and Lewis Tappan, increasingly disagreed with the Garrisonians about
major strategic and dogmatic issues, like the question of whether
violence could be used in the service of antislavery goals. Many black
abolitionists also broke with Garrisonians on precisely this issue.
Another major disagreement revolved around the Garrisonians' opposition
to forming political parties to run antislavery candidates for local and
national offices. Some Garrisonians opposed politics because they were
near-anarchists who believed that all human governments were sinfully
coercive. A larger number opposed antislavery parties because they
believed the Constitution itself was a proslavery document, a "covenant
with death" as Garrison put it. Any political action within the existing
framework -- even voting, according to some -- was corrupted before it
began. Beginning in 1842, Garrison and many of his supporters carried
this logic to its fullest extreme by calling for "disunion" between the
North and the South.
In 1854, a year before *My Bondage and My Freedom* was published,
Garrison dramatized the radicalism of these positions by publicly
burning a copy of the Constitution at a Fourth of July picnic for
abolitionists. Long before that act, however, Douglass had already
dissociated himself from such incendiary views. Against the
Garrisonians, he agreed with Gerrit Smith and others that the
Constitution was not necessarily proslavery, but had only been made so
by misinterpretation. He believed that political action was not only
justified on behalf of abolition, but positively required if it could be
effective. In *My Bondage*, Douglass spelled out his change of opinion
on these subjects. Even after he had moved to Rochester to start his new
paper, Douglass continued to be "on the anti-slavery question, a
faithful disciple of William Lloyd Garrison, and fully committed to his
doctrine touching the pro-slavery character of the United States, and
the *non-voting principle.*" But in 1851, following the passage of an
even more stringent Fugitive Slave Law by Congress, Douglass "became
convinced that there was no necessity for dissolving" the Union, and
"that to abstain from voting, was to refuse to exercise a legitimate and
powerful means for abolishing slavery." Douglass also concluded that the
Constitution, far from being a pact with the devil, as Garrison called
it, was "an anti-slavery instrument."
These conclusions placed Douglass firmly on the side of the
Garrisonians' opponents within the antislavery movement, and they
reopened the wounds of earlier schisms. Douglass's close friendship with
McCune Smith and Gerrit Smith and his complicated relationship with John
Brown (see [this
made the wound wider. By 1853, Garrison wrote to his friend, Samuel J.
May, that "with Douglass, the die seems to be cast. I lament the schism,
but it is unavoidable." It was made unavoidable partly by Douglass's
commitment to positions on which Garrison could admit no compromise. And
as the years wore on, the wounds only festered. By 1860 Garrison wrote
in another letter to May that Douglass's plans to be at an upcoming
meeting "powerfully repel me from attending. I regard him as thoroughly
base and selfish, and I know that his hostility to the American
Anti-Slavery Society and its leading advocates is unmitigated and
unceasing. ... In fact, he reveals himself more and more to me as
destitute of every principle of honor, ungrateful to the last degree,
and malevolent in spirit. He is not worthy of respect, confidence, or
Garrison is notorious for his unflinching positions, and his tendency to
impute false motives to anyone who disagreed with him. In that sense, he
was an equal opportunity offender. His public reproaches of white
enemies within the movement could be as harsh as those that he uttered
privately against Douglass in 1860. So what should we make of such hard
words? We might turn again to what Douglass made of them in the
concluding pages of *My Bondage and My Freedom.*
> Here was a radical change in my opinions, and in the action logically
> resulting from that change. To those with whom I had been in agreement
> and in sympathy, I was now in opposition. What they held to be a great
> and important truth, I now looked upon as a dangerous error. A very
> painful, and yet a very natural, thing now happened. Those who could
> not see any honest reasons for changing their views, as I had done,
> could not easily see any such reasons for my change, and the common
> punishment of apostates was mine.
How, then, should we settle the question of what caused the rift between
Douglass and the Garrisonians? Were the causes as simple as racism among
white abolitionists? Or did Garrisonians prove that they thought of
Douglass as equal to their white opponents by dignifying him with "the
*common* punishment" that they meted to all "apostates"? As I suggested
before, these are the kinds of questions I want to raise and keep
provisionally open in [my
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