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The first twenty minutes
Originally posted on Tuesday, August 30, 2005
Yesterday was the first day of class for the Introduction to U. S.
History that I am teaching this fall. (Here's the
I'm using; suggestions for future iterations are welcome!)
In all of the classes that I've taught so far, I've tried to follow this
rule of thumb: On the first day of class, do not pass out the syllabus
until halfway through the period. It's my belief that for those first
twenty or thirty minutes, the attention and engagement of my students is
about as undivided as it is ever going to be. But I know that the moment
I pass out my syllabus, that attention will immediately be divided and
diverted: red-tape questions about requirements for the course, poring
over the syllabus to see if there's a paper. That's what most students
expect for the first day of class, but that's another reason why those
first twenty or thirty minutes are so potentially precious: they are
some of the few minutes of the semester where I am virtually guaranteed
the element of surprise.
The first twenty or thirty minutes of the semester are fertile soil for
planting seeds of The Big Idea that I want students to leave the course
with. By their nature, the first twenty minutes aren't good for going
over minutiae; they are good for making a case to the students that what
we will be doing is important and interesting. As I've talked about
before in a [post about my philosophy of
one of The Big Ideas I want any student in my class to leave with is an
understanding that talking about history is always a matter of
It doesn't take long to realize this on reflection: it is impossible to
write a history that includes everything that just happened in the world
in the last five minutes, much less in the last five or fifteen
centuries, so when historians sit down to write a narrative of the past,
they are always forced to make hard choices about what to include,
choices guided by the problem they are trying to solve and by the
boundaries of their subject (also chosen) that they have laid out.
But while that point may seem obvious on reflection, I don't want to
take for granted that my students have so reflected (since I know there
was surely a point in my life when I didn't reflect on these things much
either). And I don't want to even begin a history course with the
impression possibly floating around in some student's mind that this
class will cover Everything You Need to Know about American history,
that the boundaries placed on this course by the semester are somehow
absolute. ([New Kid on the
has also recently talked about the importance of dispelling this idea.)
In an effort to convey these points in the first twenty minutes of
class, here's what I did yesterday. After introducing myself and letting
students know that I would be passing out the syllabus later in the
class, I asked everyone to get out a sheet of paper. You have two
minutes, I said, to write a history of the last five years. In response
to any questions about what should be included ("our personal history?
American history?") I simply say that there are no limitations: just a
history of the last five years in two minutes. These won't be handed in
so there's no need to worry about complete sentences: just write as much
as you can or think you should. (I modified this from a similar drill
that my wife, a brilliant high school social studies teacher, has used
to great effect in her own classroom.)
After the two-minute drill is up, I make a list with students on the
board of the kinds of things that made it into their histories--which
events? which places and countries? what kinds of people? I make the
list as exhaustive as possible, but then point out that it usually
includes mostly the headline news of the last five years. If I'm lucky,
a few events in students' personal lives make the list, along with more
local connections to the headline news--the Olympics is mentioned, for
instance, but since we're in Maryland, so is local hero Michael Phelps.
The point of this exercise, of course, is then to notice how much didn't
make the list, and couldn't make the list, given the constraints of time
that I placed on the students. But then I ask students whether
everything could have made the list if I had made other rules for the
drill--given them twenty minutes, for instance, or two years; limited
the assignment to the history of the United States; asked them to write
the history of the last fifty years instead of the last five; etc.
After this I talked a little bit about the required textbook for the
course, which is America: A Narrative History, Brief Sixth Edition, by
George Brown Tindall and David E. Shi. When I signed on to teach this
course, I was at first unhappy to learn that all of the students taking
U. S. history in the department would be using the same textbooks, and
that the books had already been ordered so that I could not choose which
one I wanted to use (or indeed, whether I wanted to use a textbook at
all). But now I'm starting to think having a textbook for the
class--perhaps especially one that would not have been my first
choice--can be pedagogically useful. Just as [Timothy Burke has
advised]( against using
airtight monographs in history classes, perhaps it's good to use a
textbook precisely because it's possible to point out to students the
necessary gaps and gaffes that a textbook includes, and to get them
thinking about the contingency of historical writing.
So I pointed out that even textbook writers have to make difficult
choices to boil down the past into the simulacra of a book. I asked
students to get out their textbooks and I drew their attention to the
cover. The title declares that this is a history of "America." But how
is "America" defined? (Geographically? Then why not South America too?
Politically? Then what about "America" before the "United States of
America"?) The title also specifies that this is a "narrative" history.
(Are there other ways of telling history? How would the book be
different if it were a "documentary" history, for instance?). Narratives
include characters, settings, turning points--all elements that a
narrator has to select when constructing a particular story. Finally, I
even have students notice that this textbook is a "sixth edition" (why
would we need new and multiple editions for a book about stuff that
happened centuries ago?) and that it is a "brief" edition.
That means what we have is an abbreviation of two historians'
abbreviation of the past--or that part of it that they have carved out
as their subject matter by using words like "America" and turning points
like the Columbian contact with the "New World." (The "textbook
analysis" idea I've cribbed from a favorite English professor as an
undergraduate, who did something similar on the first day of a
Shakespeare class by making us think about what it meant to be reading
the "Norton" edition of Shakespeare, "based on the Oxford edition." I
remember it being eye-opening to actually look at the cover of the
textbook as if it were a bearer of meaning too, instead of just
something to hold pages--the real bearers of meaning--together.)
Only after all this did I pass out the syllabus. That allowed me, too,
to help give the assignments for the course a pedagogical rationale. For
example, for the major writing portion of the course, students will be
selecting one book from a list of six works of history that I have
selected. Over the course of the semester, they will be reading that
book and writing about it in some discussion boards I've set up on
Blackboard for the course. Had I passed out the syllabus first, that
would have just looked like hard work. (And I realize that to many of
the students it probably still does.) But now that I've talked a bit
about The Big Idea of the course, I can make the case that this
assignment reinforces that. If all historians make choices and
selections when telling narratives of the past, then that means we need
more than a textbook. Subjects or people that receive a sentence in the
textbook (or, of course, no sentences at all) have entire narratives
written about them, a point worth stressing with students. I also like
the fact that students have to make a choice about what to read, leaving
the other books unread; hopefully that reinforces, somewhere, that in
choosing to read this historian's narrative, there are still many
narratives to be read, and many more stories to be told.
There is no end to the narratives that we can choose to tell about the
past. Our choices will be constrained, of course, by the sources left to
us (there are some stories that cannot be told) and by what the sources
themselves tell us. But there will still be more stories that can be
told, even after we've spent our entire lives telling stories about the
past--in part because by the end of our lives there will be more "past"
to tell about. It's possible to make this point in a dour way, by
emphasizing the futility of it all (why attempt to write or teach
history if you can't "get it all in"?) or by being cynical about
historical writing (if all historians make choices, then how can I trust
what any one narrative tells me?). But what excites me most about
history is precisely the knowledge that we will not run out of
narratives to tell. One reason I'm a fan of jazz is because I know that
I will never reach a point where I have heard all the jazz there is to
hear: there is always another album, another take, another rendition to
keep my mind awake. I'm a fan of history, I think, for the same
(Cross-posted at [Cliopatria](
The lives of Douglass: Part I
Originally posted on Monday, December 13, 2004
Revised 14 December 2004
Many Americans are familiar with the [Narrative of the Life of Frederick
published in 1845; it is certainly the most famous personal narrative of
slavery ever written. (Two years ago, the City of Baltimore sponsored a
reading]( of the
Narrative, which the mayor lauded as an "example of perseverance and
determination.") But fewer readers are aware that Douglass wrote another
autobiography in 1855, entitled [My Bondage and My
Probably even fewer are aware that a third autobiography was published
in 1881, [The Life and Times of Frederick
In an [earlier
I alluded to the value of teaching the Narrative and My Bondage and My
Freedom side by side. By email, a reader asked for some elaboration on
the two texts. So I offer this, even at the risk of it being a boon for
in history classes. (Don't cheat. If you used Google to get here, your
professor can easily do the same.)
The most notable feature of the second autobiography is that by 1855,
Douglass had more "bio" to "graph." Seventeen years had passed since his
escape from slavery in Maryland, and ten years separated him from the
book that made him a celebrity. In that decade, he had established
himself as a lecturer on the antislavery circuit, toured Great Britain
to much acclaim, received funds from British friends to purchase his
freedom, and founded his own newspaper in upstate New York. My Bondage
and My Freedom covers these new events as well as most of the same
episodes that were in the Narrative. But these episodes in Douglass's
life as an enslaved Marylander are almost always embellished with
greater detail in his second book. More detail was partly a retort to
skeptics who doubted the authenticity of the Narrative. But the richer
detail of the second book is even more important as an example of
Douglass's incisive and innovative thinking about the problem of
The Narrative had a mostly propagandistic function: it was intended as
an exposé of slavery’s brutality. My Bondage more directly exposed
Douglass’s inner experience in slavery. And it illuminated the
connections between that experience and his thought. If the narrative
logic of the first book assumed that readers would infer antislavery
conclusions from the episodes it related, the second book complicated
and multiplied the possible conclusions that a reader could reach. For
one thing, it corrected what some readers might have perceived in the
Narrative as an antislavery argument based primarily on the poor
treatment of particular slaves. My Bondage and My Freedom made more
explicit what the Narrative had implied: that it was not just cruel
treatment, but the idea of slavery itself that repulsed Douglass and
provoked his desire to escape.
In the second book, for example, when discussing the kindness of Mrs.
Auld, a Baltimore mistress who helped teach him how to read until
rebuffed by her husband, Douglass emphasizes that the slave-master
relationship corrupted whatever kind feelings existed between him and
Auld. (Compare
Her treatment of Douglass was incidental to the problem of slavery.
“Nature had made us *friends*,” he wrote in My Bondage, “slavery made us
*enemies*. ... It was *slavery* -- not its mere *incidents* -- that I
hated. I had been cheated. ... The feeding and clothing me well, could
not atone for taking my liberty from me.” In the first place, then, My
Bondage and My Freedom contains subtle but significant differences in
Douglass’s recounting of his experience in “bondage.” This book was not
a litany of “mere incidents” -- it was a meditation on “slavery” and why
Douglass hated it.
The second autobiography also extends the story of Douglass’s “bondage”
into the story of his “freedom.” Douglass’s life as an abolitionist
after 1845 goes a long way towards explaining why he felt a second book
was needed by 1855. Today, My Bondage and My Freedom interests
antislavery historians mainly for what it tells us about Douglass’s
conflictual relationship with radical white abolitionists like William
Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips.
Garrison and his allies -- usually known as the Garrisonians -- played a
crucial role in launching Douglass’s career as a professional
abolitionist. Conversely, Douglass's fame as a speaker and moral
authority as a fugitive lent credibility to the Garrisonians as
antislavery leaders. As Douglass recounted in both the Narrative and My
Bondage and My Freedom, he was introduced to the world of Northern
antislavery in the late summer of 1841, while living in New Bedford,
Massachusetts and working as a day laborer. In August, at an
abolitionist meeting in Nantucket, Douglass delivered a rousing speech
that greatly impressed Garrison. Soon afterwards, Douglass was hired by
the Garrisonian American Anti-Slavery Society (AASS) as a lecturer, and
it was this association that also helped bring the Narrative into print.
Both Garrison and Phillips wrote introductory letters to the 1845
edition, vouching for its author's credibility as well as associating
themselves with this powerful new voice. And when the Narrative
attracted attention and seemed likely to endanger Douglass, the
Garrisonians’ contacts with British abolitionists gave Douglass an
entrée into the United Kingdom, where he toured throughout 1846
addressing large audiences. But it was during this trip abroad that
Douglass’s relationship with the Garrisonians began to fray around the
edges, a strain that worsened in 1847 after Douglass returned home, now
a legally free man who was intent on becoming his own editor.
The reasons for strain between Douglass and the Garrisonians were both
personal and ideological. On a personal level, Douglass sensed a
patronizing tone among many of his patrons, a mistrust of him that in
many cases bordered on or crossed over into a malicious bigotry. While
touring in Britain, for instance, Douglass learned that Maria Weston
Chapman, a leading Boston Garrisonian, had corresponded with some of
Garrison's friends in Ireland and warned them to keep an eye on
Douglass's management of his money. Incensed by this and other letters,
Douglass reacted vehemently in a letter to Chapman that foreshadowed his
eventual break with the AASS. But those personal conflicts cannot be
separated from the ideological disagreements that increasingly divided
Douglass from the Garrisonians -- disagreements about the wisdom of
"buying" slaves in order to free them, for instance, or about the
position of the Constitution on the issue of slavery. At any rate, by
the early 1850s, both faultlines -- the personal as well as the
principled -- had opened into a complete fracture, with both parties
sniping at each other and crying foul. Douglass repudiated the
Garrisonians; the Garrisonians likewise repudiated Douglass. These new
circumstances, in Douglass's mind, called for a new autobiography, and
My Bondage and My Freedom was the result.
Many scholars blame this fracture primarily on the persistence of racial
prejudice among white Garrisonians, which explains why some of them
(like Chapman) treated Douglass with a condescending paternalism. Many
Garrisonians failed to see past “Douglass the Fugitive” to Frederick
Douglass himself. For example, in My Bondage and My Freedom, Douglass
recalled that at the Nantucket meeting, Garrison followed Douglass’s
speech with one of his own, “taking me as his text.” This was a
revealing aside. In the early years of their acquaintance, white
Garrisonians often referred to Douglass as if he were mainly a Walking
Counterexample, a living rebuttal to the argument that black people were
degraded by nature. And his life was first and foremost a “text” to
which they could turn for proof that former slaves could “rise," just as
the Narrative was a text they could use to prove the cruelty of Southern
This was a strategy whose intention was to combat Northern racial
prejudice rather than to condone it. But it was understandable when
Douglass lost patience with constantly being gestured *at*, rather than
being freed to gesture in whatever direction he chose. Moreover, in
driving the point home that Douglass had risen from degradation to
dignity, the Garrisonians often lingered a little too long on the
degradation and not as long on the dignity. In early 1842, while
introducing Douglass to an antislavery meeting at Faneuil Hall in
Boston, Garrison said, “It is recorded in holy writ, that a beast once
spoke. A greater miracle is here to-night. A chattel becomes a man.”
Such analogies -- which seem to suggest that Douglass's transformation
from slave into orator was as miraculous as Balaam's donkey learning to
speak -- are rightly galling to our ears. But it is possible to
exaggerate the extent to which they were galling then, even to some
black abolitionists. In his early years as an abolitionist, Douglass
also used himself as an example of the extraordinary transformation from
chattel-hood to manhood that only freedom could effect. In My Bondage
and My Freedom, he excerpted a letter that he wrote to Garrison shortly
after he set foot on British soil, where legal proscriptions and social
discrimination against free blacks were less pronounced than in the
Northern states. "I breathe," Douglass exulted, "and lo! the chattel
becomes a man."
Douglass and many other black abolitionists used such masculine language
to imagine the passage from slavery to freedom as a passage from
childishness and ignorance into manliness and respectability. Statements
like theirs and Garrison's were rhetorically strategic: they confronted
the terrible fact that Southern slaves *were* legally bought and sold as
if they were beasts of burden. In antebellum newspapers, advertisements
announcing rewards for the return of fugitive slaves were routinely
printed directly adjacent to advertisements that announced rewards for
the return of runaway horses. Given such pervasive visual iconography,
it was radically subversive to suggest that Douglass had been changed
from a "chattel" to a "man."
In short, Douglass's breach with the Garrisonians had less to do than
one might think with the fact that they viewed black abolitionists as
respectable and black slaves as degraded. Douglass himself held the same
view. Rather, what bothered Douglass was the way that Garrisonians
expected Douglass to play the role of the degraded slave, to straddle
the chasm they both saw between bondage and freedom. For example, white
Garrisonians often advised Douglass not to be *quite* so eloquent,
fearing that Douglass's excellence on the platform would give ammunition
to skeptics who doubted that he had ever been a slave. And since they
viewed Douglass's life as a propagandistic "text," they encouraged him
to stick to the story. In My Bondage and My Freedom, Douglass singled
out this kind of advice as insulting, constraining, and above all,
> During the first three or four months, my speeches were almost
> exclusively made up of narrations of my own personal experience as a
> slave. 'Let us have the facts,' said the people. So also said Friend
> George Foster, who always wished to pin me down to my simple
> narrative. 'Give us the facts,' said Collins, 'we will take care of
> the philosophy.' Just here arose some embarrassment. It was impossible
> for me to repeat the same old story month after month, and to keep up
> my interest in it. It was new to the people, it is true, but it was an
> old story to me; and to go through with it night after nights, was a
> task altogether too mechanical for my nature. 'Tell your story,
> Frederick,' would whisper my then revered friend, William Lloyd
> Garrison, as I stepped upon the platform. I could not always obey, for
> I was now reading and thinking. New views of the subject were
> presented to my mind. It did not entirely satisfy me to *narrate*
> wrongs; I felt like *denouncing* them.
That last line can be read as a thinly veiled critique of the Narrative
itself and an apologia for its sequel. It was also an indictment of the
Garrisonians' attempts to direct his life story in the way they saw fit.
There certainly were elements of racial prejudice in some of these
efforts to "pin" Douglass to his Narrative. (But there is still much
ambiguity on this point. Since many freed people took new surnames as
signs of their independence -- Douglass changed his from "Bailey" to
"Douglass" -- we may be meant to see Garrison's whispering to him as
"Frederick" as an insult. But it might equally be seen as evidence of
the real intimacy and friendship that existed between Garrison and
Douglass prior to their parting of the ways.)
Racial prejudice, at least, was the interpretation offered by James
McCune Smith, the black abolitionist and medical doctor who wrote the
preface to My Bondage and My Freedom, assuming the role that Garrison
and Phillips had claimed in the Narrative. Such gentlemen, Smith said,
> although proud of Frederick Douglass, failed to fathom, and bring out
> to the light of day, the highest qualities of his mind; the force of
> their own education stood in their own way: they did not delve into
> the mind of a colored man for capacities which the pride of race led
> them to believe to be restricted to their own Saxon blood. Bitter and
> vindictive sarcasm, irresistible mimicry, and a pathetic narrative of
> his own experiences of slavery, were the intellectual manifestations
> which they encouraged him to exhibit on the platform or in the lecture
> desk.
It is also accurate to say, however, that Douglass's growing
dissatisfaction with the white Garrisonians had as much to do with his
pride in respectability as it did with their "pride of race." As
Douglass read and thought, he understood himself to be moving farther
and farther away from his former life on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.
The white abolitionists' advice to adopt the persona of Frederick Bailey
seemed like an attempt to deprive him of what he understood as "freedom"
-- the freedom not to act in what he perceived to be a "slavish" way. In
short, although race was at issue in the breach between Douglass and the
Garrisonians, so was respectability: Douglass did not disagree that
"freedom" meant the education and uplift of black Americans. He too
believed, with them, that escaping slavery meant elevating oneself from
a degraded state. What he disliked was the way they encouraged him to
mimic that former state.
Personal conflict with white Garrisonians, then, was one seed of which
the fruit was Douglass's second book. The roots of that personal
conflict were entangled with weeds of racial prejudice that sprung up
even in the soil of radical white abolitionism. But there were other
seeds of discontent sown between Douglass and his former friends, and
their eventual rift also had to do with severe doctrinal disagreements.
I'll save those disagreements for a [second
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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