Frederick Douglass ~ Abolitionist and Statesman

Frederick Douglass was a former slave in 19th Century America who became an internationally renowned abolitionist leader and statesman. Douglass campaigned and spoke on the immorality and brutality of slavery both in America and abroad. During the Civil War he was an adviser to Abraham Lincoln. He served the United States Government in many roles including US Marshal for the District of Columbia and Consul General to Haiti (1889-91). He came to personally know eight American Presidents. In 1845, he published an autobiographical book about his life, ‘Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave’, that sold over 30,000 copies in the US and Britain. This text was acclaimed worldwide and made an important contribution to the anti-slavery movement. Following its publication Douglass became aware of his vulnerability and the possibility of recapture within the state of Maryland to which he had escaped. He resolved to travel to Britain to undertake a series of speaking engagements and arrived in Liverpool on August 28 1845. Travelling throughout Britain and Ireland, Douglass gave lectures and speeches on the issue of slavery in the United States and worldwide. In Scotland, anti-slavery ideas had taken root and he was made extremely welcome especially by members of the Glasgow and Edinburgh Emancipation Societies. Among the meeting halls used by Douglass are included the, Music Hall in Edinburgh, Abbey Close United Presbyterian Church in Paisley and Glasgow City Hall. In Glasgow he addressed some 2,000 people.

Part of the Douglass rationale in coming to Scotland was to challenge the Free Church of Scotland, who since their break from the Church of Scotland in 1843 had been receiving funds from the Presbyterian churches of the southern slave holding states of America – money made from slavery. These funds were given in return for a religious rationalisation of slavery and a respectability for which American Presbyterian slaveholders were so desperate.

He visited Perth 23-26 January 1846 and along with activist Henry Wright, and travelling companion James Buffum spoke to meetings held at the City Hall. His oratory was both powerful and moving in that he drew on both his own experiences as a slave and his passionate desire to force his listeners into action. At a lecture in Dundee on 10 March, Douglass said, “When the Free Church says – Did not Abraham hold slaves? The reply should be, send back that money” and it was this latter slogan that became a rallying cry both before and throughout the eighteen months Douglass was to spend in Britain and Ireland. It was carved out of the turf at Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh.

The public addresses that Douglass made in Perth and elsewhere helped greatly to keep the anti-slavery issue alive in Scotland. That of several other anti-slavery orators followed his visit in the 1850s.

Whilst in Scotland Douglass visited the birthplace of Robert Burns and met the latter’s sister. On returning to America, Douglass found himself addressing a Burns’ Supper at which he was recorded as saying:

“But ladies and gentlemen, this is not a time for long speeches. I do not wish to detain you from the social pleasures that await you. I repeat again, that though I am not a Scotchman, and have a coloured skin, I am proud to be among you this evening. And if any think me out of place on this occasion (pointing at the picture of Burns), I beg that the blame may be laid at the door of him that taught me that a man’s a man for a’that.”

Upon his return to America in April 1847 Douglass had received enough funding from friends and supporters to buy his freedom, avoid the danger of recapture and start his own newspaper, The North Star.

He revisited Scotland in 1859-1860 to avoid arrest after John Brown’s1 abortive uprising and raid at Harper’s Ferry. Back in America he became a key supporter of the Union cause, recruiting African Americans to the service of the Union army and ensured that Lincoln was won to the cause of Emancipation as an objective of the Civil War. Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1st 1863. Douglass would later be instrumental in drafting the 13th (abolition of slavery), the 14th (granting of citizenship) and the 15th (enfranchisement) amendments to the United States Constitution.

Although the abolition of slavery and the demand for rights for African Americans dominated the life of Frederick Douglass, he also supported and became an advocate of women’s rights. The film Glory is based upon the story of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, which was composed entirely of black troops. This regiment included two of Douglass’ sons. Douglass died in February 1895 at his home in Cedar Hill near Washington D.C.

“If there is no struggle, there is no progress.
Those who profess to favour freedom and
yet avoid confrontation, are people who
want crops without ploughing up the ground;
they want rain without thunder and lightning
they want the ocean without the
roar of its waters.”

Frederick Douglass

1 John Brown, a descendent of the Pilgrim Fathers was a campaigner for abolition of slavery in the United States. His campaigning often took the form of roving throughout the country organising runaway slaves. He led an attack on a government armoury at Harper’s Ferry in the state of Virginia. The raid was a disaster and Brown was hanged. His exploits are celebrated in the song; ‘John Brown’s body lies amouldering in the grave’.