Monday, February 6, 2017

Frederick Douglass -- Adversity on the Tour
 
Toward the end of January, 1842, Douglass returned to Boston to attend the annual meeting of the Massachusetts Society.  A feature of this gathering was the report of the general agent.  Collins assured the leaders of abolitionism that Douglass had proven his worth to the cause.  Together the two of them had visited more than sixty towns and villages, and Douglass had displayed a free and forcible manner of speaking, given unforgettable descriptions of slavery and flavored his discourse with humor and satire (McFeely 94).
 
The inevitable offer for him to continue was made; he accepted.  Soon he was off on another round of speaking engagements.  This time, in Massachusetts and western New York, his listeners would not be as receptive and sympathetic as those he had spoken to previously.  He and his fellow speakers would be reaching the fringes of anti-slavery sentiment, where abolitionists on the whole were not taken seriously.
 
The number of their adherents remained relatively small.  They were tolerated [in most places in the North] as a sort of lunatic fringe of their day, an absurd crowd working a bit too closely with a kindred outfit in the British Empire where slavery had already been abolished.  The North didn’t fear abolitionists; it scoffed at them.
 
 
Above all, the antislavery North was convinced that the abolitionist agitation was a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing.  Anyone could see that it did not change the situation one way or the other.  If these fanatics insisted on continuing their useless hullabaloo, they could only blame themselves when respectable people became irritated and refused to let them hold meetings in public auditoriums or when the police failed to protect them from ruffians who hurled eggs and overripe fruit at their speakers.
 
In the eyes of the South the number of abolitionists was not insignificant.  To the slave power they were neither quaint nor misguided nor lunatic.  They were criminal.  The South ignored the pious words [of the abolitionists] renouncing violence.  It wanted to hang Garrison and all his cronies.  For the abolitionists, alone among the advocates of freedom, had found the slaveholder’s exposed nerve; the moral issue.  By touching it over and over again they had begun to drive the South crazy (McFeely 70).
 
Yet Frederick Douglass continued to be effective.  By April his schedule of engagements was published in the abolitionist press, and his speeches were commented upon in Concord’s Herald of Freedom, New York’s Anti-Slavery Standard, and Boston’s Liberator.
 
A reader of the Liberator wrote to say how impressed he had been by a Douglass address at Northbridge.  Another, attending a meeting at Nantucket and hearing Douglass for the first time, offered a confession.  He hadn’t cared much for abolitionism or abolitionists in the past, and what he had heard about this runaway slave called Douglass had left him cold.  He had been totally unprepared to find the young man “chaste in language, brilliant in thought, truly eloquent in delivery” (McFeely 71).
 
Douglass now began to share rostrums with the most famous white abolitionists, including Wendell Phillips, the outstanding orator of the movement, and William Lloyd Garrison himself.
 
At the annual meeting of the New England Anti-Slavery Society in 1843 General Agent John A. Collins announced the boldest proposal in the Society’s history, “a series of 100 Conventions in the Western States.”
 
This called for a band of brave men, tried and true campaigners in the cause of freedom, to sweep through the towns of New Hampshire, Vermont, western New York, Ohio, Indiana, and Pennsylvania, awakening a drowsy people to the iniquities of slavery and enlisting new recruits  to the thin ranks of active abolitionists.
 
 
Of course Douglass was an obvious choice.  … If anyone in the abolitionist movement seemed naturally fitted to carry the flaming doctrine into untouched new areas, it was this gifted and personally impressive mulatto.
 
 
Collins had calculated that the tour would last six months, and the plan agreed upon was that the agents would work singly or in pairs in small villages and outlying districts, regrouping periodically in the larger towns for mass meetings which would consolidate interest thus awakened.
 
 
The first town they hit was Middlebury, Vermont.  To their surprise, Middlebury had prepared for their arrival.  The town was placarded with signs describing Douglass as a convict recently escaped from the State prison.  … The Vermonters, despite their long and tested fondness for freedom, stayed away in force.  The first convention of the One Hundred was a sorry failure.
 
 
Douglass and [Charles L.] Remond [a free black abolitionist] and the other companions of the unsuccessful Vermont attempt started the New York state series in Albany and worked along the Erie Canal.  The responses they received ranged from apathy to aversion.  Once or twice Douglass thought he detected a mob spirit, but hostility failed to reach a point of physical violence, and the conventions continued (McFeely 74-76).
 
Yet Frederick worked diligently and persistently.  He and George Bradburn, a Unitarian minister, were to speak in Buffalo.  A friend whose responsibility it was to make arrangements for their convention had obtained only a deserted, dilapidated room that had formerly been used as a post office.  Douglass and Bradburn appeared in this room on schedule for the first meeting and found but a few cabmen in work clothes there to pass time between jobs.  Bradburn told Douglass he would not speak to “such a set of ragamuffins,” and took the first steamer to Cleveland to visit his brother.  Douglass, however, remained a week, spoke every day in the old room; and his audiences grew in number and respectability each day.  Eventually, a church was offered to him, but his audiences had increased in number so much by then that he had to hold the Sunday meeting in the park.
 
Douglass, with George Bradburn rejoining him, and William A. White traveled into Indiana.  At Richmond, standing on the platform before a hostile audience, Douglass had his best clothes “spoiled by evil-smelling eggs.”  In the next town, Pendleton, Douglass narrowly escaped death.
 
 
Work cited:
 
McFeely, William S.  Frederick Douglass.  New York, W. W. Norton & Company, 1991.  Print.