Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Frederick Douglass -- Separation from Garrison
 
When he placed his feet upon American land he had already decided he would separate himself from the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society and establish himself as an independent voice.  He had the financial backing of new friends in England that would allow him to buy a printing press.  He would move his family again, this time to a location along the route of escaped slaves escorted to Canada, the last stop along the underground railroad, Rochester, New York, a prosperous manufacturing center of fifty thousand people, near Lake Ontario.  He would name his newspaper North Star.
 
The Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society leaders were not pleased.  Douglass had been their most effective spokesman; they had sponsored him, and while with moderate success they had controlled him they had also expanded him.  Now, seemingly, he considered himself too important for them; his ingratitude grated them.  To keep him within the fold, they sought to placate him.  He could now write regularly for the society’s official publication, the National Anti-Slavery Standard, published in New York City.  He also was invited to be a co-speaker with William Lloyd Garrison on an important speaking tour through Pennsylvania and Ohio.  To be granted equal status on the podium with the legendary white abolitionist was an honor Douglass appreciated.  He accepted both invitations and put aside temporarily his future, independent ambitions.
 
The tour with Garrison began well but in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, a hostile element of the audience became violent.  Eggs, firecrackers, and stones were hurled up onto the stage.  “Throw out the nigger, throw out the nigger,” accompanied the fusillage.  Garrison, refusing to lose his dignity, solemnly declared the meeting adjourned, and was permitted to leave the building untouched.  Douglass, however, was the focus of the mob’s thirst for punishment.  He was able to reach the rear of the courthouse where a group of Negroes were huddled.  He took one by the arm and the others formed a wedge about him and advanced upon the door to the street.  Towering above the others, he could not hide his identity.  Another volley of rocks coursed through the air, one past his ear, another striking him in the back.  Two of the protectors behind him caught most of the punishment.  One staggered, but regained his balance.  The wedge reached the door; when they reached the street they scattered in separate directions.
 
Garrison and Douglass resumed their tour.  They shared a stage to Chambersburg on their way to Pittsburgh.  Ill, Garrison stayed temporarily at Chambersburg while Douglass continued the slow journey the next day.  Alone, he undoubtedly reflected upon the significance of his Harrisburg experience.
 
… While Garrison had all the dedication a man could possibly have to a cause, while he was sensitive to the very shadow of injustice and had proved more than once that he would not hesitate to give his life in the fight for freedom, the fact remained that the Harrisburg mob had not objected to his speaking while it had objected to Douglass’s.  The fact remained that Garrison had left the courthouse unnoticed and unmolested while Douglass had been saved only because his Negro friends shielded him with their bodies.  Eventually he and they had been forced to scurry into the darkness like rabbits chased by dogs
 
No, it had not been the same with his friend Garrison.  And it would not be the same with him as he journeyed by stage to Pittsburgh.  He [Garrison, unlike Douglass] would miss no meals at watering places along the way on account of his abolitionist sentiments.  Clearly there was a difference.  White men were converted to the principle of abolition.  Negroes were the natural abolitionists.  There was a certain dark section of the forest into which the hunted black man fled alone, into which his white antislavery friend could not follow.  Accordingly there was an area of his thought not shared by Garrison and the other white abolitionists (Bontemps 156-157).
 
That he should publish his own newspaper, be an independent spokesman against slavery, be completely free to express his doctrinal differences seemed more imperative than before.  Yet he was reluctant to break with his friend, who joined him in Pittsburgh a day later.  He said nothing to Garrison of his intended break.  Garrison, in turn, did not see the separation coming until it occurred.  The tour concluded in Cleveland, Ohio, and Garrison remained there for some time recuperating from the illness that overwork had induced.  Eventually, to his wife, from Cleveland, Garrison wrote,
 
“Is it not strange that Douglass has not written a single line to me … inquiring after my health, since he left me on a bed of illness?  It will also greatly surprise our friends in Boston to hear, that, in regard to his project for establishing a paper … he never opened to me his lips on the subject, nor asked my advice in any particular whatever.”
 
Most of those friends would not have been the least bit surprised.  They had already closed their minds to him.  Neither they nor Garrison were able to see how hard it was for Douglass to break with a mentor who had meant so much to him, but who, by his every encouragement, had made it impossible for him to remain in a subservient role.  Sadly, like many a father and son, the two men found no way to talk about the painful rift that had developed between them.  Instead, Garrison simply offered a lament: “Such conduct grieves me to the heart.  His conduct … has been impulsive, inconsiderate, and highly inconsistent with his decision in Boston [not to start his own paper] (McFeely 149).
 
Douglass had returned from England with $4,000 and the promise of further support from friends there, which he eventually received, 445 pounds from one individual alone.  He printed the first issue of North Star December 3, 1847.  Always, however, he would have difficulty keeping the enterprise solvent.  Anti-slavery newspapers had a limited circulation.  Even Garrison’s Liberator had to be sustained by various fundraisers conducted by the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society.  Douglass had to continue his lecture career to remain a printer.
 
The financial contributions of philanthropist Gerrit Smith, a subscriber, helped.
 
From his father, Peter Smith, Gerrit Smith had acquired land in all but six of New York’s counties.  Smith in 1846 had asked three prominent antislavery people to help him place 1,985 (of a projected 3,000) landless blacks, each upon from forty to sixty acres of land.  At the time Douglass was locating his enterprise in Rochester, Smith gave Douglass and three black associates forty acres of land each, with the message, “I welcome you to New York.”  What Douglass did with his land, which was not in the vicinity of Rochester, we do not know.  He probably sold it.  Smith also established a black community, North Elba, in the remote country in back of the Adirondack Mountains.  Additionally he gave grants of land to various black leaders to have them settle in upstate New York cities; as property owners they would be eligible to vote.
 
Douglass’s developing friendship with the wealthy New York landowner and rival anti-slavery advocate to William Lloyd Garrison widened the breech between Douglass and the Boston group.  Eventually, in retaliation, Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society leaders tried to persuade their, and Douglass’s, friends in Great Britain not to continue their support of Douglass’s newspaper.
 
Gerrit Smith and William Lloyd Garrison differed about how the assault upon slavery should be waged.  Garrison believed fervently that government was corrupt, that the Constitution protected slavery and should be condemned, and that only by the use of unrelenting moral persuasion could slavery be eradicated.  Smith believed that slavery could be ended only by the action of government.  The Constitution, instead, was an instrument that should protect the black man.  Advocates of slavery had, in the past, interpreted it incorrectly.  Abolitionist, like Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, should apply political pressure to affect change.  Although Frederick Douglass never deviated publicly from the Garrison position while he was in their employ, during the last several years of his association with the Boston group he had begun to alter his personal opinion.
 
In May 1851 Douglass went to Syracuse, New York, for the annual meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society, which Garrison also attended.  During a debate chaired by Garrison, Douglass stated that the constitution might indeed be a useful instrument.  Two weeks later in the North Star he declared openly that the Constitution “might be made consistent … with the noble purposes avowed in its preamble” and should “be wielded in behalf of emancipation” (McFeely 169).  Soon afterwards, Douglass merged the North Star with the Liberty Party Paper, whose financial backer was Gerrit Smith.  Douglass’s new paper, called Frederick Douglass’ Weekly, was political in nature, and with it Douglass openly criticized not the man but the anti-political stance of his former friend and patron.  Their separation was now irreparable.
 
 
Works cited:
 
Bontempts, Arna, Free at Last, the Life of Frederick Douglass, New York, Dodd, Mead & Company, 1971.  Print.
 
McFeely, William S.  Frederick Douglass.  New York, W. W. Norton & Company, 1991.  Print.