Sunday, May 28, 2017

Frederick Douglass -- Ottilia Assing and Slavery in the Territories
Frederick Douglass’s second autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom, was published in 1855.  Most likely Julia Griffiths helped edit the book.  Soon after the book’s release, she returned to England and remained there the rest of her life.  To some extend, her peculiar role as Douglass’s white female intellectual companion/friend would been assumed by a German woman, Ottilia Assing.  Born in Hamburg, Ottilia was the daughter of a surgeon; but, during her formative years, after the death of her parents, she lived with her uncle in Berlin.  He was a former diplomat and a man of letters; his wife, now deceased, had been the center of fashionable literary and political conversation for high-placed women of Berlin.  Ottilia’s sister Ludmilla, assumed that role and spent the remainer of her life editing and publishing her uncle’s writings.  Ottilia read Douglass’s My Bondage and My Freedom and traveled to America to meet him.
They met at his house in Rochester in 1856.  She described him as a “rather light mulatto of unusually large, slender and powerful build.  … His features are marked by a distinctly vaulted forehead and with a singularly deep indentation at the base of the nose.  The nose itself is arched, the lips are small and nicely formed, revealing more the influence of the white than of his back origins.  His thick hair is mixed here and there with grey and is curly though not woolly.”  He had a talent of “conversation through which he stimulates and elevates and shows himself to be both learned and ingenious and highly cultivated” (McFeely 183).  Clearly, Ottilia Assing was taken by the former slave.
She settled in Hoboken, New Jersey, within a sizable German American community, just across the Hudson River from New York City, taught German, wrote articles for the German American Journals, and eventually sent over 100 articles about life in America to a liberal journal in Frankfort, Germany.  She made the first of what would be many summer visits to Rochester in 1857.  She translated expertly into German his second autobiography, and her sister Ludmilla found for it a German publisher.  Soon Douglass and Ottilia were the best and closest of friends.
Ottilia Assing’s entrance into Douglass’s life occurred when the prospect of the abolition of slavery seemed most unlikely.  An Illinois Democrat, Senator Stephen A. Douglass, intent upon gaining his party’s nomination for the Presidency, had persuaded Congress to pass the Kansas-Nebraska Bill, which called for organization of the Kansas and Nebraska territories, from which new states would eventually be admitted into the Union.  Whether or not slavery would be permitted would be determined by the local inhabitants.  Unlike the territories gained from Mexico, the territories of Kansas and Nebraska were a part of the Louisiana Purchase; and here slavery had been excluded, north of the southern boundary line of Missouri, by act of Congress in 1820.  Now slave-holders had the opportunity to export slavery into this previously sheltered land.  Anti-slavery advocates were determined to thwart them.  The outcome was a bloody mini-war in Kansas that enflamed the passions of both sides as nothing had before.
Frederick Douglass had sought unsuccessfully to debate his near name-sake and in 1858 witnessed one of the actual debates between Stephen A. Douglass and Abraham Lincoln concerning the spread of slavery into the territories.  Of the Illinois Senator and Presidential Candidate (Stephan A. Douglas) in 1860, Douglass eventually wrote to Susan B. Anthony, “No man of his time has done more than he to intensify hatred of the negro” (McFeely 187).
Work cited:
McFeely, William S.  Frederick Douglass.  New York, W. W. Norton & Company, 1991.  Print.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Frederick Douglass -- Harriet Beecher Stowe
The published writing of Harriet Beecher Stowe, in particular “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” in 1852, did more to galvanize the general population of the North against slave owners than all the words of the abolitionists together.  Yet they had built the stage upon which the social drama of the next decade would be performed.
Harriet Beecher was the daughter of a Connecticut clergyman.  She lived in Cincinnati, Ohio, eighteen years were her father presided over a seminary school.  In 1836 she married Calvin Ellis Stowe, one of the professors.  Separated from a slave community by the Ohio River, she had contact with fugitives and learned about life in the South from them, from friends, and from her own visits.  In 1850 she and her husband moved to Brunswick, Maine, he having received a professorship at Bowdoin College.  Following the serial publication of her novel in the National Era, an anti-slavery newspaper in Washington, D. C., “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was published as a book and was eventually translated into twenty-three languages.  In 1852 she and her husband moved to Andover, Massachusetts, where he was now a professor in the Theological Seminary.  The following year she wrote “A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” a large number of documents and testimonies against slavery in defense of the accuracy of the contents o her novel.
Frederick Douglass’s first conversation with her occurred in 1853, after he had received an invitation from her to visit her in Andover.  Following a warm greeting she explained the purpose of the invitation.
“… I wish to confer with you as to what can be done for the free colored people of the country.  I am going to England and expect to have a considerable sum of money placed in my hands, and I intend to use it in some way for the permanent improvement of the free colored people, and especially for that class which has become free by their own exertions.  … In any event I desire to have some monument rise after Uncle Tom’s Cabin which will show that it produced more than a transient influence.”
… The author went on to mention ideas that had been suggested to her, including the establishment of a school (Bontemps 202).
Douglass suggested instead a series of workshops in which colored people could learn handicrafts, iron, wood and leather work, while acquiring a simple English education.  “Poverty keeps them ignorant and their ignorance kept them degraded.  We need more to learn how to make a good living than to learn Latin and Greek.”  Mrs. Stowe agreed to propose the idea to friends in England.
Douglass sponsored the idea of founding a “work college” for free blacks at the Rochester Colored People’s convention that year and encountered surprising opposition.  Some thought that a system of apprenticeships would be better.  Other said that the venture would be too costly to consider.  Douglass discovered in the months afterward that white abolitionists in general did not support the plan either.  Mrs. Stowe in England received little encouragement.  She gathered a trifle more than five hundred dollars, abandoned the plan, and gave the money eventually to Douglass to use as he saw it to benefit his own people.
Mrs. Stowe also made an attempt to stem the malicious gossip about Douglass and Julia Griffiths that the Garrisonian abolitionists in particular had circulated.  She had invited Douglass to her home also to judge the man.  Afterward, in a letter to Garrison, she reported,
“I am satisfied that his change of sentiment [his support of political action in attacking slavery] was not a mere political one but a genuine growth of his own conviction.”    Then she continued, warming to the real point, “where is this work of excommunication to end?  Is there but one true anti-slavery church and all others infidels?” … she made no bones about the need for Garrison to stop the gossip about Douglass’s “family concerns” and other allusions “more unjustifiable still.”  She was “utterly surprised” by Garrison’s indulgence in such talk.  … She sternly advised that he make no further contributions to the “controversial literature,” the swirl of malicious letters sailing through the antislavery mail slots: “Silence in this case will be eminently—golden.”  … “What Douglass is really, time will show” (McFeely 178).
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.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Frederick Douglass -- Fugitive Slave Law
Frederick Douglass’s participation increased as the flow of fugitives through Rochester and into Canada during 1849 multiplied.  The end result was the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, federal legislation designed to reduce tensions between the slave owning Southern states and what was perceived by them more increasingly to be an anti-slavery North.
The fugitive slave act was part of a large compromise put together by Congress to persuade Southern states not to succeed from the Union.  The South had been particularly concerned about the slave status of future states formed from territory recently obtained following the successfully concluded war with Mexico.  Would these states permit or prohibit slavery?  Southern Congressmen had threatened succession if slavery were to be excluded.  The compromise offered was that California would be admitted immediately as a free state but future states would be slave or free based upon the voted upon wishes of local citizens.  Southern slave owners wanted more; they wanted a tough fugitive slave law that would not only bring back to them their property but would also punish those who had so effectively assisted fugitives in their escape.  The Fugitive Slave Law gave them that.  Then and only then were they willing to accept legislation that ended the buying and selling of slaves in the nation’s capital.  These four measures became known as the Compromise of 1850.  Threats of succession subsided.  Southern states would remain in the Union ten more years.
Ironically, attempted enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law intensified the bitterness of slave owners for it helped solidity anti-Southern attitudes of Northern citizens, who resented the shady practices, well-publicized in newspapers, of slave-catching agents sent north to retrieve runaways.  Free blacks had to prove their status; if they could not, they could be seized on the charge of being runaways.  The Law provided judges the compensation of ten dollars for each individual they deemed a fugitive and five dollars for each they declared to be free.  Some free black men were simply kidnapped and sent South into slavery.  So had several white people, who were not able to furnish immediate proof of their color.  The Fugitive Slave Law was the first of several events during the 1850’s that would turn the minds and emotions of a majority of citizens in the North against the threats and practices of the slave-owning South.  One of those events would involve John Brown, at the federal arsenal in Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, in 1859.
Frederick Douglass and other black leaders in and about Rochester were fearful of their own safety after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act.  Several black ministers and their entire congregations crossed over the border into Canada.  Douglass chose, however, to remain where he was, and to continue his aid to fugitives.  He reasoned that anti-slavery whites would begin to resist and eventually thwart the practices of the slave-catchers and kidnappers.  His prediction proved to be correct.
Perhaps inspired by the spirit of John Brown, he took into his home a group of fugitives led by a slave named Parker.  News over telegraph wires had preceded Parker’s arrival.  Pursued into Pennsylvania and confronted by his master, the man’s son, and officers of the law. Parker had opened fire upon them with a pistol.  One shot killed the master, a second wounded the son, and a third sent the others into retreat.  A widespread search of the Pennsylvania mountains began, as the news of the confrontation spread from town to town.  Parker and his two companions were more than fugitives now; they were murderers.  They arrived at Douglass’s home soon after Douglass learned of their deed.  Parker had decided against taking refuge in the mountains but had pressed onward without stopping for two days and night.  Now Douglass had to decide what to do about him.
As they slept, he sent Julia Griffiths to the Genesee Rover landing, three miles away, to inquire casually about boats leaving that night for Canadian ports.  A steamer was scheduled to sail for Toronto that night.  Several hours later Douglass hitched the horses to his family carriage.  The men were seated at his table and hurriedly consumed a meal cooked by Anna Douglass.  No doubt Douglass wondered if agents would be waiting for them at the dock, alerted by those whom Julia Griffiths had spoken to earlier.  The four of them waited fifteen minutes in the carriage as the steamer prepared to depart.  At the last possible moment the four of them hurried to the dock and walked up the gang plank.  When the order was given for the plank to be hauled in, Parker clasped Douglass’s arm and slipped something into his hand.  It was the pistol.  With it Douglass returned to his carriage and drove homeward.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Non-Fiction Book Review
Victory at Yorktown: The Campaign that Won the Revolution
Richard M. Ketchum
What many people find disturbing about the general populace today is their lack of knowledge of our country’s past. Certainly an understanding of how our country came to be is essential for us to be clear-sighted citizens.

The historical information that “Victory at Yorktown” provides is targeted for adult readers more than it is people of high school age. Reading the book and appreciating its content require a discipline that I believe high school age readers have not yet sufficiently developed. They would benefit more from reading accurate historical fiction.

If the reader is patient, if he reads each chapter after a sufficient time has elapsed to allow him to return to “Victory at Yorktown” refreshed, he will be rewarded.

The book takes up the narrative of the military struggle between American and British forces in 1780, five years after redcoat soldiers and Massachusetts militiamen had fired at each other at Lexington and Concord. Ketchum must set the stage for what is to follow, a difficult task because he has so much to cover. I found the first two chapters and Chapter 4 rather dull, mainly because Ketchum had to present so much diverse information.  I wanted him to focus on two, three, or four aspects of all the information he presented. For instance, I wanted him to expand upon the civilian population’s "shocking indifference" toward the war.  A large segment of the American people had sided neither with the rebels nor with the British, finding fault with both. 
After Chapter 4, Ketchum’s narration became more concise and detail-oriented.
In Chapter 5 Ketchum did a fine job presenting Nathanael Greene’s and Daniel Morgan's backgrounds, essential detail that makes more believable the two Americans' successes as military leaders. Morgan's triumph at Cowpens is very well narrated. Detail like Cornwallis leaning too heavily on the tip of his sword and breaking it while listening to the news of Tarleton's defeat added interest.
Chapter 6 makes the important point that Washington and the French were willing to act, to take risks, while the British (General Clinton in particular) were not. Clinton was content to stay in New York rather than risk an engagement while Washington and Rochambeau were crossing the Hudson River on their way to Virginia. He could have destroyed Washington before Washington linked up with the French army, but he stayed put. To use a football saying, "He played not to lose." Admiral de Grasse was willing to risk encountering the British fleet by sailing from the West Indies to the Chesapeake. The French government upon Ben Franklin's prodding was willing to double down and contribute essential supplies and currency at a time when investing more in America could logically be viewed as wasting valuable resources. Washington was indeed a gambler, out of necessity, yes; but being a gambler was also, apparently, part of his nature, as he had demonstrated earlier in the war. As Ketchum points out, so many variables had to come together. Had they not, Washington's plan to defeat/capture Cornwallis's army would have failed.
Highlights of Chapter 7 were Rochambeau loaning Washington 20,000 dollars, the French impression of Philadelphia, the lines on page 166 about Philadelphia merchants wanting the war to continue and Americans showing "a certain deference to those with money," the importance of the West Indies, the crucial element of luck (favoring the French), and the sluggish Admiral Graves (whom General Howe had despised in 1775) being in command of the British fleet when it engaged de Grasse's ships. Not to be overlooked was the incredible ineptitude of the British high command.
In Chapter 11, his final chapter, Ketchum is at his best both in his selection of historical information and in the quality of his narration.  Ketchum's criticism of the British high command and George III was spot-on. Washington's special qualities shine through especially in this chapter. His farewell to his officers in New York was especially well written.
My appreciation of the author grew as I advanced through the book.  I took away a better appreciation of the extreme hardships suffered by those who served their states and their united cause, the absolute necessity of France’s assistance, George Washington’s indefatigability, integrity, and willingness to take chances, and the Continental Congress’s utter incapacity to govern. My awareness of the amazing incompetency of the British military leaders and the extreme obduracy of George III was reinforced.  I appreciated as well the role that chance played in the outcome of events, be it who lived or died or what broad opportunities were utilized or wasted. If no other conclusion stays with the reader, the one that should remain is that our forefathers were extremely fortunate to have won their independence. I wish most Americans today had that appreciation.