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.