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CHAPTER II.: LIFE AS A FREEMAN. - Frederick Douglass, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass: From 1817-1882 
The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass: From 1817-1882, written by himself; with an Introduction by the Right Hon. John Bright, ed. John Lobb (London: Christian Age Office, 1882).
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LIFE AS A FREEMAN.
Loneliness and Insecurity—“Allender’s Jake”—Succoured by a Sailor—David Ruggles—Marriage—Steamer J. W. Richmond—Stage to New Bedford—Arrival there—Driver’s detention of baggage—Nathan Johnson—Change of Name—Why called “Douglas”—Obtaining work—The Liberator and its Editor.
MY free life began on the third of September, 1838. On the morning of the 4th of that month, after an anxious and most perilous, but safe journey, I found myself in the big city of New York, a free man; one more added to the mighty throng which, like the confused waves of the troubled sea, surged to and fro between the lofty walls of Broadway. Though dazzled with the wonders which met me on every hand, my thoughts could not be much withdrawn from my strange situation. For the moment, the dreams of my youth, and the hopes of my manhood, were completely fulfilled. The bonds that had held me to “old master” were broken. No man now had a right to call me his slave, or assert mastery over me. I was in the rough and tumble of an out-door world, to take my chance with the rest of its busy number. I have often been asked how I felt, when first I found myself on free soil; and my readers may share the same curiosity. There is scarcely anything in my experience about which I could not give a more satisfactory answer. A new world had opened upon me. If life is more than breath, and the “quick round of blood,” I lived more in one day than in a year of my slave life. It was a time of joyous excitement which words can but tamely describe. In a letter written to a friend soon after reaching New York, I said: “I felt as one might feel, upon escape from a den of hungry lions.” Anguish and grief, like darkness and rain, may be depicted; but gladness and joy, like the rainbow, defy the skill of pen or pencil. During ten or fifteen years I had, as it were, been dragging a heavy chain, which no strength of mine could break; I was not only a slave, but a slave for life. I might become a husband, a father, an aged man, but through all, from birth to death, from the cradle to the grave, I had felt myself doomed. All efforts I had previously made to secure my freedom, had not only failed, but had seemed only to rivet my fetters the more firmly, and to render my escape more difficult. Baffled, entangled, and discouraged, I had at times asked myself the question: may not my condition after all be God’s work, and ordered for a wise purpose, and if so, was not submission my duty? A contest had in fact been going on in my mind for a long time, between the clear consciousness of right, and the plausible make-shifts of theology and superstition. The one held me an abject slave—a prisoner for life, punished for some transgression in which I had no lot or part; and the other counselled me to manly endeavour to secure my freedom. This contest was now ended my chains were broken, and the victory brought me unspeakable joy. But my gladness was short lived, for I was not yet out of the reach and power of the slave-holders. I soon found that New York was not quite so free, or so safe a refuge as I had supposed, and a sense of loneliness and insecurity, again oppressed me most sadly. I chanced to meet on the street, a few hours after my landing, a fugitive slave, whom I had once known well in slavery. The information received from him alarmed me. The fugitive in question was known in Baltimore as “Allender’s Jake,” but in New York he bore the more respectable name of “William Dixon.” Jake, in law, was the property of Doctor Allender, and Tolly Allender, the son of the doctor, had once made an effort to recapture Mr. Dixon, but had failed for want of evidence to support his claim. Jake told me the circumstances of this attempt, and how narrowly he escaped being sent back to slavery and torture. He told me that New York was then full of Southerners returning from the watering places North; that the coloured people of New York were not to be trusted; that there were hired men of my own colour who would betray me for a few dollars; that there were hired men ever on the look-out for fugitives; that I must trust no man with my secret; that I must not think of going either upon the wharves, or into any coloured boarding-house, for all such places were closely watched; that he was himself unable to help me; and, in fact, he seemed while speaking to me to fear lest I myself might be a spy, and a betrayer. Under this apprehension, as I suppose, he showed signs of wishing to be rid of me, and with whitewash-brush in hand, in search of work, he soon disappeared. This picture, given by poor “Jake,” of New York, was a damper to my enthusiasm. My little store of money would soon be exhausted, and since it would be unsafe for me to go on the wharves for work, and I had no introductions elsewhere, the prospect for me was far from cheerful. I saw the wisdom of keeping away from the ship-yards, for, if pursued, as I felt certain I should be, Mr. Auld would naturally seek me there, among the caulkers. Every door seemed closed against me. I was in the midst of an ocean of my fellow-men, and yet a perfect stranger to every one. I was without home, without aquaintance, without money, without credit, without work, and without any definite knowledge as to what course to take, or where to look for succour. In such an extremity, a man has something beside his new-born freedom to think of. While wandering about the streets of New York, and lodging at least one night among the barrels on one of the wharves, I was indeed free from slavery—but free from food and shelter as well. I kept my secret to myself as long as I could, but was compelled at last to seek some one who would befriend me, without taking advantage of my destitution to betray me. Such an one I found in a sailor named Stuart, a warm-hearted and generous fellow, who from his humble home on Centre Street, saw me standing on the opposite sidewalk, near “The Tombs.” As he approached me, I ventured a remark to him which at once enlisted his interest in me. He took me to his home to spend the night, and in the morning went with me to Mr. David Ruggles, the secretary of the New York Vigilance Committee, a co-worker with Isaac T. Hopper, Lewis and Arthur Tappan, Theodore S. Wright, Samuel Cornish, Thomas Downing, Phillip A. Bell, and other true men of their time. All these “save Mr. Bell, who still lives, and is editor and publisher of a paper called the Elevator, in San Francisco,” have finished their work on earth. Once in the hands of these brave and wise men, I felt comparatively safe. With Mr. Ruggles, on the corner of Lispenard and Church Streets, I was hidden several days, during which time my intended wife came on from Baltimore at my call, to share the burdens of life with me. She was a free woman, and came at once on getting the good news of my safety. We were married by Rev. J. W. C. Pennington, then a well-known and respected Presbyterian minister. I had no money with which to pay the marriage fee, but he seemed well pleased with our thanks.
Mr. Ruggles was the first officer on the underground railroad with whom I met after coming North; and was indeed the only one with whom I had anything to do, till I became such an officer myself. Learning that my trade was that of a caulker, he promptly decided that the best place for me was in New Bedford, Mass. He told me that many ships for whaling voyages were fitted out there, and that I might there find work at my trade, and make a good living. So on the day of the marriage ceremony, we took our little luggage to the steamer “John W. Richmond,” which at that time was one of the line running between New York and Newport, R. I. Forty-three years ago coloured travellers were not permitted in the cabin, nor allowed abaft the paddle-wheels of a steam vessel. They were compelled, whatever the weather might be, whether cold or hot, wet or dry, to spend the night on deck. Unjust as this regulation was, it did not trouble us much. We had fared much harder before. We arrived at Newport the next morning, and soon after an old-fashioned stage-coach with “New Bedford” in large yellow letters on its sides, came down to the wharf. I had not money enough to pay our fare, and stood hesitating to know what to do. Fortunately for us, there were two Quaker gentlemen who were about to take passage on the stage,—Friends William C. Taber and Joseph Ricketson,—who at once discerned our true situation, and in a peculiarly quiet way, addressing me, Mr. Taber said: “Thee get in.” I never obeyed an order with more alacrity, and we were soon on our way to our new home. When we reached “Stone Bridge” the passengers alighted for breakfast, and paid their fares to the driver. We took no breakfast, and when asked for our fares I told the driver I would make it right with him when we reached New Bedford. I expected some objection to this on his part, but he made none. When, however, we reached New Bedford he took our baggage, including three music books,—two of them collections by Dyer, and one by Shaw,—and held them until I was able to redeem them by paying to him the sums due for our rides. This was soon done, for Mr. Nathan Johnson not only received me kindly, and hospitably, but, on being informed about our baggage, at once loaned me the two dollars with which to square accounts with the stage-driver. Mr. and Mrs. Nathan Johnson reached a good old age, and now rest from their labours. I am under many grateful obligations to them. They not only “took me in when a stranger,” and “fed me when hungry,” but taught me how to make an honest living.
Thus, in a fortnight after my flight from Maryland, I was safe in New Bedford,—a citizen of the grand old commonwealth of Massachusetts.
Once initiated into my new life of freedom, and assured by Mr. Johnson that I need not fear recapture in that city, a comparatively unimportant question arose, as to the name by which I should be known thereafter, in my new relation as a free man. The name given me by my dear mother was no less pretentious and long than Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey. I had, however, while living in Maryland dispensed with the Augustus Washington, and retained only Frederick Bailey. Between Baltimore and New Bedford, the better to conceal myself from the slave-hunters, I had parted with Bailey and called myself Johnson; but finding that in New Bedford the Johnson family was already so numerous, as to cause some confusion in distinguishing one from another, a change in this name seemed desirable. Nathan Johnson, mine host, was emphatic as to this necessity, and wished me to allow him to select a name for me. I consented, and he called me by my present name, the one by which I have been known for three and forty years,—Frederick Douglass. Mr. Johnson had just been reading the “Lady of the Lake,” and so pleased was he with its great character, that he wished me to bear his name. Since reading that charming poem myself, I have often thought that, considering the noble hospitality and manly character of Nathan Johnson, black man though he was, he, far more than I, illustrated the virtues of the Douglas of Scotland. Sure am I that if any slave-catcher had entered his domicile with a view to my recapture, Johnson would have been like him of the “stalwart hand.”
The reader may be surprised,—living in Baltimore as I had done for many years—when I tell the honest truth of the impressions I had in some way conceived of the social and material condition of the people at the North. I had no proper idea of the wealth, refinement, enterprise, and high civilization of this section of the country. My Columbian Orator, almost my only book, had done nothing to enlighten me concerning Northern society. I had been taught that slavery was the bottom-fact of all wealth. With this foundation idea, I came naturally to the conclusion, that poverty must be the general condition of the people of the free States. A white man holding no slaves in the country from which I came, was usually an ignorant and poverty-stricken man. Men of this class were contemptuously called “poor white trash.” Hence I supposed, that since the non-slaveholders at the South were ignorant, poor, and degraded as a class, the non-slaveholders at the North, must be in a similar condition. New Bedford therefore, which at that time was really the richest city in the Union, in proportion to its population, took me greatly by surprise, in the evidences it gave, of its solid wealth and grandeur. I found that even the labouring classes lived in better houses, that their houses were more elegantly furnished, and were more abundantly supplied with conveniences and comforts, than the houses of many who owned slaves on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. This was true, not only of the white people of that city, but it was so of my friend, Mr. Johnson. He lived in a nicer house, dined at a more ample board, was the owner of more books, the reader of more newspapers, was more conversant with the moral, social, and political condition of the country and the world, than nine-tenths of the slaveholders in all Talbot county. I was not long in finding the cause of the difference in these respects, between the people of the North and South. It was the superiority of educated mind over mere brute force. I will not detain the reader by extended illustrations as to how my understanding was enlightened on this subject. On the wharves of New Bedford I received my first light. I saw there industry without bustle, labour without noise, toil—honest, earnest, and exhaustive, without the whip. There was no loud singing or hallooing, as at the wharves of Southern ports when ships were loading or unloading; no loud cursing or quarrelling; everything went on as smoothly as well-oiled machinery. One of the first incidents which impressed me with the superior mental character of labour in the North, over that of the South, was in the manner of loading and unloading vessels. In a Southern port twenty or thirty hands would be employed to do what five or six men, with the help of one ox, would do at the wharf in New Bedford. Main strength—human muscle—unassisted by intelligent skill, was slavery’s method of labour. With a capital of about sixty dollars, in the shape of a good-natured old ox, attached to the end of a stout rope, New Bedford did the work of ten or twelve thousand dollars, represented in the bones and muscles of slaves, and did it far better. In a word, I found everything managed with a much more scrupulous regard to economy, both of men and things, time and strength, than in the country from which I had come. Instead of going a hundred yards to the spring, the maid-servant had a well or pump at her elbow. The wood used for fuel was kept dry, and snugly piled away for winter. Here were sinks, drains, self-shutting gates, pounding-barrels, washing-machines, wringing-machines, and a hundred other contrivances for saving time and money. The ship-repairing docks showed the same thoughtful wisdom as was seen elsewhere. Everybody seemed in earnest. The carpenter struck the nail on its head, and the caulkers wasted no strength in idle flourishes of their mallets. Ships brought here for repairs, were made stronger and better than when new. I could have landed in no part of the United States where I should have found a more striking and gratifying contrast, not only to life generally in the South, but in the condition of the coloured people, than in New Bedford. No coloured man was really free, while residing in a slave State. He was ever more or less subject to the condition of his slave brother. In his colour was his badge of bondage. I saw in New Bedford the nearest approach to freedom and equality that I had ever seen. I was amazed when Mr. Johnson told me that there was nothing in the laws or constitution of Massachusetts, that would prevent a coloured man from being governor of the State, if the people should see fit to elect him. There too the black man’s children attended the same public schools with the white man’s children, and apparently without objection from any quarter. To impress me with my security from recapture, and return to slavery, Mr. Johnson assured me that no slaveholder could take a slave out of New Bedford; that there were men there who would lay down their lives to save me from such a fate. A threat was once made by a coloured man, to inform a Southern master where his runaway slave could be found. As soon as this threat became known to the coloured people, they were furious. A notice was read from the pulpit of the Third Christian church—coloured—for a public meeting, when important business would be transacted—not stating what the important business was. In the meantime special measures had been taken to secure the attendance of the would-be Judas, and these had proved successful, for when the hour of meeting arrived, ignorant of the object for which they were called together, the offender was promptly in attendance. All the usual formalities were gone through, the prayer, appointments of president, secretaries, etc. Then the president, with an air of great solemnity, rose and said: “Well, friends and brethren, we have got him here, and I would recommend that you young men should take him outside the door and kill him.” This was enough; there was a rush for the villain, who would probably have been killed but for his escape by an open window. He was never seen again in New Bedford.
The fifth day after my arrival I put on the clothes of a common labourer, and went upon the wharves in search of work. On my way down Union Street, I saw a large pile of coal in front of the house of the Rev. Ephraim Peabody, the Unitarian minister. I went to the kitchen door, and asked the privilege of bringing in and putting away this coal. “What will you charge?” said the lady. “I will leave that to you, madam.” “You may put it away,” she said. I was not long in accomplishing the job, when the dear lady put into my hand two silver half-dollars. To understand the emotion which swelled my heart as I clasped this money, realizing that I had no master who could take it from me—that it was mine—that my hands were my own, and could earn more of the precious coin—one must have been in some sense himself a slave. My next job was stowing a sloop, at Uncle Gid. Howland’s wharf, with a cargo of oil for New York. I was not only a freeman, but a free-working man, and no Master Hugh stood ready at the end of the week to seize my hard earnings,
The season was growing late and work was plenty. Ships were being fitted out for whaling, and much wood was used in storing them. The sawing of this wood was considered a good job. With the help of old Friend Johnson—blessings on his memory! I got a “saw” and “buck,” and went at it. When I went into a store to buy a cord with which to brace up my saw in the frame, I asked for a “fip’s” worth of cord. The man behind the counter looked rather sharply at me, and said with equal sharpness, “You don’t belong about here.” I was alarmed, and thought I had betrayed myself. A fip in Maryland was six and a quarter cents, called fourpence in Massachusetts, But no harm came, except my fear, from the “fipenny-bit” blunder, and I confidently and cheerfully went to work with my saw and buck. It was new business to me, but I never did better work, or more of it in the same space of time for Covey, the negro-breaker, than I did for myself in these earliest years of my freedom.
Notwithstanding the just and humane sentiment of New Bedford three and forty years ago, the place was not entirely free from race and colour prejudice. The good influence of the Roaches, Rodmans, Arnolds, Grinnells, and Robesons did not pervade all classes of its people. The test of the real civilisation of the community came when I applied for work at my trade, and then my repulse was emphatic and decisive. It so happened that Mr. Rodney French, a wealthy and enterprising citizen, distinguished as an anti-slavery man, was fitting out a vessel for a whaling voyage, upon which there was a heavy job of caulking and coppering to be done. I had some skill in both branches, and applied to Mr. French for work. He, generous man that he was, told me he would employ me, and I might go at once to the vessel. I obeyed him, but upon reaching the float-stage, where other caulkers were at work, I was told that every white man would leave the ship in her unfinished condition, if I struck a blow at my trade upon her. This uncivil, inhuman, and selfish treatment was not so shocking and scandalous in my eyes at the time as it now appears to me. Slavery had inured me to hardships that made ordinary trouble sit lightly upon me. Could I have worked at my trade, I could have earned two dollars a day, but as a common labourer, I received but one dollar. The difference was of great importance to me, but if I could not get two dollars, I was glad to get one; and so I went to work for Mr. French as a common labourer. The consciousness that I was free—no longer a slave—kept me cheerful under this, and many similar proscriptions, which I was destined to meet in New Bedford, and elsewhere on the free soil of Massachusetts. For instance, though white and coloured children attended the same schools, and were treated kindly by their teachers, the New Bedford Lyceum refused, till several years after my residence in that city, to allow any coloured person to attend the lectures delivered in its hall. Not until such men as Hon. Chas. Sumner, Theodore Parker, Ralph W. Emerson, and Horace Mann refused to lecture in their course while there was such a restriction, was it abandoned.
Becoming satisfied that I could not rely on my trade in New Bedford to give me a living, I prepared myself to do any kind of work that came to hand. I sawed wood, shovelled coal, dug cellars, moved rubbish from back-yards, worked on the wharves, loaded and unloaded vessels, and scoured their cabins.
This was an uncertain and unsatisfactory mode of life, for it kept me too much of the time in search of work. Fortunately it was not to last long. One of the gentlemen of whom I have spoken as being in company with Mr. Taber on the Newport wharf, when he said to me “thee get in,” was Mr. Joseph Ricketson; and he was the proprietor of a large candle-works in the south part of the city. In this “candle-works” as it was called, though no candles were manufactured there, by the kindness of Mr. Ricketson, I found what is of the utmost importance to a young man just starting in life—constant employment and regular wages. My work in this oil refinery required good wind and muscle. Large casks of oil were to be moved from place to place, and much heavy lifting to be done. Happily I was not deficient in the requisite qualities. Young, twenty-one years old, strong, and active, and ambitious to do my full share, I soon made myself useful, and, I think, was liked by the men who worked with me, though they were all white. I was retained here as long as there was anything for me to do; when I went again to the wharves, and obtained work as a labourer on two vessels which belonged to Mr. George Howland, and which were being repaired and fitted up for whaling. My employer was a man of great industry: a hard driver, but a good paymaster, and I got on well with him. I was not only fortunate in finding work with Mr. Howland, but in my work-fellows. I have seldom met three working-men more intelligent than were John Briggs, Abraham Rodman, and Solomon Pennington, who laboured with me on the “Java” and “Golconda.” They were sober, thoughtful, and upright, thoroughly imbued with the spirit of liberty, and I am much indebted to them, for many valuable ideas and impressions. They taught me that all coloured men were not light-hearted triflers, incapable of serious thought or effort. My next place of work, was at the brass-foundry owned by Mr. Richmond. My duty here was to blow the bellows, swing the crane, and empty the flasks in which castings were made; and at times this was hot and heavy work. The articles produced here were mostly for ship work, and in the busy season, the foundry was in operation night and day. I have often worked two nights and each working day of the week. My foreman, Mr. Cobb, was a good man, and more than once protected me from abuse that one or more of the hands was disposed to throw upon me. While in this situation I had little time for mental improvement. Hard work, night and day, over a furnace hot enough to keep the metal running like water, was more favourable to action than thought; yet here, I often nailed a newspaper to the post near my bellows, and read while I was performing the up and down motion of the heavy beam, by which the bellows was inflated and discharged. It was the pursuit of knowledge under difficulties, and I look back to it now, after so many years, with some complacency and a little wonder, that I could have been so earnest and persevering in any pursuit, other than for my daily bread. I certainly saw nothing in the conduct of those around to inspire me with such interest: they were all devoted exclusively to what their hands found to do. I am glad to be able to say that during my engagement in this foundry, no complaint was ever made against me, that I did not do my work, and do it well. The bellows which I worked by main strength was, after I left, moved by a steam engine.
I had been living four or five months in New Bedford when there came a young man to me with a copy of the Liberator, the paper edited by William Lloyd Garrison, and published by Isaac Knapp, and asked me to subscribe for it. I told him I had but just escaped from slavery, and was of course very poor, and had no money then to pay for it. He was very willing to take me as a subscriber, notwithstanding, and from this time I was brought into contact with the mind of Mr. Garrison, and his paper took a place in my heart, second only to the Bible. It detested slavery, and made no truce with the traffickers in the bodies and souls of men. It preached human brotherhood; it exposed hypocrisy and wickedness in high places; it denounced oppression, and with all the solemnity of “Thus saith the Lord,” demanded the complete emancipation of my race. I loved this paper and its editor. He seemed to me, an all-sufficient match for every opponent, whether they spoke in the name of the law, or the gospel. His words were full of holy fire, and straight to the point. Something of a heroworshipper by nature, here was one to excite my admiration and reverence.
Soon after becoming a reader of the Liberator, it was my privilege to listen to a lecture in Liberty Hall, by Mr. Garrison, its editor. He was then a young man, of a singularly pleasing countenance, and earnest and impressive manner. On this occasion he announced nearly all his heresies. His Bible was his text book—held sacred as the very word of the Eternal Father. He believed in sinless perfection, complete submission to insults and injuries, and literal obedience to the injunction “if smitten on one cheek, to turn the other also.” Not only was Sunday a Sabbath, but all days were Sabbaths, and to be kept holy. All sectarianism was false and mischievous—the regenerated throughout the world, being members of one body, and the head Christ Jesus. Prejudice against colour, was rebellion against God. Of all men beneath the sky, the slaves—because most neglected and despised—were nearest and dearest to His great heart. Those ministers who defended slavery from the Bible, were of their “father, the devil;” and those churches which fellowshipped slaveholders as Christians, were synagogues of Satan, and our nation was a nation of liars. He was never loud and noisy, but calm and serene as a summer sky, and as pure. “You are the man—the Moses, raised up by God, to deliver his modern Israel from bondage,” was the spontaneous feeling of my heart, as I sat away back in the hall and listened to his mighty words,—mighty in truth,—mighty in their simple earnestness. I had not long been a reader of the Liberator, and a listener to its editor, before I got a clear comprehension of the principles of the anti-slavery movement. I had already its spirit, and only needed to understand its principles and measures, and as I became acquainted with these my hope for the ultimate freedom of my race increased. Every week the Liberator came, and every week I made myself master of its contents. All the anti-slavery meetings held in New Bedford I promptly attended, my heart bounding at every true utterance against the slave system, and every rebuke of it by its friends and supporters. Thus passed the first three years of my free life. I had not then dreamed of the possibility of my becoming a public advocate of the cause so deeply imbedded in my heart. It was enough for me to listen, to receive, and applaud the great words of others, and only whisper in private, among the white labourers on the wharves and elsewhere, the truths which burned in my heart.