Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER III.: INTRODUCED TO THE ABOLITIONISTS. - The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass: From 1817-1882
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
Also in the Library:
CHAPTER III.: INTRODUCED TO THE ABOLITIONISTS. - 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).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
INTRODUCED TO THE ABOLITIONISTS.
Anti-Slavery Convention at Nantucket—First Speech—Much Sensation—Extraordinary Speech of Mr. Garrison—Anti-Slavery Agency—Youthful Enthusiasm—Fugitive Slaveship Doubted—Experience in Slavery Written—Danger of Recapture.
IN the summer of 1841, a grand anti-slavery convention was held in Nantucket, under the auspices of Mr. Garrison and his friends. I had taken no holiday since establishing myself in New Bedford, and feeling the need of a little rest, I determined on attending the meeting, though I had no thought of taking part in any of its proceedings. Indeed, I was not aware that any one connected with the convention so much as knew my name. Mr. William C. Coffin, a prominent abolitionist in those days of trial, had heard me speaking to my coloured friends in the little schoolhouse on Second street, where we worshipped, He sought me out in the crowd, and invited me to say a few words to the convention. Thus sought out, and thus invited, I was induced to express the feelings inspired by the occasion, and the fresh recollection of the scenes through which I had passed as a slave. It was with the utmost difficulty that I could stand erect, or that I could command and articulate two words without hesitation or stammering. I trembled in every limb. I am not sure that my embarrassment was not the most effective part of my speech, if speech it could be called. At any rate, this is about the only part of my performance that I now distinctly remember. The audience sympathised with me at once, and from having been remarkably quiet, became much excited. Mr. Garrison followed me, taking me as his text, and now, whether I had made an eloquent plea in behalf of freedom, or not, his was one, never to be forgotten. Those who had heard him oftenest, and had known him longest, were astonished at his masterly effort. For the time, he possessed that almost fabulous inspiration, often referred to, but seldom attained, by which a public meeting is transformed, as it were, into a single individuality, the orator swaying a thousand heads and hearts at once, and by the simple majesty of his all-controlling thought, converting his hearers into the express image of his own soul. That night there were at least a thousand Garrisonians in Nantucket!
At the close of this great meeting, I was duly waited on by Mr. John A. Collins, then the general agent of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, and urgently solicited by him to become an Agent of that society, and publicly advocate its principles. I was reluctant to take the proffered position. I had not been quite three years from slavery and was honestly distrustful of my ability, and I wished to be excused. Besides, publicity might discover me to my master, and many other objections presented themselves. But Mr. Collins was not to be refused, and I finally consented to go out for three months, supposing I should, in that length of time, come to the end of my story and my consequent usefulness.
Here opened for me a new life—a life for which I had had no preparation. Mr. Collins used to say, when introducing me to an audience, I was a “graduate from the peculiar institution, with my diploma written on my back.” The three years of my freedom had been spent in the hard school of adversity. My hands seemed to be furnished with something like a leather coating, and I had marked out for myself a life of rough labour, suited to the hardness of my hands, as a means of supporting my family and rearing my children.
Young, ardent, and hopeful, I entered upon this new life in the full gush of unsuspecting enthusiasm. The cause was good, the men engaged in it were good, the means to attain its triumph, good. Heaven’s blessing must attend all, and freedom must soon be given to the millions pining under a ruthless bondage. My whole heart went with the holy cause, and my most fervent prayer to the Almighty Disposer of the hearts of men, was continually offered for its early triumph. In this enthusiastic spirit I dropped into the ranks of freedom’s friends, and went forth to the battle. For a time, I was made to forget that my skin was dark and my hair crisped. For a time, I regretted that I could not have shared the hardships and dangers endured by the earlier workers for the slave’s release. I found, however, full soon, that my enthusiasm had been extravagant, that hardships and dangers were not all over, and that the life now before me had its shadows also, as well as its sunbeams.
Among the first duties assigned me on entering the ranks, was to travel in company with Mr. George Foster to secure subscribers to the Anti-Slavery Standard and the Liberator. With him I travelled and lectured through the eastern counties of Massachusetts. Much interest was awakened—large meetings assembled. Many came, no doubt from curiosity, to hear what a negro could say in his own cause. I was generally introduced as a “chattel,”—a “thing”—a piece of Southern property—the chairman assuring the audience that it could speak. Fugitive slaves were rare then, and as a fugitive slave Lecturer, I had the advantage of being a “bran new fact”—the first one out. Up to that time, a coloured man was deemed a fool who confessed himself a runaway slave, not only because of the danger to which he exposed himself of being retaken, but because it was a confession of a very low origin. Some of my coloured friends in New Bedford thought very badly of my wisdom, in thus exposing and degrading myself. The only precaution I took at the beginning, to prevent Master Thomas from knowing where I was and what I was about, was the withholding my former name, my master’s name, and the name of the State and county from which I came, During the first three or four months, my speeches were almost exclusively made up of narrations of my own personal experience as a slave. “Let us have the facts,” said the people. So also said friend George Foster, who always wished to pin me down to my simple narrative. “Give us the facts,” said Collins, “we will take care of the philosophy.” Just here arose some embarrassment. It was impossible for me to repeat the same old story, month after month, and to keep up my interest in it. It was new to the people, it is true, but it was an old story to me; and to go through with it night after night, was a task altogether too mechanical for my nature, “Tell your story, Frederick,” would whisper my revered friend, Mr. Garrison, as I stepped upon the platform. I could not always follow the injunction, for I was now reading and thinking. New views of the subject were being presented to my mind. It did not entirely satisfy me to narrate wrongs; I felt like denouncing them. I could not always curb my moral indignation for the perpetrators of slaveholding villainy, long enough for a circumstantial statement of the facts, which I felt almost sure everybody must know. Besides, I was growing, and needed room. “People won’t believe you ever were a slave, Frederick, if you keep on this way,” said friend Foster. “Be yourself,” said Collins, “and tell your story.” “Better have a little of the plantation speech than not,” it was said to me; “it is not best that you seem too learned.” These excellent friends were actuated by the best of motives, and were not altogether wrong in their advice; and still, I must speak just the word that seemed to me the word to be spoken by me.
At last the apprehended trouble came. People doubted if I had ever been a slave. They said I did not talk like a slave, look like a slave, nor act like a slave, and that they believed I had never been south of Mason and Dixon’s line. “He don’t tell us where he came from—what his master’s name was, nor how he got away; besides, he is educated, and is, in this, a contradiction of all the facts we have concerning the ignorance of the slaves.” Thus I was in a pretty fair way to be denounced as an impostor. The committee of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery knew all the facts in my case, and agreed with me thus far in the prudence of keeping them private; but going down the aisles of the churches in which my meetings were held, and hearing the out-spoken Yankees repeatedly saying, “He’s never been a slave, I’ll warrant you,” I resolved to dispel all doubt at no distant day, by such a revelation of facts as could not be made by any other than a genuine fugitive. In a little less than four years, therefore, after becoming a public lecturer, I was induced to write out the leading facts connected with my experience in slavery, giving names of persons, places, and dates—thus putting it in the power of any who doubted, to ascertain the truth or falsehood of my story. This statement soon became known in Maryland, and I had reason to believe that an effort would be made to recapture me.
It is not probable that any open attempt to secure me as a slave could have succeeded, further than the obtainment by my master, of the money value of my bones and sinews. Fortunately for me, in the four years of my labours in the abolition cause, I had gained many friends, who would have suffered themselves to be taxed to almost any extent to save me from slavery. It was felt that I had committed the double offence of running away and of exposing the secrets and crimes of slavery and slaveholders. There was a double motive for seeking my re-enslavement—avarice and vengeance; and while, as I have said, there was little probability of successful recapture, if attempted openly, I was constantly in danger of being spirited away, at a moment when my friends could render me no assistance. In travelling about from place to place, often alone, I was much exposed to this sort of attack. Any one cherishing the design to betray me, could easily do so, by simply tracking my whereabouts through the anti-slavery journals, for my movements and meetings were made known through these in advance. My friends, Mr. Garrison and Mr. Phillips, had no faith in the power of Massachusetts to protect me in my right to liberty. Public sentiment and the law, in their opinion, would hand me over to the tormentors. Mr. Phillips especially considered me in danger, and said, when I showed him the manuscript of my story, if in my place, he would “throw it into the fire.” Thus, the reader will observe, that overcoming one difficulty only opened the way for another; and that though I had reached a free State, and had attained a position for public usefulness, I was still under the liability of losing all I had gained.