Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER IV.: RECOLLECTIONS OF OLD FRIENDS. - 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 IV.: RECOLLECTIONS OF OLD FRIENDS. - 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.
RECOLLECTIONS OF OLD FRIENDS.
Work in Rhode Island—Dorr War—Recollections of Old Friends—Further labours in Rhode Island and elsewhere in New England.
IN the State of Rhode Island, under the leadership of Thomas W. Dorr, an effort was made in 1841 to set aside the old colonial charter, under which that State had lived and flourished since the Revolution, and to replace it with a new constitution having such improvements as it was thought that time and experience had shown to be wise and necessary. This new constitution was especially framed to enlarge the basis of representation so far as the white people of the State were concerned—to abolish an odious property qualification, and to confine the right of suffrage to white male citizens only. Mr. Dorr was himself a well-meaning man, and, after his fashion, a man of broad and progressive views, quite in advance of the party with which he acted. To gain their support, he consented to this restriction to a class, of a right which ought to be enjoyed by all citizens. In this he consulted policy rather than right, and at last shared the fate of all compromisers and trimmers, for he was disastrously defeated. The prospective features of his constitution shocked the sense of right, and roused the moral indignation of the abolitionists of the State, a class which would otherwise have gladly co-operated with him, at the same time that it did nothing to win support from the conservative class which clung to the old charter. Anti-slavery men wanted a new constitution, but they did not want a defective instrument, which required reform at the start. The result was that such men as William M. Chase, Thomas Davis, George L. Clark, Asa Fairbanks, Alphonso Janes, and others, of Providence; the Perry brothers of Westerly; John Brown and C. C. Eldridge of East Greenwich; Daniel Mitchell, William Adams, and Robert Shove of Pawtucket; Peleg Clark, Caleb Kelton, G. J. Adams, and the Anthonys and Goulds of Coventry and vicinity; Edward Norris of Woonsocket; and other abolitionists of the State, decided that the time had come, when the people of Rhode Island might be taught a more comprehensive gospel of human rights than had gotten itself into this Dorr constitution. The public mind was awake, and one class of its people at least, was ready to work with us to the extent of seeking to defeat the proposed constitution, though their reasons for such work were far different from ours. Stephen S. Foster, Parker Pillsbury, Abby Kelley, James Monroe, and myself, were called into the State to advocate equal rights, as against this narrow and proscriptive constitution. The work to which we were invited was not free from difficulty. The majority of the people were evidently with the new constitution; even the word white in it chimed well with the popular prejudice against the coloured race, and at the first, helped to make the movement popular. On the other hand, all the arguments which the Dorr men could urge against a property qualification for suffrage were equally cogent against a colour qualification, and this was our advantage. But the contest was intensely bitter and exciting. We were as usual denounced as intermeddlers—carpet-bagger had not come into use at that time—and were told to mind our own business, and the like;—a mode of defence common to men when called to account for mean and discreditable conduct. Stephen S. Foster, Parker Pillsbury, and the rest of us were not the kind of men to be ordered off by that sort of opposition. We cared nothing for the Dorr party on the one hand, nor the “law and order party” on the other. What we wanted, and what we laboured to obtain, was a constitution free from the narrow, selfish, and senseless limitation of the word white. Naturally enough when we said a strong and striking word against the Dorr Constitution, the conservatives were pleased and applauded, while the Dorr men were disgusted and indignant. Foster and Pillsbury were like the rest of us, young, strong, and at their best in this contest. The splendid vehemence of the one, and the weird and terrible denunciations of the other, never failed to stir up mob-ocratic wrath wherever they spoke. Foster especially, was effective in this line, His theory was that he must make converts or mobs. If neither came, he charged it either to his want of skill or his unfaithfulness. I was much with Mr. Foster during the tour in Rhode Island, and though at times he seemed to me extravagant and needlessly offensive in his manner of presenting his ideas, yet take him for all in all, he was one of the most impressive advocates the cause of the American slave ever had. No white man ever made the black man’s cause more completely his own. Abby Kelley, since Abby Kelley Foster, was perhaps the most successful of any of us. Her youth and simple Quaker beauty, combined with her wonderful earnestness, her large knowledge and great logical power, bore down all opposition in the end, wherever she spoke, though she had been pelted with foul eggs, and no less foul words, from the noisy mobs which attended us.
Monroe and I were less aggressive than either of our co-workers, and of course did not provoke the same resistance. He at least, had the eloquence that charms, and the skill that disarms. I think that our labours in Rhode Island during this Dorr excitement did more to abolitionise the State than any previous, or subsequent work. It was the “tide taken at the flood.” One effect of these labours was to induce the old “Law and Order” party, when it set about making its new constitution, to avoid the narrow folly of the Dorrites, and make a constitution which should not abridge any man’s rights on account of race or colour. Such a constitution was finally adopted.
Owing perhaps to my efficiency in this campaign I was, for a while, employed in farther labours in Rhode Island by the State Anti-Slavery Society, and made there many friends to my cause as well as to myself. As a class, the abolitionists of this State partook of the spirit of its founder. They had their own opinions, were independent, and called no man master. I have reason to remember them most gratefully. They received me as a man and a brother, when I was new from the house of bondage, and had few of the graces derived from free and refined society. They took me with earnest hand to their homes and hearths, and made me feel that though I wore the burnished livery of the sun, I was still a countryman and kinsman of whom they were never ashamed. I can never forget the Clarks, Keltons, Chaces, Browns, Adams, Greenes, Sissons, Eldredges, Mitchells, Shoves, Anthonys, Applins, Janes, Goulds, and Fairbanks, and many others.
While thus remembering the noble anti-slavery men and women of Rhode Island, I do not forget that I suffered much rough usage within her borders. It was, like all the Northern States at that time, under the influence of slave power, and often showed a proscription and persecuting spirit, especially upon its railways, steamboats, and public-houses. The Stonington route was a “hard road” for a coloured man “to travel” in that day. I was several times dragged from the cars for the crime of being coloured. On the Sound, between New York and Stonington, there were the same proscriptions which I have before named, as enforced on the steamboats running between New York and Newport. No coloured man was allowed abaft the wheel, and in all seasons of the year, in heat or cold, wet or dry, the deck was his only place. If I would lie down at night, I must do so upon the freight on deck, and this in cold weather was not a very comfortable bed. When travelling in company with my white friends I always urged them to leave me, and go into the cabin and take their comfortable berths. I saw no reason why they should be miserable because I was. Some of them took my advice very readily. I confess, however, that while I was entirely honest in urging them to go, and saw no principle that should bind them to stay and suffer with me, I always felt a little nearer to those who did not take my advice, and persisted in sharing my hardships with me.
There is something in the world above fixed rules and the logic of right and wrong, and there is some foundation for recognising works, which may be called works of supererogation. Wendell Phillips, James Monroe, and William White, were always dear to me for their nice feeling on this point. I have known James Monroe to pull his coat about him, crawl upon the cotton bales between decks, and pass the night with me, without a murmur. Wendell Phillips would never go into a first-class car while I was forced into what was called the Jim Crow car. True men they were, who could accept welcome at no man’s table where I was refused. I speak of these gentlemen, not as singular or exceptional cases, but as representatives of a large class of the early workers for the abolition of slavery. As a general rule, there was little difficulty in obtaining suitable places in New England after 1840, where I could plead the cause of my people. The abolitionists had passed the Red Sea of mobs, and had conquered the right of a respectful hearing. I, however, found several towns in which the people closed their doors, and refused to entertain the subject. Notably among these was Hartford, Conn., and Grafton, Mass. In the former place, Messrs. Garrison, Hudson, Foster, Abby Kelley, and myself, determined to hold our meetings under the open sky, which we did in a little court under the eaves of the “sanctuary,” where the Rev. Dr. Hawes ministered, with much satisfaction to ourselves, and I think with advantage to our cause. In Grafton I was alone, and there was neither house, hall, church, nor market-place, in which I could speak to the people; but determined to speak, I went to the hotel and borrowed a dinner bell, with which in hand, I passed through the principal streets, ringing the bell and crying out, “Notice! Frederick Douglas, recently a slave, will lecture on American Slavery, on Grafton Common, this evening at 7 o’clock. Those who would like to hear of the workings of slavery, by one of the slaves, are respectfully invited to attend.” This notice brought out a large audience, after which the largest church in the town was open to me. Only in one instance was I compelled to pursue this course thereafter, and that was in Manchester, N.H., and my labours there were followed by similar results. When people found that I would be heard, they saw it was the part of wisdom to open the way for me.
My treatment in the use of public conveyances about these times was extremely rough, especially on the “Eastern Railroad, from Boston to Portland.” On that road, as on many others, there was a mean, dirty, and uncomfortable car set apart for coloured travellers, called the “Jim Crow” car. Regarding this as the fruit of slaveholding prejudice, and being determined to fight the spirit of slavery wherever I might find it, I resolved to avoid this car, though it sometimes required some courage to do so. The coloured people generally accepted the situation, and complained of me as making matters worse, rather than better, by refusing to submit to this proscription. I, however, persisted, and sometimes was soundly beaten by conductor and brakeman. On one occasion, six of these “fellows of the baser sort,” under the direction of the conductor, set out to eject me from my seat. As usual, I had purchased a first-class ticket, and paid the required sum for it, and on the requirement of the conductor to leave, refused to do so, when he called on these men “to snake me out.” They attempted to obey with an air which plainly told me they relished the job. They, however, found me much attached to my seat, and in removing me I tore away two or three of the surrounding ones, on which I held with a firm grasp, and did the car no service in some other respects. I was strong and muscular, and the seats were not then so firmly attached or of as solid make as now. The result was that Stephen A. Chase, superintendent of the road, ordered all passenger trains to pass through Lynn, where I then lived, without stopping. This was a great inconvenience to the people, large numbers of whom did business in Boston, and at other points of the road. Led on, however, by James N. Buffum, Jonathan Buffum, Christopher Robinson, William Bassett, and others, the people of Lynn stood bravely by me, and denounced the railroad management in emphatic terms. Mr. Chase made reply that a railroad corporation was neither a religious nor reformatory body; that the road was run for the accommodation of the public, and that it required the exclusion of coloured people from its cars. With an air of triumph he told us that we ought not to expect a railroad company to be better than the Evangelical Church, and that until the churches abolished the “negro pew,” we ought not to expect the railroad company to abolish the negro car. This argument was certainly good enough as against the Church, but good for nothing as against the demands of justice and equality. My old and dear friend, J. N. Buffum, made a point against the company that they “often allowed dogs and monkeys to ride in first-class cars, and yet excluded a man like Frederick Douglass!” In a very few years this barbarous practice was put away, and I think there have been no instances of such exclusion during the past thirty years; and coloured people now, everywhere in New England, ride upon equal terms with other passengers.