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CHAPTER VII.: TRIUMPHS AND TRIALS. - 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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TRIUMPHS AND TRIALS.
New experiences—Painful disagreement of opinion with old friends—Final decision to publish my paper in Rochester—Its fortunes—Change in my own views regarding the Constitution of the United States—Fidelity to conviction—Loss of old friends—Support of new ones—Loss of house, etc., by fire—Triumphs and trials—Underground railroad—Incidents.
PREPARED as I was to meet with many trials and perplexities on reaching home, one of which I little dreamed was awaiting me. My plans for future usefulness, as indicated in the last chapter, were all settled, and in imagination I already saw myself wielding my pen as well as my voice in the great work of renovating the public mind, and building up a public sentiment, which should send slavery to the grave, and restore to “liberty and the pursuit of happiness” the people with whom I had suffered.
My friends in Boston had been informed of what I was intending, and I expected to find them favourably disposed towards my cherished enterprise. In this I was mistaken. They had many reasons against it. First, no such paper was needed; secondly, it would interfere with my usefulness as a lecturer; thirdly, I was better fitted to speak than to write; fourthly, the paper could not succeed. This opposition from a quarter so highly esteemed, and to which I had been accustomed to look for advice and direction, caused me not only to hesitate, but inclined me to abandon the undertaking. All previous attempts to establish such a journal having failed, I feared lest I should but add another to the list, and thus contribute another proof of the mental deficiencies of my race. Very much that was said of me in respect to my imperfect literary attainments, I felt to be most painfully true. The unsuccessful projectors of all former attempts had been my superiors in point of education, and if they had failed how could I hope for success? Yet I did hope for success, and persisted in the undertaking, encouraged by my English friends to go forward.
I can easily pardon those who saw in my persistence, an unwarrantable ambition and presumption. I was but nine years escaped from slavery. In many phases of mental experience I was but nine years old. That one under such circumstances should aspire to establish a printing press, surrounded by an educated people, might well be considered unpractical if not ambitious. My American friends looked at me with astonishment. “A wood-sawyer” offering himself to the public as an editor! A slave, brought up in the depths of ignorance, assuming to instruct the highly civilized people of the North in the principles of liberty, justice, and humanity! The thing looked absurd. Nevertheless I persevered. I felt that the want of education, great as it was, could be overcome by study, and that wisdom would come by experience; and further, what was perhaps the most controlling consideration, I thought that an intelligent public, knowing my early history, would easily pardon the many deficiencies which I well knew my paper must exhibit. The most distressing part of it all, was the offence which I saw I must give my friends of the old anti-slavery organization, by what seemed to them a reckless disregard of their opinion and advice. I am not sure that I was not under the influence of something like a slavish adoration of these good people, and I laboured hard to convince them that my way of thinking about the matter was the right one, but without success.
From motives of peace, instead of issuing my paper in Boston, among New England friends, I went to Rochester, N.Y., among strangers, where the local circulation of my paper—“The North Star”—would not interfere with that of the Liberator, or the Anti-Slave Standard; for I was then a faithful disciple of Wm. Lloyd Garrison, and fully committed to his doctrine touching the pro-slavery character of the Constitution of the United States, also the non-voting principle, of which he was the known and distinguished advocate. With him, I held it to be the first duty of the non-slaveholding States to dissolve the union with the slaveholding States, and hence my cry, like his, was “No union with slaveholders.” With these views I came into western New York, and during the first four years of my labours there, I advocated them with pen and tongue, to the best of my ability. After a time, a careful reconsideration of the subject convinced me that there was no necessity for dissolving the “union between the Northern and Southern States;” that to seek this dissolution was no part of my duty as an abolitionist; that to abstain from voting was to refuse to exercise a legitimate and powerful means for abolishing slavery; and that the Constitution of the United States not only contained no guarantees in favour of slavery, but on the contrary, was in its letter and spirit an anti-slavery instrument, demanding the abolition of slavery as a condition of its own existence, as the supreme law of the land.
This radical change in my opinions produced a corresponding change in my action. To those with whom I had been in agreement and in sympathy, I came to be in opposition. What they held to be a great and important truth, I now looked upon as a dangerous error. A very natural, but to me a very painful thing, now happened. Those who could not see any honest reasons for changing their views, as I had done, could not easily see any such reasons for my change, and the common punishment of apostates was mine.
My first opinions were naturally derived and honestly entertained. Brought directly, when I escaped from slavery, into contact with abolitionists who regarded the Constitution as a slaveholding instrument, and finding their views supported by the united and entire history of every department of the Government, it is not strange that I assumed the Constitution to be just what these friends made it seem to be. I was bound not only by their superior knowledge to take their opinions in respect to this subject, as the true ones, but also because I had no means of showing their unsoundness. But for the responsibility of conducting a public journal, and the necessity imposed upon me of meeting opposite views from abolitionists outside of New England, I should in all probability have remained firm in my disunion views. My new circumstances compelled me to re-think the whole subject, and study with some care not only the just and proper rules of legal interpretation, but the origin, design, nature, rights, powers, and duties of civil governments, and also the relations which human beings sustain to it. By such a course of thought and reading I was conducted to the conclusion that the Constitution of the United States—inaugurated “to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquillity, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty”—could not well have been designed at the same time to maintain and perpetuate a system of rapine and murder, like slavery, especially as not one word can be found in the Constitution to authorize such a belief. Then, again, if the declared purposes of an instrument are to govern the meaning of all its parts and details, as they clearly should, the Constitution of our country is our warrant for the abolition of slavery in every State of the Union. It would require much time and space to set forth the arguments which demonstrated to my mind the unconstitutionality of slavery; but being convinced of the fact, my duty was plain upon this point in the further conduct of my paper. The North Star was a large sheet, published weekly, at a cost of $80 per week, and an average circulation of 3,000 subscribers. There were many times, when in my experience as editor and publisher, I was very hard pressed for money, but by one means or another I succeeded so well as to keep my pecuniary engagements, and to keep my anti-slavery banner steadily flying during all the conflict from the autumn of 1847 till the union of the States was assured, and emancipation was a fact accomplished. I had friends abroad as well as at home who helped me liberally. I can never be too grateful to the Rev. Russell Lunt Carpenter and to Mrs. Carpenter, for the moral and material aid they tendered me through all the vicissitudes of my paper enterprise. But to no one person was I more indebted for substantial assistance than to Mrs. Julia Griffiths Crofts. She came to my relief when my paper had nearly absorbed all my means, and was heavily in debt, and when I had mortgaged my house to raise money to meet current expenses; and by her energetic and effective management, in a single year enabled me to extend the circulation of my paper from 2,000 to 4,000 copies, pay off the debts and lift the mortgage from my house. Her industry was equal to her devotion. She seemed to rise with every emergency, and her resources appeared inexhaustible. I shall never cease to remember with sincere gratitude the assistance rendered me by this noble lady, and I mention her here in the desire in some humble measure to “give honour to whom honour is due.” During the first three or four years my paper was published under the name of The North Star. It was subsequently changed to Frederick Douglass’ Paper in order to distinguish it from the many papers with “Stars” in their titles. There were “North Stars,” “Morning Stars,” “Evening Stars,” and I know not how many other stars in the newspaper firmament, and some confusion arose naturally enough in distinguishing between them; for this reason, and also because some of these stars were older than my star I felt that mine, not theirs, ought to be the one to “go out.”
Of course there were moral forces operating against me in Rochester, as well as material ones. There were those who regarded the publication of a “Negro paper” in that beautiful city as a blemish and a misfortune. The New York Herald, true to the spirit of the times, counselled the people of the place to throw my printing press into Lake Ontario, and to banish me to Canada; and while they were not quite prepared for this violence, it was plain that many of them did not well relish my presence amongst them. This feeling, however, wore away gradually, as the people knew more of me and my works. I lectured every Sunday evening during an entire winter in the beautiful Corinthian Hall, then owned by Wm. R. Reynolds, Esq., who though he was not an abolitionist, was a lover of fair-play, and was willing to allow me to be heard. If in these lectures I did not make abolitionists. I did succeed in making tolerant and moral atmosphere in Rochester; so much so, indeed, that I came to feel as much at home there as I had ever done in the most friendly parts of New England. I had been at work there with my paper but a few years before coloured travellers told me that they felt the influence of my labours when they came within fifty miles. I did not rely alone upon what I could do by the paper, but would write all day, then take a train to Victor, Farmington, Canandaigua, Geneva, Waterloo, Batavia, or Buffalo, or elsewhere, and speak in the evening, returning home afterwards or early in the morning, to be again at my desk writing or mailing papers. There were times when I almost thought my Boston friends were right in dissuading me from my newspaper project. But looking back to those nights and days of toil and thought, compelled often to do work for which I had no educational preparation, I have come to think that, under the circumstances it was the best school possible for me. It obliged me to think and read, it taught me to express my thoughts clearly, and was perhaps better han any other course I could have adopted. Besides, it made it necessary for me to lean upon myself, and not upon the heads of our anti-slavery church;—to be a principal, and not an agent. I had an audience to speak to every week, and must say something worth their hearing, or cease to speak altogether. There is nothing like the lash and sting of necessity to make a man work, and my paper furnished this motive power. More than one gentleman from the South, when stopping at Niagara, came to see me, that they might know for themselves if I could indeed write, having, as they said, believed it impossible that an uneducated fugitive slave could write the articles attributed to me. I found it hard to get credit in some quarters either for what I wrote or what I said. While there was nothing very profound or learned in either, the low estimate of Negro possibilities induced the belief that both my editorials and my speeches were written by white persons. I doubt if this scepticism does not still linger in the minds of some of my democratic fellow-citizens.
The 2nd of June, 1872, brought me a very grievous loss. My house in Rochester was burned to the ground, and among other other things of value, twelve volumes of my paper, covering the period from 1848 to 1860, was devoured by the flames. I have never been able to replace them, and the loss is immeasurable. Only a few weeks before, I had been invited to send these bound volumes to the library of Harvard University, where they would have been preserved in a fire-proof building, and the result of my procrastination attests the wisdom of more than one proverb. Outside the years embraced in the late tremendous war, there has been no period, more pregnant with great events, or better suited to call out the best mental and moral energies of men, than that covered by these lost volumes. If I have at any time said or written that which is worth remembering or repeating, I must have said such things between the years 1848 and 1860, and my paper was a chronicle of most of what I said during that time. Within that space we had the great Free Soil Convention at Buffalo, the nomination of Martin Van Buren, the Fugitive Slave Law, the 7th March Speech by Daniel Webster, the Dred Scott decision, the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, the Kansas Nebraska Bill, the border war in Kansas, the John Brown raid upon Harper’s Ferry, and a part of the War against the Rebellion, with much else, well calculated to fire the souls of men having one spark of Liberty and Patriotism within them. I have only fragments now, of all the work accomplished during these twelve years, and must cover this chasm, as best I can, from memory and the incidental items which I am able to glean from various sources. Two volumes of the North Star have been kindly supplied me, by my friend, Marshall Pierce, of Saco, Me. He had these carefully preserved and bound in one cover and sent to me in Washington. He was one of the most systematically careful men of all my anti-slavery friends, for I doubt if another entire volume of the paper exists.
One important branch of my anti-slavery work in Rochester, in addition to that of speaking and writing against slavery, must not be forgotten or omitted. My position gave me the chance of hitting that old enemy some telling blows, in another direction than these. I was on the southern border of Lake Ontario, and the Queen’s Dominions were right over the way—and my prominence as an abolitionist, and as the editor of an anti-slavery paper, naturally made me the station master and conductor of the underground railroad passing through this goodly city. Secrecy and concealment were necessary conditions to the successful operation of this railroad, and hence its prefix “underground.” My agency was all the more exciting and interesting, because not altogether free from danger. I could take no step in it without exposing myself to fine and imprisonment, for these were the penalties imposed by the Fugitive Slave Law, for feeding, harbouring, or otherwise assisting a slave to escape from his master; but in face of this fact, I can say, I never did more congenial, attractive, fascinating, and satisfactory work. True, as a means of destroying slavery, it was like an attempt to bail out the ocean with a teaspoon, but the thought that there was one less slave, and one more freeman,—having myself been a slave, and a fugitive slave—brought to my heart unspeakable joy. On one occasion I had eleven fugitives at the same time under my roof, and it was necessary for them to remain with me, until I could collect sufficient money to get them on to Canada. It was the largest number I ever had at any one time, and I had some difficulty in providing so many with food and shelter, but as may well be imagined, they were not very fastidious in either direction, and were well content with very plain food, and a strip of carpet on the floor for a bed, or a place on the straw in the barn loft.
The underground railroad had many branches; but that one with which I was connected had its main stations in Baltimore, Wilmington, Philadelphia, New York, Albany, Syracuse, Rochester, and St. Catharines, Canada. It is not necessary to tell who were the principal agents in Baltimore, Thomas Garrett was the agent in Wilmington; Melloe McKim, William Still, Robert Purvis, Edward M. Davis, and others did the work in Philadelphia; David Ruggles, Isaac T. Hooper, Napolian, and others, in New York City; the Misses Mott and Stephen Myers, were forwarders from Albany; Revs. Samuel J. May and J. W. Loguen, were the agents in Syracuse; and J. P. Morris and myself received and despatched passengers from Rochester to Canada, where they were received by the Rev. Hiram Wilson. When a party arrived in Rochester, it was the business of Mr. Morris and myself to raise funds with which to pay their passages to St. Catharines, and it is due to truth to state, that we seldom called in vain upon whig or democrat for help. Men were better than their theology, and truer to humanity, than to their politics, or their offices.
On one occasion while a slave master was in the office of a United States commissioner, procuring the papers necessary for the arrest and rendition of three young men who had escaped from Maryland, one of whom was under my roof at the time, another at Farmington, and the other at work on the farm of Asa Anthony just a little outside the city limits, the law partner of the commissioner, then a distinguished democrat, sought me out, and told me what was going on in his office, and urged me by all means to get these young men out of the way of their pursuers and claimants. Of course no time was to be lost. A swift horseman was despatched to Farmington, eighteen miles distant, another to Asa Anthony’s farm about three miles, and another to my house on the south side of the city, and before the papers could be served, all three of the young men were on the free waves of Lake Ontario, bound to Canada. In writing to their old master, they had dated their letter at Rochester, though they had taken the precaution to send it to Canada to be mailed, but this blunder in the date had betrayed their whereabouts, so that the hunters were at once on their tracks.
So numerous were the fugitives passing through Rochester, that I was obliged at last to appeal to my British friends for the means of sending them on their way, and when Mr. and Mrs. Carpenter and Mrs. Crofts took the matter in hand, I had never any further trouble in that respect. When slavery was abolished I wrote to Mrs. Carpenter, congratulating her that she was relieved of the work of raising funds for such purposes, and the characteristic reply of that lady was that she had been very glad to do what she had done, and had no wish for relief.
My pathway was not entirely free from thorns in Rochester, and the wounds and pains inflicted by them were perhaps much less easily born, because of my exemption from such annoyances while in England. Men can in time become accustomed to almost anything, even to being insulted and ostracised, but such treatment comes hard at first, and when to some extent unlooked for. The vulgar prejudice against colour, so common to Americans, met me in several disagreeable forms. A seminary for young ladies and misses, under the auspices of Miss Tracy, was near my house in Alexander Street, and desirous of having my daughter educated like the daughters of other men, I applied to Miss Tracy for her admission to her school. All seemed fair, and the child was duly sent to “Tracy Seminary,” and I went about my business happy in the thought that she was in the way of a refined and Christian education. Several weeks elapsed before I knew how completely I was mistaken. The little girl came home to me one day and told me she was lonely in that school; that she was in fact kept in solitary confinement; that she was not allowed to be in the room with the other girls, nor to go into the yard when they went out; that she was kept in a room by herself and not permitted to be seen nor heard by the others. No man with the feeling of a parent could be less than moved by such a revelation, and I confess that I was shocked, grieved, and indignant. I went at once to Miss Tracy to ascertain if what I had heard was true, and was coolly told it was, and the miserable plea was offered that it would have injured her school if she had done otherwise. I told her she should have told me so at the beginning, but I did not believe that any girl in the school would be opposed to the presence of my daughter, and that I should be glad to have the question submitted to them. She consented to this, and to the credit of the young ladies, not one made objection. Not satisfied with this verdict of the natural and uncorrupted sense of justice and humanity of these young ladies, Miss Tracy insisted that the parents must be consulted, and if one of them objected she should not admit my child to the same apartment and privileges of the other pupils. One parent only had the cruelty to object, and he was Mr. Horatio G. Warner, a democratic editor, and upon his adverse conclusion, my daughter was excluded from “Tracy Seminary.” Of course Miss Tracy was a devout Christian lady after the fashion of the time and locality, in good and regular standing in the Church.
My troubles attending the education of my children were not to end here. They were not allowed in the public school in the district in which I lived, owned property, and paid taxes, but were compelled, if they went to a public school, to go over to the other side of the city, to an inferior coloured school. I hardly need say that I was not prepared to submit tamely to this proscription, any more than I had been to submit to slavery, so I had them taught at home for a while, by Miss Thayer. Meanwhile I went to the people with the question and created considerable agitation. I sought and obtained a hearing before the Board of Education, and after repeated efforts with voice and pen, the doors of the public schools were opened and coloured children were permitted to attend them in common with others.
There were barriers erected against coloured people in most other places of instruction and amusements in the city, and until I went there, they were imposed without any apparent sense of injustice or wrong, and submitted to in silence; but, one by one, they have gradually been removed, and coloured people now enter freely all places of public resort without hindrance or observation. This change has not been wholly effected by me. From the first, I was cheered on and supported in my demands for equal rights by such respectable citizens as Isaac Post, Wm. Hallowell, Samuel D. Porter, Wm. C. Bloss, Benj. Fish, Asa Anthony, and many other good and true men of Rochester.
Notwithstanding what I have said of the adverse feeling exhibited by some of its citizens at my selection of Rochester as the place to establish my paper, and the trouble in educational matters just referred to, that selection was in many respects very fortunate. The city was, and still is, the centre of a various, intelligent, enterprising, liberal, and growing population. The surrounding country is remarkable for its fertility; and the city itself possesses one of the finest water-powers in the world. It is on the line of the New York Central railroad—a line that with its connections, spans the whole country. Its people were industrious and in comfortable circumstances; not so rich as to be indifferent to the claims of humanity, and not so poor as to be unable to help any good cause which commanded the approval of their judgment.
The ground had been measurably prepared for me by the labours of others—notably by the Hon. Myron Holley, whose monument of enduring marble now stands in the beautiful cemetery at Mount Hope, upon an eminence befitting his noble character. I know of no place in the Union where I could have been located at the time with less resistance, or received a larger measure of sympathy and co-operation; and I now look back upon my life and labours there with unalloyed satisfaction, and having spent a quarter of a century among its people, I shall always feel more at home there than any where else in the United States.