Kristin K. Rabun
30 November 2007
Competing Textualities in Frederick Douglass’s Autobiographies
In his autobiography My Bondage and My Freedom (1855) Frederick Douglass recounts
the events that liberated him from slavery and initiated him into the world of William Lloyd Garrison, the powerful orator and prominent abolitionist that would become his mentor. Douglass describes his early freedom (he escaped on 3 September 1838) as a time of wandering in the wilderness. Work and wages were his primary concern, and he recalls his spiritual condition as a “lukewarm” Christian in a “backslidden state” (Bondage 360). The spiritual disillusionment that Douglass expresses in this memoir soon gives way to a restored joy when an acquaintance offers him a copy of William Lloyd Garrison’s antislavery newspaper The Liberator. Although he had never met Garrison, Douglass states that reading The Liberator brings him “in contact with the mind of Garrison” (Bondage 362). He develops an immediate sense of intimacy with the man through reading Garrison’s words, just as many Christians might say that through reading God’s word, The Holy Bible, they can know the mind of God. Douglass solidifies his correlation of Garrison and God when he places his copy of The Liberator next to his copy of the Bible. In words that echo an Old Testament appellation of King David that he was “a man after God’s own heart,” Douglass calls The Liberator “a paper after mine own heart” (Bondage 362). In its cries for abolition, The Liberator radiates, for Douglass, “with all the solemnity of God’s word” (Bondage 362) and Douglass’s emotional diction overflows with Christian themes as he unabashedly proclaims his deep love for Garrison and a longing to be in his presence.
Douglass would meet his savior, William Lloyd Garrison, at an antislavery meeting in 1841, an event that marked a confluence of personality and ideology that would dominate American abolition efforts for the next sixty years. Out of this meeting would also come three distinct textual markers for nineteenth-century antislavery efforts. Douglass’s physicality would become the textual conduit through which Quaker ideology would interact with Garrison’s cult of personality. In Douglass, the Quakers gained a vehicle to satisfy their preference for revelation through the spoken word, and Douglass was immediately recruited to preach the ills of slavery as a representative figure for all slaves. Garrison saw in Douglass a moldable physical text—a tabula rasa—that he could write his more radical vision of the Quaker-abolition lexis upon. Ultimately, these forces created new rhetorical bonds and fetters for Douglass. While Douglass’s autobiographies chronicle his personal struggle to break the heavy chains of chattel slavery, they also convey his struggle to navigate through the competing rhetorical systems placed upon him and his desire to free himself from these weighty paper chains.
In order to better understand the construction of Douglass’s autobiographies and the rhetorical struggle they represent, it is important to understand Garrison’s placement on the radical-conservative matrix as well as the complicated history of Quaker abolition efforts. In Quakers and Slavery: A Divided Spirit, Jean Soderlund neatly divides Quaker abolition efforts into three categories and contends that “[t]he gradualist, segregationist, and paternalistic approach of Friends set the tone for the white antislavery movement in America from 1780 to 1833” (185). But Soderlund’s analysis drops off suddenly with 1833, the year that Garrison helped organize the American Antislavery Society as well as the year that Great Britain ended slave trade in the West Indies. This limitation in the scope of Quakers and Slavery, as well as Soderlund’s later collaboration with Gary Nash, Freedom by Degrees: Emancipation in Pennsylvania and Its Aftermath1, seems to suggest that all Quaker abolition efforts abruptly ended in 1833. Garrison is mentioned in the former, but only in passing, and it is not clear whether Soderlund perceives that Quaker abolition efforts were hijacked by Garrison or abandoned by Quakers in the wake of Garrison’s fervent cries for immediate emancipation. The convergence of Garrison’s undeniable influence on the larger American abolition movement and the growing international outcry against slavery may explain why Soderlund points to 1833 as a sea change in Quaker abolitionism that coincides with Garrison’s rise to prominence. And while some scholars may find it convenient to place Garrison’s seemingly radical tactics somewhere outside of the continuum of earlier Quaker models, it may be more fruitful to resist the temptation to label Garrison’s modus operandi as “anti-Quaker” and to instead view his work, and his influence on his disciple Frederick Douglass, as an embodiment of the range of Quaker dissent traditions that Soderlund identifies.
There are widely differing interpretations of the motivations behind Quaker abolition efforts, but it is clear that that humanitarian concern for African slaves has been a part of, or perhaps a stumbling block to, Quaker ideology since George Fox founded the sect in England during the mid-seventeenth century. Fox disavowed the Calvinist doctrine that man was inherently sinful and he condemned all forms of violence, promoting a doctrine of pacifism that Quakers have remained true to throughout their history. Fox preached a gospel that proclaimed that any person, regardless of gender or social status, had “access to the Inner Light of Christ” (Stein 32). Fox avoided establishing written doctrines and instead directed his followers to “look inward for Christian truths which God revealed to them directly” and to “read the Bible only to discover in its pages truths” (Lovejoy 112) that are already known to those who follow the Inner Light. Fox rejected Puritan notions about church reform from within and often interrupted worship services to shout his opposition to religious hierarchies. As a result, Fox and his fellow Quakers were often jailed and mistreated; many found refuge the New World, particularly in William Penn’s holy experiment, Pennsylvania, and the West Indies.
But even the heavenly-minded Fox struggled against earth-bound realities and was the first Quaker to address the question of whether slaveholding was compatible with the Quaker belief that “everyone was equal in the sight of God” (Soderlund 3). Quakers were already participating in and benefiting from the slave trade, and Fox struggled to answer whether “a person held in service might listen to discern the will of God” (Lapsansky 8). Even if a slave could know God’s will, “it would be impossible to follow freely a leading to serve God while bound to serve a human master” (Lapsansky 8). On a visit to Quaker communities in Barbados, Fox saw first hand the cruelties of the British slave trade, and although he did not direct Quakers to free their slaves, he “urged Quaker masters to limit their slaves’ terms and to educate them” (Soderlund 3). The Society of Friends are trailblazers for African education; even in the decades before the American Civil War, many individual Quakers began schools for fugitive slaves and freemen. Many individual Quakers and Quaker collectives worked within the Society of Friends to stem the tide of slaveholding among its members throughout their history. The perceptions of such efforts are typically delineated by terms like “radical” or “moderate,” though these terms might say more about the Society’s reception of individual efforts than about the nature of the acts themselves.
George Keith (1639-1716) was also an early voice calling for the end of Quaker slaveholding; he is most often remembered for the 1693 pamphlet “An Exhortation and Caution to Friends Concerning Buying or Keeping of Negroes.” In addition to arguing that slaveholding violated the biblical commandment against stealing, Keith maintained that slavery promoted injustice when families were separated, and encouraged Quakers to benefit from “exchanges of ill-gotten money” (Lapsansky 9). Keith’s pamphlet also offered the same objection to slavery that George Fox had made when he pointed out that “to buy such [slaves] is the way to continue these evil Practices of Manstealing, and transgresseth that Golden Rule and Law. To do to others what we would have others do to us” (600). Keith’s pamphlet outlines humanitarian arguments against Quaker slaveholding and seems to adhere to founder George Fox’s promotion of “The Golden Rule” as a basic tenet of Quaker social conduct. Keith followed Fox’s lead when he advocated that slave owners provide a basic education to all slaves; he also urged Friends to extend the rules for white indentured servants to black slaves: “after a reasonable time of service to answer that Charge, they may set them at Liberty, and during the time they have them, to teach them to read, and give them a Christian Education” (Keith 601). But perhaps the most striking solution to “the slavery problem” that Keith expressed in his “Exhortation” was for Quakers to “buy more slaves but only for the purpose of freeing them” (Lapsansky 9). Keith was ostracized for his zealous admonishment, but his “radical” idea would be resurrected and carried out a little more than a century later when the “moderate” Quaker Benjamin Lundy established the American Colonization Society in 1817. Lundy, who groomed William Lloyd Garrison as his protégée, joined with other Quakers to purchase slaves and remove them to colonies in Haiti and the West Indies as part of the gradualist approach to emancipation that many nineteenth-century Quakers advocated.
In 1688, five years before Keith’s pamphlet drew an angry response, a small group of Quaker leaders from the Germantown, Pennsylvania, sent a letter to the larger meeting in Philadelphia that labeled slavery as stealing and asserted a “Golden Rule” line of reasoning against slavery that is strikingly similar to Keith’s argument. Led by Francis Daniel Pastorius (1651-1720), this group of Germantown Quakers offered a petition that outlined “Reasons Why We Are Against the Traffic of Menbody.” The letter asked Philadelphia Friends to consider the plight of slaves and answer the reciprocal question, “Is there anybody that would be done or handled at this manner? viz., to be sold or made a slave for all the time of his life?” (Pastorius 727). The argument expresses the spirit of The Golden Rule that Fox championed and questions whether the Philadelphia Quakers would be content to see “what they do unto others” be done unto them. Would they exchange their lives of relative comfort for the hideous fate they had condemned African slaves to—a lifetime of bondage with no possibility of freedom? The language of the Germantown petition evidently fell within the tolerable limits of Quaker dissent and was heard in the Philadelphia meeting, though the objections to slavery that it expressed faired no better than Keith’s rants2.
Philadelphia Quakers declined action on the Germantown petition and sixty years passed pass before objections to slavery would affect any substantive change in the Philadelphia meeting. The mid-eighteenth century saw the Society of Friends, who prided themselves as a community of dissenters, grow more concerned about preserving the status quo within their ranks and less concerned with expressions of Christian charity toward “outsiders”; they also grew less tolerant of more radical voices of dissent within the Society. In the years leading up to the American Revolution, Quakers focused on achieving “good order in their own fellowship” to the point that they “nearly gave up attempts to take the gospel to the heathen slaves” (James 364). The change in Quaker perceptions on who was an “insider” and who was an “outsider” signaled an insular turn among the Quakers. Meetings began to focus almost exclusively on ways to strengthen their membership and some groups adopted a rather middle-ages Roman Catholic concept of church membership, what theologians call “birthrightism.” This practice allowed Quakers to bestow church membership on their children and refigured the Friends into “a hereditary corporation” (James 367). This practice led to widespread division within of Friends, a group that was originally conceived as a collection of souls who followed an Inner Light. Within this Quaker milieu of self-preservation, the sticky question of slavery would be raised over and over again and would thereafter constitute a litmus test for outward signs of the Inner Light.
Benjamin Lay (1681-1760) hoped to startle Quakers out of their complacency and began to craft carnivalesque protests against slavery that illustrated what were now tacit Quaker beliefs, or perhaps heresies, about slavery. In keeping with George Fox’s reliance on spectacle to illustrate his ideology in the early days of the movement, Lay “looked for ways to shock Friends into imagining the horrors of slavery” (Lapsansky 8) that he had observed in Barbados. Philadelphia Quakers were outraged when Lay graphically dramatized the way that African families were separated by the slave trade by kidnapping a Quaker child and holding him for hours. To denigrate Quakers who did not provide their slaves with suitable clothing, Lay stood barefoot in the winter snow outside a meeting house. Lay must have appeared an unkempt wildman in homespun clothes (because he would not wear cloth woven by slaves) when he “publicly smashed his wife’s teacups to discourage use of slave-produced sugar” (Radical 18). If the title of Lay’s 1737 pamphlet addressed to “All Slave-Keepers, That Keep the Innocent in Bondage, Apostates Pretending to Lay Claim to the Pure and Holy Christian Religion” was not strong enough to communicate his demand for immediate emancipation, then certainly the oft-described “Pokeberry3 bladder incident” was spectacle enough. For his troubles, wildman and radical Benjamin Lay was bodily removed from the 1738 meeting in the City of Brotherly Love, and was later officially drummed of the Society of Friends. Although Lay’s radical methods were condemned by most, the message behind his spectacular displays “must have been sinking in for, significantly, in the mid-1730s, influential Friends began to provide for their slaves’ emancipation in their wills” (Soderlund 21). While this conclusion might prove accurate, the abolitionist reformers that followed Lay seemed less willing to draw the ire of the Quaker hierarchy.
John Woolman (1720-1772) and Anthony Benezet (1713-1784) number among the most effective Quaker antislavery activists of the eighteenth century, perhaps because of a willingness to utilize acceptable modes of social protest within the Society. Most scholars conjecture that young Woolman was present at the 1738 meeting and witnessed the extremism and subsequent shunning of crazy Benjamin Lay. Woolman became a successful Quaker merchant and might have seemed an unlikely candidate to revive Quaker abolition efforts. But when he was asked to draw up a bill of sale for a human being—a slave—Woolman was converted to the cause of abolition and refused to participate in the practice again. He began composing essays and traveling throughout the colonies to spread his antislavery message. Woolman is frequently characterized as an activist who was “a gentle persuader” (Radical 22) because he did not upset the status quo; he “labored in the meeting until the time was ripe for reform” (Soderlund 17). Unlike George Keith or even George Fox, Woolman “waited to publish his first antislavery essay until he received permission from the Quaker4 Overseers of the Press” (Radical 22). His 1754 antislavery essay Some Considerations “was the first abolitionist tract to meet their approval” (Soderlund 35).
Though the question of whether radical or conservative, immediate or gradualist tactics were most salient in the century-long debate over slavery in the Society of Friends, in 1758 the influential Philadelphia meeting decreed that “slavery was incompatible with leadership in the Society of Friends” and “[a]fter 1776, all Philadelphia area Friends were required to relinquish either their slaves or their membership” (Lapsansky 11). Woolman’s more moderate activism undoubtedly influenced his contemporary, Anthony Benezet, a Quaker schoolteacher who began a school for Africans in the 1750s and hoped to “investigate whether or not the mind in the black body was as capable of learning as the mind in the white one” (Lapsansky 8). Benezet’s efforts provided him the proof that slaves were as capable of learning as their white counterparts. This small school would expand over the next century, finally becoming what is today Cheyney State University in the suburbs of Philadelphia.
William Lloyd Garrison’s brand of abolitionism picks up on several different threads gathered from his Quaker predecessors. Like George Fox, Garrison was an artful and passionate orator, though some scholars suggest that he was probably more passionate than artful. He also borrows from the playbook of so-called “radicals” like George Keith and Benjamin Lay, but Garrison’s early stance more closely resembles the moderate expressions of John Woolman and Anthony Benezet. The ideological shifts in Garrison’s beliefs about abolition reflect the range of Quaker abolition efforts in the early nineteenth century. These differences also highlight the radical-conservative, push-and-pull matrix of earlier Quaker abolition efforts that struggled to balance spiritual, humanitarian, political, and economic concerns.
By his early twenties, Garrison had dabbled in the abolition debate through his own newspaper, Journal of the Times. Journal functioned as a “general reform paper,” taking “temperance, observance of the Sabbath, old-fashioned religion, peace” (Nye 24) as just a few of its causes. Though Garrison’s paper was not financially successful, it did catch the eye of Benjamin Lundy, a Quaker tradesman who published The Genius of Universal Emancipation, another marginally successful antislavery newspaper. Garrison was drawn into a mentor relationship with Lundy and soon his paper was devoting “increasing amounts of space to discussion of pacifism” (Nye 21), a familiar Quaker doctrine. Lundy was the founder of The Union Humane Society, and he traveled extensively to promote gradual emancipation and to raise money to establish colonies for freed slaves. Lundy’s inclination toward gradual emancipation through colonization reflected the dominant mode of Quaker antislavery thought. Though Garrison was raised as a hardshell Baptist, biographical accounts portray him as somewhat of a spiritual vagabond; when he and Lundy crossed paths Garrison’s historical association with Quakers and abolition was cemented.
Lundy recruited Garrison to become editor of the Genius and because of Lundy’s influence, Garrison’s Journal began to mirror the Genius. When Garrison signed off as editor of Journal of the Times he explained that he had been “invited to occupy a broader field and to engage in a higher enterprise […] in behalf of the slave population” (qtd. in Nye 22). The Genius was relocated to Baltimore and Garrison would “mind the store” while Lundy traveled to Haiti to supervise the colonies or to raise the necessary funds for emancipating slaves by affecting their purchase, a practice that Quakers had advocated since the mid-eighteenth century. But Garrison’s relationship with Lundy and moderate abolitionism was quickly strained. A Massachusetts upbringing had given Garrison a somewhat limited exposure to the slave trade, and he was stunned by what he saw of slavery in Baltimore. Soon after his arrival in that city—the same city where Frederick Douglass was a house slave for the Auld family—a new light dawned in Garrison and he realized that “immediate not gradual emancipation must be his aim” (Drake 131). Lundy gave Garrison a wide berth for his editorials, but Garrison’s zealous personality emboldened him to remove any mantle of reserve that Lundy might have encouraged in him. Upon his return from a subscription campaign for the Genius, Lundy found Garrison in jail for “libeling a slave trader” and “decided to dissolve the partnership”(Drake 131).
In Quakers and Slavery in America, historian Thomas Drake identifies the “factors [that] affected the expression of the Quaker testimony against slavery in the early nineteenth century” (114). Just as eighteenth-century Quakers favored the gentler approach of John Woolman and Anthony Benezet, in the early nineteenth century Quakers demonstrated “a tendency toward quietism […] which militated against ‘outward activity’ and a new evangelical spirit, clashing with the older quietistic Quakerism, which precipitated doctrinal controversies and schisms among the Friends” (Drake 131). Owing to his close friendship with Lundy, Garrison had aligned himself squarely with the gradualist camp and had once questioned the logic of immediate emancipation, claiming that “no rational man cherishes so wild a vision” (qtd. in Nye 24). But Garrison and other young humanitarian reformers were among those who reveled in the “new evangelical spirit” that Quakers feared; Garrison came to believe that slavery “could be eliminated only by a great religious crusade” (Sydnor 24). Garrison’s editorials for the Genius began to alienate the paper’s readership, particularly those in the South, although “what worried Lundy was not Garrison’s ideas, but his vehement way of expressing them” (Nye 27). When Garrison and Lundy parted ways, a determined Garrison returned to Boston and soon after established his antislavery newspaper, the Liberator.
This change of locale prompted a renewed energy in Garrison; he determined to expose the ills of slavery in a no holds barred fashion, and he would begin his attack by confronting the institution in New England where many wealthy and powerful families with vast shipping interests held sway. His speeches and editorials reveal that Garrison’s Liberator was a vehicle that would promote both immediate emancipation and Garrison himself. Thomas Drake contends that “Garrison’s founding of the Liberator in 1831 marked the end of the days of gradual abolition, and with it the end of Quaker leadership in the cause” (132). But Garrison’s confrontational style was not so different from some of the earlier models of Quaker abolition.
Just as George Keith, Benjamin Lay, and even founder George Fox had, Garrison gained a reputation for “antagonizing the clergy and other powerful groups, but winning some converts” (Sydnor 9). A distinct Garrisonian rhetoric was emerging in the speeches that he gave around New England and with the first edition of Liberator he shed his gradualist ties. In an editorial addressed “To the Public” he made a “full and unequivocal recantation” (50) of his previous gradualist stance. In this piece he also acknowledged a criticism that Lundy and other moderates had leveled against him when he wrote, “I am aware that many object to the severity of my language; but is there not cause for severity? I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. […] I am in earnest—I will not equivocate—I will not retreat a single inch—and I will be heard” (Garrison 50). Garrison’s personality and zeal alienated the more quietist elements of Quaker abolition, but he gained converts among younger reform-minded Quakers like Theodore Weld who had been “the most powerful agent in the West for the American Temperance Society” (Sydnor 7). Garrison may have supplanted the quietist Quaker leadership in the larger abolition movement, but it cannot be said that Quaker abolition died with Garrison’s rise to prominence.
In Frederick Douglass’s autobiographies, the author mentions that his first knowledge of the abolition movement came during his enslavement in Baltimore. In Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, he writes that he was “eager to hear anyone speak of slavery. I was a ready listener. Every little while, I could hear something about the abolitionists. It was some time before I found what the word meant” (43). But Douglass was aware that abolition meant “something of importance to myself and my fellow-slaves” (Narrative 43) because when a slave “ran away and succeeded in getting clear, or if a slave killed his master, set fire to a barn, or did anything very wrong in the mind of a slaveholder, it was spoken of as the fruit of abolition” (43). While Douglass may not have fully grasped the meaning of the term abolition, it was enough for him that abolition was something that angered slaveholder, so it must be something good for the slave.
Douglass makes a similar connection with education when he realizes that a slave that could read is an abomination to the slaveholder, a point that was made clear to him by his master’s reaction when Douglass’s mistress teaches him how to read. In his earliest autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845), the author relates the story of how Mrs. Sophia Auld, the wife of his owner, taught him to read, and the disappointment that he experienced when she suddenly broke off the teacher-pupil relationship at the insistence of her husband. After Mrs. Auld made the dangerous mistake of teaching young Frederick how to read, Douglass recalls that “nothing seemed to make her more angry than to see me with a newspaper. She seemed to think that here lay the danger” (Narrative 40). The name of the newspaper is not revealed in this version of events, but it does hint that the mistress fears that young Freddie might learn about abolition from reading a northern newspaper.
In My Bondage and My Freedom, Douglass confirms that he was reading reprints of abolitionist articles from northern newspapers and that these articles had the affect that was intended—they were perceived as threats by the southerners that read them. But a small detail that Douglass adds to this passage in both of his later autobiographies may subtly hint at the growing distance between himself and Garrison. In My Bondage Mrs. Auld is not just angered by catching her slave in the act of reading a newspaper, but adds that “I have had her rush at me, with the utmost fury, and snatch from my hand such newspaper or book, with something of the wrath and consternation which a traitor might be supposed to feel on being discovered in a plot” (223). This same story is repeated in Life and Times with only superficial changes; Mrs. Auld now monitors all of his movements and will accuse him of reading a book “if I remained in a separate room from the family for any considerable length of time” (531). Narrative paints the portrait of Sophia Auld as a woman who is physically and psychologically diminished by her exposure to and participation in the cruelties of slavery. Douglass’s descriptions of Mrs. Auld in My Bondage and My Freedom also depict her initial angelic demeanor and affectionate spirit before her sudden withdrawal of reading lessons. Each of the texts also documents her rapid disfigurement and the psychological decay that comes as a result of her harsh treatment of Douglass.
Variations in Douglass’s diction and anecdotal elements draw important distinctions between his separate accounts of the downward spiral of the Auld family. In My Bondage he specifies that Mrs. Auld’s innate goodness of character clashed with the necessity “for her to have some training, and some hardening, in the exercise of the slaveholder’s prerogative” before she was capable of “forgetting my human nature and character, and to treating me as a thing destitute of a moral or an intellectual nature” (Bondage 221). But Douglass’s also inserts a very similar statement into his Narrative that, in light of this motif in his later autobiographies, seems forced and disjointed within the passage that surrounds it. Douglass states that after the death of his owner Anthony Auld, all of the property of the Holme Hill Farm—including the slaves—is gathered together to be catalogued and divided among the heirs. Douglass would have been around ten years of age, but he recalls that as he gazed at the throng of slaves, young and old, pigs, cows, horses who were being appraised for their value, he “saw more clearly than ever the brutalizing effects of slavery upon both slave and slaveholder” (46). He then proceeds with a rather unremarkable passage that describes the division of the estate, except that in the lines which follow, Douglass proclaims the failure of language to convey his emotions: “I have no language to express the high excitement and deep anxiety which were felt among us poor slaves during this time” (Narrative 46). Throughout the early part of his Narrative, Douglass struggles to interpret his experiences but “finds no explanation for his condition” because “the white world rigorously suppresses all knowledge and action that might lead the narrator to a sense of humanity” (Baker 32). Admittedly, Douglass is recording his memories with the advantage of maturity and hindsight. But the remark is rendered awkward by its lack of context and its contention that a slave whose education and experience was as severely restricted as Douglass’s was could draw such a sophisticated conclusion about the damaging effects of slavery upon the purveyors of it. It seems more likely that Douglass was consciously or unconsciously trying to please an abolitionist constituency through this element of his autobiographies.
By the time that Douglass writes his 1893 compilation, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, the motif of “slavery harms the slaveholder” seems to employ some of the qualities of the Victorian era novel of social change. In recalling the devolution of Mrs. Auld’s beauty and Christian charity, he recalls that “when I went into that household, it was the abode of happiness and contentment. The wife and mistress there was a model of affection and tenderness” (530). My Bondage also stresses Mrs. Auld’s innate goodness and Christian piety, but Douglass contends that because of Mrs. Auld’s participation in slavery, “her noble soul was overthrown” (Bondage 222). The sin of slavery “soon proved its ability to divest her of these excellent qualities, and her home of its earlier happiness” (Bondage 222) and the gentle face and loving spirit of the angel of the house is transformed into a hideous visage with a twisted soul. But Douglass also gives the devil his due; the language makes it clear that Mr. Auld was the root cause of his wife’s destruction, adding that “he that overthrew it did not, himself, escape the consequences. He, not less than the other parties, was injured in his domestic peace by the fall” (Bondage 222). Douglass’s observations about the damage that slaveholding causes not just the slave but also the master echo the sentiments of Elias Hicks, a New York Quaker whose views on slavery would ultimately produce more in-fighting among Quakers than they did reform.
In Hicks’s controversial 1810 publication “Observations on Slavery of the Africans” he focused not on the welfare of slaves but on the detrimental spiritual consequences for slaveholders. For Hicks and his followers, slaveholding offered a litmus test for true Christian belief because slaveholding was “a blatant and easily identifiable sin” (Lapsansky 13) and one that could best be addressed by a spiritual repentance. After coming into contact with Garrison and the Quakers, Douglass’s expresses more nuanced attitudes toward slavery, as recorded in his second and third autobiographies, and his language seems to repeat long-held Quaker arguments against slavery that would come to fruition in the work of Garrison and the American Anti-Slavery Society.
For Frederick Douglass, “few men possessed a more heavenly countenance than William Lloyd Garrison” (Bondage 362) and the antislavery agitator is repeatedly portrayed as an incarnate Christ:
The bible was his text book—held sacred, as the word of the
Eternal Father—sinless perfection—complete submission to insults
and injuries—literal obedience to the injunction, if smitten on one
side 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, members of
one body, and the HEAD Christ Jesus.
The language here is a marked departure from much of Douglass’s other writing. Here he is uncontrolled, wild, and passionate, and his ecstatic language conveys the strength of Garrison’s magnetism. Douglass’s continued use of biblical allusions frames Garrison as an Old Testament typology of Christ—a Moses figure—who, as the allusion suggests, is God’s instrument to deliver a people in bondage.
William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass were introduced to each other at an antislavery convention in Nantucket, Massachusetts, in August 1841. Though he was still a fugitive slave, Douglass was a featured speaker at the convention, and in his Preface to Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Garrison praised the speech for “the extraordinary emotion it excited in my mind” (3) and recalled Douglass as “commanding and exact” in his physique and possessing “an intellect richly endowed” (4). Garrison quickly sized up Douglass and concluded that the fugitive slave needed only “a comparatively small amount of cultivation to make him an ornament to society and a blessing to his race” (Preface 4). At the conclusion of Douglass’s remarks, Garrison shouted his praise for Douglass, and whipped the crowd into an emotional frenzy by reminding them that Douglass was not really free and could at any moment “be carried back into slavery” (Preface 4). Garrison states that he immediately asked Douglass to “consecrate his time and talents to the promotion of the anti-slavery enterprise” (Preface 5) in the expectation that he could kill two birds with one stone. Douglass would bring a “powerful impetus” to the abolition cause and but would strike “a stunning blow at the same time inflicted on northern prejudice against a colored complexion” (Preface 5). The strength of Douglass’s physical presence would provide audiences with a representational victim of slavery—they could put a face with a name.
Douglass’s recollection of the same event in Narrative is far less bombastic in its diction and he employs a sentimental tone as he recalls that reading the Liberator was like a salvation experience: “My soul was set all on fire” (96). His speech to the gathering at Nantucket was, in turn, his baptism into the Garrison’s church of immediate emancipation. Douglass finds joy through his work for the abolitionist cause, and he hints that for Garrison and his disciples, abolition was like a religion. The Bible and the Liberator were their sacred texts, a relationship that Douglass illustrated when he placed the words of Garrison and the words of God into a parallel physical and rhetorical relationship. But he also acknowledges that transforming himself from a slave to a spokesperson for abolition was in many ways a painful journey. Theories about the complexities that face autobiographers frame the genre as one that “tends to be formal and posed, idealized or purposefully exaggerated” (Barton qtd. in Baker 27). For a person who had never experienced freedom, the prospect of expressing their selfhood is especially complicated. Houston Baker, Jr., a noted scholar of African American literature, points to the closing passages of the Narrative as evidence of Douglass’s emerging sense of self. Baker contends that “having acquired language and a set of dictates that specified freedom and equality as norms, Douglass becomes more assured” (37) of his individual identity. As he begins to discern the power of his words, Douglass tempers his growing confidence with some hesitation, viewing his life’s work as “a severe cross, and I took it up reluctantly” (96).
After several years in the trenches of the abolition battlefield, Douglass looks back on his address to the Nantucket antislavery convention as “about the only one I ever made, of which I do not remember a single connected sentence. It was with the utmost difficulty that I could stand erect, or that I could command and articulate two words without hesitation and stammering. I trembled in every limb” (Bondage 364). As Baker points out in his discussion of Douglass’s narrative, “he had first to seize the word” (31) and it was “only by grasping the word could be engage in the speech acts that would ultimately define his selfhood” (31). In this statement, he takes ownership of his words, his actions, and his selfhood—a prospect that is wrought with special complexities for the black writer because his voice “had to erupt from nothingness” (Baker 31). There were no established traditions for slave narratives and Douglass’s narrative “serves to illustrate the black autobiographer’s quest for being” (Baker 32).
While Douglass’s recollection of these events is sparsely worded, his subsequent memoirs give an expanded view of his experience. In recalling Garrison’s response to his Nantucket speech, Douglass points out that “Mr. Garrison followed me, taking me as his text” (365). Douglass communicates a realization that he would become a page that Garrison would write his fervent ideology upon. John Collins, a leader in the Massachusetts Antislavery Society, was another abolitionist that groomed Douglass for the New England speaking circuit. Collins traveled extensively with Douglass and would introduce him to each audience by calling Douglass a “graduate from the peculiar institution of slavery with [his] diploma written on his back” (365). Here, Douglass confirms the idea that his body had become a text for Garrison and the abolitionists. At other meetings, Douglass’s Quaker guardian would craft and introduction that included degrading labels like chattel, thing, or “a piece of southern ‘property’” and the announcer would instruct the crowd that “’it could speak’” (Bondage 366). His orality was stressed in these instances, as well as his novelty; he was a rare commodity because “Fugitive slaves, at that time, were not so plentiful as now; and as a fugitive slave lecturer, I had the advantage of being ‘a brand new fact’—the first one out” (Bondage 366). Douglass’s popularity as a speaker garnered some criticism from some members of the New Bedford black community who “thought very badly of my wisdom for thus exposing and degrading myself” (Bondage 366). Douglass himself grew tired of his “act” rather quickly and after the first few months of repeating the details of his story, he evidently tried to alter his speeches.
Friend George Foster instructed Douglass to stick to the facts of his experiences, letting Foster “take care of the philosophy” (Bondage 367). This curious statement foreshadows the conflict that would eventually erupt between Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison. Just as George Foster had done, Garrison would often escort Douglass to the podium and remind him to “repeat the same old story” (Bondage 367). Douglass comments that “I could not always obey, for I was now reading and thinking. New views of the subject were presented to my mind” (Bondage 367). This exchange echoes the objections that Mr. Auld raised when he realized that his wife was teaching Frederick how to read. He told his wife that after teaching a slave to read “there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would become at once unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no harm but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy“ (Narrative 36). As often happens in teacher-pupil relationships, Douglass began to see himself as an equal to his mentor.
Another revealing piece of advice from Douglass’s handlers was related to his growing rhetorical skills. Quaker activist George Foster warned Douglass, “People won’t believe you ever was a slave, Frederick, if you keep on this way” (Bondage 367). Evidently the refinement of his speech was creating a suspicion among the spectators that Douglass was not a slave. Douglass recalls that one adviser suggested that he adopt the broken dialect of slaves stating, “Better have a little of the plantation manner speech than not; ‘tis best you not seem too learned” (Bondage 367). Other observers expressed doubts over Douglass’s veracity because he would not give details about his owners or his origins, and most importantly he would not reveal the particulars of his escape. In order to end the speculation, Douglass was “induced to write out the leading facts connected with my experience in slavery” (Bondage 368). In The Journey Back, Houston Baker contends that in writing a personal narrative, “the slave’s task was primarily one of creating a human and liberated self rather than projecting one that reflected a peculiar landscape and tradition” (31-32). The progression of Douglass’s autobiographies illustrate the growth of his intellect and the depths of his self awareness. While it seems counterproductive to criticize either Garrison or Douglass for the choices that they made or should have made, Baker claims that within Douglass’s autobiographical works “the light of abolition is always implicitly present, guiding the narrator into calm, Christian, and publicly accessible harbors” (38). And while Garrison’s heavy-handedness is a central feature in Douglass’s Narrative, in My Bondage and My Freedom and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, Garrison’s influence diminishes as Douglass’s own voice shows forth.
In the chapter entitled “A Change Came O’er the Spirit of My Dream” from My Bondage and My Freedom, Douglass writes that
the more I read, the more I was led to abhor and detest slavery, and my enslavers. “Slaveholders,” thought I, “are only a band of successful robbers, who left their homes and went into Africa for the purpose of stealing and reducing my people to slavery.” I loathed them as the meanest and the most wicked of men (Bondage 227).
The ideas expressed in this passage resonate with a familiar Quaker argument that slavery is incompatible with Christian teaching because it is a system that at its core constitutes theft. But Douglass’s decision to use quotation marks to set apart what he offers as his own thoughts is troubling. He draws a distinction about his language here that invites the interpretation that Douglass is merely parroting the thoughts of Garrison by separating these words from those before and after. Perhaps Douglass is marking a subconscious distinction between the source of his thoughts. Perhaps he is notating a difference between his own emotions and the patterns of protest speech that Garrison encouraged him to adopt. In this section of My Bondage and My Freedom, Douglass uses quotation marks to denote speech acts, so another possible interpretation is that this was a phrase that equates slaveholders with thieves might have a stock expression in his speeches to anti-slavery audiences. But such explanations do not entirely satisfy the question of whether these words are Douglass’s own or whether he is mimicking the speech acts of Garrison or other anti-slavery activists that were his constant companions during the years that he was traveling through New England to speak on behalf of Garrison’s Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society or the American Anti-Slavery Society.
As part of his quest for self awareness, Douglass he would eventually part company with Garrison because of philosophical disagreements, though certainly this statement reflects that there was also a personal aspect to the controversy. Douglass’s autobiographies also reflect a high degree of introspection. Despite his enthusiasm for public speaking, he realized that he was perpetuating a façade for the good of the cause, and “it did not entirely satisfy me to narrate wrongs; I felt like denouncing them. […] Besides, I was growing, and needed room” (Bondage 367). Douglass is acknowledging a new self that was emerging as his educational horizons expanded. He makes an important philosophical decision to take control of his speech acts and to exercise his power to “speak just the word that seemed to me the word to be spoken by me” (Bondage 367).
Garrison persuaded Douglass that writing his story would help dispel the doubts about Douglass’s claim that he was a fugitive slave. Garrison and his Quaker counterparts needed Douglass’s physicality as well as his orality to bolster their cause, and perhaps Douglass needed them. too. Still, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave was in many ways a propaganda piece for Garrison and the abolitionists that was designed to “prove that the Narrator had indeed been a slave” (Baker 38). And although it is clear that Douglass’s autobiography was written at least in part to answer questions about the truth of Douglass’s spoken accounts of his years as a slave, it is also true that writing his Narrative was an important step for Douglass both in terms of the development of his public battle to end slavery, and also for his private struggle to make sense of his difficult past so that he could create a future.
1 Nash and Soderlund; New York: Oxford U. Press, 1991. This volume provides “exhaustive research of individual acts—of freedom” committed by Quakers and others who embraced Quaker ideology though not officially joined to any particular Quaker meeting. While Soderlund’s earlier analysis of Quaker abolition efforts in Quakers and Slavery concluded that “no single factor or circumstance accounts for the origins and growth of eighteenth-century Quaker abolitionism” (187), her position appears somewhat changed in the joint publication with Nash that relies heavily on statistical measures of the wealth and taxation rates of Quaker merchants.
2 Evidence to explain why the reiteration of Fox’s admonishment against slavery was largely ignored when it came from the pen of George Keith may stem from Keith’s criticism of Quaker power systems that were already in place when he arrived in Philadelphia in 1689. Keith’s real or perceived radicalism undoubtedly ruffled the feathers of Quakers who held political appointments when he questioned “whether Quakers should hold public office because inward light theology seemed to contradict the public use and display of power” (Mulford 599).
3 In “Radical and Conservative Friends in the Fight Against Slavery,” Soderlund describes the famous incident: “On that occasion Lay arrived at the meeting in a military uniform with a sword concealed under a cloak
, carrying what appeared to be a Bible” (21). Lay lambasted the Quakers for the hypocrisy of slaveholding then “stabbed the book with the sword, piercing a bladder of pokeberry juice that was hidden inside and splattering weighty Friends sitting nearby” (21).
4 This was an entity created by George Fox that “examined the writing of Friends and decided if they should be published” (Soderlund 193). Acceptable publications were those that “reflected the views of the Society” (Soderlund 193). The Overseers were so powerful that they even refused some of the founder’s writings.
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