Frederick Douglass (Chesnutt)/VII
Douglass landed April 20, 1847. He returned to the United States with the intention of publishing the newspaper for which his English friends had so kindly furnished the means; but his plan meeting with opposition from his abolitionist friends, who thought the platform offered him a better field for usefulness, he deferred the enterprise until near the end of the year. In the mean time he plunged again into the thick of the anti-slavery agitation. We find him lecturing in May in the Broadway Tabernacle, New York, and writing letters to the anti-slavery papers. In June he was elected president of the New England Anti-slavery Convention. In August and September he went on a lecturing tour with Garrison and others through Pennsylvania and Ohio. On this tour the party attended the commencement exercises of Oberlin College, famous for its anti-slavery principles and practice, and spoke to immense meetings at various places in Ohio and New York. Their cause was growing in popular favor; and, in places where formerly they had spoken out of doors because of the difficulty of securing a place of meeting, they were now compelled to speak in the open air, because the churches and halls would not contain their audiences.
On December 3, 1847, the first number of the _North Star_ appeared. Douglass's abolitionist friends had not yet become reconciled to this project, and his persistence in it resulted in a temporary coldness between them. They very naturally expected him to be guided by their advice. They had found him on the wharf at New Bedford, and given him his chance in life; and they may easily be pardoned for finding it presumptuous in him to disregard their advice and adopt a new line of conduct without consulting them. Mr. Garrison wrote in a letter to his wife from Cleveland, "It will also greatly surprise our friends in Boston to hear that in regard to his prospect of establishing a paper here, to be called the North Star, he never opened his lips to me on the subject nor asked my advice in any particular whatever." But Samuel May Jr., in a letter written to one of Douglass's English friends, in which he mentions this charge of Garrison, adds, "It is only common justice to Frederick Douglass to inform you that this is a mistake; that, on the contrary, he did speak to Mr. Garrison about it, just before he was taken ill at Cleveland." The probability is that Douglass had his mind made up, and did not seek advice, and that Mr. Garrison did not attach much importance to any casual remark Douglass may have made upon the subject. In a foot-note to the _Life and Times of Garrison_ it is stated:--
"This enterprise was not regarded with favor by the leading abolitionists, who knew only too well the precarious support which a fifth anti-slavery paper, edited by a colored man, must have, and who appreciated to the full Douglass's unrivalled powers as a lecturer in the field ... As anticipated, it nearly proved the ruin of its projector; but by extraordinary exertions it was kept alive, not, however, on the platform of Garrisonian abolitionism. The necessary support could only be secured by a change of principles in accordance with Mr. Douglass's immediate (political abolition) environment."
Douglass's own statement does not differ very widely from this, except that he does not admit the mercenary motive for his change of principles. It was in deference, however, to the feelings of his former associates that the _North Star_ was established at Rochester instead of in the East, where the field for anti-slavery papers was already fully occupied. In Rochester, then as now the centre of a thrifty, liberal, and progressive population, Douglass gradually won the sympathy and support which such an enterprise demanded.
The _North Star_, in size, typography, and interest, compared favorably with the other weeklies of the day, and lived for seventeen years. It had, however, its "ups and downs." At one time the editor had mortgaged his house to pay the running expenses; but friends came to his aid, his debts were paid, and the circulation of the paper doubled. In _My Bondage and My Freedom_ Douglass gives the names of numerous persons who helped him in these earlier years of editorial effort, among whom were a dozen of the most distinguished public men of his day. After the _North Star_ had been in existence several years, its name was changed to _Frederick Douglass's Paper_, to give it a more distinctive designation, the newspaper firmament already scintillating with many other "Stars."
In later years Douglass speaks of this newspaper enterprise as one of the wisest things he ever undertook. To paraphrase Lord Bacon's famous maxim, much reading of life and of books had made him a full man, and much speaking had made him a ready man. The attempt to put facts and arguments into literary form tended to make him more logical in reasoning and more exact in statement. One of the effects of Douglass's editorial responsibility and the influences brought to bear upon him by reason of it, was a change in his political views. Until he began the publication of the _North Star_ and for several years thereafter, he was, with the rest of the Garrisonians, a pronounced disunionist. He held to the Garrisonian doctrine that the pro-slavery Constitution of the United States was a "league with death and a covenant with hell," maintained that anti-slavery men should not vote under it, and advocated the separation of the free States as the only means of preventing the utter extinction of freedom by the ever-advancing encroachments of the slave power. In Rochester he found himself in the region where the Liberty party, under the leadership of James G. Birney, Salmon P. Chase, Gerrit Smith, and others, had its largest support. The Liberty party maintained that slavery could be fought best with political weapons, that by the power of the ballot slavery could be confined strictly within its constitutional limits and prevented from invading new territory, and that it could be extinguished by the respective States whenever the growth of public opinion demanded it. One wing of the party took the more extreme ground that slavery was contrary to the true intent and meaning of the Constitution, and demanded that the country should return to the principles of liberty upon which it was founded. Though the more radical abolitionists were for a time bitterly opposed to these views, yet the Liberty party was the natural outgrowth of the abolition agitation. Garrison and Phillips and Douglass and the rest had planted, Birney and Gerrit Smith and Chase and the rest watered, and the Union party, led by the great emancipator, garnered the grain after a bloody harvest.
Several influences must have co-operated to modify Douglass's political views. The moral support and occasional financial aid given his paper by members of the Liberty party undoubtedly predisposed him favorably to their opinions. His retirement as agent of the Anti-slavery Society and the coolness resulting therefrom had taken him out of the close personal contact with those fervent spirits who had led the van in the struggle for liberty. Their zeal had been more disinterested, perhaps, than Douglass's own; for, after all, they had no personal stake in the outcome, while to Douglass and his people the abolition of slavery was a matter of life and death. Serene in the high altitude of their convictions, the Garrisonians would accept no halfway measures, would compromise no principles, and, if their right arm offended them, would cut it off with sublime fortitude and cast it into the fire. They wanted a free country, where the fleeing victim of slavery could find a refuge. Douglass perceived the immense advantage these swarming millions would gain through being free in the States where they already were. He had always been minded to do the best thing possible. When a slave, he had postponed his escape until it seemed entirely feasible. When denied cabin passage on steamboats, he had gone in the steerage or on deck. When he had been refused accommodation in a hotel, he had sought it under any humble roof that offered. It would have been a fine thing in the abstract to refuse the half-loaf, but in that event we should have had no Frederick Douglass. It was this very vein of prudence, keeping always in view the object to be attained, and in a broad, non-Jesuitical sense subordinating the means to the end, that enabled Douglass to prolong his usefulness a generation after the abolition of slavery. Douglass in his _Life and Times_ states his own case as follows:
"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 favor 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 opinion was not exactly the opinion of the majority of the Liberty party, which did not question the constitutionality of slavery in the slave States. Neither was it the opinion of the Supreme Court, which in the Dred Scott case held that the Constitution guaranteed not only the right to hold slaves, but to hold them in free States. Nevertheless, entertaining the views he did, Douglass was able to support the measures which sought to oppose slavery through political action. In August, 1848, while his Garrisonian views were as yet unchanged, he had been present as a spectator at the Free Soil Convention at Buffalo. In his Life and Times he says of this gathering: "This Buffalo Convention of Free Soilers, however low their standard, did lay the foundation of a grand superstructure. It was a powerful link in the chain of events by which the slave system has been abolished, the slave emancipated, and the country saved from dismemberment." In 1851 Douglass announced that his sympathies were with the voting abolitionists, and thenceforth he supported by voice and pen Hale, Fremont, and Lincoln, the successive candidates of the new party.
Douglass's political defection very much intensified the feeling against him among his former coadjutors. The Garrisonians, with their usual plain speaking, did not hesitate to say what they thought of Douglass. Their three papers, the _Liberator_, the _Standard_, and the _Freeman_, assailed Douglass fiercely, and charged him with treachery, inconsistency, ingratitude, and all the other crimes so easily imputed to one who changes his opinions. Garrison and Phillips and others of his former associates denounced him as a deserter, and attributed his change of heart to mercenary motives. Douglass seems to have borne himself with rare dignity and moderation in this trying period. He realized perfectly well that he was on the defensive, and that the burden devolved upon him to justify his change of front. This he seems to have attempted vigorously, but by argument rather than invective. Even during the height of the indignation against him Douglass disclaimed any desire to antagonize his former associates. He simply realized that there was more than one way to fight slavery,--which knew a dozen ways to maintain itself,--and had concluded to select the one that seemed most practical. He was quite willing that his former friends should go their own way. "No personal assaults," he wrote to George Thompson, the English abolitionist, who wrote to him for an explanation of the charges made against him, "shall ever lead me to forget that some, who in America have often made me the subject of personal abuse, are in their own way earnestly working for the abolition of slavery."
In later years, when political action had resulted in abolition, some of these harsh judgments were modified, and Douglass and his earlier friends met in peace and harmony. The debt he owed to William Lloyd Garrison he ever delighted to acknowledge. His speech on the death of Garrison breathes in every word the love and honor in which he held him. In one of the last chapters of his _Life and Times_ he makes a sweeping acknowledgment of his obligations to the men and women who rendered his career possible.
"It was my good fortune," he writes, "to get out of slavery at the right time, to be speedily brought in contact with that circle of highly cultivated men and women, banded together for the overthrow of slavery, of which William Lloyd Garrison was the acknowledged leader. To these friends, earnest, courageous, inflexible, ready to own me as a man and a brother, against all the scorn, contempt, and derision of a slavery-polluted atmosphere, I owe my success in life."