Cut off from his mother he was looked after by his grandmother. She had to take him when he was 6 to his owner’s home to begin his working life as a domestic servant. That night the slave boy who in later years would advise the American president Abraham Lincoln in the White house cried himself to sleep on a cold stone floor.
When he was 8 he was sent to Baltimore to be a companion to the son of his owner’s brother and his wife Sophia. Sophia taught him to read and introduced him to the bible. For the rest of his life he was a devout and radical Christian.
One day he was on the docks in Baltimore helping some Irish men unload goods on the docks. They were impressed with his ability.
Frederick Douglass reminisced ‘The Irish man remarked that it was a pity so fine a little fellow as me should be a slave for life. He told me to escape north where I would find friends and be free. I feigned ignorance. White men were known to encourage slaves to escape, and then, to get the reward, catch them and return them to their masters. But I remembered the advice and from that time I resolved to run away.’
When he was 16 he collapsed from sunstroke while threshing wheat. He was viciously beaten by his slavemaster. He ran 7 miles to his owner’s home and begged to be sent to another farm. His request was refused. Within days his slavemaster attacked him again. This time he fought back.
He remembered ‘The fight was a turning point in my life. It rekindled in my breast the smouldering embers of liberty. It brought up my Baltimore dreams and revived a sense of my own manhood. I was a changed being after that fight. I was nothing before. I WAS A MAN NOW.’
And a man, a slave man was worth 1000 dollars that is 75000 dollars in today’s money. Why would any slave owner want to grant freedom to his property?
When he was 20 Frederick Douglass planned his escape. He jumped onto a train heading north at the last minute before it left. After several dangerous challenges he arrived in New York the next morning and headed for the home of a black journalist involved in the underground railway – an escape organisation for black slaves. New York was no place for runaways as slave catchers scoured the streets of New York so he headed out to Massachusetts.
But he could not switch off his slave past
He said, ‘My dreams were plagued by the dead heavy footsteps and piteous cries of the chained gangs of slaves I had heard marching to the docks in Baltimore prior to sailing south. I began to address anti slavery groups. My words were picked up by the radical abolitionist newspaper The Liberator.
I was asked to become a paid agent of the Massachusetts Anti slavery society.
I would go on the road and tell of my experience of Slavery.
I became a close friend of Charles Lennox Remond a free black man who had travelled to Ireland and who had met the great Irish nationalist Daniel O’Connell. He was also an ardent anti slavery campaigner.
At first my speeches were limited to the story of my life as a slave. But I soon wanted to say more. I was reading and thinking. It did not entirely satisfy me to narrate the wrongs. I wanted to denounce them.’
Douglass began to attack the everyday discrimination of the North that saw him thrown off trains for refusing to sit in black carriages and he also turned his attention to the church.
Frederick Douglass was powerfully drawn to religion but he had little reverence for religion. He had come to faith as he learned to read using the bible. He remembered how the slave master who beat him without mercy would smile at slaves on Sunday on the way to church and whip them on a Monday. Douglass would parody slavery supporting ministers to great effect and mimic them ‘Look at your hard horny hands and muscular frames. This is proof that God has adapted you to hard physical labour. Your masters who have slender frames and long delicate fingers are designed for ….thinking.’
At one of his first speeches in Dublin he addressed the question of religion. He stepped forward brandishing chains and whips
‘Help break the chains which bind the black man in America.
I love religion. I love the religion of Jesus which is pure and peaceable……..I ask you all to love this religion… but I hate this religion which prostitutes his blessed precepts to the vile purposes of slavery.….which tears the wife from the husband …..which separates the child from the parent….which covers the backs of men and women with bloody scars …….I hate such a religion as this for it is not Christianity … it is of the devil. I ask you to assist me in putting in its place the religion of Jesus.
Let all of every denomination in Ireland be faithful to their saviour and slavery in America will soon fall to the ground.
I am the representative of three million bleeding slaves. I have felt the lash myself. I implore you to bring the weight of public opinion to bear on the hearts and consciences of slaveholders.
Tell them to give up their vile practices or be held in contempt by the entire civilised world!’
Douglass meets Daniel O’Connell
On September 27 1845, Douglass heard Daniel O’Connell speak in Dublin although the great man did not know he was present. A large portion of his speech was devoted to condemnation of slavery. Douglass who himself became known as the black O’Connell for his oratorical skills could quote O’Connell even decades later. At the end of O’Connell’s speech Douglass introduced himself and O’Connell invited him to speak and was hugely impressed.
Douglass who himself became known as the black O’Connell for his oratorical skills, could quote O’Connell even decades later.
‘I am the friend of liberty in every clime, class and colour. My sympathy with distress is not confined within the narrow bounds of my own green island … no it extends itself to every corner of the earth…..my heart walks abroad and wherever the miserable is to be succoured and the slave to be set free , there my spirit is at home.’
Douglass visits Wexford and speaks at the Arts Centre (previously the Assembly rooms)
The coach from Dublin to Wexford left Dawson Street every morning at 7 o’clock. It was 10-hour journey over roughly surfaced roads. Douglass travelled with Richard Webb and his sister-in-law Maria Waring and others to stay with Joseph Poole a young Quaker cousin of Webb’s in Wexford.
Maria was an independent young woman and a committed anti- slavery campaigner who had attended the world anti-slavery convention in London in 1840 when she was just 22. She remained in the cause all her life.
On Wednesday October 8th 1845 Douglass appeared before a largely Quaker audience in the bright Georgian meeting room upstairs in the Assembly rooms in Wexford for a second night running .
There were no reporters present but Joseph Poole a would-be poet and lively letter writer sent an account to the papers. In it he said ‘this Frederick Douglass – this chattel, this thing, this article of property worth 1000 dollars at the auction block of the capital of America, proclaimed aloud in the Assembly Room on Wednesday evening his manhood and the manhood of his race and its identity with the whole brotherhood of man.’
Douglass also received favourable mention in the Wexford Conservative albeit in the middle of a rambling anti- Catholic diatribe.
Taking the pledge.
Douglass became teetotal when he was just 20. He had lived with an apparently kind slave owner, Mr Freeland who gave his slaves apple brandy. He said he had seen through the apparent kindness for what it really was: another way to keep the minds of slaves away from thoughts of freedom. He began to view temperance as an important step on the path to slave emancipation.
Fr Theobald Mathew had taken the pledge to abstain from alcohol by joining the Cork Total Abstinence Society. Although never a great speaker his compassionate manner drew people to him and he attracted large crowds. In limerick he pledged 100,000 people in 1839 and 85,000 in Birr in Offaly in 1840. By 1843 half the people of Ireland had taken the pledge. Douglass had heard of him in America. He finally met him in person at a soiree held in Douglass’ honour in Cork. ‘All great reforms go together,’ he said. Douglass saw the opportunity of tasking the pledge from the man he called the ‘living saviour of Ireland’ as too good to give up. ‘I now reckon myself as the fifth of the last five of Father Mathew’s 5,487, 495 temperance children.’
However, when Fr Mathew went to America in 1849 he refused to be involved in the abolition movement even suggesting that nowhere in the bible was slavery condemned. Where others were enraged, Douglass mourned. Later he too became angry at how he felt the abolitionist movement had been betrayed by Fr Mathew’s change in his principles.