By Edward T. O’Donnell
One hundred fifty-six years ago this week, on Nov. 10, 1845, Frederick Douglass spoke before a large gathering in the city of Limerick. The great abolitionist was in the midst of a speaking tour of Britain and Ireland, trying to drum up international support for ridding the world of the scourge of slavery. It proved to be one of the most important journeys of his remarkable life.
Douglass was born a slave in 1818, the son of an enslaved woman and her white master. Separated from his mother as a baby, he grew up on a Maryland plantation. When he was 7 his master sold him to Thomas Auld in Baltimore, who employed him in a shipyard. At great personal risk, he learned to read and write, an accomplishment that whetted his appetite for freedom. One day in late 1838 he slipped aboard a northbound vessel.
He arrived in the seaport town of New Bedford, Mass., in September 1838. He quickly found employment on the docks. It was hard work, but he loved it, for it was voluntary labor and he was paid for it.
Not long after settling in the North Douglass began attending abolitionist meetings of free blacks and soon began speaking at them. In 1841, he accepted the invitation of several prominent white abolitionists to speak before white audiences throughout Massachusetts. He soon became the most effective spokesman for abolition. No amount of passion and eloquence summoned by his fellow abolitionist speakers could match the effect Douglass had on his audiences. To be sure, he was a superb orator, gifted with a deep, resonant voice. Far more important, however, was the fact that he was a black man and a former slave. The moment he opened his mouth, Douglass shattered the racist claim that blacks were incapable of education and reason.
In fact, Douglass’a performances were so stunning that some openly doubted he had ever been a slave. To counter these claims, Douglass penned his autobiography, “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself.” In the book he provided a damning portrait of slavery and a detailed account of his life, including the name of his former master. Published in 1845, it became a best-seller in the North, so much so that Douglass feared for his safety (his former master now knew where he lived) and arranged to travel to England, Ireland, and Scotland. There he could spread the word of abolition, sell a few books, and live without fear of capture.
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Douglass arrived in Ireland in late August 1845. His first order of business was business — a meeting with publisher Richard D. Webb of Dublin to arrange for a British edition of his autobiography. After giving several well-received speeches in Dublin, he moved on to Wexford, Waterford, and then Cork, delivering speeches before crowds sympathetic to abolition. In Cork, he enjoyed an extended stay of six weeks with the family of Thomas Jennings, a prosperous Protestant merchant and abolitionist. His speeches drew immense crowds of admirers who, like their American counterparts, were astonished by the image of a former slave with a noble, Victorian bearing and extraordinary skills of oratory.
In late October, Douglass left Cork and headed northwest to Limerick. Along the way he saw for the first time the dreadful condition of the Irish peasantry then just beginning to feel the effects of the great Famine. As he later recounted, he was stunned by their windowless mud hovels with “a board on a box for a table, rags on straw for a bed, and a picture of the crucifixion on the wall.” It reminded him of the conditions he saw in slave quarters as a child. “I confess I should be ashamed to lift my voice against American slavery,” he wrote, “but that I know the cause of humanity is one the world over.”
Ever perceptive, Douglass also noted the glaring contradiction of the abolitionist movement in Ireland. The people who flocked to his speeches, mostly wealthy Protestant Irish, were easily moved to tears and outrage when they heard his stories of cruelty endured by enslaved Africans in America. Yet they seemed blind to the suffering Irish Catholic peasantry.
His speech in Limerick on Nov. 10 was similar to the others delivered elsewhere. First he gave a brief account of his life of slavery and escape into freedom. Then he shocked his audience with a vivid portrait of the savage cruelty experienced by slaves in America — whippings, brandings, and murder. From there he moved on to clarify a common misperception held by Europeans — that because most Americans lived in states where slavery was banned, America was only partially tainted by the sin of slavery. Impossible, he thundered, all Americans live under one government and one constitution and therefore all share equally in the guilt of the “foul crime of slavery.” So too, he boldly asserted, did nearly all the established churches in America because they declined to condemn it.
Douglass’s speaking tour moved on to Belfast (and later Scotland) and continued to garner enthusiastic crowds and headlines. By now he was struck by another contradiction: that while the people of Ireland exhibited strong sympathy toward the abolitionist cause, their fellow Irishmen in America showed nothing but hostility to the idea that the slaves should be freed. Like Daniel O’Connell, Ireland’s celebrated “Liberator” who also was an abolitionist, Douglass was amazed and dismayed by the speed with which racism infected the minds of Irish immigrants. As he later put it:
“Perhaps no class of our fellow citizens has carried this prejudice against color to a point more extreme and dangerous than have our Catholic Irish fellow citizens, and no people on the face of the earth have been more relentlessly persecuted and oppressed on account of race and religion than have this same Irish people. The Irish who, at home, readily sympathize with the oppressed everywhere, are instantly taught when they step upon our soil to hate and despise the Negro. They are taught that he eats the bread that belongs to them.”
Why this occurred is a question that historians continue to debate, though it clearly had much to do with the poverty and discrimination experienced by the Irish in antebellum America. They feared labor competition with free blacks and realized the psychological and economic benefits of making sure there was at least one group below them on the social scale.
While Douglass found no answer to this question in Ireland or Scotland, he did manage to solve one very important personal problem. While in Scotland, Douglass confided to his abolitionist hosts that he feared capture and reenslavement should he return to America. They promptly began a fund-raising campaign and by the summer of 1846 managed to purchase Douglass’s freedom from his former master in Maryland. Free at last, Douglass returned to the U.S. in 1846 whereupon he continued the struggle against slavery.
HIBERNIAN HISTORY WEEK
Nov. 7, 1990: Mary Robinson is elected Ireland’s first woman president.
Nov. 12, 1936: Eugene O’Neill is awarded a Nobel Prize for literature.
Nov. 13, 1775: Gen. Richard Montgomery leads American forces in taking Montreal during the American Revolution.
Nov. 8, 1847: The author of “Dracula,” Bram Stoker, is born in Dublin.
Nov. 10, 1879: Nationalist Padraic Pearse is born in Dublin.
Nov. 12, 1929: Actress and Princess of Monaco Grace Kelly is born in Philadelphia.
Readers may contact Edward T. O’Donnell at odonnell@EdwardTODonnell.com.