In 1841 Douglass entered upon that epoch of his life which brought the hitherto obscure refugee prominently before the public, and in which his services as anti-slavery orator and reformer constitute his chief claim to enduring recollection. Millions of negroes whose lives had been far less bright than Douglass's had lived and died in slavery. Thousands of fugitives under assumed names were winning a precarious livelihood in the free States and trembling in constant fear of the slave-catcher. Some of these were doing noble work in assisting others to escape from bondage. Mr. Siebert, in his _Underground Railroad_, mentions one fugitive slave, John Mason by name, who assisted thirteen hundred others to escape from Kentucky. Another picturesque fugitive was Harriet Tubman, who devoted her life to this work with a courage, skill, and success that won her a wide reputation among the friends of freedom. A number of free colored men in the North, a few of them wealthy and cultivated, lent their time and their means to this cause. But it was reserved for Douglass, by virtue of his marvellous gift of oratory, to become pre-eminently the personal representative of his people for a generation.
In 1841 the Massachusetts Anti-slavery Society, which had been for some little time weakened by faction, arranged its differences, and entered upon a campaign of unusual activity, which found expression in numerous meetings throughout the free States, mainly in New England. On August 15 of that year a meeting was held at Nantucket, Massachusetts. The meeting was conducted by John A. Collins, at that time general agent of the society, and was addressed by William Lloyd Garrison and other leading abolitionists. Douglass had taken a holiday and come from New Bedford to attend this convention, without the remotest thought of taking part except as a spectator. The proceedings were interesting, and aroused the audience to a high state of feeling. There was present in the meeting a certain abolitionist, by name William C. Coffin, who had heard Douglass speak in the little negro Sunday-school at New Bedford, and who knew of his recent escape from slavery. To him came the happy inspiration to ask Douglass to speak a few words to the convention by way of personal testimony. Collins introduced the speaker as "a graduate from slavery, with his diploma written upon his back."
Douglass himself speaks very modestly about this, his first public appearance. He seems, from his own account, to have suffered somewhat from stage fright, which was apparently his chief memory concerning it. The impressions of others, however, allowing a little for the enthusiasm of the moment, are a safer guide as to the effect of Douglass's first speech. Parker Pillsbury reported that, "though it was late in the evening when the young man closed his remarks, none seemed to know or care for the hour.... The crowded congregation had been wrought up almost to enchantment during the whole long evening, particularly by some of the utterances of the last speaker [Douglass], as he turned over the terrible apocalypse of his experience in slavery." Mr. Garrison bore testimony to "the extraordinary emotion it exerted on his own mind and to the powerful impression it exerted upon a crowded auditory." "Patrick Henry," he declared, "had never made a more eloquent speech than the one they had just listened to from the lips of the hunted fugitive." Upon Douglass and his speech as a text Mr. Garrison delivered one of the sublimest and most masterly efforts of his life; and then and there began the friendship between the fugitive slave and the great agitator which opened the door for Douglass to a life of noble usefulness, and secured to the anti-slavery cause one of its most brilliant and effective orators.
At Garrison's instance Collins offered Douglass employment as lecturer for the Anti-slavery Society, though the idea of thus engaging him doubtless occurred to more than one of the abolition leaders who heard his Nantucket speech. Douglass was distrustful of his own powers. Only three years out of slavery, with little learning and no experience as a public speaker, painfully aware of the prejudice which must be encountered by men of his color, fearful too of the publicity that might reveal his whereabouts to his legal owner, who might reclaim his property wherever found, he yielded only reluctantly to Mr. Collins's proposition, and agreed at first upon only a three months' term of service.
Most of the abolitionists were, or meant to be, consistent in their practice of what they preached; and so, when Douglass was enrolled as one of the little band of apostles, they treated him literally as a man and a brother. Their homes, their hearts, and their often none too well-filled purses were open to him. In this new atmosphere his mind expanded, his spirit took on high courage, and he read and studied diligently, that he might make himself worthy of his opportunity to do something for his people.
During the remainder of 1841 Douglass travelled and lectured in Eastern Massachusetts with George Foster, in the interest of the two leading abolition journals, the _Anti-slavery Standard_ and the _Liberator_, and also lectured in Rhode Island against the proposed Dorr constitution, which sought to limit the right of suffrage to white male citizens only, thus disfranchising colored men who had theretofore voted. With Foster and Pillsbury and Parker and Monroe and Abby Kelly [Kelley] he labored to defeat the Dorr constitution and at the same time promote the abolition gospel. The proposed constitution was defeated, and colored men who could meet the Rhode Island property qualification were left in possession of the right to vote.
[Footnote 1: Editor's Note to Dover Edition: Reverend Theodore Parker (1810-1860) was a Unitarian minister who graduated from the Harvard Divinity School and was active in the Boston area.]
[Footnote 2: Editor's Note to Dover Edition: James Monroe (1821-1898), a New Englander with a Quaker mother; in 1839 he became an Abolitionist lecturer instead of enrolling in college.]
[Footnote 3: Editor's Note to Dover Edition: Abigail Kelley Foster (1811-1887), who married another Abolitionist, Stephen Foster, in 1845, was a Quaker orator and organizer on behalf of the abolition of slavery and for women's right to vote.]
Douglass had plunged into this new work, after the first embarrassment wore off, with all the enthusiasm of youth and hope. But, except among the little band of Garrisonians and their sympathizers, his position did not relieve him from the disabilities attaching to his color. The feeling toward the negro in New England in 1841 was but little different from that in the State of Georgia to-day. Men of color were regarded and treated as belonging to a distinctly inferior order of creation. At hotels and places of public resort they were refused entertainment. On railroads and steamboats they were herded off by themselves in mean and uncomfortable cars. If welcomed in churches at all, they were carefully restricted to the negro pew. As in the Southern States to-day, no distinction was made among them in these respects by virtue of dress or manners or culture or means; but all were alike discriminated against because of their dark skins. Some of Douglass's abolition friends, among whom he especially mentions Wendell Phillips and two others of lesser note, won their way to his heart by at all times refusing to accept privileges that were denied to their swarthy companion. Douglass resented proscription wherever met with, and resisted it with force when the odds were not too overwhelming. More than once he was beaten and maltreated by railroad conductors and brakemen. For a time the Eastern Railroad ran its cars through Lynn, Massachusetts, without stopping, because Douglass, who resided at that time in Lynn, insisted on riding in the white people's car, and made trouble when interfered with. Often it was impossible for the abolitionists to secure a meeting-place; and in several instances Douglass paraded the streets with a bell, like a town crier, to announce that he would lecture in the open air.
Some of Douglass's friends, it must be admitted, were at times rather extreme in their language, and perhaps stirred up feelings that a more temperate vocabulary would not have aroused. None of them ever hesitated to call a spade a spade, and some of them denounced slavery and all its sympathizers with the vigor and picturesqueness of a Muggletonian or Fifth Monarchy man of Cromwell's time execrating his religious adversaries. And, while it was true enough that the Church and the State were, generally speaking, the obsequious tools of slavery, it was not easy for an abolitionist to say so in vehement language without incurring the charge of treason or blasphemy,--an old trick of bigotry and tyranny to curb freedom of thought and freedom of speech. The little personal idiosyncrasies which some of the reformers affected, such as long hair in the men and short hair in the women,--there is surely some psychological reason why reformers run to such things,--served as convenient excuses for gibes and unseemly interruptions at their public meetings. On one memorable occasion, at Syracuse, New York, in November, 1842, Douglass and his fellows narrowly escaped tar and feathers. But, although Douglass was vehemently denunciatory of slavery in all its aspects, his twenty years of training in that hard school had developed in him a vein of prudence that saved him from these verbal excesses,--perhaps there was also some element of taste involved,--and thus made his arguments more effective than if he had alienated his audiences by indiscriminate attacks on all the institutions of society. No one could justly accuse Frederick Douglass of cowardice or self-seeking; yet he was opportunist enough to sacrifice the immaterial for the essential, and to use the best means at hand to promote the ultimate object sought, although the means thus offered might not be the ideal instrument. It was doubtless this trait that led Douglass, after he separated from his abolitionist friends, to modify his views upon the subject of disunion and the constitutionality of slavery, and to support political parties whose platforms by no means expressed the full measure of his convictions.
In 1843 the New England Anti-slavery Society resolved, at its annual meeting in the spring, to stir the Northern heart and rouse the national conscience by a series of one hundred conventions in New Hampshire, Vermont, New York, Ohio, Indiana, and Pennsylvania. Douglass was assigned as one of the agents for the conduct of this undertaking. Among those associated in this work, which extended over five months, were John A. Collins, the president of the society, who mapped out the campaign; James Monroe; George Bradburn; William A. White; Charles L. Remond, a colored orator, born in Massachusetts, who rendered effective service in the abolition cause; and Sidney Howard Gay, at that time managing editor of the _National Anti-slavery Standard_ and later of the New York _Tribune_ and the New York _Evening Post._
The campaign upon which this little band of missionaries set out was no inconsiderable one. They were not going forth to face enthusiastic crowds of supporters, who would meet them with brass bands and shouts of welcome. They were more likely to be greeted with hisses and cat-calls, sticks and stones, stale eggs and decayed cabbages, hoots and yells of derision, and decorations of tar and feathers.
In some towns of Vermont slanderous reports were made in advance of their arrival, their characters were assailed, and their aims and objects misrepresented. In Syracuse, afterward distinguished for its strong anti-slavery sentiment, the abolitionists were compelled to hold their meetings in the public park, from inability to procure a house in which to speak; and only after their convention was well under way were they offered the shelter of a dilapidated and abandoned church. In Rochester they met with a more hospitable reception. The indifference of Buffalo so disgusted Douglass's companions that they shook the dust of the city from their feet, and left Douglass, who was accustomed to coldness and therefore undaunted by it, to tread the wine-press alone. He spoke in an old post-office for nearly a week, to such good purpose that a church was thrown open to him; and on a certain Sunday, in the public park, he held and thrilled by his eloquence an audience of five thousand people.
On leaving Buffalo, Douglass joined the other speakers, and went with them to Clinton County, Ohio, where, under a large tent, a mass meeting was held of abolitionists who had come from widely scattered points. During an excursion made about this time to Pennsylvania to attend a convention at Norristown, an attempt was made to lynch him at Manayunk; but his usual good fortune served him, and he lived to be threatened by higher powers than a pro-slavery mob.
When the party of reformers reached Indiana, where the pro-slavery spirit was always strong, the State having been settled largely by Southerners, their campaign of education became a running fight, in which Douglass, whose dark skin attracted most attention, often got more than his share. His strength and address brought him safely out of many an encounter; but in a struggle with a mob at Richmond, Indiana, he was badly beaten and left unconscious on the ground. A good Quaker took him home in his wagon, his wife bound up Douglass's wounds and nursed him tenderly,--the Quakers were ever the consistent friends of freedom,--but for the lack of proper setting he carried to the grave a stiff hand as the result of this affray. He had often been introduced to audiences as "a graduate from slavery with his diploma written upon his back": from Indiana he received the distinction of a post-graduate degree.