The two years Douglass spent in Great Britain upon this visit were active and fruitful ones, and did much to bring him to that full measure of development scarcely possible for him in slave-ridden America. For while the English government had fostered slavery prior to the Revolution, and had only a few years before Douglass's visit abolished it in its own colonies, this wretched system had never fastened its clutches upon the home islands. Slaves had been brought to England, it is true, and carried away; but, when the right to remove them was questioned in court, Lord Chief Justice Mansfield, with an abundance of argument and precedent to support a position similar to that of Justice Taney in the Dred Scott case, had taken the contrary view, and declared that the air of England was free, and the slave who breathed it but once ceased thereby to be a slave. History and humanity have delivered their verdict on these two decisions, and time is not likely to disturb it.
A few days after landing at Liverpool, Douglass went to Ireland, where the agitation for the repeal of the union between Great Britain and Ireland was in full swing, under the leadership of Daniel O'Connell, the great Irish orator. O'Connell had denounced slavery in words of burning eloquence. The Garrisonian abolitionists advocated the separation of the free and slave States as the only means of securing some part of the United States to freedom. The American and Irish disunionists were united by a strong bond of sympathy. Douglass was soon referred to as "the black O'Connell," and lectured on slavery and on temperance to large and enthusiastic audiences. He was introduced to O'Connell, and exchanged compliments with him. A public breakfast was given him at Cork, and a soiree by Father Matthew, the eminent leader of the great temperance crusade which at that time shared with the repeal agitation the public interest of Ireland. A reception to Douglass and his friend Buffum was held in St. Patricks Temperance Hall, where they were greeted with a special song of welcome, written for the occasion. On January 6, 1846, a public breakfast was given Douglass at Belfast, at which the local branch of the British and Foreign Anti-slavery Society presented him with a Bible bound in gold.
After four months in Ireland, where he delivered more than fifty lectures, Douglass and his friend Buffum left Ireland, on January 10, 1846, for Scotland, where another important reform was in progress. It was an epoch of rebellion against the established order of things. The spirit of revolt was in the air. The disruption movement in the Established Church of Scotland, led by the famous Dr. Chalmers, had culminated in 1843 in the withdrawal of four hundred and seventy ministers, who gave up the shelter and security of the Establishment for the principle that a congregation should choose its own pastor, and organized themselves into the Free Protesting Church, commonly called the Free Kirk. An appeal had been issued to the Presbyterian churches of the world for aid to establish a sustentation fund for the use of the new church. Among the contributions from the United States was one from a Presbyterian church in Charleston, South Carolina. Just before this contribution arrived a South Carolina judge had condemned a Northern man to death for aiding the escape of a female slave. This incident had aroused horror and indignation throughout Great Britain. Lord Brougham had commented on it in the House of Lords, and Lord Chief Justice Denham had characterized it "in the name of all the judges of England" as a "horrible iniquity." O'Connell had rejected profferred contributions from the Southern States, and an effort was made in Scotland to have the South Carolina money sent back. The attempt failed ultimately; but the agitation on the subject was for a time very fierce, and gave Douglass and his friends the opportunity to strike many telling blows at slavery. He had never minced his words in the United States, and he now handled without gloves the government whose laws had driven him from its borders.
From Scotland Douglass went to England, where he found still another great reform movement nearing a triumphant conclusion. The Anti-corn Law League, after many years of labor, under the leadership of Richard Cobden and John Bright, for the abolition of the protective tariff on wheat and other kinds of grain for food, had brought its agitation to a successful issue; and on June 26, 1846, the Corn Laws were repealed. The generous enthusiasm for reform of one kind or another that pervaded the British Islands gave ready sympathy and support to the abolitionists in their mission. The abolition of slavery in the colonies had been decreed by Parliament in 1833, but the old leaders in that reform had not lost their zeal for liberty. George Thompson, who with Clarkson and Wilberforce had led the British abolitionists, invited Garrison over to help reorganize the anti-slavery sentiment of Great Britain against American slavery; and in August, 1846, Garrison went to England, in that year evidently a paradise of reformers.
During the week beginning May 17, 1846, Douglass addressed respectively the annual meeting of the British and Foreign Anti-slavery Society, a peace convention, a suffrage extension meeting, and a temperance convention, and spoke also at a reception where efforts were made to induce him to remain in England, and money subscribed to bring over his family. As will be seen hereafter, he chose the alternative of returning to the United States.
On August 7, 1846, Douglass addressed the World's Temperance Convention, held at Covent Garden Theatre, London. There were many speakers, and the time allotted to each was brief; but Douglass never lost an opportunity to attack slavery, and he did so on this occasion over the shoulder of temperance. He stated that he was not a delegate to the convention, because those whom he might have represented were placed beyond the pale of American temperance societies either by slavery or by an inveterate prejudice against their color. He referred to the mobbing of a procession of colored temperance societies in Philadelphia several years before, the burning of one of their churches, and the wrecking of their best temperance hall. These remarks brought out loud protests and calls for order from the American delegates present, who manifested the usual American sensitiveness to criticism, especially on the subject of slavery; but the house sustained Douglass, and demanded that he go on. Douglass was denounced for this in a letter to the New York papers by Rev. Dr. Cox, one of the American delegates.
Douglass's reply to this letter gave him the better of the controversy. He sometimes expressed the belief, founded on long experience, that doctors of divinity were, as a rule, among the most ardent supporters of slavery. Dr. Cox, who seems at least to have met the description, was also a delegate to the Evangelical Alliance, which met in London, August 19, 1846, with a membership of one thousand delegates from fifty different evangelical sects throughout the world. The question was raised in the convention whether or not fellowship should be held with slaveholders. Dr. Cox and the other Americans held that it should, and their views ultimately prevailed. Douglass made some telling speeches at Anti-slavery League meetings, in denunciation of the cowardice of the Alliance, and won a wide popularity.
Douglass remained in England two years. Not only did this visit give him a great opportunity to influence British public opinion against slavery, but the material benefits to himself were inestimable. He had left the United States a slave before the law, denied every civil right and every social privilege, literally a man without a country, and forced to cross the Atlantic among the cattle in the steerage of the steamboat. During his sojourn in Great Britain an English lady, Mrs. Ellen Richardson, of Newcastle, had raised seven hundred and fifty dollars, which was paid over to Hugh Auld, of Maryland, to secure Douglass's legal manumission; and, not content with this generous work, the same large-hearted lady had raised by subscription about two thousand five hundred dollars, which Douglass carried back to the United States as a free gift, and used to start his newspaper. He had met in Europe, as he said in a farewell speech, men quite as white as he had ever seen in the United States and of quite as noble exterior, and had seen in their faces no scorn of his complexion. He had travelled over the four kingdoms, and had encountered no sign of disrespect. He had been lionized in London, had spoken every night of his last month there, and had declined as many more invitations. He had shaken hands with the venerable Clarkson, and had breakfasted with the philosopher Combe, the author of _The Constitution of Man_. He had won the friendship of John Bright, had broken bread with Sir John Bowring, had been introduced to Lord Brougham, the brilliant leader of the Liberal party, and had listened to his wonderful eloquence. He had met Douglas Jerrold, the famous wit, and had been entertained by the poet William Howitt, who made a farewell speech in his honor. Everywhere he had denounced slavery, everywhere hospitable doors had opened wide to receive him, everywhere he had made friends for himself and his cause. A slave and an outcast at home, he had been made to feel himself a gentleman, had been the companion of great men and good women. Urged to remain in this land of freedom, and offered aid to establish himself in life there, his heart bled for his less fortunate brethren in captivity; and, with the God-speed of his English friends ringing in his ears, he went back to America,--to scorn, to obloquy, to ostracism, but after all to the work to which he had been ordained, and which he was so well qualified to perform.