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Chapter 23

_Introduced to the Abolitionists_


In the summer of 1841, a grand anti-slavery convention was held
in Nantucket, under the auspices of Mr. Garrison and his friends.
Until now, I had taken no holiday since my escape from slavery.
Having worked very hard that spring and summer, in Richmond's
brass foundery--sometimes working all night as well as all day--
and needing a day or two of rest, I attended this convention,
never supposing that I should take part in the proceedings.
Indeed, I was not aware that any one connected with the
convention even so much as knew my name. I was, however, quite
mistaken. Mr. William C. Coffin, a prominent abolitionst{sic} in
those days of trial, had heard me speaking to my colored friends,
in the little school house on Second street, New Bedford, where
we worshiped. He sought me out in the crowd, and invited me to
say a few words to the convention. Thus sought out, and thus
invited, I was induced to speak out the feelings inspired by the
occasion, and the fresh recollection of the scenes through which
I had passed as a slave. My speech on this occasion is about the
only one I ever made, of which I do not remember a single
connected sentence. It was <279 EXTRAORDINARY SPEECH OF MR.
GARRISON>with the utmost difficulty that I could stand erect, or
that I could command and articulate two words without hesitation
and stammering. I trembled in every limb. I am not sure that my
embarrassment was not the most effective part of my speech, if
speech it could be called. At any rate, this is about the only
part of my performance that I now distinctly remember. But
excited and convulsed as I was, the audience, though remarkably
quiet before, became as much excited as myself. Mr. Garrison
followed me, taking me as his text; and now, whether I had made
an eloquent speech in behalf of freedom or not, his was one never
to be forgotten by those who heard it. Those who had heard Mr.
Garrison oftenest, and had known him longest, were astonished.
It was an effort of unequaled power, sweeping down, like a very
tornado, every opposing barrier, whether of sentiment or opinion.
For a moment, he possessed that almost fabulous inspiration,
often referred to but seldom attained, in which a public meeting
is transformed, as it were, into a single individuality--the
orator wielding a thousand heads and hearts at once, and by the
simple majesty of his all controlling thought, converting his
hearers into the express image of his own soul. That night there
were at least one thousand Garrisonians in Nantucket! A{sic} the
close of this great meeting, I was duly waited on by Mr. John A.
Collins--then the general agent of the Massachusetts anti-slavery
society--and urgently solicited by him to become an agent of that
society, and to publicly advocate its anti-slavery principles. I
was reluctant to take the proffered position. I had not been
quite three years from slavery--was honestly distrustful of my
ability--wished to be excused; publicity exposed me to discovery
and arrest by my master; and other objections came up, but Mr.
Collins was not to be put off, and I finally consented to go out
for three months, for I supposed that I should have got to the
end of my story and my usefulness, in that length of time.

Here opened upon me a new life a life for which I had had no
preparation. I was a "graduate from the peculiar institution,"
<280>Mr. Collins used to say, when introducing me, _"with my
diploma written on my back!"_ The three years of my freedom had
been spent in the hard school of adversity. My hands had been
furnished by nature with something like a solid leather coating,
and I had bravely marked out for myself a life of rough labor,
suited to the hardness of my hands, as a means of supporting
myself and rearing my children.

Now what shall I say of this fourteen years' experience as a
public advocate of the cause of my enslaved brothers and sisters?
The time is but as a speck, yet large enough to justify a pause
for retrospection--and a pause it must only be.

Young, ardent, and hopeful, I entered upon this new life in the
full gush of unsuspecting enthusiasm. The cause was good; the
men engaged in it were good; the means to attain its triumph,
good; Heaven's blessing must attend all, and freedom must soon be
given to the pining millions under a ruthless bondage. My whole
heart went with the holy cause, and my most fervent prayer to the
Almighty Disposer of the hearts of men, were continually offered
for its early triumph. "Who or what," thought I, "can withstand
a cause so good, so holy, so indescribably glorious. The God of
Israel is with us. The might of the Eternal is on our side. Now
let but the truth be spoken, and a nation will start forth at the
sound!" In this enthusiastic spirit, I dropped into the ranks of
freedom's friends, and went forth to the battle. For a time I
was made to forget that my skin was dark and my hair crisped.
For a time I regretted that I could not have shared the hardships
and dangers endured by the earlier workers for the slave's
release. I soon, however, found that my enthusiasm had been
extravagant; that hardships and dangers were not yet passed; and
that the life now before me, had shadows as well as sunbeams.

Among the first duties assigned me, on entering the ranks, was to
travel, in company with Mr. George Foster, to secure subscribers
to the _Anti-slavery Standard_ and the _Liberator_. With <281
MATTER OF THE SPEECH>him I traveled and lectured through the
eastern counties of Massachusetts. Much interest was awakened--
large meetings assembled. Many came, no doubt, from curiosity to
hear what a Negro could say in his own cause. I was generally
introduced as a _"chattel"--_a_"thing"_--a piece of southern
_"property"_--the chairman assuring the audience that _it_ could
speak. Fugitive slaves, at that time, were not so plentiful as
now; and as a fugitive slave lecturer, I had the advantage of
being a _"brand new fact"_--the first one out. Up to that time,
a colored man was deemed a fool who confessed himself a runaway
slave, not only because of the danger to which he exposed himself
of being retaken, but because it was a confession of a very _low_
origin! Some of my colored friends in New Bedford thought very
badly of my wisdom for thus exposing and degrading myself. The
only precaution I took, at the beginning, to prevent Master
Thomas from knowing where I was, and what I was about, was the
withholding my former name, my master's name, and the name of the
state and county from which I came. During the first three or
four months, my speeches were almost exclusively made up of
narrations of my own personal experience as a slave. "Let us
have the facts," said the people. So also said Friend George
Foster, who always wished to pin me down to my simple narrative.
"Give us the facts," said Collins, "we will take care of the
philosophy." Just here arose some embarrassment. It was
impossible for me to repeat the same old story month after month,
and to keep up my interest in it. It was new to the people, it
is true, but it was an old story to me; and to go through with it
night after night, was a task altogether too mechanical for my
nature. "Tell your story, Frederick," would whisper my then
revered friend, William Lloyd Garrison, as I stepped upon the
platform. I could not always obey, for I was now reading and
thinking. New views of the subject were presented to my mind.
It did not entirely satisfy me to _narrate_ wrongs; I felt like
_denouncing_ them. I could not always curb my moral indignation
<282>for the perpetrators of slaveholding villainy, long enough
for a circumstantial statement of the facts which I felt almost
everybody must know. Besides, I was growing, and needed room.
"People won't believe you ever was a slave, Frederick, if you
keep on this way," said Friend Foster. "Be yourself," said
Collins, "and tell your story." It was said to me, "Better have
a _little_ of the plantation manner of speech than not; 'tis not
best that you seem too learned." These excellent friends were
actuated by the best of motives, and were not altogether wrong in
their advice; and still I must speak just the word that seemed to
_me_ the word to be spoken _by_ me.

At last the apprehended trouble came. People doubted if I had
ever been a slave. They said I did not talk like a slave, look
like a slave, nor act like a slave, and that they believed I had
never been south of Mason and Dixon's line. "He don't tell us
where he came from--what his master's name was--how he got away--
nor the story of his experience. Besides, he is educated, and
is, in this, a contradiction of all the facts we have concerning
the ignorance of the slaves." Thus, I was in a pretty fair way
to be denounced as an impostor. The committee of the
Massachusetts anti-slavery society knew all the facts in my case,
and agreed with me in the prudence of keeping them private.
They, therefore, never doubted my being a genuine fugitive; but
going down the aisles of the churches in which I spoke, and
hearing the free spoken Yankees saying, repeatedly, _"He's never
been a slave, I'll warrant ye_," I resolved to dispel all doubt,
at no distant day, by such a revelation of facts as could not be
made by any other than a genuine fugitive.

In a little less than four years, therefore, after becoming a
public lecturer, I was induced to write out the leading facts
connected with my experience in slavery, giving names of persons,
places, and dates--thus putting it in the power of any who
doubted, to ascertain the truth or falsehood of my story of being
a fugitive slave. This statement soon became known in Maryland,
<283 DANGER OF RECAPTURE>and I had reason to believe that an
effort would be made to recapture me.

It is not probable that any open attempt to secure me as a slave
could have succeeded, further than the obtainment, by my master,
of the money value of my bones and sinews. Fortunately for me,
in the four years of my labors in the abolition cause, I had
gained many friends, who would have suffered themselves to be
taxed to almost any extent to save me from slavery. It was felt
that I had committed the double offense of running away, and
exposing the secrets and crimes of slavery and slaveholders.
There was a double motive for seeking my reenslavement--avarice
and vengeance; and while, as I have said, there was little
probability of successful recapture, if attempted openly, I was
constantly in danger of being spirited away, at a moment when my
friends could render me no assistance. In traveling about from
place to place--often alone I was much exposed to this sort of
attack. Any one cherishing the design to betray me, could easily
do so, by simply tracing my whereabouts through the anti-slavery
journals, for my meetings and movements were promptly made known
in advance. My true friends, Mr. Garrison and Mr. Phillips, had
no faith in the power of Massachusetts to protect me in my right
to liberty. Public sentiment and the law, in their opinion,
would hand me over to the tormentors. Mr. Phillips, especially,
considered me in danger, and said, when I showed him the
manuscript of my story, if in my place, he would throw it into
the fire. Thus, the reader will observe, the settling of one
difficulty only opened the way for another; and that though I had
reached a free state, and had attained position for public
usefulness, I ws{sic} still tormented with the liability of
losing my liberty. How this liability was dispelled, will be
related, with other incidents, in the next chapter.

Frederick Douglass

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