Local historians revisit Douglass's fiery 1843 visit
MIDDLEURY — As director of the Rokeby Museum, Jane Williamson knows a lot about how slaves moved covertly from South to North via the Underground Railroad.
But as the nation prepares to mark the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War that would end slavery, Williamson wants people to know what Addison County residents — and national figure Frederick Douglass — did overtly in an effort to end indentured servitude before hostilities began on April 12,1861.
Fittingly, Williamson on Tuesday, April 12, 2011, delivered a talk at the Henry Sheldon Museum about what she called “The war before the war” — the fiery oratory delivered by Douglass during a celebrated trip to Addison County during the summer of 1843 and carried on by a multitude of anti-slavery groups that took root in many local towns.
“Addison County was abolition central,” Williamson said.
UP FROM SLAVERY
Douglass, Williamson continued, was born in 1818 as a slave in the Tidewater area of Maryland. He was ultimately placed with the family of Hugh and Sophia Auld in Baltimore. There, Sophia Auld began to teach him how to read — until her husband found out and disapproved, arguing that such knowledge would compel Douglass to seek freedom. But Douglass traded bread from home for reading tips from white children in his impoverished neighborhood.
“He was an unusually intelligent person,” Williamson said of Douglass.
“He realized reading was very important. He thought, ‘If Mr. Auld has this kind of a fit because I am reading, this must be the key to something.’”
Douglass escaped slavery in 1838, dressing in sailor’s garb and boarding a train headed north. He ultimately ended up in New York, then settled in New Bedford, Mass., with his wife Anna Murray-Douglass.
Douglass found it tough to find work as an African American man in New Bedford in his profession at the time — a ship caulker.
“Some white men, because of their own racism, found it hard to work with blacks,” Williamson said. “But other times, they wanted to keep African Americans out because of wage devaluation.”
FINDING HIS VOICE
But Douglass attended church in New Bedford and delivered anti-slavery speeches. William Lloyd Garrison, publisher of The Liberator,an anti-slavery publication, heard one of Douglass’s speeches and encouraged him to become a traveling speaker on behalf of the growing abolition movement. Douglass did, and became in high demand for his eloquence.
“He was very popular wherever he spoke,” Williamson said. “He could tell Northerners the truth about slavery with an authenticity that was unmatched.”
A radical abolitionist movement had sprung up in parts of the north during the early 1830s, Williamson noted. In 1834 in Middlebury, 130 Vermonters gathered to form the first state auxiliary to the American Anti-Slavery Society. Individual towns formed their own anti-slavery groups, and guest speakers were in high demand.
There were four anti-slavery societies in two states in 1833. By 1836, there were more than 500 in 15 states. Vermont’s first anti-slavery society was formed in Jamaica. By 1837, there were 90 more societies — many of them in Addison County towns like Starksboro and Lincoln.
In 1843, the New England Anti-Slavery Society decided it was going to “re-abolitionize the North,” according to Williamson. As part of its plan, the society recruited Douglass as a featured speaker for a series of 100 conventions that would be staged throughout the North and into the West.
“If you, at the local level, were willing to find a venue, print the signs and organize the whole thing, they would send you the speakers,” Williamson said.
“It was going to be a great way to expand the movement.”
DOUGLASS TO VERMONT
It was in this context that Douglass, George Bradburn (a state legislator from Massachusetts) and John Collins, another outspoken abolitionist, came to Vermont during the summer of 1843. “This was kind of like a test run,” Williamson said of the Vermont appearances, which would include Randolph, Middlebury and Ferrisburgh.
The trio arrived in Middlebury in mid-July for an appearance that got off to a rocky start, according to local newspaper accounts and Douglass biographers. “Douglass says his reception in Middlebury is not so great,” Williamson explained, noting a prank allegedly perpetrated by some Middlebury College students.
“They thought it would be a good joke to put up these posters saying (Douglass) had escaped from the state prison,” Williamson said of Douglass’s account of events, which included references to things being thrown at the speakers.
“In Middlebury… the opposition to our anti-slavery convention was intensely bitter and violent,” Douglass wrote. “Few people attended our meeting, and apparently little was accomplished.” But a newspaper featured a different spin on the story, noted Williamson. That account identified Bradburn as the object of the spectators’ ire, allegedly because he monopolized the floor spouting anti-church rhetoric.
“Mr. Bradburn kept on until about half-past-nine; some looked upon the notice as a trap and a number of the boys in the back seats began to shout and throw shot and rabble, and among the rest, three eggs were thrown,” read the account. The reporter alleged that when Bradburn finally gave way to Douglass, the audience was “perfectly still.”
Douglass spoke twice in Ferrisburgh — once in the town hall, and again at a church in North Ferrisburgh on Old Hollow Road. Douglass’s Ferrisburgh visit drew a lot of coverage in the Vergennes Vermonter, that city’s newspaper. While Douglass got a better reception in northern Addison County, his visit did not come without controversy. A Vergennes Vermonterreporter saw a citizen insult Douglas and took him to task for it in print.
“But we have seen one of these ‘things’ attempt wantonly and cruelly, to insult to his face, a man — because God had given him a face not colored like his own, to whose noble nature his own can never approximate in an infinitude of ages,” the writer said. “A fool might as well attempt to block out the face of the sun by throwing filth at it, as such a being attempt to insult Frederick Douglass.”
Middlebury’s Vermont Observercovered Douglass’s main speech in Ferrisburgh on July 18, 1843, in great detail. As with most publications of its day, the Observerleft no secret about its opinion and allegiance, Williamson noted.
“Mr. Douglass, a fugitive slave, is an eloquent and effective speaker,” the Observer concluded. “He is possessed of intellectual powers sufficient to supply half a dozen palefaces that we have heard claiming the inferiority of the colored race and placing them as a connecting link between men and monkeys.”
Williamson played a reading of a portion of Douglass’s Ferrisburgh speech: “What is the relation of master and slave? It is a relation of unlimited authority by the master and entire dependence on the part of the slave. The master decides what the slave shall eat, whether he shall eat, and how he shall eat; where he shall go, how long he shall be gone and when he shall return; when and who he shall marry and how long he shall remain married. The master decides what is right and what is wrong; what a virtue is and what vice is; who he shall worship and when he shall worship. In everything, the master decides.
“The fact is, if you treat a slave well, he will run away; that is what made me run away. The slave, like other men, is always looking forward to a better state of things. If he has a bad master, he is desirous of a better. If he gets a better, he then wishes for the best. And when he gets the best, then he longs for freedom and runs for the north.”
Williamson explained the anti-slavery movement by this time included two distinct factions that were at odds with one another — a more religious camp that sought to bring incremental change through peaceful means; and a more radical, secular group that advocated for immediate emancipation by any means necessary.
By 1861, the die had been cast. Those who had pushed for a peaceful resolution saw the impending conflict as divine intervention.
“When the war came, they felt it was vengeance from God,” Williamson said.
Williamson will be presenting a full history of Vermont abolition at the Rokeby Museum’s opening day on Sunday, May 22 at 2 p.m.
Reporter John Flowers is at firstname.lastname@example.org.