“Let the Press of England Blaze with Antislavery Indignation!” Frederick Douglass in Britain 1845-1847
Rising to the podium with applause ringing in his ears, Frederick Douglass addressed a large crowd of over three thousand in Paisley, 1846. He urged the people of Scotland to denounce American slavery and to reject all contact with slaveholders. Britain had a duty to destroy the evil sin of slavery, since she played a part in introducing it to the colonies in the first place. Frederick Douglass was not the first or the last fugitive slave to visit Britain during the nineteenth century, but his travels here electrified the nation. He wanted to “concentrate the moral and religious sentiment of the world against [slavery], until by the weight of its overwhelming influence, [it] be swept off the face of the earth.”
Frederick Douglass was born in Maryland, in 1818 and escaped to Massachusetts in the late 1830’s. He was soon employed by the fiery William Lloyd Garrison (leader of the American Antislavery Society), who recognised Douglass’s supreme talent of oratory. But why at the start of a promising career, did Frederick choose to travel to Britain?
There were several reasons for this. Primarily, he wanted to escape any unwanted attention from the publication of his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an autobiography chronicling his experiences as a slave. He was afraid this would jeopardise the safety of himself and his family – as a fugitive slave, his former master could kidnap him and drag him “back to the jaws of slavery”, so a trip abroad seemed logical. The Society also wanted Douglass to educate Britain on the nature of American slavery, and since he was a former slave, he could lecture on the brutality of it in great detail, unlike his white abolitionist friends.
He began his journey in Ireland in 1845, where his narrative was already selling hundreds of copies. He lectured in Dublin, Cork, and Belfast, (among others), drawing crowds of support. He even shared a platform with the famous reformer Daniel O’Connell, who argued for the eradication of American slavery and oppression throughout the world.
It was here that Frederick began his campaign against a religious group called the Free Church of Scotland. The Free Church had split from the established church in Scotland in 1843, and some of its missionaries were sent to America to raise money for their new organisation. They collected thousands of pounds from Southern slaveholders, which outraged abolitionists on both sides of the Atlantic. Building on work by other abolitionists, Douglass lambasted the group for supporting American slavery and created a furore in Scotland by promoting a campaign to “Send back the Money!” Thousands attended his speeches, songs were composed and a new (albeit short-lived) Free Church Antislavery Society was created. Although the money was not returned, the commotion of the campaign proved too hot to handle for some international organisations.
In 1846, a group of evangelicals from across the world attempted to form an Evangelical Alliance, dedicated to spreading the gospel. However, Douglass’s relentless attack on the Free Church put slavery on the agenda, a discussion that American delegates wanted to avoid. In line with Douglass and his supporters, some members of the alliance wanted to exclude slaveholders from their organisation, while others deplored this action as “unchristian like”. Consequently, the Evangelical Alliance shattered.
Clearly, Frederick Douglass had a strong influence on British society, but this did not mean he was universally admired. His exposure of the Free Church and the Evangelical Alliance was criticised in numerous quarters, and several newspapers objected to his conduct, claiming he was “anti-religious” for attacking the Free Church. Furthermore, Douglass was not popular with all British abolitionists. Richard D. Webb, a supporter of the American Antislavery Society praised Douglass’s oratory skills but attacked his character repeatedly during his stay in Britain. And several abolitionists in the Society vilified Douglass’s decision to accept the purchase of his freedom, which was arranged by a family in Newcastle. This was seen as recognition that man could be bought and sold as property. But this purchase ensured the safety of Douglass and his family, and surely, argued Douglass, this ‘transaction’ proved to the world the hypocrisy of the United States – how could a country declare its foundations in liberty when the government legally supported the purchase of men and women?
By studying Frederick Douglass’s experiences here, we can understand not only the nature of British society in the 1840s, but we can shatter the myth that popular antislavery ended in the 1830s after the abolition of slavery in the British Empire. Antislavery groups from Taunton to Glasgow campaigned for abolition within a transatlantic network, and raised money to aid fugitive slaves. Douglass gained not only his freedom in Britain but also his independence. He returned to the United States a free man, one who would work tirelessly for antislavery, temperance, women’s rights and social equality. Douglass deserves to be remembered for many reasons, but primarily, he is one of the greatest civil rights activists and his presence here merits more respect and recognition. Britain helped to make this man, and the sensation he created should earn a place in the history of British abolitionism.
Blassingame, John, (eds)., The Frederick Douglass Papers: Series One – Speeches, Debates, and Interviews, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1979. Vol.1.
Foner, Philip, (eds), Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, New York, 1950, Vol.1.
Blackett, R.J.M, Building an Antislavery Wall, (Louisiana, 1983.)
Author: Hannah Rose Murray
After completing my BA History degree at University College London, I studied for a Masters programme in Public History at Royal Holloway University. I work part-time in Southampton teaching and leading tour groups around an exhibition on the Titanic, whilst furthering my research on Frederick Douglass in Britain!