Our Legal Heritage: Black History Month – Frederick Douglass and his triumphant tour of Scotland



Frederick Douglass

To mark Black History Month, SLN is dedicating its ‘Our Legal Heritage’ feature to Scotland’s black history.

As a child he was fed from a trough along with the other enslaved children on the plantation and regularly whipped, but Frederick Douglass would grow to become one of the most powerful abolitionist voices in the United States and enthralled audiences across Scotland.

Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns were among his greatest inspirations and when his former owners threatened to employ bounty hunters to recapture him, it was to Scotland that the former slave and literary sensation fled.

Born into chattel slavery in 1818 and originally named Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, Douglass used his experiences to eloquently illustrate the violence and injustice of slavery. Giving speeches across the UK and the United States, Douglass ignited the fire of abolitionism from Dundee to New York while his searing accounts of slavery became bestsellers.

His childhood was spent on plantations in Maryland where some of the most brutal overseers treated slaves with sadistic cruelty. But he had a lucky break when he was gifted to a new owner, Lucretia Auld in the city of Baltimore, where conditions were easier for black slaves. Mrs Auld also took pity on Douglass and, recognising his intelligence, broke the law by teaching him to read and write.

In his teenage years, Douglass was sent to work as a ship caulker. In 1833, he tried to escape with three others but their plan was foiled. Nevertheless, on September 3, 1838, Douglass escaped by boarding a northbound train, eventually reaching the safe house of abolitionist David Ruggles in New York City.

Eleven days later, Douglass married Anna Murray, a free black woman he had met in Baltimore. At first, the couple took Johnson as their married name to avoid attention. Later, he adopted a new name – Douglas – taken from James Douglas, the hero of Sir Walter Scott’s poem
The Lady of the Lake.

Douglass’ move into abolitionist politics began in the summer of 1841when he divulged his tale of subjugation to listeners at an antislavery gathering in Nantucket. William Lloyd Garrison, a prominent white abolitionist and journalist, was taken with Douglass’ story and eloquence. He hired Douglas as an antislavery agent for the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society and persuaded him to tour various Northern American states rallying support for the abolitionist movement.

In 1843, Douglass joined other speakers in the American Anti-Slavery Society’s Hundred Conventions project which saw them hold events at meeting halls throughout the eastern and midwestern states for six months. Douglass was often confronted by slavery supporters throughout the tour. In Pendleton Indiana, he was chased and beaten suffering a broken hand in the attack which did not heal well and plagued him for the rest of his life.

An avid writer, Douglass published several autobiographies throughout his life. His life was fascinating to many, with his Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845) becoming an instant bestseller. His second book, My Bondage and My Freedom (1855) enjoyed similar success. His literary acclaim put Douglass at risk, as in his books he had revealed the names of his white slave owners. Fearing for his safety, Douglass fled to Scotland – arriving in Edinburgh in 1846.

Historians have said that Douglas was inspired by the freedom he felt living in Scotland where he felt he was treated as an equal. Douglass wrote from the Royal Hotel in Dundee to Francis Jackson, a fellow abolitionist from Boston, joking “I am hardly black enough for the British taste, but by keeping my hair as wooly as possible – I make out to pass for at least a half a negro at any rate”.

Douglass’ oratorical skills ignited the anti-slavery campaign in Scotland, raising mass support for the movement across the country. He gave talks in Glasgow, Aberdeen, Perth, Arbroath, Ayr and Paisley and in the spring of 1846, he gave lectures in Kilmarnock, Greenock, Bonhill, Galashiels and Kelso.

Douglass was in such high demand in Dundee that he spoke at four separate meetings in January 1846. The first three gatherings were so crowded that tickets had to be issued for his last talk and a plaque commemorating the event has been raised in Bell St, along from the Sheriff Court.

Douglass’ task in Scotland was particularly onerous, as he had to convince the Scots to renounce their Presbyterian brethren in the American south who owned slaves. Douglass placated Christians by saying he was not against religion, but argued that slavery was not accordant with Christian values. He demanded that the whole world hear his cry against slavery and that the Free Church of Scotland, which had accepted £3,000 in funding from American slaveowners, should be shamed into returning the money.

In 1846, Douglass travelled to England to meet with Thomas Clarkson, a famous British abolitionist, who lobbied Parliament to abolish slavery in the British colonies. It was during this trip when Douglass became legally free, as British supporters led by fellow anti-slavery activist Anna Richardson raised funds to buy his freedom from the Auld family.

Now fully emancipated, Douglass settled in Rochester, New York and was secured in his position as one of the leading anti-slavery campaigners in the United States. He founded his own newspaper the North Star, which was later renamed Frederick Douglass’ Paper.

Douglass revisited Scotland in 1859-60, giving speeches and holding talks in various locations. However, historians have noted that his talks at this time lacked the radical edge of his earlier ones. Scholars have speculated that he was shaken by the recent hanging of his friend John Brown, who attempted to ignite a major slave revolt by seizing the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia.

For the remainder of his life, Douglass fought fervently for the emancipation of slaves throughout the world. After the US Senate passed the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, Douglas labelled slavery as a state of war. He called upon slaves to use violence to rebel against white Southerners. During the Civil War (1861-65), he recruited young men for the Union Army – including two of his sons. He met with Abraham Lincoln to advocate for African to encourage the president to view the war as an opportunity to emancipate America’s slaves. Douglass also petitioned him to pay African American Union soldiers as much as their white comrades.

After the civil war, Douglass received various political appointments due to his prominence and activism during the conflict. He served as president of the reconstruction-era Freedman’s Savings Bank. He was also appointed chargé d’affaires for the Dominican Republic – a post from which he resigned two years later due to disagreements with US government policy. Douglass was also appointed as the United State’s’ minister resident and consul-general to the Republic of Haiti and chargé d’affaires for Santo Domingo in 1889. However, he resigned the commission in July 1891.

Alongside his abolitionist work, Douglass was also a strong advocate for women’s suffrage. In 1848 he spoke at the Seneca Falls Convention, the first women’s right convention in upstate New York. Lady Elizabeth Cady Stanton asked the assembly to pass a resolution asking for women’s suffrage. At the convention, Douglass said he could not accept the right to vote as a black man if women could not also claim that right.

In 1892, he constructed rental housing for blacks, now known as Douglass Place, in the Fells Point area of Baltimore. The complex still exists and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2003.

In recognition of his lifelong dedication to the emancipation of slaves, Douglas delivered the keynote speech at the unveiling of the Emancipation memorial in Washington’s Lincoln Park on April 14th 1876. He said: “Though Mr Lincoln shared the prejudices of his white fellow-countrymen against the Negro, it is hardly necessary to say that in his heart of hearts he loathed and hated slavery.”

Douglass died at his home Cedar Hill on February 20th 1895 after attending a meeting of the National Council of Women in Washington, D.C., where he gave a speech and received a standing ovation. Shortly after he returned home, he died of a heart attack.

There is no doubt that within his 77 years, Frederick Douglass shaped the abolitionist movement in both the United States and Scotland. His activism, eloquence and striking literary work has secured his place in history as one of slavery’s staunchest opponents.