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A Transatlantic Venture: Frederick Douglass in Britain 1845-47

By Hannah Murray

By 1861, former slave Frederick Douglass was internationally recognised as an abolitionist and powerful orator against American slavery. The Civil War thrust him further into the spotlight, and many of his speeches were published in Britain, including his famous "Negro Call to Arms" speech and "An Appeal to Great Britain." In this 1862 Appeal, Douglass implored Britain to denounce the Confederacy, and stand by her decision to destroy slavery the world over. He wrote, "have no fellowship I pray you, with these merciless menstealers but rather with whips of scorpions scourge them beyond the beneficent range of national brotherhood." This was not the first time Douglass had echoed these words.

American Civil War Round Table UK / UK Heritage / Frederick Douglass

In 1845, fellow abolitionists encouraged the publication of The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, a short autobiography of Douglass' life as a slave. To prevent unwanted attention from his former owners, Douglass agreed to Garrison's suggestion of a tour of Britain. Landing in Liverpool in August, he travelled first to Ireland and lectured in Cork, Limerick, Dublin and Belfast. The majority of public opinion was decidedly antislavery, but Douglass' sojourn tested Britain: where did she truly stand in relation to American slavery, and what was she willing to do to prove her antislavery credentials? This theme would be at the very heart of Douglass's interaction with Britain, and in particular, it became the subject of fierce debate in 1846.

Whilst lecturing in Ireland, Douglass began a campaign against the Free Church of Scotland. In 1843, Thomas Chalmers and his supporters separated from the established Church of Scotland to form the Free Church, and to raise money for this new organisation Chalmers sent missionaries to America. Slaveholders from the South provided over £3,000, causing outrage from abolitionist societies on both sides of the Atlantic. Three years later, Douglass stood at the church pulpit and thundered, "SEND BACK THE MONEY!" He lectured to thousands of people in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Paisley and Aberdeen (to name a few) and created a national sensation. Songs were composed, and the mantra of "SEND BACK THE MONEY" was painted across buildings in numerous Scottish cities. Douglass, together with English abolitionist George Thompson and American radical Henry Clarke Wright, denounced the Free Church for accepting "blood-stained money" from slaveholders. It was hypocritical for the Church to hold the title of "Free" after it ignored the cries of millions of slaves. Newspapers echoed Douglass' call, and the London Daily News reported the Free Church had suffered "a perfect hurricane of indignation" and the Dundee Courier championed Douglass and argued, "the country is awakening to the infamy which attaches to the revolting connection, and the subject will not be hushed down." This abolitionist agitation raised uncomfortable questions: should Britain remain friends with American churches that included slaveholders in their congregations? Should British institutions have any connection with American slaveholders at all?

The debate reached such a fever pitch the Free Church was forced to respond. It declared the Church was against slavery, and accused the abolitionists of being too radical and heretical. All slaveholders could not be labeled as evil, and it was certainly inappropriate to excommunicate slaveholders from congregations, especially because this act would have been insulting to those who helped the Church in its time of need. Furthermore, the phrase "SEND BACK THE MONEY" was hypocritical because if this were followed through, then it would become impossible to accept American cotton, rice, sugar or tobacco.

Despite the national clamour for justice, the money was never returned. This controversy and debate over fellowship with slaveholders infected other organisations, and it was Douglass' powerful oratory and stage presence that made this possible. Douglass knew how to work a crowd, a British one in particular, and his departure for the United States in 1847 testifies to this. Despite paying for a first class ticket on the Cunard steamship Cambria, Douglass was refused entry and forced to accept a lower class berth because of his skin colour. Outraged, Douglass wrote to The Times and argued how it was possible for him to travel unheeded for nearly two years in Britain only to be stopped at the final moment. Newspapers across the country were scandalized, and published the letter with editorial remarks and public letters lambasting the Cunard Company. If the headlines were anything to go by ("A British Bow to an American Prejudice"), Douglass had deeply offended British patriotism.

Douglass returned to the United States in April 1847, but the controversies he created were still festering, particularly in Scotland. In 1847, a Free Churchman named James Macbeth argued it was too rash to denounce fellowship with slaveholders, but the Church should condemn the system of slavery as it was destroying American society: "If the grand experiment of the American Republic fails - and through the fierce passions which slavery engenders, it is provoking danger every hour from within and from without - then woe to the cause of liberty over the earth. To save that republic, its slavery must be abolished...and if it will not be extricated peacefully the last lingering tints of the bow of hope on that western sky may soon disappear in a revolutionary storm - in a shower of blood." Although Macbeth's prediction of a bloody revolution would ring true, few could have imagined the duration and destruction of the American Civil War.

This article was first published in December 2013 Crossfire, the Magazine of the American Civil War Round Table (UK)

For more on Frederick Douglass in Britain,see frederickdouglassinbritain Google Site


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