Promoting, supporting and encouraging the study of the United States since 1955

British Association for American Studies


Issue 13, Autumn 2008: Article 5


Issue 13, Autumn 2008: Article 5

U.S. Studies Online: The BAAS Postgraduate Journal

Issue 13, Autumn 2008

Working through the Double-Bind: Frederick Douglass’s Intellectual and Literary Legacy, 1841-1855

Calvin Schermerhorn
© Calvin Schermerhorn. All Rights Reserved

In his struggles to articulate credible and authentic arguments against African American slavery and the supposed racial inferiority of people of African descent, Frederick Douglass confronted theories of race that potentially undermined his message. Douglass’s early successes on the abolitionist stage gave rise to charges that he was too eloquent to be a slave. In the popular imagination, slaves were ineloquent or at least artless articulators of their native landscapes. Douglass’s friends cautioned him against unsettling his audience’s expectations. ‘”Better [to] have a little of the plantation manner of speech than not”‘, he recalled one adviser counseling, ‘”’tis not best that you seem too learned”‘.[1] It was not a particular audience’s expectations but the sources of those expectations that posed the greatest challenge. When he published an autobiography in part to counter charges of fraud, Douglass faced critics who interpreted his eloquence as the result of white paternity. The charge was more insidious than suspicions that he was an imposter. Confronting racial ideas, he emphasised a legacy of black literacy, which passed—like the condition of slavery—through his mother, and in remaking her image and with it his personal intellectual and moral inheritance, he sought to undermine the intellectual foundations of scientific and romantic racism.

Being an eloquent fugitive slave in a society that imagined slaves as—at best—injured, exploited and benighted human chattel, rendered suspect an orator claiming to have reliable first hand knowledge of slavery. Frederick Law Olmstead, for instance, ‘considered fugitive slaves “suspicious” traveling correspondents’ and therefore unreliable witnesses to the realities of the American South.[2] Douglass responded to questions of his authenticity in his 1845 autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself (hereafter Narrative) in which he revealed the names of his former owners. The unintended consequences of what became a classic of American literature were that even sympathetic critics claimed his was an achievement reflective of eloquence inherited from his anonymous white father. Douglass, it seemed, could not escape from a web of suspicion reinforced by racial thinking that attributed his thoughtful utterances to white paternity and at the same time questioned the premises on which he made his remarks, both as a fugitive slave and as an agent of a broadly unpopular abolitionist movement.

When his critics used the fact of his enslavement to question his authenticity—then used his white paternity to downplay his achievements—he responded by upsetting the racial categories in which his critics attempted to place him. In particular he responded to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s wildly popular characterizations of African Americans, framed in racial terms, which had in-part caused audiences to expect former slaves to speak in a ‘plantation manner’. Douglass used his first lyceum-style speaking engagement to refute his critics’ theories of the ethological limitations of black Americans. In his second autobiography, he revealed his African American mother as his true literary benefactor.

Douglass’s oratory was improvisational and spontaneous rather than studied and prepared, and the speaking style that drew such suspicion combined formal modes of address with the aural literacy he mastered in slavery. His physical appearance complemented his eloquence. Abolitionist editor Nathaniel P. Rogers described him in 1841 as ‘a commanding person—over six feet…in height, and of most manly proportions’. Rogers continued, ‘As a speaker, he has few equals…He has wit, argument, sarcasm, and pathos…His voice is highly melodious and rich, and his enunciation quite elegant’.[3] Douglass was not unique in his physical characteristics and raw vocal abilities, but his education as a Maryland slave included mimicry as well as ‘wit, argument, sarcasm, and pathos’. A biographer explains: ‘copying sounds, a fundamental mode of learning, was one of the very few available to a slave’.[4] For Douglass, the basis of his aural literacy was using his memory of events, and he deployed it using formal conventions, including rules of cadence, tone, and gesture, of which he made an informal study and to which audiences would recognise and respond.

Public orators of the day favoured earnest argument and erudition over wit, sarcasm, mimicry, and pathos. In contrast, however, Douglass had learned dissimulation or the ‘put on’ from being subject to the arbitrary power of those who claimed to own him. He had learned sarcasm from the humour of the slave quarter, where enslaved people derided slaveholders’ self-serving reasons for maintaining slavery, including that slavery had religious sanction.[5] His pathos emanated from the permanent pain of family separation, which he graphically illustrated for his audiences. Having lost over a dozen relatives to slave traders, Douglass could evoke the pain that slaveholders’ destruction of family ties had brought about.[6]

He later recalled that his New England friends encouraged him to conform to audience’s racial expectations rather than to present himself in his own voice. He acquitted them of mixed motives but recalled, ‘I must speak just the word that seemed to me the word to be spoken by me’, and hinted why he received the speaking advise that he did. ‘I was generally introduced as a ‘chattel‘—a ‘thing‘—a piece of southern ‘property‘—the chairman assuring the audience that it could speak’.[7] He quickly outgrew the role of the ‘thing‘ or southern curiosity that spoke. Douglass adopted the ‘plantation manner’ solely when mimicking slaveholders and caricaturing ministers. If he did not take their speaking cues, Douglass did adopt the Garrisonian abolitionists’ communications strategies, and during his first few years as an agitator he faithfully adhered to Garrison’s ideology of ‘moral suasion’.[8] Douglass was able to plug his self-taught rhetoric into an organization that had a ready-made use for it.[9] He benefited from the publicity, even if his sponsors did not encourage his oratorical development.

Douglass sounded different to most of his colleagues because his rhetoric took the accepted practice of mobilizing stock classical, literary, and biblical allusions and embellished them with colloquial scenes that provoked laughter and pathos.[10] In an age when colleges trained young men in the arts of public speaking—a good citizen was also, ideally, a good public speaker—rhetoric was highly regarded.[11] In addition to a self-taught repertoire of letters, Douglass mobilised a repertoire of experiences, using biblical passages, for instance, to punctuate images of slave life. His cadence and pitch were familiar to his audiences. Physically, he addressed his audience in the same manner as other speakers. Douglass did not stammer, cower, or use malapropisms. Garrison, who regularly introduced him, presented Douglass as a mere victim of slavery, and Douglass showed them instead a slave turned man, which prefigured the central narrative arc of his autobiography.

Douglass used mimicry as a powerful rhetorical device throughout his early speaking career. Mimicking southern preachers played to the conceits of audience members who saw their southern countrymen as naïve rustics. Laughter from the audience also encouraged a speaker who faced a potentially hostile audience. It dissipated tension built up by his earnest denunciations, disarming those who were hostile to the appearance of a black man on the public stage. In February 1842, before a packed Representatives Hall in Boston, Douglass gave an address typical of that strategy. The ‘ample Hall was crowded to overflowing’, according to one report, ‘like a court-house at a capital trial, and with an auditory of a kind not often found at an anti-slavery meeting’.[12] Lit by candles or gas lamps, the hall had no spotlight or lectern on the speaker’s podium. The rarely-quiet crowd’s presence meant that the speaker’s voice had to fill the hall without straining and loosing its pitch and cadence. Douglass’s appearance, wrote one witness, ‘has the port, and countenance, and heroic “assurance,” and almost the stature of the Roman Coriolanus,—and we could but rejoice in enthusiasm of spirit, as he presented himself to the gaze of the unwonted assembly’.[13]

Rather than take his place on the podium immediately, Douglass was introduced in a provocative manner. Garrison appeared on the speaker’s podium and ‘announced him, in his peculiarly arousing manner, as “a thing from the South!”‘ read one report. ‘The idea seemed to fire the noble fugitive with the indignation of outraged nature’, and ‘his eyes flashed as he spoke in tones of appalling earnestness and significancy [sic]’.[14] The reporter’s description of a ‘noble fugitive’ reveals how a white audience member would view a black slave orator, as a ‘noble fugitive’ would also connote the ‘noble savage’—one whose essential nature had been fundamentally undisturbed by the civilization he was just about to criticise. That sympathetic racist categorization is what would make Uncle Tom a tragic character a decade later: his African nobility—an artifact of the innocence of his ‘race’—manifested itself as perfect servility when combined with its perfect Christianity. Similar assessments of non-white peoples as natural innocents were not unfamiliar to readers of James Fennimore Cooper, for instance.[15] Douglass was routinely introduced as a slave, which drew attention to his appearance and invited white audiences to view him through the prism of their racial understandings. Few in the audience had ever seen a slave, let alone a slave orator, and black Americans rarely addressed whites from a place of superiority. Popular Anglo-American racial sensibilities of the time attributed characteristics to ancestry, and they were rapidly gaining literary and scientific underpinnings. A black speaker therefore would be a curiosity. Even in abolitionist circles, Edmund Quincy was fond of telling racist jokes and Wendell Phillips confided privately that he was uncomfortable rooming with a black man.[16]

Addressing himself to an audience with those expectations and assumptions, Douglass was effective because he was surprising and engaging. ‘I appear before the immense assembly this evening as a thief and a robber’, he began; ‘I stole this head, these limbs, this body from my master, and ran off with them’.[17] His humour disarmed the hostile crowd and pointed up the seriousness of the subject upon which he was to speak. It was a risky strategy since he was attempting to persuade and not merely to entertain. Not seeking to inhabit a racial stereotype, he used the ironic comment to introduce a speech in which his explanations rapidly turned into an argument. Rhetorically, the thing or slave identified himself as the rightful or moral owner of the same ‘thing’ that was stolen from its legal owner. Recalling scenes from his childhood of his master’s religious conversion, Douglass thrilled the crowd by deriding the apparent hypocrisy involved in a Methodist revival. Inverting the ‘plantation manner’ of cowering and bending to the slaveholder’s will, he invited the audience to look through the eyes of an enslaved child and to ridicule the world of slaveholding Christianity that they saw. The ‘matter and manner in which religious instruction is conveyed to the slaves by ministers was believed to be excellent’, a reporter noted; ‘It was certainly very laughable’.[18] The reporters’ notes trail off after the first few lines of the speech. Douglass’s speech captivated him, and he noted the effects of the speaker’s remarks instead of the remarks themselves.

Douglass’s success prompted his sponsors to warn him of the hazards of his particular style and delivery. Garrison had advised him that he appeared too ‘learned’. He warned Douglass, ‘”people won’t believe you were ever a slave, Frederick”‘. More and more, Douglass’s eloquence was becoming a double bind. If he adopted the ‘plantation manner’, he would consent to be cast as nothing more than a theatrical exhibit; if he sounded too ‘learned’ he ran the risk of being discredited as an impostor. By the spring of 1844, Douglass later recalled, he regularly heard comments doubting his past.[19] Douglass bristled at the criticisms.

In part to prove his critics wrong, Douglass published his Narrative, which risked his security. Publication of the details of his life as a slave posed the danger of recapture, so his friends encouraged him to leave the country. He hesitated since the book brought new controversy—and a new source of income. Having largely succeeded before an American audience, Douglass refined his oratory and reauthorised the Narrative across the Atlantic.

In Ireland and Great Britain, he showed great versatility as an orator, and through republication of the Narrative, shrewdness as an author. Summarizing his Irish and British tour, Alan Rice and Michael Crawford contend, ‘he came to Britain’ in the summer of 1845 ‘as raw material of a great black figure; he would leave in April 1847 a finished and independent man’.[20] If his 1838 escape from Maryland to Massachusetts brought him practical independence from slavery, his 1845-47 tour brought him financial independence from abolitionist organizations.

Douglass reinvented his public image in part by emphasizing his white paternity in the 1846 Dublin edition (and subsequent Irish and English editions) of Narrative. He kept prefatory endorsements by Garrison and Wendell Phillips, but he prefaced their endorsements with a statement of his own, which included ‘a desire to increase my stock of information, and my opportunities for self-improvement, by a visit to the land of my paternal ancestors’.[21] Fionnguala Sweeney contends that ‘the preface is important both as autobiographical and ideological commentary on Douglass’s changing status within abolitionism and his increasing awareness of the risks and opportunities of engagement with the society and politics of the Atlantic world’.[22] By prefacing his own narrative, Douglass put a new frame on the second Irish edition (and subsequent editions) that announced his authorial control. Moreover, he implicated Britain and Ireland in his arguments and struggles by connecting his father’s ancestry to the legacy of slavery in British North America. Sweeney contends, further, that ‘Ireland was central to the realization of [his literary and ideological] independence: not just as a refuge from re-enslavement and a safe platform from which to attack the US’s “peculiar institution,” but as an imaginary space which marked and important step in the development of his writing and of a distinctive narrative persona which escaped the racial confines US and the ideological control of the transatlantic abolitionist movement’.[23] At each opportunity, Douglass seized control of his message and refashioned his public persona for the Irish and British stage.[24]

Unlike in the U.S., Douglass was not utterly dependent upon abolitionist societies for sponsorship, support, or protection. Sweeney contends that, ‘his popularity in Ireland, amongst women in particular, meant that he was never without accommodation, an audience or an income’.[25] He expanded the range of subjects on which he spoke and began reading from texts to supplement his extemporaneous remarks.[26] Douglass authorised British editions of the Narrative and through its sales and speaking fees he raised enough money to purchase his legal freedom in the United States. ‘Ironically perhaps’, Sweeney argues, ‘the Narrative, which detailed the violation and abuse of labour and economic as well as human rights, projected Douglass out of the social category of skilled labourer, or ideological and financial dependant of abolitionism, and into a higher social and economic niche as a man of letters’.[27] He refined his communications skills by changing his message to suit his audiences’ interests. Before a Roman Catholic temperance audience in Ireland, for instance, he declared ‘if we could make the world sober, we would have no slavery. Mankind has been drunkAll great reforms go together‘.[28] The British and Irish stage allowed Douglass the freedom to expand his personal narrative and reflect upon his primary education. That would also become important in his later literary reinventions.

In an 1846 speech, Douglass elaborated on the incident that marked the apparent beginning of his interest in reading. Before a Belfast audience composed mostly of women, he recalled, ‘I remember the first time I ever heard the Bible read, and I tell you the truth when I tell you, that from that time I trace my first desire to learn to read’. Douglass set the scene, recalling, ‘my master had gone out one Sunday night, the children had gone to bed, I had crawled under the centre table and had fallen asleep, when my mistress commenced to read the Bible aloud, so loud that she waked me—she waked me to sleep no more’! [29] The holy reveille Sophia Auld sounded was a reading of first chapter of the Book of Job. Not constrained by the rough-and-tumble world of American abolitionist venues, Douglass could soften his tone and describe moments of domestic tranquility and sentimentality, even if they were bracketed by the threatening presence of a ‘master’ who tried to thwart Douglass’s education by preventing his master’s wife from reading to him further.

The female Belfast audience was sympathetic, but Douglass’s depiction nevertheless emphasised his acquisition of literacy as a function of white middle class domesticity. In presenting this version of his literary heritage, Douglass unwittingly endorsed his critics’ racial views of his literacy. The autobiographical sketch to which the Belfast audience responded would actually cause problems for Douglass’s broader message against racial slavery back in the United States. While Douglass connected his education with religious mystery, critics on the other side of the Atlantic who read his Narrative chose to emphasise Douglass’s white paternity as the source of his literary achievements.

That left Douglass open to the criticism that his white paternity and formative years in a white domestic environment were responsible for his eloquence, which was the inverse of criticisms that he was never a slave because he refused to act like one. It completed the double-bind. In a review for the New York Tribune, perhaps the leading United States newspaper, Margaret Fuller categorised Douglass’s achievement according to racial categories then in wide use. His Narrative, she wrote, ‘is an excellent piece of writing, and on that score to be prized as a specimen of the powers of the Black Race, which Prejudice persists in disputing’.[30] Fuller, leading female intellectual, former editor of the transcendentalist journal the Dial and literary critic for the New York Tribune, reviewed Narrative as a work of literature produced by a man of both African and European ancestry. While praising Douglass as ‘an excellent speaker’, she aligned his rhetorical style with his writing strategy. In Narrative, she maintained, ‘he has put into the story of his life the thoughts, the feelings and the adventures that have been so affecting through the living voice; nor are they less so from the printed page’. She noticed that the text resembled the author’s speaking style, but she devoted most of the review to discussing Douglass’s achievements as a man of mixed race. Fuller contended that if the ‘African Race’ could be ‘assimilated’ with people of European ancestry, the resulting race ‘would give to genius a development, and to the energies of character a balance and harmony beyond what has been seen heretofore in the history of the world’. Fuller’s praise amounted to crediting Douglass’s white paternity with his erudition and his African ancestry with his ‘energies of character’.[31]

Fuller’s review of Douglass’s Narrative reflected ‘romantic racialism’, which ‘simply endorsed the “child” stereotype of the most sentimental school of proslavery paternalists and plantation romancers and then rejected slavery itself because it took unfair advantage of the [African or African American’s] innocence and good nature’.[32] Fuller was neither an abolitionist nor an antislavery activist, but she did maintain a close friendship with author and antislavery activist Lydia Marie Child, sometime editor of the New York National Anti-Slavery Standard. Child was perhaps the first author to develop the literary device later termed the ‘tragic mulatto’ in her 1842 short story ‘The Quadroons’.[33] The ‘tragic mulatto’ faced an internal struggle between competing racially-determined attributes, which gave rise to personal pathologies. While as-yet not fully developed, Fuller represented a northern white middle class audience who shared that orientation, and she believed that racial inheritance determined physical and spiritual attributes and, therefore, talents.[34] Whatever problems Fuller’s criticism posed in the U.S., Douglass decided to self-consciously play up his African heritage in Ireland. His initial strategy of highlighting his Anglo-American paternity had been less successful than he had anticipated. Instead, he took pains to emphasise his blackness. To his friend Francis Jackson, Douglass wrote, ‘I am hardly black enough for British taste, but by keeping my hair as wooly as possible I make out to pass for at least half a Negro at any rate’.[35]

Douglass returned, in 1847, to an organizational role that he had outgrown and the perils of being viewed in terms of a biracial author with colliding backgrounds. In Great Britain he had been received as an American emissary, but when he returned Douglass did not want to play the ‘slave turned man’ for Garrison and an increasingly fractious Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. Douglass inaugurated his own newspaper in Rochester, New York, and stirred up controversy through independent public speaking. After the passage of the Compromise of 1850, he began a period of intense political activities in which he modified his communications strategy in order to reach as broad an audience as possible. Although political and social currents were not favourable to the antislavery or abolitionist causes, Douglass’s family fortunes rose as a result of his success as an editor. In 1850 the U.S. Census listed his household wealth at $6,000 (about £60,000 or $120,000 today).[36]

In early 1850s, when the antislavery movement was faced with having to decide how to resist implementation of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1851, Douglass became more earnest in his denunciations of slavery and decided that merely arguing in behalf of slaves’ humanity was no longer a viable option. That move also freed him from having to use his autobiography as the main means of conveying his sense of the injustice of slavery. His Narrative was not published in the United States after 1849. It remained out of print on both sides of the Atlantic between 1852 and 1960.[37] Douglass expanded his denunciations to include his erstwhile sponsors during a time of increasing tensions within the antislavery movement and throughout the country. According to Lisa Brawley, ‘thus Douglass broke with Garrison in 1851 and began to advocate a notion of political abolitionism that both took up the antislavery legal theory of [abolitionists] Gerrit Smith and William Goodell, and extended their thinking in central ways’.[38] As his thinking evolved, his editorial career blossomed, and his oratory matured; however, issues of ‘race’ took on a greater urgency.

As new legal measures strengthened and extended slavery in the United States, new currents in social thought legitimated older forms of racism. The political crises of the 1850s were inauspicious for Douglass’s cause, and the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life among the Lowly and the rise of the American School of Ethnography in the first half of the decade of the 1850s gave new literary force and scientific underpinnings to racial attitudes which tended to undermine Douglass’s authenticity and message. The American School of Ethnography gave racism the imprimatur of scientific investigation, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin ‘was the classic expression of romantic racialism’.[39] Stowe began the work with by characterizing slavery in explicitly racial terms, arguing that African American slaves were descendents of ‘an exotic race, whose ancestors, born beneath a tropic sun’, who ‘brought with them, and perpetuated to their descendents, a character so essentially unlike the hard and dominant Anglo-Saxon race, for many years to have won from it only misunderstanding and contempt’.[40] Stowe’s racial denominations appeased her mostly white, middle class, and female audience’s racial conceits and dramatically reinforced the kinds of thinking that made Douglass’s white paternity and black maternity a double bind in terms of how he represented himself to his audiences. He did not reject the book because of the way it reflected popular racial prejudices. He ‘appreciated’ it, argues Gregg D. Crane, however, ‘despite its colonization theme, for the way its searing images galvanised antislavery feeling in the North’.[41] Stowe’s racial premises resulted in a racially bifurcated final solution: people of African descent should somehow be removed to Africa.

In 1854, two years after Uncle Tom’s Cabin‘s meteoric success as a novel, the attitudes it help to popularise received scientific endorsement in a compendium titled, The Types of Mankind. Edited by George R. Glidden and Josiah C. Nott, who claimed to practice ‘niggerology’, the book contained an essay by Harvard Professor Louis Agassiz applying his natural theory that human beings were distributed all over the world in ‘zoological provinces’, just like crocodiles and finches, which proffered scientific support for inherent differences among people with different skin colours. It also had the effect of endorsing Stowe’s racial denominations using scientific theory rather than gothic imagery.[42] In Stowe’s fiction, the farther Uncle Tom travels south the more degraded the morals and the landscape of American society; in Agassiz’s view, different climates produced different types of human beings and Africans were a separate race. ‘Stowe’s gothic settings provide a backdrop’, according to Brawley, ‘for the more virulent theories of racial difference for which climatic differences marked not romanticised difference but innate inferiority. Scientific racisms began to assert that the Anglo-Saxon and African were wholly different species’.[43]

While Douglass worked on an autobiographical response to Stowe’s fiction, he directly confronted the scientific racism supported by Agassiz and proslavery apologists like Nott.[44] Douglass’s 1854 commencement week address at Western Reserve College in Ohio, ‘Claims of the Negro Ethnologically Considered’, answered critics who attributed to African Americans inherently inferior racial characteristics. Ironically, the speech in which he most earnestly refuted racist claims concerning natural abilities was also the one in which he jettisoned all traces of the humour and improvisation that had served him so well on the abolitionist stage in the 1840s. He left no room for parody, pathos, or spontaneity; no ironic positioning of himself to his audience. Douglass argued that ‘scientific’ arguments for the ‘positive good’ school of proslavery apologetics were the result of faulty reasoning and immoral science. The African American as an American shared both a past and a future with his white neighbour, Douglass concluded, and the sooner that inevitable conclusion were accepted, the sooner necessary—and sweeping—social reform could take place.[45]

Douglass’s ‘Claims of the Negro Ethnologically Considered’ and the revision of his Narrative into My Bondage and My Freedom (1855; henceforth Bondage and Freedom) were both intended, in part, to refute the scientific racism of the American School of Ethnography and, in a similar vein, his critics’ assessments of his literary skills.[46] Bondage and Freedom recast his mother as a literate protector of her young son. Harriet Bailey, a field slave, reappears as a devoted protector of her young son, in contrast to the ghostly presence who visited her son only fleetingly and at night in Narrative. Stowe had actually used the pathos of Douglass’s relationship with his mother in her fiction.

In rewriting the character of his mother, Douglass revised both his own and Stowe’s adaptation of Harriet Bailey from the Narrative. In doing so, ‘Douglass manipulated the sentimental conventions’, of literature, Sarah Meer argues, ‘to forge an anti-slavery argument that did not require a white mediator, or expressions of surprise that black people cold feel familial love as passionately as did white’.[47] In her Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, (1854) Stowe seized upon Douglass’s characterizations of his mother in Narrative and elaborated its significance in terms of how slavery constrained motherhood. She denounced slavery in Maryland for what it did to mothers, who—according to Douglass—were hired out at a distance from their children in order to blunt any affection between mother and child. After sketching the relationship of Harriet Bailey and her son, Stowe implored her audience, ‘Now, we ask the highest-born lady in England or America, who is a mother, whether this does not show that this poor field-labourer had in her bosom, beneath her dirt and rags, a true mother’s heart’? [48] That powerful evocation of sentimental motherhood struck the right literary notes for Douglass, but he was wary of treating a slave mother—his mother—as merely an example of injured humanity. He had good reason to be suspicious of what such a characterization might imply.

In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, each slave who shows industry and the drive to escape, George and Eliza Harris, in particular, have Anglo-Saxon blood in their veins. Stowe had based George Harris’s character on Douglass.[49] Stowe’s fiction and the American School of Ethnology’s racial typology were two sides of the same coin, so Douglass had to be careful when adapting Stowe’s sentimental style, which constructed people like Douglass as a collision between an ‘exotic race’, which by the theory of ‘zoological provinces’ was inherently bereft of critical abilities yet possessed a childlike nobility of character on account of African climate, and the ‘hard and dominant Anglo-Saxon’, which bore the burdens of civilization because of its strategic northern geography. In adapting Stowe’s style to events in his own life, Douglass had to refute the racial underpinnings of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, as he had in his ‘Claims of the Negro Ethnologically Considered’, yet do so artfully. In other words, to be effective in countering Stowe’s contentions, he had to texture a portrait of his mother while at the same time reversing the racial categories that made her a submissive victim of slavery and her son a virtual orphan.

Douglass accomplished that by rewriting his mother as an erudite, compassionate, and inspirational teacher and parent, endowing her with the qualities his critics imputed to his white paternity. The 1855 autobiography re-narrates his life as a slave, expanding details of the Narrative and giving arguments and denunciations. In his Narrative, Douglass recalled how he took his mother’s death. ‘Never having enjoyed, to any considerable extent, her soothing presence, her tender and watchful care’, he wrote in 1845, ‘I received tidings of her death with much the same emotions I should have probably felt at the death of a stranger’.[50] Rhetorically, the sentimental bond of religious learning he had attributed in an 1846 speech in Belfast to Sophia Auld, wife of his second owner, had taken the place of his mother’s. Not only did he owe his eloquence to white paternity, in that reading of his formative experience, but he owed his literary beginnings to a surrogate white mother. In Bondage and Freedom, by contrast, Harriet Bailey appears as a beloved mother and Douglass laments being barred from attending to her in her final hours. ‘It has been a life-long, standing grief to me’, he wrote, ‘that I knew so little of my mother; and that I was so early separated from her. The counsels of her love must have been beneficial to me. The side view of her face is imaged on my memory, and I take few steps in life, without feeling her presence; but the image is mute, and I have no striking words of her’s treasured up’.[51] Douglass’s words evoke a sentimental bond hardly hinted at ten years earlier. He channels Stowe’s sentimental lament but does not leave his mother as a helpless victim—an Aunt Chloe.

In Bondage and Freedom, Douglass’s revision of Harriet Bailey and her relationship to her child were counterarguments to assessments by Stowe, Fuller, and other critics. In solemn tones, he ‘fondly and proudly’ credited his mother with ‘an earnest love of knowledge’, and marveled that ‘a “field hand” should learn to read, in any slave state’, was ‘remarkable’. ‘The achievement of my mother’, he continued, ‘considering the place, was very extraordinary; and, in view of that fact, I am quite willing, and even happy, to attribute any love of letters I possess, and for which I have got—despite of prejudices—only too much credit, not to my admitted Anglo-Saxon paternity, but to the native genius of my sable, unprotected, and uncultivated mother—a woman, who belonged to a race whose mental endowment it is, at present, fashionable to hold in disparagement and contempt’.[52] That was Douglass’s most strident response to Fuller, Stowe, and the ‘science’ of race to which they lent legitimacy through literary expression.

Douglass countered Stowe where she was most persuasive. Instead of the author’s muscular masculinity in the foreground of his criticisms, he places a dark-skinned and vulnerable woman, whom he has endowed with exceptional critical powers. In doing so, he grips the audience emotionally, which is evocative of Stowe’s style, while he refutes popular racial assumptions. That passage reflects a broader literary strategy in which Harriet Bailey’s literary attainment points beyond her relationship with her son. Meer contends that ‘the narrative shift from the 1845 autobiography was not wholeheartedly sentimental, nor did it only confirm Stowe’s domestic ideal…he negotiated the expectations of the white Northern readers who had bought Uncle Tom’s Cabin in such droves, but he also pointed to experiences and relationships for which the sentimental idiom could provide “no adequate expression”‘.[53] Those experiences and relationships point to a larger slave community, which confounded the northern middle class domestic ideal, reflected in Stowe’s fiction, of a nuclear family.

Meer’s reading of Bondage and Freedom in that regard is also supported by evidence that Douglass may not have been merely fabricating a new literary persona for his mother. Harriet Lucretia Anthony, granddaughter of Aaron Anthony, Douglass’s first owner, annotated a copy of Bondage and Freedom, which survives. In the margin beside the passage above, Harriet Anthony wrote, ‘many of my father’s [i.e. Andrew Anthony’s] slaves could read. They were proud of the fact that they could read the bible‘.[54] She was unimpressed with Douglass’s contention that his mother was literate. The claim bears investigation.

Among Douglass’s enslaved relatives on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, reading probably meant an aural understanding of the Bible. His early exposure to literacy may have been part of a family tradition. Neither Douglass nor Harriet Anthony elaborated on the context in which slaves read or whether there was a consensus among slaveholders on whether reading was a dangerous activity. Harriet Anthony’s understanding of the reading habits of slaves on her father’s estate emphasised one particular text. Bible-reading in the context of a slave community was probably different than Douglass’s encounters with Sophia Auld’s solitary Bible reading (Auld read aloud when her husband was absent). Douglass’s mother would probably have read the Bible as a communal exercise and may have been catechised before an antebellum generation saw how some black preachers like Nat Turner used biblical literacy for revolutionary ends. An extended kinship network centered on the Edward Lloyd plantation had grown up largely intact since the late seventeenth century, and the Bailey family had been on the Eastern Shore at least since the early eighteenth century.[55] The fact that the Baileys were an established family may have resulted in reading practices that became intergenerational traditions or respect for literacy that reflected an enthusiasm for sacred texts. Scholars have speculated that Douglass may have had Muslim ancestors, which may account for patterns of literacy that survived the transition from Islamic texts to the Christian Bible—and the Middle Passage.[56] Growing up in a family with aural literacy many generations deep may have even partially prepared Frederick Douglass for his speaking career.

Douglass worked himself out of the double-bind of being cast as a prototypical ‘tragic mulatto’ by recasting his African-descended mother as his true literary benefactor. That answer to critics who attributed his intelligence and eloquence to white paternity complemented his denunciations of scientific racism from reason, history, and ‘ethnology’. In the 1850s, confronting racial categories grew more urgent since both popular fiction and new science reinforced and expanded categories imputing inherent inferiorities to blacks. Stowe’s influential style, and the ideas to which it gave expression, raised the stakes for Douglass’s legitimacy. Douglass’s literary refutation was hardly overwhelming, but the memory of his mother and her community evoked the deeper family and kinship ties that he had left behind and the aural literacy that his ancestors shared. Confronted with doubts about his authenticity and then suspicions of the ancestral sources of his denunciations of slavery and imputed African inferiority, Douglass used his autobiographical writings as an enduring form of refutation, taking the idiom of sentimental imagery that had been used so effectively to cement prejudice and replacing an anonymous white father with his articulate black mother.

Arizona State University


[1] Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom (New York: Miller, Orton & Mulligan, 1855), p. 362.

[2] Lisa Brawley, ‘Frederick Douglass’s My Bondage and My Freedom and the Fugitive Tourist Industry’, NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction 30.1 (Autumn 1996), 98-128 (p. 98).

[3] Herald of Freedom 3 December 1841, cited in Waldo Martin, The Mind of Frederick Douglass (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984), p. 24.

[4] William S. McFeely, Frederick Douglass (New York: W. W. Norton, 1991), p. 17.

[5] Gilbert Osofsky, ed., Puttin’ on Ole Massa: The Slave Narratives of Henry Bibb, William Wells Brown, and Solomon Northup (New York: Harper & Row, 1969), introduction.

[6] McFeely, p. 31.

[7] Douglass, Bondage and Freedom, pp. 360-1.

[8] David Grimsted, American Mobbing: 1828-1861 (New York & London: Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 34; see n. 49.

[9] Grimsted, pp. 34, 35; Michael F. Holt, The Political Crisis of the 1850s (New York: Wiley, 1978), p. 29; Leonard L. Richards, Gentlemen of Property and Standing (New York & London: Oxford University Press, 1970), pp. 49-54, 161-163.

[10] Henry Louis Gates, Jr., ed., Douglass: Autobiographies (New York: Library of America), pp. 1083-1094.

[11] Joseph F. Kett, ‘A Class Act: Collegiate Competition in American Society’, in A Faithful Mirror: Reflections on the College Board and Education in America, ed. by Michael C. Johanek (New York: College Board, 2001), pp. 117-118.

[12] The Liberator, 18 February 1842; the report of Douglass’s speech in Representatives Hall was reprinted from the Concord, New Hampshire Herald of Freedom, 11 February 1842. That report was taken from the Lynn Record. Since I use the text of the article reprinted in The Liberator, I shall use that citation lest it was unfaithfully reprinted from the other two newspapers.

[13] The Liberator, 18 February 1842. The reference to a Roman hero is as obscure today as was common then: ‘Coriolanus, Gnaeus Marcius…was probably the eponymous hero or god of the Volscian town Corioli, from the capture of which he was reputed to have won his cognomen‘ (N. G. L. Hammond, ed., The Oxford Classical Dictionary, 2nd ed. (New York and London: Oxford University Press, 1970), pp. 290-291).

[14] The Liberator, 18 February 1842.

[15] Gaile McGregor, The Noble Savage in the New World Garden (New York: Popular Press, 1988), p. 166, passim.

[16] McFeely, p. 94.

[17] Herald of Freedom, 11 February 1842; cited in Gregory Lampe, Frederick Douglass: Freedom’s Voice, 1818-1845 (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1998), pp. 103-4.

[18] The Liberator, ibid.

[19] Douglass, Bondage and Freedom, p. 362.

[20] Alan J. Rice and Martin Crawford, ‘Triumphant Exile: Frederick Douglass in Britain, 1845-1847’, in Liberating Sojourn: Frederick Douglass & Transatlantic Reform, ed. by Alan J. Rice and Martin Crawford (Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1999), p. 3.

[21] Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written By Himself, 3rd English Ed. (Wortley: Joseph Baker, 1846); Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia.

[22] Fionnghuala Sweeney, ‘”The Republic of Letters”: Frederick Douglass, Ireland, and the Irish Narratives’, Éire-Ireland 36.1-2 (2001), 123-139 (p. 50).

[23] Sweeney, ‘”The Republic of Letters”‘, p. 65.

[24] Patricia Ferreira, ‘Frederick Douglass in Ireland: the Dublin Edition of his Narrative’, New Hibernia Review / Iris Éireannach Nua 5.1 (Spring / Earrach 2001), 53-67 (p. 56); McFeeley, pp. 121, 130, 145.

[25] Fionnghuala Sweeney, ‘Domestic Institutions: Transatlantic Gender Politics and Economic Power in Frederick Douglass’ Variant Narratives’, Slavery & Abolition 23.3 (December 2002), 59-72 (p. 62).

[26] Douglass used Theodore Dwight Weld’s American Slavery As It Is, Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses (New York: American AntiSlavery Society, 1839) in his 22 May 1846 address at Finsbury Chapel, London. See Blassingame, ed., The Frederick Douglass Papers, Series I., Vol. 1 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979), pp.269, 270, 279.

[27] Sweeney, ‘Domestic Institutions’, p. 60.

[28] Blassingame, ed., The Frederick Douglass Papers, Series I., Vol. 1, p. 58.

[29] Ibid., p. 127.

[30] New York Tribune, 10 June 1845; cited in Blassingame, ed., The Frederick Douglass Papers, Series II., Vol. 1, p. 175.

[31] New York Tribune, 10 June 1845; cited in ibid., p. 175.

[32] George M. Fredrickson, The Black Image in the White Mind: The Debate on Afro-American Character and Destiny, 1817-1914 (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), p. 102.

[33] Lydia Marie Child, ‘The Quadroons’ (1842), The Online Archive of Nineteenth-Century U.S. Women’s Writings, ed. by Glynis Carr. Available at URL: <> [accessed 2nd November, 2008].

[34] Joan von Mehren, Minerva and the Muse: A Life of Margaret Fuller (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1994), pp. 116-9; Belle Gale Chevigny, The Woman and the Myth: Margaret Fuller’s Life and Writings (Boston, MA: Northeastern University Press, 1994), p. 340.

[35] Douglass to Jackson, Royal Hotel, Dundee, Scotland, 29 January, 1846; Boston Antislavery Collection, MsA.1.2 v16, 13, cited in Sweeney, ‘Domestic Institutions’, p. 62.

[36] Seventh Census of the United States, 1850 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1850), M432, 1,009 rolls. Census Place: Rochester Ward 7, Monroe, New York; Roll: M432_531; Page: 318; Image: 188. Available at URL: <> [accessed 28th January, 2007].

[37] The final British publication was in 1852. Narrative was not published again until the Belknap Press of Harvard University published it in the John Harvard series in 1960.

[38] Brawley, p. 102.

[39] Fredrickson, p. 110.

[40] Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Minister’s Wooing, Oldtown Folks (New York: Library of America, 1982), p. 9.

[41] Gregg D. Crane, Race, Citizenship, and Law in American Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), p. 57.

[42] Fredrickson, p. 137; Brawley, pp. 103-104. Agassiz had been a proponent of the idea at least since his arrival in the U.S. from Switzerland 1846, but the idea that Africans were a separate species received increased attention in the 1850s when defenders of American slavery searched for new ways to defend it as a positive good. On Agassiz and Nott, see Drew Gilpin Faust, A Sacred Circle: The Dilemma of the Intellectual in the Old South, 1840-1860 (Baltimore, MD and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977), pp. 122-126, 180.

[43] Brawley, p. 103.

[44] Frederick Douglass’s ‘The Heroic Slave’ (1853) was also influenced by Stowe’s style; see Richard Yarborough, ‘Race, Violence, and Manhood: The Masculine Ideal in Frederick Douglass’s “The Heroic Slave”‘, in Haunted Bodies: Gender and Southern Texts, ed. by Anne Jones and Susan Donaldson (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 1997), pp. 159-84. For an assessment of ‘The Heroic Slave’ and Douglass’s view of nationalism, see Ivy G. Wilson, ‘On Native Ground: Transnationalism, Frederick Douglass, and “The Heroic Slave”‘ PMLA 121.2 (March 2006), 453–468.

[45] Frederick Douglass, ‘Claims of the Negro Ethnologically Considered’ (Rochester: Lee, Mann & Co., 1854).

[46] See Michael A. Chaney, ‘Picturing the Mother, Claiming Egypt: My Bondage and My Freedom as Auto(bio)ethnography’, African American Review 35.3 (2001), 391-408.

[47] Sarah Meer, ‘Sentimentality and the Slave Narrative: Frederick Douglass’ My Bondage and My Freedom‘, in The Uses of Autobiography: Feminist Perspectives on the Past and Present, ed. by Julia Swindells (London and Bristol, PA: Taylor and Francis, 1995) p. 95.

[48] Harriet Beecher Stowe, The Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Boston, MA: Jewett, 1854), p. 24.

[49] ‘With regard to the intelligence of George, and his teaching himself to read and write, there is a most interesting and affecting parallel to it in the “Life of Frederick Douglass”—a book which can be recommended to anyone who has a curiosity to trace the workings of an intelligent and active mind through all the squalid misery, degradation and oppression, of slavery’. Ibid.

[50] Douglass, Narrative, p. 25

[51] Douglass, Bondage and Freedom, p. 57.

[52] Ibid., p. 58.

[53] Meer, pp. 94, 95.

[54] That annotation appears on page fifty-eight of Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom (1855, New York edition), Mary A. Doder Collection, MSA SC 564 Maryland State Archives, Annapolis. Emphasis in the original.

[55] Douglass’s great-great grandfather Baly was born around 1701 and was still alive in 1781; see Gates, p. 1049.

[56] For an expanded discussion of this topic, see Michael A. Gomez, Exchanging our Country Marks (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998), pp. 76-81; and Michael A. Gomez, ‘Muslims in Early America’, Journal of Southern History 40.4 (1994), 671-710.