September 3, 1838 (a Monday)

Frederick Douglass in 1845.

On this date, Frederick Douglass successfully escaped slavery by boarding a train to Havre de Grace, Maryland. He was dressed in a sailor’s uniform and carried identification papers provided by a free black seaman. He crossed the Susquehanna River by ferry at Havre de Grace, then continued by train to Wilmington, Delaware. From there he went by steamboat to “Quaker City” — Philadelphia, Pennsylvania — and eventually reached New York; the whole journey took less than 24 hours.

And so began the remarkable career of an American abolitionist, women’s suffragist, editor, orator, author, statesman, and reformer. Called “The Sage of Anacostia” and “The Lion of Anacostia”, Douglass is one of the most prominent figures in African-American and United States history. He was a firm believer in the equality of all people, whether black, female, Native American, or recent immigrant. Douglass was fond of saying, “I would unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong.”

One of my personal favorites is an excerpt from a speech Douglass delivered at Corinthian Hall in his adopted hometown, Rochester, New York, on July 5, 1852, entitled “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”:

But the church of this country is not only indifferent to the wrongs of the slave, it actually takes sides with the oppressors. It has made itself the bulwark of American slavery, and the shield of American slave-hunters. Many of its most eloquent Divines. who stand as the very lights of the church, have shamelessly given the sanction of religion and the Bible to the whole slave system. They have taught that man may, properly, be a slave; that the relation of master and slave is ordained of God; that to send back an escaped bondman to his master is clearly the duty of all the followers of the Lord Jesus Christ; and this horrible blasphemy is palmed off upon the world for Christianity.

For my part, I would say, welcome infidelity! welcome atheism! welcome anything! in preference to the gospel, as preached by those Divines! They convert the very name of religion into an engine of tyranny, and barbarous cruelty, and serve to confirm more infidels, in this age, than all the infidel writings of Thomas Paine, Voltaire, and Bolingbroke, put together, have done!

The historian David W. Blight has said of this speech, “If Uncle Tom’s Cabin is the fictional masterpiece of American abolitionism, a book Abraham Lincoln would later acknowledge as powerful enough to ’cause this big war,’ then Douglass’s Fourth of July address is abolition’s rhetorical masterpiece.”

The bust of Ludwig Feuerbach owned by Frederick Douglas that he displayed at his home in Washington, D.C. in later life.

One might wonder, based on the excerpt above: was Douglas an atheist?   Apparently not in 1852, but a letter dated May 15, 1871 by his friend Ottilie Assing, written to the German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach, reveals that Douglas did in fact years later make the leap:

Personal sympathy and concordance in many central issues brought us together; but there was one obstacle to a loving and lasting friendship—namely, the personal Christian God. Early impressions, environments, and the beliefs still dominating this entire nation held sway over Douglass. The ray of light of German atheism had never reached him, while I, thanks to natural inclination, training, and the whole influence of German education and literature, had overcome the belief in God at an early age. I experienced this dualism as an unbearable dissonance, and since I not only saw in Douglass the ability to recognize intellectual shackles but also credited him with the courage and integrity to discard at once the old errors and, in this one respect, his entire past, his lifelong beliefs, I sought refuge with you. In the English translation by Mary Anne Evans we read the Essence of Christianity together, which I, too, encountered for the first time on that occasion. This book—for me one of the greatest manifestations of the human spirit—resulted in a total reversal of his attitudes. Douglass has become your enthusiastic admirer, and the result is a remarkable progress, an expansion of his horizon, of all his attitudes as expressed especially in his lectures and essays, which are intellectually much more rich, deep, and logical than before. While most of his former companions in the struggle against slavery have disappeared from the public stage since the abolition, and, in a way, have become anachronisms because they lack fertile ideas, Douglass now has reached the zenith of his development. For the satisfaction of seeing a superior man won over for atheism, and through that to have gained a faithful, valuable friend for myself, I feel obliged to you, and I cannot deny myself the pleasure of expressing my gratitude as well as my heartfelt veneration.

Frederick Douglas had first met Ottilie Assing when she traveled to Rochester in 1856 as a German journalist for the prestigious German newspaper Morgenblatt für gebildete Leserto to interview him. She then spent the next 22 summers with the Douglass family, working on articles, the translation project, and tutoring his children.

At the same time, Anna Douglass, Frederick’s wife, was somewhat older than Frederick, illiterate, and ill much of the time. She shared little of her husband’s intellect or interests, and seemed unable to cope with the large household.

Assing, on the other hand, was a passionate abolitionist, was politically astute, and contributed a great deal to Douglass’ work.  The affair was never confined to the domestic sphere, and it was never a secret. For most of their 26 year friendship, when apart, Frederick and Ottilie weekly wrote each other.  Assing was confident that, upon Anna’s death, Douglass would marry her.  However, when Anna died in 1882, Douglass wed another woman – white, bright and 20 years his junior.  Heartbroken and ill with breast cancer, Assing walked into a park, opened a tiny vial and swallowed the potassium cyanide within.  Still, Ottilie left Frederick Douglass as the sole beneficiary in her will.

References:

  • Diedrich, Maria. Love across Color Lines: Ottilie Assing and Frederick Douglass (New York: Hill and Wang, 1999), pp. 259-260. Original German letter published in Ausgewälte Briefe von und an Ludwig Feuerbach, ed. Hans-Martin Sass (Stuttgart: Friedrich Frommann, 1964), vols. 12/13, pp. 365-366.
  • Assing, Ottilie. Radical Passion: Ottilie Assing’s Reports from America and Letters to Frederick Douglass, edited, translated, and introduced by Christoph Lohmann. (New York: Peter Lang, 1999). (New Directions in German American Studies; v. 1)
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