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VPR's coverage of arts and culture in the region.

Williamson: Douglass in Vermont

By the end of the nineteenth century, Frederick Douglass was the most famous black man in America, if not the world. He had escaped from slavery at the age of 20, thrilled audiences across the country with the power of his voice and of his intellect, met with presidents, devoted his life to the movement against slavery – and chronicled all of it in three separate autobiographies.

In 1841, Douglass was just beginning his career as an orator. The 23-year-old stood at a podium, trembling with nervous insecurity as he addressed a meeting of Massachusetts abolitionists. But as he spoke the truth of life in slavery, anger calmed his nerves and fired his voice. His listeners jumped cheering to their feet.

A new organizing campaign launched two years later – the 100 Conventions – brought Douglass to Vermont. Antislavery leaders recruited a slate of speakers and offered them to any local society that would organize a gathering. That offer proved irresistible to Rowland Thomas Robinson. He quickly joined with others to plan the “Great Convention” in July 1843. The Vermont events served as a sort of test-run for the upcoming tour, slated for Pennsylvania, New York, and Ohio, and Douglass spoke first in Middlebury and then in Ferrisburgh in mid-July. Accounts in local newspapers and Douglass’s narratives tell us what he thought of Vermont – and what Vermont thought of him.

Douglass contrasted the two Vermont meetings in his 1893 autobiography, characterizing the reception in Middlebury as “intensely bitter and violent.” The College students, he said, had “industriously and mischievously placarded the town with violent aspersions of our characters.” The local papers, by contrast, described the incident as more high jinx than violence. Ferrisburgh, said Douglass, proved to be different and “more favorable,” thanks to the efforts of “such stalwart antislavery workers as Orson S. Murray and Rowland T. Robinson.”

Douglass’s Ferrisburgh speech was printed nearly verbatim in a Middlebury newspaper. He began by assessing Vermont, saying: “I have been a slave, and am still a slave. There is not a foot of land under the stars and stripes of America where I can stand as a freeman; … Much as you boast of your freedom and republicanism in this State, high as are your hills, deep as are your vales, there is not an inch of land in all your State where Frederick Douglass can stand free.”

The Vergennes Vermonter reported that Douglass was attacked – or, at least, had something thrown at him. The reporter was appalled and chastised the perpetrator, writing that, “A fool might as well attempt to blot the face of the sun by throwing filth at it, as such a being attempt to insult Frederick Douglass.” He noted that the attacker “only succeeded in exciting toward himself from all who witnessed it, immeasurable contempt and scorn and pity” and concluded that the attacker was a “living libel on manhood.”

And to that I say, Amen.

Douglass' speech in Ferrisburgh, from the Vermont Observer [Middlebury], July 18 & 25, 1843:

Mr. Douglas, the fugitive slave, arose and said,

“I have been a slave, and am still a slave. There is not a foot of land under the stars and stripes of America where I can stand as a freeman; stand safe. ‘Tis all enchanted ground. Much as you boast of your freedom and republicanism in this State, high as are your hills, deep as are your vales, there is not an inch of land in all your State where Frederick Douglass can stand safe. Slavery stretches its influence over all your land, with its beak and talons clutching the freed slave and thrusting him back to bondage.”

Mr. D. again spoke. He remarked as follows:

I was born a slave. I cannot tell where. As it would be unsafe to tell the town, county, or state from which I escaped, I shall say nothing of them. I belonged to a kind master, i.e. to a middling sort of a man. He owned 14 slaves besides myself. He was a member of the Methodist Episcopal Church and a Class leader. It might be expected that in his case the evil reports of slave holders would be falsified—especially as he was a good man, i.e. according to the standard of goodness which prevails south of Mason and Dixon’s line. I will not relate my own sufferings, the tho’t of them is sufficiently painful without the recital. Neither would they do much towards enlightening you in regard to slavery. To form a just conceptions of slavery you must hear the narrative of more than one fugitive from slavery. The millions of slaves must stand before you, and you must form your opinion, not by the number of scars on their backs, or links in their chains, or the length of the driver’s lash. You must look at the internal workings of the system, the crushing of hope, the separation of families, the agony of the slave as he lays plans for escape, knowing that the blood hounds will be on his track, and his master in hot pursuit, and mercenary wretches all results around to betray him for the paltry gold offered for his arrest.

What is the relation of Master and slave? It is a relation of unlimited authority on the part of the master, and entire dependence on the part of the slave. The master decides what the slave shall eat, when he shall eat, and how he shall eat; when he shall go, where he shall go, how long he shall be gone, and when he shall return; when and whom he shall marry, and how long he shall remain married; the master decides what is right and what is wrong, what virtue is, and what vice is; who he shall worship, and when he shall worship. In every thing the master decides. If it were once allowed that the slave should decide for himself when he should go, and where he should go, how he should go, and when return, or what he ought to do, or what abstain from doing, it would be an entering wedge that would rend asunder the whole arch of slavery. Allow the slave the right to decide once, and he will exercise it again and again.

But some will say there are kind masters at the South. I deny that there are any such masters. There are masters who feed their slaves well, and clothe them well, and who do not overwork them. But the slaves of such masters feel their condition more keenly than the slaves of more cruel masters. Such masters keep their slaves under by fear.— They say “we will not whip you, but if you do not heed us we will put you where you will be taken care of.” What others do by the lash, they do through fear. The fact is, if you treat a slave well he will run away, that is what made me run away. The slave, like other men, is always looking forward to a better state of things. If he has a bad master he is desirous of a better, when he gets a better, he then wishes for the best, and when he gets the best then he longs for freedom and runs for the North.

Again some tell us that some slaves have religious masters. Yes, I allow it, i.e. the slaves are preached to, and prayed with, and allowed to pray themselves, but it is to the God of Slavery, and not to the God of Freedom. A slave may pray, “O God make me obedient to massa, make me a good slave &c;” but if he should chance to pray that God would break every yoke and let the oppressed go free, it would be looked upon as the trumpet note of insurrection, and a severe retribution would follow. They have preaching too, but it is such as is designed to make them better slaves.

[Mr. D. here gave a specimen of southern preaching to the slaves. He observed that he might not use the precise words, but he pledged to do justice to the southern preachers. He chose for his text “Servants obey your masters,” and personating a preacher in the midst of a congregation of slaves, he proceeded to say:]

Slaves, these are the words of the great Apostle, addressed to those in your condition. They urge upon you the study of obedience. I shall proceed to state four reasons why you should be obedient to your masters.

1.    God commands you to be obedient.*

2.    You should be obedient on the principle of gratitude, because God has brought you from poor bigoted Africa to this happy country.*

3.    You should be obedient, because your own happiness requires it.*

4.    You should be obedient, because of your adaptedness to the state you are in.*

Slaves, perhaps you do not understand my reasoning. I will illustrate it. The other day Sam’s master sent him to do a piece of work which would require about two hours and a half. Now Sam’s master was a pious good man. When the time expired as Sam did not return, his master went out to the field, and found Sam asleep, under the fence, and the work unfinished, his orders disobeyed. What could he do? Nothing, but fulfill that portion of God’s word which says, “He that knoweth his master’s will and doeth it not shall be beaten with many stripes.” So he tied Sam up and whipped him. Now slaves, what was Sam’s whipping owing to? I see you are ready to answer, I see it in the faces of all of you; you all will say it was owing to disobedience, disobedience, disobedience!

Slaves, if you would be happy obey your masters.

[*Under the first head he dwelt upon the great and terrible character of God, the awful consequences which would follow a disobedience to his commands. Urged to bear constantly in mind God’s terrible character, and the fact that the great God has commanded them to be obedient to their masters.

2d. He dwelt upon the horrors and wretchedness of Africa, the suffering and destitute conditions of its inhabitants, and contrasted them with these the blessings and privileges of this land, calling upon them under the influence of gratitude to be obedient to their masters.

3d. He dwelt upon the connection between cause and effect, obedience and happiness, and vice versa.

4. He dwelt on the law of adaptedness which every where prevails, but no where more than in their own case. He drew their attention to their hard hands, robust frame and dark skin as evidence of their adaptedness to slavery. Their masters had none of these. God had given them great physical strength, while their master did not posses it in an equal degree. While contrasting the strength of the slaves with the weakness of their masters he was careful to tell them not to boast of their strength because that would be very wicked &c.

Speech courtesy of the Rokeby Museum in Ferrisburgh.

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