Eire-Ireland:Journal of Irish Studies

Journal of Irish Studies: “The republic of letters”: Frederick Douglas, Ireland, and the Irish narratives

“The republic of letters”: Frederick Douglas, Ireland, and the Irish narratives

Fionnghuala Sweeney

ONE of the most notable visitors to Irish shores during the nineteenth century was Frederick Douglass, author, abolitionist, and fugitive slave. (1) Douglass had left the United States following the publication in 1845 of his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself, in order to avoid recapture and re-enslavement, and to generate support for the antislavery cause in Europe. His travels throughout the then United Kingdom in the two years from 1845 to 1847 had profound effects on Douglass’ social and intellectual status. Alan Rice describes him as arriving in “Britain [and Ireland] as raw material of a great black figure; [and leaving] … in April 1847 the finished independent man, cut from a whole cloth and able to make his own decisions about the strategies and ideologies of the abolitionist movement.” (2)

Douglass’ personal and political transformation is evident in the shifting form of his literary work, itself enmeshed in those same strategies and ideologies. In Ireland his autobiography was republished by the Dublin Quaker printer Richard Webb shortly after Douglass’ arrival in September 1845, and it went into variant and second Irish editions in 1846. (3) Just as Douglass’ personal and professional standing were deeply affected by the experience of being outside the US, the reprinting of the Narrative in Ireland marks the beginning of a stage in Douglass’ literary career that has profound implications for contemporary readings of his life and work. Taken in conjunction with his other literary output at this time–the letters to Garrison from Britain and Ireland that were subsequently published in the abolitionist newspaper, the Liberator–the Irish Narratives mark a transitional phase in Douglass’ emergence as a modern subject and in his negotiation of nineteenth-century models of socio-cultural identity.

For with the republication of the Narrative in Dublin came several and various changes in the form of the work, with often contradictory implications. These changes included the incorporation of a resolution of the Hibernian Anti-Slavery Society on the flyleaf; varying portraits of Douglass on the title spread; a verse from John Greenleaf Whittier on the title page; and a “preface” written by Douglass and inserted before the preface to the US edition. New appendices included the “Address to the Friends of the Slave”; a reproduction and contestation of A.C.C. Thompson’s refutation of Douglass’ Narrative in the Delaware Republican; a selection of favorable critical notices from US and British newspapers; and two testimonies from Protestant clergymen in Belfast. All of these changes, most notably the new preface written by Douglass himself, illustrate the strategies he used in negotiating the social, economic, and ideological landscape of the Atlantic world. (4)

The new “preface” first appears in the variant first Irish edition published in March 1846 and, in an extended version, in the second Irish edition of May of the same year. Both editions were produced after Douglass had left Ireland for Britain and was lecturing on his famous “Send Back the Money” campaign against the Free Church of Scotland. (5) The first introduction, therefore, was written in Ireland in 1845 and extended while Douglass was in Glasgow in 1846. As such, the appearance and meaning of the “preface” can be seen as bearing directly on Douglass’ Irish experience–an experience marked by economic success, social mobility, and increasing ideological independence.

The preface is important both as autobiographical and ideological commentary on Douglass’ changing status within abolitionism and his increasing awareness of the risks and opportunities of engagement with the society and politics of the Atlantic world. While the American edition confined itself to the exposure and abolition of slavery as part of an ongoing domestic campaign against that institution in the US, the Irish editions reconfigure–through the addition of the preface–the anti-slavery debate and the slave-subject in the international discourse of Western modernity. The confessed purpose of the preface is to clarify what Douglass calls the “threefold object” of his visit to Britain and Ireland. “I wished,” Douglass explains,

to be out of the way during the excitement consequent on the publication of

my book; lest the information I had there given as to my identity and place

of abode, should induce my owner to make measures for my restoration to his

“patriarchal care!”

My next inducement was a desire to increase my stock of information, and

my opportunities for self-improvement, by a visit to the land of my

paternal ancestors.

My third and chief object was, by the public exposition of the

contaminating and degrading influences of Slavery upon the slaveholders

and his abettors, as well as the slave … as may tend to shame (her) [the

United States] out of her adhesion so abhorrent to Christianity and to her

republican institutions. (6)

It is clear from Douglass’ remarks that he attached significant personal as well as political meaning to the visit. In an ironic rereading of his fugitive status he even went so far as to interpret his British/Irish visit as an opportunity for “self-improvement” and the demonstration and furtherance of his intellectual liberty. But the preface also provides an explanatory note to Douglass’ deterritorialized presence in the then United Kingdom, acting as an autobiographical extension of the core narrative. Written from Ireland, a site on the margins of western modernity and politicized in American and British terms by immigration and anticolonial struggle, respectively, the preface upsets any easy correlation of the slave-subject with American territory.

More remarkably, particularly given the audience at which the Irish editions were directed, the preface undermines the morally prestigious position held by Britain, in US abolitionist circles at least, after the abolition of slavery in the West Indies in 1833. Rather than a paradigm of enlightened reason and a place of safety from persecution, Britain is ironically recast by Douglass as “the land of my paternal ancestors.” This echoes Douglass’ contention in the body of the narrative that, though he is himself a slave, born of a slave mother, his father “was a white man.” (7) Ironically restating his paternity in the preface to the Irish editions had repercussions exceeding the immediate abuses of power implied in the narrative proper. Foregrounded was Douglass’ feminized and disinherited position within the patriarchal matrix of modernity, (8) thus implicating not only the individual concerned–Douglass’ father, who was also, we are led to believe, his master–or, indeed, the institutional structures of the US, but the colonial process through which the US, as an independent nation, eventually emerged. Britain, the initiator of that colonial process and indeed of slavery in North America, is repositioned in the personal, and by extension transatlantic, history in which slave-subject and slave text were created. By tracing and stating his British paternity, Douglass invented himself as consequence, and representative figure, of that early transatlantic (colonial) alliance. (9)

As such, the preface has transhistorical as well as transatlantic effect, as past and present fuse in the physical and textual presence of the slave-subject. The later Irish editions therefore point to an inherent instability in the identity of the emerging modern subjectivity represented by and in the text of the slave narrative. The Irish “preface” resists any absolute interpretation of the narrative’s central fiction–the author–within paradigmatic structures of American national-historical or geographic circumstances. Thematically, the preface assaults polarized Enlightenment models of subjective or political understanding; Douglass produces himself as cultural hybrid of a historical union between master and slave, as emblem of an erased colonial past and enslaved republican present.

But, although the preface can be seen as moving toward more integrated, transnational forms of historical understanding, a reading of it as an unqualified expression of empowered black subjectivity is impossible. Any such reading is complicated by the linguistic play between the need to escape the “patriarchal” institution of slavery and subsequent intellectual affiliation to a long unacknowledged “paternity.” Indeed, the content of the preface, which remains couched in Garrisonian terms, provides ironic confirmation of that addition’s concurrent contribution to the work’s formal fragmentation, providing yet another narrative frame to the central account of Douglass’ life in slavery.

Rather than the conventional effect of such narrative framing devices, however, which uphold the truth-claim of the work while maintaining the distance between audience and speaker, the preface–written in Ireland and addressed to a British audience–underlines the physical and subjective proximity of slave narrator and implied reader. And the placement of the preface has further significance for any reading of the Narrative within the newly defined, transatlantic context of its production. For, as was standard practice in such publications, Douglass’ Narrative carries framing testimonies from respected members of the Anti-Slavery Society as to his personal integrity and the veracity of the narrative of his life in slavery. The existence and placement of the preface therefore renegotiate the metadiscourse of power relations exemplified in the intermediary frames of the slave narrative that typically define the relationship between the black narrator and the white reader. Nevertheless, Garrison’s testimony had its virtues. In an ironic twist to this tussle for representative authority embedded in the Irish narratives, Garrison stated in his American preface: “I am confident that [Douglass’ account] is essentially true in all its statements; that nothing has been set down in malice, nothing exaggerated, nothing drawn from the imagination.” (10) The letter from Wendell Philips that follows confirms this, assuring readers that “we have known [Douglass] long, and can put the most entire confidence in [his] truth, candor and sincerity.” (11) In the American and first Irish editions of Douglass’ Narrative, therefore, the text and the man are to be understood within the subjective and political framework of Garrisonian abolitionism. It is Garrison and Phillips, rather than Douglass, who act as mediators of the American narrative; the black text comes enclosed in the proverbial “white envelope” of abolitionist control.

Given Douglass’ increasing acceptance and influence in upper-class and abolitionist circles in Ireland, it might be expected that those testimonies would disappear in the Irish editions. Certainly, the need to establish credibility and moral rectitude diminished as Douglass’ range of consequential friends and acquaintances in Britain and Ireland increased. (12) Indeed, the very existence of the preface points to Douglass’ increasing self-confidence, a confidence that reduced the need for third-party interpretation of the text. Nonetheless, the Irish narratives retain the testimonials of individuals accredited by the value systems of “enlightened” modernity. It is the placement of the preface to the Irish editions, however, where it precedes that of the American production, which provides the best indicator of Douglass’ increasing authority over the text and its interpretation. Now framing Garrison’s testimony, Douglass’ preface usurps the textual and ideological authority previously held by American abolitionism. Douglass, in the light of his Irish experience, presumably decided that he rather than Garrison was the most appropriate mediator of the narrative of his life in slavery. Nevertheless, Garrison’s testimony had its virtues: in an ironic twist to this tussle for representative authority, the retention of the American preface in the Irish editions suggests that, although Douglass no longer felt the need for the abolitionist crutch, he was willing to capitalize on the Garrisonian name and reap its social and economic rewards.

The preface to the Irish editions therefore has formal and thematic impact on any interpretation of the Narrative, particularly in the light of its transatlantic and transhistorical effect. Douglass the slave-narrator, bound by the ideological framework of abolitionism, is mirrored in and unfettered by the empowered persona of the Irish “preface,” who both mediates the meaning of the central narrative and establishes a new hierarchy of interpretation in which the modernized slave-subject finally acquires textual authority. The inclusion of the preface therefore requires the recategorization of the Narrative as a whole, which, in its Irish editions, takes one step further toward the bildungsroman form it will assume in his later autobiographies, with concomitant implications for Douglass’ subjective status and shifting relationship to modernity.

Against this, the retention of the American preface indicates the ongoing importance, if declining authority, of the abolitionist movement as an international ideological and economic context for the work. The introductory frames of the Irish Narratives illustrate the tension between Douglass–the emerging black subject–and American abolitionism, shifting the meaning and interpretation of the text in the new transatlantic context of slavery and abolition in which it is inscribed. However, even as the preface points to Douglass’ increasing ideological and literary independence, suggesting a decreasing need for narrative framing devices, the number of testimonials progressively increases in the Irish Narratives. All of the Irish editions (first, variant first, and second) include an additional frame to that provided by the testimonies of Garrison and Phillips in the original publication, viz. the Hibernian Anti-Slavery Society’s acknowledgment of Douglass’ arrival in Ireland and its recommendation of him to fellow Irish abolitionists. (13) Arguably, this tendril of antislavery extends the geographical reach of the American movement to Ireland. And, as with the framing testimonies provided by Garrison and Phillips, the frame appears to be an attempt to mediate between the slave narrator and his (new) reading public, while simultaneously limiting that narrator’s representative authority. Ireland rather than the US is now the arena of that mediation.

Economically, the Irish resolution, like the Garrisonian preface, had undoubted merit in the marketing of the work–an important consideration given Douglass’ reliance on sales of the Narrative for an independent income. This aside, the frame has other, less material effects. Most obviously, it appears to wrap the text more tightly in the Garrisonians’ embrace by rendering official Douglass’ status as a noteworthy abolitionist “just arrived from the United States on an Anti-slavery mission to Great Britain and Ireland.” (14) Somewhat ironically, Douglass’ status within the abolitionist movement in Ireland is achieved by confirmation of the worth of his American sponsors–“some of the most distinguished and faithful friends of anti-slavery in the United States”–rather than of Douglass himself. More remarkably, and like the preface to the variant and second Irish editions, the resolution acts as a biographical extension of the core narrative. The new, opening frame of the Irish editions bears further textual witness to Douglass’ deterritorialization in Ireland, recasting the narrative as a work of transatlantic scope and impact. Rooted in the discursive framework of American slavery, the text, in its Irish editions, begins to trace a formal “route” through peripheral sites of modern subjective emergence.

This voyage, reflected in Douglass’ “preface” to the Irish editions and the introduction from Webb, reappears in the second Irish edition in the intertextuality established by the “critical notices” at the end of the work. Taken from a variety of US and British newspapers, the reviews register the ever-increasing circle of influence in which the narrative is active, and include articles from Philadelphia, New York, London, and Edinburgh. Much the same could be said of the personal notices by Protestant clergymen in Belfast, which provide the closing frame of the Irish editions. The Rev. Thomas Drew, D.D., describes Douglass’ writing as “a metaphysical illustration of a mind bursting all bonds, and winning light and liberty for his own good and the good of millions,” while the Rev. Isaac Nelson claims that Douglass “is indeed an extraordinary man–the type of a class–such an intellectual phenomenon as only appears at times in the republic of letters…. His name may yet be quoted both as an abolitionist and a literary man by those very States of America who now deny him a home.” (15) The perspicacity, not to say prophetic insight, of these remarks with regard to Douglass’ subsequent canonization notwithstanding, the notices provide an indication of the kind of politico-literary mask constructed by Douglass during his Irish tour.

In literary terms this involved the re-creation of Ireland as a space of social mobility that allowed the crystallization of the modern subjectivity that Douglass was so painstakingly constructing. Ireland, a liminal and empowering space–like Douglass himself, on the margin of modernity–provided the context of his political and literary evolution. (16) Comparisons between Douglass’ experiences in the US and his reception in Ireland were consistently and publicly made, with many of his early speeches and letters dealing with the absence of color prejudice in Ireland and the warm welcome afforded him there, and otherwise creating a supporting myth of social and literary success. Writing to Garrison from Cork, for example, Douglass remarked of a soiree given in his honor: “[i]t was decidedly the brightest and happiest company, I think, I ever saw, anywhere…. Among them all, I saw no one that seemed to be shocked or disturbed by my dark presence. No one seemed to feel himself contaminated by contact with me.” “I think,” he continues, “it would be difficult to get the same number of persons together in any of our New England cities, without some democratic nose growing deformed at my approach. But then you know the white people in America are whiter, purer, and better than the people here. This accounts for it!” (17) Just two months later, Douglass was to write: “I have spent some of the happiest moments of my life since landing in this country. I seem to have undergone a transformation. I live a new life.” (18)

These remarks were contained in one of a series of open letters to Garrison written while Douglass was in Ireland and later published in the Liberator. In these letters Ireland–represented by the upper and middle classes–provides a foil to the racialized, discriminatory, and enslaving environment of the US. “Instead of a democratic government,” wrote Douglass from Belfast, “I am under a monarchical [sic] government. Instead of the bright blue sky of America, I am covered with the soft grey fog of the Emerald Isle. I breathe, and lo! The chattel becomes a man.” (19) These letters meant that Douglass was in effect witness and spokesman for Irish society and its attitudes toward the slave; their publication provided official recognition of Irish enlightenment and of Douglass’ liberated Irish persona.

This laudatory picture certainly had some basis in truth. Typically, black abolitionist speakers were wholeheartedly embraced by the upper echelons of British and Irish society, often becoming an emblem of the enlightened principles of the visitors’ surrogate country–a monarchy–in opposition to the oppressive reality of the American republic they represented. Audrey Fisch contends that the success of black speakers in nineteenth-century Britain was in part due to that country’s need to discredit US democracy and political institutions. (20) In Britain blackness, Fisch argues, was lionized, as the “spectacle” of the abolitionist movement (i.e., the black abolitionist) fused with a rising British nationalism aimed primarily at allaying the country’s growing class conflict. Certain class-related as well as moral benefits therefore accrued to British, and by extension Irish, upper-class espousal of the antislavery cause, serving to displace arguments concerning human, civil, and labor rights to a safe distance in the Americas.

In Britain Douglass exploited that need for moral displacement by appealing to British nationalist sentiment. A speech given in Ayr, Scotland, provides just one illustration of the deliberate conflation of national and moral territory in his antislavery rhetoric. Predictably, the conceit involves the persecuted slave fleeing the spreading shadow of the republic in search of safety and succor in the bosom of the British nation. Speaking of the US he claims: “‘There is no spot on the vast domains over which waves the star-spangled banner where the slave is secure;–go east, go west, go north, go south, he is still exposed to the bloodhounds that may be let loose against him; there is no mountain so high–no valley so deep–no spot so sacred, but that the man-stealer may enter and tear his victim from his retreat.’ (Cheers.)” “[H]e rejoiced,” the report continues, “that he now found in the paw of the British Lion the safety which had been denied him under the widespread wings of the American Eagle.” (21)

Similar rhetoric was used in Ireland, though the tone was less that of popular (British) nationalism than that of the civilizing mission of empire. (22) In addition to emphasis on the differences between British and US socio-racial stratification and domestic policy so evident in Douglass’ British speeches, his rhetoric in Ireland shows a more general interest in the power of British foreign policy, notably that relating to US expansion and of course slavery. A speech in Cork on 3 November 1845 on the annexation of Texas finds Douglass declaring that “Americans should be considered a band of plunderers for the worst purposes…. The conduct of America in this particular has not been sufficiently dwelt upon by the British Press. England should not have stood by and seen a feeble people robbed without raising a note of remonstrance.” (23) That Britain was extending its own empire into Asia and Africa with equally regrettable consequences, and engaged in a long-running struggle to suppress Irish anticolonial resistance, is conveniently overlooked. Indeed, Douglass’ rhetoric in Ireland actively encouraged the propagation of the ideology of progress that provided the ethical backbone of British colonial practice, displacing moral and political authority to Britain and reconstructing the United States as an unenlightened, amoral, and nonmodern space ripe for Christian conquest.

Douglass’ use of the analogy between moral suasion and colonial evangelization is progressive. In his first speech in Cork on 14 October 1845 he asks only that moral pressure be exerted on American slaveholders in order to force an end to slavery:

We would not ask you to interfere with the politics of America, or invoke

your military aid to put down American slavery. No, we only demand your

moral and religious influence on the slave[holder] in question, and believe

me the effects of that influence will be overwhelming. (Cheers.) … We

want to encircle America with a girdle of anti-slavery fire. (24)

Three days later, the object and objective of British influence had changed considerably. At a meeting held at Cork’s Wesleyan Chapel, Douglass announced to an assembled company of “highly intelligent and influential people,” including numerous church leaders of various denominations, that:

Three millions of these poor people [are] deprived of the light of the

Gospel, and the common rights of human nature; [are] subjected to the

grossest outrages– … the poor bondsman rattle[s] his chain, and clank[s]

his fetters calling upon the Christianity of the world to relieve him.

There [is] a wide field in America for missionary operations. (Hear.) (25)

The link between the liberation of the slave and British moral expansion was restated in Douglass’ farewell speech in Cork at the Independent Chapel, George’s Street, when he pushed the analogy between missionary zeal, Christian “enlightenment,” and freedom to include the acquisition of literacy, and, by inference, the concomitant absorption into Western subjectivity:

To you who have a missionary spirit I say there is no better field than

America–the slave is on his knees asking for light; slaves who not only

want the bible but some one to teach them to read its contents (hear,

hear). Their cries come across the Atlantic this evening appealing to you!


Clearly, Douglass was keen to harness the interest of Irish elites in overseas reform and did so by representing the slave population of the US as a worthy and eager recipient of the benign attentions of evangelical zeal and the civilizing mission. This marks a stark contrast with the tone of the Narrative, in the body of which religion and ministers of religion are vilified, and the first American and Irish editions of which contain an appendix explaining the negative light in which US religion is portrayed, as well as detailing Douglass’ personal religious stance. “I love,” he claims, “the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land. Indeed I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity.” The appendix ends with the poem “A Parody”: “a portrait,” Douglass claimed, “of the religion of the south … which I soberly affirm is `true to life’, and without caricature or the slightest exaggeration.” (27) This “parody” provides the closing frame of the American edition, which ends with Douglass “subscribing myself anew to the sacred cause.” (28) Robert Stepto describes the American Narrative as fusing, “in one brilliant stroke, the quest for freedom and literacy,” and ending, according to its own logic, with Douglass stepping heroically forward to his public duties as abolitionist and public speaker. (29) Those public duties, Douglass’ Irish rhetoric seems to suggest, involved securing not just the emancipation of the slave but his or her salvation.

The tone of Douglass’ rhetoric during his Irish visit therefore illustrates the complexity of his relationship with his Irish supporters and the public he addressed. Stressing for his Irish audience the enthusiasm of a nonmodern, (allegedly) non-Christian, population for enlightenment, distracted from, and perhaps compensated for, a more intransigent population somewhat closer to home. Meanwhile, emphasis in his letters to Garrison on the allegedly unqualified support he received and absence of racial discrimination buoyed Irish abolitionist spirits and provided an unflattering comparison with the situation in the US. But the letters to Garrison were, like the rhetoric, above all an exercise in transatlantic self-fashioning. For while Douglass was widely feted in abolitionist circles in Ireland, the response to his stance on the abolition of slavery, the role of religion, and even the consensus on the virtues of the Narrative was far from unanimously approving.

Considerable chagrin, for example, was expressed by some Irish abolitionists at the emphasis placed in Douglass’ speeches on the links between churches in Ireland and those in the US. In Cork, at a speech given in the city courthouse, Douglass had caused a stir by, it was alleged, unfairly singling out Methodists for attack in his denunciations of the American churches. (30) At his next speech in Cork, Douglass was taken to task for his remarks by the Methodist clergymen Rev. William Reily, who remarked that “he could not but observe that an animus was evident in the language of Mr Douglas[s] not at all favorable to Methodists. Now it was well known that the Methodists did everything in their power, and never ceased until they banished slavery from the British Colonies (hear, hear).” (31) Douglass subsequently qualified his remarks, even going so far as to state (falsely) that he was himself a Methodist. (32) Writing to Webb from Belfast, Douglass claimed that

the enemies of anti-slavery have been busy in creating prejudice against

me, on the ground of my heterodoxy. From what I can learn, the Methodist

minister in Cork as well as Dublin, have [sic] written here against me. So

you see mine will be no bed of roses. These Revd Gentlemen are determined

to identify themselves with their slaveholding brethren in America. They

must take the consequences. (33)

These “consequences” were also to be felt by Douglass, who carried his own preconceptions concerning various religious denominations. Next day, he wrote to Webb informing him of his “success in getting the Methodist meeting house, in the face of letters prejudicial to me both from Cork and Dublin,” an indication that he had survived the unfavorable reaction of southern Methodists. The same letter describes Belfast as “a field ripe for the harvest; … the very hotbed of presbyterianism and free churchism,” concluding that “a blow can be struck here more effectively than in any other part of Ireland.” Free Church Presbyterians were certainly high on Douglass’ list of desirable converts to the antislavery cause. The “Send Back the Money” campaign, which formed the basis of Douglass’ Scottish tour, targeted the Free Church of Scotland, which was in receipt of monies from slaveholding co-religionists in the American South. (34) The campaign against the executive of the Free Church actually began in Belfast, though the results, despite Douglass’ declarations that he was everywhere met with approbation, were not always happy. On one occasion on which the “Send Back the Money” jingle backfired, Belfast was during the night placarded with the anti-Douglass slogan: “Send Back the Nigger.” (35)

The incident was blamed on the presence in the city of an American Methodist clergyman, Rev. Smith, although, presumably, he was not acting alone. No mention is made of the incident in the famous “We don’t allow niggers here” letter written to Garrison from Belfast on 1 January 1846 and later published in the Liberator, in which Douglass once again draws comparisons unfavorable to the US between his treatment there and in Ireland. (36) “The people here know nothing of the republican negro hate prevalent in our glorious land,” wrote Douglass; “[t]hey measure and esteem men according to their moral and intellectual worth, and not according to the color of their skin.” (37) Ireland was presented to US abolitionists as a place of uniform and unqualified support for Douglass; no crack was to be allowed to be seen to have appeared in the myth of a stalwart antislavery wall in Ireland. (38)

The second Irish edition of the Narrative reflects the complex sectarian negotiations in which Douglass engaged, as well as marking the qualitative shift that occurred in his attitudes to religion during his Irish tour. Gone is the stinging “parody” of Southern slaveholding Christianity, and, as noted, its place is taken by the “personal notices” of two Irish Protestant clergymen. These were included in defiance of Webb, Douglass’ staunchly anticlerical publisher. (39) Despite the objections of the man who was undoubtedly one of Ireland’s leading abolitionists, Douglass insisted on the inclusion of the notices in the second Irish edition, informing Webb that he “ought to have thought of [his] prejudice against priests sooner. If clergymen read my narrative and approve of it, prejudice against their office would be but a poor reason for rejecting benefit of such approval. The enclosed is from Mr Jackson, the Presbyterian Minister. I wish both it, and that of Dr Drew, to be inserted in the second edition.” “To leave them out because they are ministers,” he somewhat disingenuously continues, “would be to show oneself as much and more sectarian than themselves.” (40)

In the event, the notices were included, underlining once again the extent to which Douglass had evolved as a political and literary agent during his time in Ireland. The notices also give some inkling of his class affiliations in Britain and Ireland, where, according to his biographer William McFeely, Douglass’ social leanings evolved “upward rather than outward.” (41) These tendencies can be detected in Ireland in the religious composition of his audiences, which were predominantly upper-class and Protestant. The inclusion of the notices from members of that audience therefore recalibrates the socio-political stance of the text, whose new alignment reflects Douglass’ rising status in the moral politics of the Atlantic world by underscoring his power to reward enlightened attitudes with textual recognition. Free Presbyterianism and Anglicanism, through their acknowledgment of Douglass’ moral and literary status, and their support of the abolitionist cause, are welcomed into the prestigious antislavery fold now represented in and by the Narrative–an inclusion that has the added advantage of leaving the myth of unfaltering support for Douglass in Ireland unscathed.

Thus Douglass’ representation of the success of his Irish visit in his open letters to Garrison show him availing of the personal and literary opportunities provided in Ireland by a reforming upper class eager to establish its enlightened credentials, which were finally established by the incorporation of letters from Irish clergymen as closing frames to the Narrative. In common with the “preface” to the variant and second Irish editions, these notices are testimony to Douglass’ increasing literary and ideological independence. Ireland was central to the realization of that 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 an important step in the development of his writing and of a distinctive narrative persona which escaped the racial confines of the US and the ideological control of the transatlantic abolitionist movement. Douglass’ sojourn in Ireland made possible his emergence as a major cultural and intellectual force, an emergence that occurred in parallel with, and was bound to his self-representation as arbiter of his own text. The Narrative, in its Irish editions, traces the complicated path of that subjective and literary emergence, formally marking Douglass’ accession to the coveted “republic of letters.”

(1) Biographical accounts of Douglass include William S. McFeely, Frederick Douglass (New York and London: Norton, 1991, and Benjamin Quarles, Frederick Douglass 1948; New York: n.p., 1964).

(2) Alan J. Rice, “Triumphant Exile: Frederick Douglass in Britain, 1845-47,” in Alan J. Rice and Martin Crawford, eds., Liberating Sojourn: Frederick Douglass and transatlantic Reform (London and Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1999), 3.

(3) Both the first Irish edition and the variant carry the date 1845, though the latter was not in fact published until 1846.

(4) Paul Gilroy has proposed the triangular relationship between Africa, Europe, and the Americas stemming from the African slave trade as a formative influence on Western cultural identity and a cornerstone of Western modernity. This triangular space permits a more nuanced evaluation of the complex trade in people, cultures, and ideas in the transatlantic context. However, Gilroy’s framework does not acknowledge the complications presented by colonization, either in the Americas (beyond the figure of the post-emancipation Afro-American colonial subject) or worldwide, as similarly influential. In the Irish case the colonial relationship with Britain during the nineteenth century significantly complicates the status, influence, and effect of African-American visitors traveling to Ireland on an abolitionist ticket. See Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993).

(5) The Free Church was established in 1843 and immediately embarked on a fundraising drive in Britain, Ireland, and the US. By 1844 it was estimated that 9,000 [pounds sterling] had been donated by Presbyterians in the American South. Douglass’ campaign urged churches to have “no union with slaveholders” and specifically targeted the Free Church with the “Send Back the Money” slogan. See Alaisdair Pettinger, “‘Send Back the Money’: Douglass and the Free Church of Scotland,” in Rice and Crawford, eds., Liberating Sojourn, 31-47.

(6) Frederick Douglass, “Preface,” Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself, variant first Irish edition and second Irish edition (Dublin: Webb and Chapman, 1845, 1846), 3.

(7) “He was admitted to be such,” Douglass continues, “by all I ever heard talk of my parentage. The opinion was also whispered that my master was my father; but of the correctness of this opinion, I know nothing.” Frederick Douglass, Autobiographies, ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (New York: Library of America, 1994), 15.

(8) The gendering of the black male subject derived from the “chattel” status that the institution of slavery imposed on the African-American subject in slavery and the related discrimination against free black persons who were denied many of the civil and political liberties enjoyed by “white” males, including the right to vote and stand for public office. The discourse of slavery and of abolitionism was itself overdetermined by a gendered discourse involving the abolitionist movement as a political vehicle for elite women and the re-creation of male slave subjectivity through the objectification of slave women.

(9) The “preface” echoes the theme of a speech given by Douglass in Limerick on 10 November 1845, when Douglass informed his audience that “the Americans, as a nation, were guilty of the foul crime of slavery, whatever might be their hypocritical vaunts of freedom. It was … not a true democracy, but a bastard republicanism that enslaved one-sixth of the population.” John Blassingame, ed., Frederick Douglass Papers, Series One: Speeches, Debates, and Interviews, 1 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979), 76-86. Hereafter referred to as FDP.

(10) Douglass, Autobiographies, 7.

(11) Ibid., 12.

(12) See Lee Jenkins, “Beyond the Pale: Frederick Douglass in Cork,” Irish Review 24 (1999): 80-95, especially 89.

(13) The text, inserted on the flyleaf, reads as follows:

“At a meeting of the Committee of the Hibernian Anti Slavery Society, held in Dublin, the 20th of September, 1845 it was

RESOLVED–That as FREDERICK DOUGLASS (who is now present) has just arrived from the United States on an Anti-Slavery mission to Great Britain and Ireland, we take the opportunity of recommending him to the good offices of all abolitionists with whom he may meet. He has long been known to us by reputation, and is now introduced to us by letters from some of the most distinguished and faithful friends of the Anti Slavery cause in the United States.

James Haughton, Chairman Richard D Webb, Secretary.”

(14) Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, first, variant, and second Irish editions (Dublin: Webb and Chapman, 1845, 1846), flyleaf.

(15) Ibid., cxxxii.

(16) For discussions of Irish marginality and the ongoing ambivalence of the relationship to Western modernity, see Seamus Deane, Strange Country: Modernity and Nationhood in Irish Writing since 1790 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997); Raymond Crotty, Ireland in Crisis: A Study in Capitalist Colonial Underdevelopment (Dingle: Brandon Books, 1986); David Lloyd, Anomalous States: Irish Writing and the Post-Colonial Moment (Dublin: Lilliput Press, 1993) and Ireland after History (Cork: Cork University Press, 1999).

(17) Douglass to William Lloyd Garrison, 28 October 1845, in Liberator, 28 November 1845.

(18) His letter goes on to contrast his treatment in the US with “the warm and generous co-operation extended to me by the friends of my despised race–the prompt and liberal manner with which the press have flocked to hear the cruel wrongs, has rendered me its aid–the glorious enthusiasm with which thousands of my down-trodden and long-enslaved countrymen portrayed–the deep sympathy for the slave, and the strong abhorrence for the slaveholder, everywhere evinced–the cordiality with which ministers of various religious bodies, and varying shades of religious opinion have embraced me, the kind respects constantly proffered to me by persons of the highest rank in society.” Douglass to Garrison, in Liberator, 30 January 1846.

(19) Douglass to Garrison, ibid.

(20) “‘Negrophilism’ and British Nationalism: The Spectacle of the Black Abolitionist,” Victorian Review 19 (Summer 1993), 2047, especially 2537.

(21) FDP, 1: 1, 2001.

(22) An exception to this occurred at a speech in Limerick on 10 November 1845, when, describing the Cambria incident, Douglass identifies Gough, the Irish captain of the ship, as one of the heroes of the piece. In the middle of recounting the story Douglass called for “three cheers for old Ireland.” FDP 1: 1, 84. Other flirtations with Irish nationalist sentiment can be seen in Douglass’ frequent references to Daniel O’Connell, the mention of whose name was practically guaranteed to raise a cheer. Though Douglass referred to O’Connell as the “Liberator,” he confined the application of that title to O’Connell’s stance on American slavery, thereby emphasizing the enlightened credentials of the Irish upper classes while avoiding any possible conflict with his hosts over the issue of popular nationalism or repeal. Later, Douglass was to recall that at the 1845 repeal rally where O’Connell and Douglass met (the only occasion on which they did so, despite Douglass’ ongoing self-identification with the repeal advocate), O’Connell had “called me `the Black O’Connell of the United States.'” Douglass, Autobiographies, 682. See also Lee Jenkins, “‘The Black O Connell’: Frederick Douglass and Ireland,” Nineteenth-Century Studies 13 (1999): 22-46, especially 28.

(23) FDP, 1: 1, 74.

(24) Cork, 14 October 1845. FDP, 1: 1, 42.

(25) Cork, 17 October 1845. FDP, 1: 1, 52.

(26) Cork, 3 November 1845. FDP, 1: 1, 75.

(27) Douglass, Autobiographies, 97-102.

(28) Ibid., 102.

(29) Robert B. Stepto, From Behind the Veil: A Study of Afro-American Narrative (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1979), 26.

(30) The remarks that appear to have given offense were the following: “It must also be stated that the American pulpit is on the side of slavery, and the Bible is blasphemously quoted in support of it. The Ministers of religion actually quoted scripture in support of the most cruel and bloody outrages against slaves. My own master was a Methodist class leader. (Laughter, and `Oh’), and he bared the neck of a young woman, in my presence, and he cut her with a cow skin. He then went away, and when he returned to complete the castigation, he quoted the passage, `He that knoweth his master’s will and doeth not, shall be beaten with many stripes.'” (FDP, 1: 1, 43). This speech was one of the very few given in Ireland directed at a populist audience, and its tone differs significantly from much of Douglass’ other rhetoric at this period, relying more on vernacular forms and appealing to popular nationalist sentiment.

(31) William Martin defended Douglass from an attack by the Rev. Joseph Mackey, who said that “he felt offended at the language used by Mr Douglas[s], at the meeting in the Court-House, as it was calculated to cast opprobrium on Methodists in particular, whilst the Roman Catholic and other sects were passed by; and he need scarcely remark that the majority of the audience at that meeting was composed of persons who required but little incentive to induce them to cast opprobrium on their sect.” Douglass, somewhat disingenuously, in reply said that “he was a fallible man; and it would be requiring too much that he should know men’s religion by their faces.” FDP 1: 1, 53-54.

(32) The newspaper report reads: “He was a Methodist himself; but he cautioned his fellow religionists how they defended their brethren in America, for in doing so they would be defending the men … who scourged his … female cousin until she was crimsoned with her own blood [from] her head to the floor (hear, and oh, oh).” FDP 1: 1, 54. The admission is interesting, as Douglass habitually denied any sectarian affiliation, declaring on more than one occasion that “as to religion, I belong to none.” A letter to Webb from Belfast, detailing his experiences on a brief visit to Birmingham made in December of 1845, confirms this: “I called on the Rev. John Angel James DD to whom I had a letter of introduction…. He wished to know if I came recommended and if I … was a member of any Church–and if any to what Church. I told him I was not a member of any Church.” Douglass to Webb, 20 December 1845: Boston Public Library (hereafter BPL), Boston Anti-Slavery Collection, MS. A.1.2, V.15, 89. Although the events went unrecorded in Blassingame’s “Partial Speaking Itinerary,” Douglass arrived in Liverpool on 14 December, spoke in Birmingham’s Town Hall on the 16th for “25 minutes amid cheers,” and arrived back in Belfast on 19 December 1845. A letter from Webb to Mary Weston Chapman indicates that Douglass briefly revisited Dublin in October 1846 in the company of Garrison: “I forgot among the droppers in last night to mention Frederick Douglass who looked stately and majestic–with an air that makes Garrison a mere baby beside him”: BPL, Weston Papers, Dublin, 31 October 1846, MS. A.9, 2, v. 22, 1846, no. 109.

(33) Douglass to Webb, Belfast, 5 December 1845: BPL, Boston Anti-Slavery Collection, MS. A.1.2, v.15, 85.

(34) The campaign provides the only example of Douglass mobilizing popular support while in Britain and Ireland.

(35) According to Webb, “In Belfast a Carolinian Rev. Smith, a Methodist, endeavoured to injure Douglass by calumnious reports against his morality & by imputing infidelity to him. One night the town was placarded with large bills SEND BACK THE NIGGER.” Webb to Maria Weston Chapman, 16 July 1846: BPL, Weston Papers, MS. A.9.2, v.22, 1846, no. 75.

(36) The manuscript text, throughout which the phrase “We don’t allow niggers in here” appears nine times, details Douglass’ experience in the US where he alleged that he was repeatedly met with this remark and refused entry to churches, public buildings, and eating houses. In contrast, Douglass claimed that in Ireland “I find no difficulty … in gaining admission into any place of worship, instruction or amusement on equal terms with people as white as any I saw in the United States. I meet nothing to remind me of my complexion. I find myself regarded and treated at every turn with the kindness and deference paid to white people. When I go to church, I am met by no upturned nose and scornful lip to tell me `We don’t allow niggers in here’! etc.” Douglass to Garrison, 1 January 1846: BPL, Anti-Slavery Collection, MS. A.1.2, v.16, 1.

(37) Ibid.

(38) See Richard Blackett, “Cracks in the Anti-Slavery Wall: Frederick Douglass’s Second Visit to England (1859-1860) and the Coming of the Civil War,” in Rice and Crawford, eds., Liberating Sojourn, 187-206.

(39) In a letter to Maria Weston Chapman, Webb, himself a member of the Society of Friends, went so far as to state that “the people here in Dublin are stagnant–weighed down by Popery and Episcopalianism which would smother the life out of any people. They are the curse of Ireland.” R.D. Webb to Maria Weston Chapman, 16 July 1846: BPL, Weston Papers, MS. A.9.2., vol. 22, 1846, no. 75.

(40) Douglass to Webb, 16 April 1846: BPL, Anti-Slavery Collection.

(41) McFeely, Frederick Douglass, 141.

FIONNGHUALA SWEENEY is currently completing a doctoral dissertation in English at University College, Cork (NUI), on Frederick Douglass’ relationship with Ireland. She spent the academic year 1999-2000 in the US as a Fulbright scholar. In addition to Irish literature, her interests include nineteenth- and twentieth-century Caribbean and Latin American literature.

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