February 17, 2013

Ruggles: upon the power of the PRESS

The final installment of David Ruggles's Appeal to the Colored Citizens of New York and Elsewhere in Behalf of the Press was included in the February 17, 1835 issue of The Emancipator. The essay, which was published in installments spread out over a month and four days, urged fellow free African Americans to support the press — even if they could not read. As he wrote, "Every paper that is circulated by your means goes forth as an Ambassador to settle the all important question of Liberty and Slavery."

Ruggles, who identified himself in his byline as "a man of color," believed that even free blacks were "but a short remove from that of two millions of our race who are pining in their bloody chains." The press was a weapon, he wrote, used to fight in the "midst of a moral revolution." In a different analogy, he calls the press an engine and urges blacks to help roll "the car of freedom" and not become "a clog to its wheels." Lest his readers not understand his point, he writes (capitals are original): "OURS is the cause of freedom — OUR CAUSE is sacred; its success depends upon the power of the PRESS under God." Ruggles used language that was sure to incite passion, emphasized further by typographical tricks like capital letters and well-placed italics. The government, reminds Ruggles, "proclaims all men are free and equal."

'Tis proclaimed throughout the world, the "Land of Liberty!" wherever the star spangled banner waves, or the national pennon floats on high; there proudly soars the eagle of liberty, announcing to every land, that America is the birth place of freedom. Why then shall we be slaves and lie down in supineness, with our arms folded, singing the song of degradation? I answer, because we are not united in sustaining the press.

Ruggles himself was a printer and bookstore owner and, as such, knew the potential influence of the printed word. Born free in Connecticut to free parents, he moved to New York as a teenager and became involved with anti-slavery publications like The Liberator in addition to The Emancipator. Among his many works for the abolitionist cause was an essay calling attention to white women that white men were taking black women as mistresses. He worked with the Underground Railroad where he hid a young fugitive slave known as Frederick Douglass. Ruggles's efforts earned many enemies, including a few that set fire to his business. He particularly attempted to stump those who attempted to retrieve escaped slaves. His work "so exasperated the slave hunters," William Lloyd Garrison recalled years later, that "they spared no pains to get him out of the way by foul means, and many and remarkable were his escapes as they hunted him as though he were an outlaw."


  1. Just wanted to say I enjoy your blog & always find something interesting here :)

  2. I don't know much about Ruggles. This is interesting stuff, thanks for sparking my interest!