February 15, 2014

Douglass: where the light comes

"It was a meeting long to be remembered," concluded William Cooper Nell in a letter to a colleague. The letter, dated February 15, 1848, described an anti-slavery speech given by Frederick Douglass in New Bedford, Massachusetts. In the "mere sketch," Nell emphasized that, "New Bedford has a widely spread fame as an Anti-Slavery town." The inhabitants of that town of 16,000 had actively helped gain sympathy for the cause, in part because the population included "twelve hundred colored people," 75% of which had come from enslavement. Douglass was one of them for a time.

After running away from enslavement, Douglass temporarily settled in New Bedford (and it was here that he chose his last name). Returning to New Bedford that February, he particularly noted the corruption of the federal government which had just annexed Texas, which he believed was a ploy to enhance slave power in the Senate, not to mention "the spirit of conquest that possesses the American heart," as Nell reported. In his speech, Douglass also broke down the views of Senator Henry Clay, who had been favoring colonization. This plan to remove free blacks and send them to Africa was an injustice, Douglass said. Nell quoted Douglass:

It [e.g. the colonization plan] is our deadly enemy, we shall not obey its wishes, but shall do that which Mr. Clay 'wishes' us not to do; we shall stay here in our country, identified with the slave, laboring to obtain our rights and his, and we shall secure them... The hand of Providence is with, and guides us; crush us to the earth, and we rise again; try to starve us, and we grow strong and vigorous; close up your hearts, legislate against us, and try to make us hate the land of our birth, and we love it the more. You may try to keep us low, ignorant and in the dark; but the light is shining all around; to it, though slowly, yet surely will come... Slavery cannot exist where the light comes.

Nell imagined what it would be like if Douglass and Clay had a public debate over the question in Washington, D.C. "What a spectacle!" he imagined, "A negro, and recently a slave, debating with the 'Demosthenes of the nation.'"

Nell's letter was published several days later in the North Star, an anti-slavery newspaper founded by Douglass and Nell in New York. At the end of it, he reiterated their shared belief that the press would help their cause, and that those who supported the North Star were supporting abolitionism. Douglass's speech, he reported, resulted in 20 new subscribers that day.

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