By Diana Williams
In September of 1848, Frederick Douglass wrote to his former slave master, Thomas Auld. The open letter, which was also published in Douglass’s newspaper “The North Star,” talked about his life since his escape and inquired about the welfare of his sisters and grandmother. Douglass thought the women were still in Auld’s possession and asked Auld to write back and let him know how they were doing. Douglass believed his elderly grandmother had been “turned out” and he implored Auld to release his grandmother to him. “If my grandmother be still alive, she is of no service to you, for by this time she must be nearly eighty years old—too old to be cared for by one to whom she has ceased to be of service,” Douglass wrote. “Send her to me at Rochester, or bring her to Philadelphia, and it shall be the crowning happiness of my life to take care of her in her old age.”
He closed the letter with this:
I am your fellow man, but not your slave,
The letter is so eloquently written and moving, it makes the reader wonder what happened next. (Read the full transcript of the letter.)
To answer that question (and a few others), we turned to David W. Blight, a professor of American history at Yale University. One of Blight’s latest books includes the annotated edition, with an introductory essay, of Frederick Douglass’s second autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom (Yale Univ. Press, 2013). Blight is also working on a new, full biography of Frederick Douglass that will be published by Simon and Schuster.
Q. Describe Douglass’ life at the time he’s writing the letter?
A. At the time Douglass wrote this letter, which was published first in his own paper “The North Star,” Sept. 8, 1848, and then again in William Lloyd Garrison’s “Liberator” on Sept. 22, 1848, he was living in Rochester, NY. He had moved there in late 1847 from Lynn, Mass. Douglass had moved out to Rochester for several reasons – to seek the independent environment in which to found and edit his own newspaper, to establish his own abolitionist identity apart from the Garrisonians of the Boston area among whom he had begun his public career, and because Rochester did have a fairly significant abolitionist community. He had just returned in spring of 1847 from some eighteen months touring Ireland, Scotland and England after the publication of his first autobiography, “The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave” (1845). His time in the British Isles had been transformative in many ways.
Q. What was Douglass’ goal in writing the letter?
A. Douglass used this extraordinary letter as a very personal kind of confrontational, moralistic antislavery propaganda. He used Auld throughout the letter as a model of the deeply compromised, religiously hypocritical, contradictory, and even physically brutal ways of slaveholders. He made Auld into the model of the corrupted slaveholder, and apart from Auld personally, Douglass was trying to use his former master as a means of showing what slavery did to all people that it touched.
Q. Do we know that Thomas Auld saw the letter? What was his response if any?
A. We do know that Auld read the letter, as did some of Auld’s friends on the eastern shore of Maryland and in Baltimore. Later Douglass, first in 1849 and then again in 1877, publicly apologized for some of what he said in this letter, especially the parts about his grandmother Betsy Bailey. It turns out that Auld had not simply turned out grandma Bailey to die in old age, and when Douglass learned this, in part from Auld’s own protests, he apologized and cleared the air on that point.
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