Disunion – Frederick Douglass’s Irish Liberty

Last Friday (February 25), the Disunion blog in the New York Times published a piece of  interest to Civil War Emancipation. Having given priority to pressing anniversaries, I would now like to return to this article, “Frederick Douglass’s Irish Liberty,” written by Tom Chaffin of the University of Tennessee. Chaffin deals with Douglass’ 1845 visit to Ireland and its insight into Douglass’ views of how the law and government should relate to emancipation. Like Irish nationalist, Daniel O’Connell, whom he met on his trip, Frederick Douglass was a strong believer in the law even in the face of terrible oppression, although he did not also share O’Connell’s commitment to non-violence.

It was his respect for the law, Tom Chaffin asserts, that increasingly put him at odds with his mentor, William Lloyd Garrison, the abolitionist firebrand and publisher of the Liberator, and eventually led to a break between the men.  Chaffin writes:

Like Garrison, Douglass would have welcomed the immediate abolition of slavery across the entire United States. But both men knew that wasn’t going to happen. Garrison, however, was willing to settle for another means of eliminating slavery in the United States — to allow the slave states to leave the Union. Or, if that didn’t happen, Garrison argued, the Northern free-soil states should simply “come out from” the Union; in other words, the states of the North should do their own seceding from what Garrison considered a morally tainted federation.

Douglass, after his trip across the Atlantic, increasingly rejected such intellectual legerdemain. He knew that, regardless of what flag waved over the South, Garrison’s envisioned “Come-outism” future would leave the region’s slaves in shackles. In a February 1861 article in his journal, Douglass’ Monthly, Douglass thus rejected Garrison’s and all other dodges intended to avoid confrontation: “Slavery is the disease,” he inveighed, “and its abolition in every part of the land is essential to the future quiet and security of the country.”

True to form, in December 1860, Garrison welcomed South Carolina’s secession and agreed with arguments by secessionists that the American Constitution legally enshrined chattel slavery. By then, such arguments belonged to Douglass’s past. Animated, in part, by Daniel O’Connell’s political vision, the former slave was, by February 1861, girding himself for his public career’s most defining work — his eventual equation of the Union’s war efforts against the Confederacy, policies that he would help to shape, with his own long battle against slavery.

Another wonderful piece by Disunion, which is doing a nice job thus far at keeping the story of African Americans in the Civil War front and center where it belongs.

About Donald R. Shaffer

Donald R. Shaffer is the author of _After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans_ (Kansas, 2004), which won the Peter Seaborg Award for Civil War Scholarship in 2005. More recently he published (with Elizabeth Regosin), _Voices of Emancipation: Understanding Slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction through the U.S. Pension Bureau Files_ (2008). Dr. Shaffer teaches online exclusively (i.e., a virtual professor). He lives in Arizona and can be contacted at donald_shaffer@yahoo.com
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