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Abolitionist Frederick Douglass drew plenty of notice in Middlebury

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Posted on February 9, 2017 |
By William B. Hart Associate Professor of History Middlebury College



Frederick Douglas.jpg

MIDDLEBURY — On this past Feb. 1, President Donald Trump kicked off Black History Month by acknowledging a few black leaders, including Frederick Douglass. “Frederick Douglass is an example of someone who’s done an amazing job,” Trump noted, “and is getting recognized more and more, I notice.”

The President’s remark left many listeners bewildered. “Does he think Douglass is still alive?” many wondered. Does he even know who Douglass was, let alone what his “amazing job” was?

In brief, Frederick Douglass was born into slavery in Maryland in 1818, freed himself in 1838, became a celebrated abolitionist writer, speaker, newspaper publisher, author of several memoirs, ambassador to Haiti, supporter of women’s rights, and even a vice-presidential candidate in 1872 on the ticket of the Equal Rights Party. He died on Feb. 20, 1895, in Washington, D.C.

One of the “amazing” things that President Trump surely had not heard about was Douglass’s visit to Middlebury, Vt., in July 1843. That year, the Vermont Anti-Slavery Society, founded in Middlebury on April 30, 1834, reached out to William Lloyd Garrison in Boston and his fellow abolitionists as they organized their famous 100-city convention tour, designed to arouse abolitionist sentiments in Vermont, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana. Middlebury was the first stop on the tour, where one reporter described the event as a “convention of Foreign New Light Abolitionists” descending on the Town Room (Hall), located then on Route 7 South near where Mary Hogan Elementary School is now. Local newspaper accounts suggest that most local residents were hostile to the convention. The keynote speaker was Frederick Douglass, described by reporters as “a fugitive slave.”

In fact, Douglass notes in his “Life and Times of Frederick Douglass” (I892) that the town’s opposition to their convention was “intensely bitter and violent.” Middlebury College students had placarded the town, calling Douglass “an escaped convict from the state prison.” One reporter painted the speakers as outside evangelicals and immediatists from Massachusetts. He stamped them all as Garrisonian “visionaries who were ready to break down all the existing institutions of the country, under pretense of advancing the sacred cause of freedom to the slave.” He conceded that the featured speakers “portrayed with great force and effect” the power of the slaveholding South and its “aggressions upon Northern rights.”

However, many, the reporter contended, went too far when they railed against “politicians, priests, and all the civil ecclesiastical and benevolent institutions of the country.” One speaker denounced the Constitution, the Supreme Court and Congress, calling senators “boobys” and all Washington politicians and judges “a dishonest gang.” He touched a raw nerve when he called Vermont ministers and their congregants who remained silent on abolition “a race of corrupt hypocrites,” who were directly responsible for slavery. To this, a “mob” comprised largely of “boys and idle fellows,” perhaps either local residents or Middlebury College students, began to “shout and throw shot and gravel ... and eggs.” However, when Douglass rose to speak about his life, “the house was perfectly still.”

One reporter praised Douglass as “an eloquent and effective speaker ... possessed of intellectual power sufficient to supply half a dozen pale faces that we have heard declaiming upon the inferiority of the colored race, and placing them as a connecting link between men and monkeys.” However, this reporter regretted that Douglass had fallen under the sway of “some other class of abolitionists” that had encouraged him to brand the whole American nation as a “nation of liars, a nation of thieves, a nation of scoundrels.” He warned that unless Douglass ceased “his indiscriminate and wholesale denunciations of the clergy and the church, as an abolitionist he is shorn of his strength.” 

Few people attended this first convention in Middlebury. Douglass feared that he and his colleagues had accomplished little. One reporter sought to diminish the importance of the convention by referring sarcastically to it as a “‘liberty Hall,’ where equal rights were enjoyed by all sexes.” Here, the few men and women, black and white, who attended inhaled the air of equality and democracy. One black woman, Mrs. Betsy Lafas, felt empowered enough to interrupt the convention and denounce the abuse her son, Samuel, had received for distributing handbills on the street announcing the convention. 

After leaving Middlebury, Frederick Douglass journeyed to Ferrisburg, where he was welcomed warmly by the abolitionist Rowland T. and Rachel Robinson. There, Douglass experienced a “more favorable” reception. Although he found Vermonters generally proud of their state’s anti-slavery history, he nonetheless was stunned to find Vermont “under the influence of the slave power.” Douglass chalked up their hostility to anti-slavery activism to apathy, indifference and aversion, expressed often through mob action.

One newspaper writer was more explicit in his interpretation of the response of Middlebury residents: “We did not want itinerant lecturers to convince us of the evils of slavery, which we have so long deplored, or to urge us forward to its abolition, by neglecting all the best pecuniary interests of the country, by destroying the present political parties, by prostrating the church, by reviling the clergy, by trampling upon the laws, by leveling the pillars of the constitution, and dissolving the Union ... unless a free passage is immediately given to its progress.”

Many Vermonters at that time, like President Donald Trump today, were suspicious of the effects of a new-world order on their lives. They resisted counsel from outsiders, even from those held in bondage. They refused to question their values and institutions for fear of the answers that might emerge. And they rejected the kind of social change that called for self-sacrifice, self-examination, and perhaps some level of discomfort — after all, the abolitionists called for sharing the nation with freed black refugees — in order to ensure liberty, freedom and equality for all.  

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