King George III (1760-1820) to Queen Victoria (1837-1901)
Douglass’s Debt : British statesmen were among those who inspired the career of one of America’s greatest men, Frederick Douglass.
Douglass’s Debt

From ‘The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass from 1817 to 1882, Written by Himself’.

At thirteen, escaped slave Frederick Douglass bought a schoolbook, ‘The Columbian Orator’, for fifty cents. It nurtured gifts of understanding and eloquence that brought Douglass to prominence as America’s leading anti-slavery campaigner, and among his favourite passages were speeches by great British statesmen of his day.

I MET there one of Sheridan’s mighty speeches, on the subject of Catholic Emancipation, Lord Chatham’s speech on the American War, and speeches by the great William Pitt, and by Fox.* These were all choice documents to me, and I read them over and over again, with an interest ever increasing, because it was ever gaining in intelligence; for the more I read them the better I understood them.

The reading of these speeches added much to my limited stock of language, and enabled me to give tongue to many interesting thoughts which had often flashed through my mind and died away for want of words in which to give them utterance.

The mighty power and heart-searching directness of truth penetrating the heart of a slave-holder, compelling him to yield up his earthly interests to the claims of eternal justice, were finely illustrated in the dialogue;** and from the speeches of Sheridan I got a bold and powerful denunciation of oppression and a most brilliant vindication of the rights of man.

* Richard Sheridan (1751-1816) is remembered both as a long-serving MP and also as a playwright, author of ‘The Rivals’ and ‘The School for Scandal’. Lord Chatham is William Pitt the Elder, Prime Minister from 1766 to 1768; his son William Pitt the Younger (1759-1806), twice Prime Minister, is also mentioned here by Douglass. Charles James Fox (1749-1806) was a British Foreign Secretary, and an eccentric of the highest order.

** This ‘dialogue’ was a fictionalised exchange between a slave and his master, after the slave attempted to run away. The master is persuaded to release his slave when he realises that however benevolent he may be, his benevolence is forced on his people, and not freely sought.

From ‘The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass from 1817 to 1882, Written by Himself’.

More like this

Modern History (140) Abolition of Slavery (14) Frederick Douglass (2) Georgian Era (112) Victorian Era (65) History (413) Charles James Fox (2) William Pitt the Elder (2)

Picture: Photo from the National Parks Service (USA), via Wikimedia Commons. Licence: Public domain. View original
This photograph shows Frederick Douglass with his second wife, Helen Pitts Douglas (seated), and Helen’s sister Eva Pitts. The marriage in 1884, two years after the death of his first wife Anna, was somewhat controversial, as Helen was white and twenty years his junior.
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By Frederick Douglass
(1818-1895)

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