Sunday, 11 March 2012

Frederick Douglass and the World Temperance Convention

I am ridiculously excited to visit Frederick Douglass’s house in Washington D.C next month, and as ever, my research into his travels in Britain prove incredibly interesting. In the summer of 1846, after the meeting of the Evangelical Alliance (see earlier post), the World Temperance Convention was held in London. Committed to the reduction of the sale and use of alcohol, men and religious denominations came from around the globe to participate in the meeting. Frederick Douglass strongly believed in temperance, lecturing about its importance throughout his life, speaking to numerous temperance societies and women’s groups. Douglass was invited to speak at the convention, but there were some who took issue with his speech. Reverend Samuel Cox of Brooklyn, New York started a public exchange with Douglass after the meeting, denouncing his conduct and accusing him of being paid by abolitionists to disrupt the convention. Cox, an anti-slavery supporter himself, argued that Douglass turned the meeting into a debate about slavery and wrote to him charging him with misconduct:

The moral scene was superb and glorious – when Frederick Douglass, the coloured abolitionist agitator came to the platform…[he] was perfectly indiscriminate in his severities, he talked of the American delegates, and to them, as if he had been our schoolmaster, and we his docile and devoted pupils and launched his revengeful missiles against our country”. (Samuel Cox, August 8 1846)

Douglass replied:

Sir, you claim to be a Christian, a philanthropist, and an abolitionist. Were you truly entitled to any one of these names, you would have been delighted at seeing one of Africa’s despised children cordially received and warmly welcomed…[this] tells the whole story of your abolitionism and stamps your pretensions to abolition as brazen hypocrisy or self-deception.” (Frederick Douglass, letter to Samuel Cox, October 30, 1846)

More than anything, Douglass’s experiences in Britain indicate that slavery remained a controversial, disruptive issue, one that could not be ignored on either side of the Atlantic. Much has been made of the American abolition movement, but more attention needs to be focused on Britain’s role in American antislavery in the 1840’s in particular. 

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