I wish I had more time in my U.S. Survey course to distinguish the differences between Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison on the issue of abolitionism. It is hard enough to get my students to see that the “anti-slavery” faction in antebellum America could include immediate abolitionists, gradual emancipationists, and promoters of colonization.
When teaching the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass I usually point to David Blight’s editor’s introduction to the Bedford edition in which he mentions the conflict between the two abolitionists.
In the hopes of providing some more context to the PBS series The Abolitionists, Caleb McDaniel reminds us that Douglass wrote a second autobiography in 1855 entitled My Bondage and My Freedom. In this book he goes into more detail about the events discussed in the Narrative and expounds on his differences with Garrison. Here is a taste of McDaniel’s piece:
The reasons for strain between Douglass and the Garrisonians were both personal and ideological. On a personal level, Douglass sensed a patronizing tone among many of his patrons, a mistrust of him that in many cases bordered on or crossed over into a malicious bigotry. While touring in Britain, for instance, Douglass learned that Maria Weston Chapman, a leading Boston Garrisonian, had corresponded with some of Garrison’s friends in Ireland and warned them to keep an eye on Douglass’s management of his money. Incensed by this and other letters, Douglass wrote an anguished reply to Chapman that foreshadowed his eventual break with the AASS.
But those personal conflicts cannot be separated from the ideological disagreements that increasingly divided Douglass from the Garrisonians—disagreements about the wisdom of “buying” slaves in order to free them, for instance, or about the position of the Constitution on the issue of slavery. At any rate, by the early 1850s, both faultlines—the personal as well as the principled—had opened into a complete fracture, with both parties sniping at each other and crying foul. Douglass repudiated the Garrisonians; the Garrisonians likewise repudiated Douglass. These new circumstances, in Douglass’s mind, called for a new autobiography, and My Bondage and My Freedom was the result.
There is much more to read from this piece. Read it all here.