As the editor of Allentown’s fervently Republican Lehigh Valley Register newspaper, Robert Iredell Jr. had long ago gotten used to seeing prominent figures of both political parties from across the state and nation come to the region to press the flesh and court voters. And there had been others, like showman like P.T. Barnum, for example, that came merely to offer entertainment. But the upcoming visit on April 8, 1870 of Frederick Douglass, the internationally known African American orator and anti-slavery champion, who had been an enslaved person until he escaped from bondage himself, had sparked an enthusiastic crowd the likes of which even Iredell was unfamiliar. His newspaper had this to say about Douglass’s appearance under the headline “Fred Douglass! Fred Douglass!”
“Fred Douglass has been pronounced one of the greatest living orators. In the Court House on Friday evening April 8th he will address the people of Allentown. Crowded audiences everywhere throughout the United States have been listening with delight to his eloquent utterances. Tickets have been sold in large numbers and only a few remain. Everyone should hear him who has the opportunity… Tickets 50 cents, reserved seats 75 cents.”
Iredell’s excitement came at least in part because Douglass was a strong supporter of the Republican Party. But even those who did not like Douglass or agree with what he said admitted that he was among the most well-known Americans. And that came at least in part from his compelling life story.
Frederick Douglass was born an enslaved person- Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey- in 1818 on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. He confessed later that he had no idea of the exact date. His birthplace was most probably his grandmother’s cabin. He was of mixed race including Native American and African as well as European. Douglass’s most recent biographer, Yale historian David W. Blight, states that his father was almost certainly white. “The opinion was whispered,” Douglass was later to note, “that my master was my father but of the correctness I know nothing.”
Separated from his mother as an infant, Douglass lived with his grandmother in her cabin. At a young age he was “given” to Lucretia Auld, who gave him in turn to her brother Hugh Auld who lived in Baltimore. It was Lucretia who took a special interest in him. In Baltimore Sophia Auld, Hugh’s wife, taught the 12-year-old the alphabet. She refused to teach him to read but he learned on his own. “Knowledge is the pathway from slavery to freedom,” he later wrote. Douglass’s pathway, however, was not an easy one. It was illegal to teach slaves to read and write. Several times he was beaten for the practice. And when he was sold to a particularly brutal slave master who beat him constantly, he rebelled and at last bested him in a fist fight. The brutal master never touched him again.
At this point Douglass decided to escape to the North. It was his future wife Anna Murray, a free Black woman in Maryland, who aided him. She provided Douglass with a sailor’s uniform and the papers of a free Black sailor. By a route that included travel by train and steamboat, Douglass eventually arrived at freedom in Philadelphia. From there he moved to New York and sent for Murray, who came to meet him and shortly thereafter in 1838 they were married. The couple moved on to New Bedford, Massachusetts. It was here they adopted the name Douglass after characters in a poem by Sir Walter Scott.
To perfect his speaking skills Douglass became a preacher. After working at several churches, he became involved in the abolitionist movement and worked with an anti-slavery newspaper publisher, William Lloyd Garrison. But Douglass’s reputation really took off after he published, in 1845, his autobiography, “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave.” At first publishers were skeptical that a Black man and former slave could write so eloquently. But the public loved it, making the book a bestseller blockbuster and going through nine reprintings within three years. It was published in French and Dutch. He would publish two more books about his life and many articles that covered everything from the abolition of slavery to Home Rule for Ireland.
Douglass then traveled to Europe, touring Ireland and Great Britain. He was appalled at the horrors of the Irish potato famine and became close friends with Irish freedom fighter Daniel O’ Connell. Thanks to the money he raised from touring and giving lectures in England he was able to gather enough to buy his freedom. Douglass returned to an America where the anti-slavery movement was on the rise. As often happens with intense political movements, these were times of disagreements over what course the abolitionist movement should take. Douglass also took up at this time the cause of women’s rights.
Douglass became devoutly religious, but he had little time for the hypocritical Southern slave holders who worshiped God on Sunday and whipped their slaves the rest of the week. With the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 Douglass quickly recognized that this was an opportunity to end slavery. He watched closely as the Lincoln administration moved toward the Emancipation Proclamation. He wrote:
“We were waiting and listening as for a bolt from the sky…we were watching…by the dim light of the stars for the dawn of a new day…we were longing for the answer to the agonizing prayers of centuries.”
Finally, with the war’s end eventually came the adoption of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments that enshrined the end of slavery and citizenship rights for slaves.
On April 5, 1870, three days before he was to speak in Allentown, Douglass wrote a letter about his joy at the 15th Amendment’s passing. It was later reprinted in the Lehigh Register saying, in part:
“I view it with something like amazement…when we think through what labors, tears, treasures and precious blood it has come…Equal before the Lord, equal at the ballot box and the jury-box, the glory or shame of our future condition falls upon ourselves.”
On April 6, two days before the lecture, the Lehigh Register noted the local sale of Douglass tickets “has been immense and, it is scarcely necessary to say, the demand for them is very great…Crowded audiences have everywhere testified to his powerful eloquence and listened with admiration to the born slave’s exposition of the glorious truth, that all men are born free and equal.”
Of course, there were plenty of people in Allentown and across the country who hated Douglass and his views and had no desire to hear him speak. Blacks, they said, were inferior beings of lower intelligence created so by God to serve white men as “hewers of wood and drawers of water.” None of them could ever be equal to whites and should certainly not have equal rights with whites. The slogan of the Democratic Party in the presidential campaign of 1868 summed it up this way: “This is a White Man’s Country; Let White Men Rule.”
This point of view was expressed most strongly locally by the Allentown Democrat and its editor, Benjamin Franklin Trexler, Iredell’s rival. The Civil War, he argued, could have been avoided if slaves had not run away from their masters. The war was therefore all the fault of disobedient slaves. Trexler mockingly called Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, “one of his famous jokes in the form of a speech.” In 1864 when Washington D.C. horse car lines were instructed to admit Black passengers, the Democrat, making generous use of a common racial epithet, mocked the very idea of these “inferior beings” being admitted to public transportation.
The Register noted Douglass’s lecture would be on a relatively new topic. It was called “Our Composite Nationality,” and had been given in Boston on the previous December. He had given an address on the same topic in Reading three days before. It was a little after 8:00 pm when Douglass stepped up to the front of what is known as the Gold Courtroom of the Lehigh County Courthouse. His long mane of hair had gone gray and he had a full beard. For the next two hours (the Lehigh Register said he finished precisely at 10:00) he spoke to the audience.
Douglass’s lecture was not directly about slavery or the Civil War. Its focus was an issue that is with us to this day: immigration, including the admission of all nations to the U.S. with no restrictions. He began with the idea of a nation as ”a composite idea of people” that “marks the point of departure for a people, from the darkness and chaos of unbridled barbarism to the wholesome restraints of public law and society.” Douglass moved on quickly to the things that distinguish the United States from other nations. The U.S. is a young nation and, “the dawn is fully upon us, it is bright and full of promise.” He opposed, he said, those that claimed the Civil War had destroyed the country who stated, “you will never see the Negro work without a master.”
He pointed out that what made America great was “the concept of equal justice under the law for the principle of absolute equality.” Douglass noted that America was already a land of many nations, “in races we range from black to white, with intermediate shades which…no man can name or number. Europe and Africa are already here, and the Indian was here before either.” Douglass then went to the burning issue of the day, immigration from China. The Chinese had been drawn to California to build the Central Pacific Railroad and Douglass estimated that there now 100,000 Chinese in the country. Douglass went through all the reasons why many thought they could never become American- their race, their culture, and just their way of life. He said these are false and that Chinese who come here will become American just as the Irish and Germans who have come before. He argued that to keep out any people and attempt to stop the free flow of peoples into America is a violation of human rights.
Douglass went on to offer many more examples, concluding that all people would be transformed by an America that was true to the core value of equal rights for all. It need not fear the immigration of any people to its shores.
Finally, Douglass’s address reached its conclusion:
“I close these remarks as I began. If our action shall be in accordance with the principles of justice, liberty and perfect human equality, no eloquence can adequately portray the greatness and grandeur of the Republic. We shall spread the network of our science and our civilization over all who seek their shelter whether from Asia, Africa or the Isles of the Sea. We shall mold them all, each after his own kind, into Americans; Indian and Celt, Negro and Saxon Latin and Teuton, Mongolian and Caucasian, Jew and Gentile, all shall bow to the same law, speak the same language, support the same government, enjoy the same liberty, vibrate with the same national enthusiasm and seek the same national ends.”
Unfortunately, the audience reaction has been lost to history, but it is hard to imagine it was anything less than thunderous applause. The rest of Douglass’s life was a combination of achievement and disappointment. He watched as the Union troops were withdrawn from the South and whites restored themselves to power by violence, creating by the time of his death in 1895 a regime of legal segregation that was not removed until the 1960s. He witnessed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and other acts designed to keep Asians out of America. He fought and spoke against it with all his might even as he grew old. He saw his house in Rochester, New York destroyed by arson and his business ventures fall apart.
Douglass died in deep disillusion that the bright promise he saw in 1870 for the United States was not accomplished. He left his vision to the future.