Frederick Douglass: From Enslavement to Abolitionist

Frederick Douglass, photograph by an unidentified artist, c.1850, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution,

Frederick Douglass’ story as a black American started in the same way as many others of his era, born into slavery. Thanks to his determination and good luck he was able to escape the lifelong toil that many of his fellow black Americans endured, educate himself and then tell his story highlighting the plight of fighting for the rights of black Americans. The story of his life includes a journey to the UK, and Newcastle, where he would meet a local family that had a lasting impact on his ability to live a free life in America.  

Frederick Douglass was born into slavery in 1818 on a plantation in Talbot, Maryland. His father was white, and possibly the ‘owner’ of his mother. He was removed from his mother as a young child, and only had limited contact with her prior to her death, while Douglass was still a child. After being a slave for a number of years he escaped from his owner in Baltimore on the 3rd of September 1838 and travelled to New York. Once there he set about educating himself and eventually telling his story through an autobiography.

In 1845 ‘The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave: written by himself’ was published. This detailed his early life, escape from slavery, and new life as a free manAcross the Atlantic and during the early years of Douglass’ life, the Whig government in Britain (led by Earl Grey II who hailed from Northumberland) passed the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833. This act would make owning a slave in much of the British Empire illegal by 1840.  

In August 1845 Frederick Douglass sailed across the Atlantic to Great Britain to promote his cause. A review of his book was published in July 1846 in the Newcastle Guardian. The review highlights in critical terms, the American ‘institution of slavery’ and introduces his story and selected quotes from his work.

 Excerpt from pg5 of Review of the Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, written by himself, 19thCentury Collection 942.8 REV The full review can be found at
Plaque at 5 Summerhill Grove, Newcastle upon Tyne commemorating Frederick Douglass and the anti-slavery activists with whom he stayed whilst in Newcastle

During his 19 month stay in Britain he toured the country giving public lectures detailing his life, slavery in America and promoting abolition. This included a short stay in Newcastle, at the home of Henry and Anna Richardson and their sister-in-law Ellen. They were Quakers who lived in a house on Summerhill Grove near the city centre. His stay, and the impact the family had on Douglass’ life is commemorated by a plaque on the house. He made such an impact on the Richardson’s that they set about raising £150 and instructed a lawyer in America to formerly buy Douglass’ freedom from his former enslaver in late 1846. 

Near the end of his tour of Britain Douglass was invited to give a farewell speech at the London Tavern on the 30th of March 1847 by the Council of the Anti-Slavery League.  They later published a transcript of the speech he gave, a copy of which forms part of Special Collection’s Cowen Tracts Collection, collected by Joseph Cowen, a 19th Century reformist MP from Newcastle. You can read more about the life of Joseph Cowen here

In his speech at the London Tavern Frederick Douglass covers a number of topics. He covers the American constitution, the slave keeping system and references the abolition of slavery in Canada which had been enacted by Earl Grey’s government.

Caption: Excerpt from Farewell Speech of Mr Frederick Douglass previously to Embarking on Board the Cambria, upon his Return to America March 30, 1847, pg14, Cowen Tracts, Vol.17, No.12, 

He went on to talk about the purchase of his freedom by the Richardson’s saying:  

… As to the kind friends who have made the purchase of my freedom, I am deeply grateful to them. I would never have solicited them to have done so, or have asked them for money for such a purpose. I never could have suggested to them the propriety of such an act. It was done from the prompting or suggestion of their own hearts, entirely independent of myself…. (Cowen Tracts, Vol.17, No.12, pg16) 

Later in his speech he went on to recount his feelings and experience of the 19 months he spent in Britain, contrasting it with the conditions he encountered in Boston before he boarded the Cambria and travelled across the Atlantic: 

… I say that I have here, within the last nineteen months, for the first time in my life, known what it was to enjoy liberty. I remember, just before leaving Boston for this country, that I was even refused permission to ride in an omnibus. Yes, on account of the colour of my skin, I was kicked from a public conveyance just a few days before I left the “cradle of liberty”. (Cowen Tracts, Vol.17, No.12, pg19) 

He also recounts his experience of being refused entry to churches in Boston and not being permitted to “even to go into a menagerie or theatre, if I wished to have gone there” (Pg 19) and that “I was not granted any of these common and ordinary privileges of free men.” (pg 20).  

He concluded his speech by explaining his hopes and plans for his return to America saying: 

…I go, turning my back upon the ease, comfort, and respectability which I might maintain even here, ignorant as I am. Still, I will go back, for the sake of my brethren. I go to suffer with them; to toil with them; to endure insult with them; to undergo outrage with them; to lift up my voice in their behalf; to speak and write in their vindication; and struggle in their ranks for that emancipation which shall yet be achieved by the power of truth and of principle for the oppressed people… (Cowen Tracts, Vol.17, No.12, pg21) 

The speech he gave at the London Tavern gives us a valuable insight in Frederick Douglass’ own words of his experiences of slavery, how he valued the time he spent in Britain and the people that met and supported him while here. It also demonstrates that though he was now free himself he saw his future in helping his enslaved brethren, using his platform to promote their cause and work towards their emancipation, even if that meant experiencing the racial prejudices of 19th Century America.  

On the 4th of April Frederick Douglass embarked the Cambria to travel across the Atlantic back to the United States. On boarding he was informed that the birth he had booked was occupied and that he would not be allowed to mix with the other passengers on account of his colour. After returning to America he would go on to spend the next 50 years working and campaigning for the rights of black Americans and women. He died in Washington DC, aged 77 in February 1895. Newcastle University’s Frederick Douglass Building, close to where he stayed during his time in Newcastle, is named in his honour.  

Excerpt from Farewell Speech of Mr Frederick Douglass previously to Embarking on Board the Cambria, upon his Return to America March 30, 1847, pg14, Cowen Tracts, Vol.17, No.12, 

Isaac Taylor’s Scenes In America, an Exotic Moral Voyage for ‘Little Tarry-at-Home Travellers’ – June 2015


A map of America and frontispiece from Scenes in America, for the Amusement and Instruction of Little Tarry-at-Home Travellers
A map of America and frontispiece from Scenes in America, for the Amusement and Instruction of Little Tarry-at-Home Travellers (Rare Books, RB375 9 TAY)

‘ONCE again your friend a hearing

Claims from you, my little miss;

With a volume neat appearing,

Full of pictures, see, ‘tis this.

Long ago he gave a promise

O’er America to roam;

Travelling far and wide, tho’ from his

House ne’er moving, still at home.

Yet o’er many a volume poring,

Such as you could hardly read;

Distant realms and climes exploring,

Your enquiring minds to feed.

He has travelled thro’ and thro’ them,

Often wearied with his toil,

That at ease you here might view them,

Gath’ring knowledge all the while….’

These verses open Isaac Taylor’s Scenes in America, for the Amusement and Instruction of Little Tarry-at-Home Travellers (1821). Scenes in America was part of the wider Scenes series, ‘a series of armchair traveller books for children’.Other titles included Scenes in Europe (1818) and Scenes in Africa (1820), as well as several other titles.

The books in the Scenes series follow a standard pattern: ‘three small, coloured engravings appear on each page of illustrations, and they are linked by captions to the scenes which they represent. As for the text, it is rather light in tone, mixing prose and verse with the instruction which was its putative purpose’.

Isaac Taylor was a man of many talents. He was a talented engraver and artist, a popular Church pastor, an ardent educationalist, and a successful children’s writer. Taylor’s educationalist outlook was both a major part of his life and his literary work. As deacon of an Independent congregation in Lavenham, Suffolk, Taylor had founded a Sunday School, where his ‘successive workrooms doubled as schoolrooms for his own children and later for those of neighbours too, Taylor giving instruction from his engraving stool as he worked’. When the family moved to Colchester, ‘he began a series of monthly lectures for young people, delivered free of charge in the parlour of his own house; these proved extremely popular and the programme continued for several years’.

Taylor’s belief in education and the stimulation of young minds can be seen as a driving force in his production of the Scenes series. However, Taylor’s moral and educational instruction could also take on a more overt form. Taylor was an ardent opponent of slavery and the slave trade. Scenes in Africa had spoken out against slavery, and Scenes in America reinforced those sentiments. Taylor was keen to explain to his young readers that, although they may have won a victory by abolishing the slave trade in the British Empire, they had not yet won the war against slavery:

‘Although the slave trade is happily put an end to, so that no more can be brought over; yet there are many thousand negroes who are still slaves. It has made no difference to them, except that their masters are not so oppressive to them, as they cannot easily replace them if they die’. P.61

The moral decay slavery caused in those who took part in it was evident the ‘masters’ who only cared for their profit. This moral dimension was of course part of Taylor’s moral education of his readers. But he also mentioned the physical brutality and callousness of slavers: ‘To every party there is an overseer, who stalks among them with a long whip, ready to lash any who do not work fast enough to please him’. The images this passage conjured would no doubt have made an impact on his young audience.

As J.R Oldfield has suggested, ‘most children’s books published between 1750 and 1850 were unashamedly moralistic and concerned, above all, with inculcating a compassionate humanitarianism’. Taylor’s abolitionist message in his books certainly fits this wider trend, but it also within the more specific trend of attempting to create an anti-slavery consensus ‘through the education of young and impressionable minds’.

Yet Scenes in America was far more than a moral instruction book. It was meant to evoke a sense of wonder in the reader, of this faraway world and the flora and fauna it contained. There were strange animals found there, like the ‘dreadful serpent’ the rattlesnake, the ‘passionate’ hummingbird, and, ‘glowing with celestial light’, the firefly. He showed the reader societies of people with different customs and ways of life. Taylor devotes sections to several difficult indigenous groups, and the engravings provide tantalising glimpses of these exotic lands to stimulate the minds of child readers (the accuracy of these descriptions and engravings, is of course, another matter). No doubt some of these are sensationalised or included for dramatic effect, such as the section ‘Sacrificing a Child on its Mother’s Grave’. Yet there are also sections on ‘Hunting the Buffalo on the Ice’, ‘Indian Sagacity’, and ‘the Pipe of Peace’. For those interested in studying European perceptions of indigenous Americans, Taylor’s work provides an example of an attempt to show the cultural diversity of Native American societies, while at the same time never quite seeing them as worthy or as equal as his own.

Page from Scenes in America, for the Amusement and Instruction of Little Tarry-at-Home Travellers  (Rare Books, RB375 9 TAY)
Pages 28 and 29 from Scenes in America, for the Amusement and Instruction of Little Tarry-at-Home Travellers (Rare Books, RB375 9 TAY)

Scenes in America was also an abridged history of European involvement in the New World. The narratives of the Spanish conquistadors of course provided an exciting tale for his readers, from Columbus’ contact to the conquests of Hernan Cortes and Francisco Pizarro. Indeed, the history of what we would call Latin America takes up approximately half of the book, so Scenes is in no way a glorified account of English and British settlement. But North American history was also discussed, with sections ranging in content from religious emigration to the New World, to the American War of Independence, with sections on Canada and, as we have seen, the West Indies.

Pages 68 and 69 from Scenes in America, for the Amusement and Instruction of Little Tarry-at-Home Travellers
Pages 68 and 69 from Scenes in America, for the Amusement and Instruction of Little Tarry-at-Home Travellers (Rare Books, RB375 9 TAY)

It wasn’t just the grander narratives of history that Taylor included. He discussed the daily lives of the ordinary settlers and tried to portray a sense of their daily lives, with sections such as ‘New Settlers First Log House’, and ‘Cultivating Tobacco’.

The fruits of Taylor’s educational mission can be seen in the literary and artistic abilities of his own children. Indeed, the family have been labelled as ‘amongst the most famous and prolific children’s authors and illustrators of the early nineteenth century’.

Ann and Jane Taylor were successful children’s poets, with Jane in particular achieving prominence. Her works include the still famous classic (and often anonymised) Twinkle Twinkle Little Star). Jane was also well regarded as an essayist and literary critic. We hold several of Jane’s works here in Special Collections, including Original Poems for Infant Minds and The Memoirs, Correspondence, and Poetical Remains of Jane Taylor, edited by her brother Isaac.

Isaac himself was known as a writer on theology, philosophy, and history. He was also a talented artist and engraver (indeed, he collaborated with his father to produce the illustrations for Scenes in America). We hold a number of his works here in Special Collections. These include The Natural History of Enthusiasm, the work that made his name, and Home Education, a work clearly influenced by his own experiences.

Jefferys Taylor, the youngest child, also gained prominence as a children’s writer, producing numerous works of varied character over a number of years. Like his father’s writings, Jefferys’ works ‘were overtly educational in purpose’, but their message was delivered through fictional or adventurous settings. Like his siblings, he also engraved some of the illustrations for his own books.

One of the verses in the conclusion contains a pearl of Taylor’s wisdom that is perhaps even more relevant today than then, and that we would all do well to remember:

 ‘Geography true is delightful,

To know it impatient I burn;

And ignorance here too is frightful,

So easy it is now to learn.’