Saturday, June 8, 2013

What Frederick Douglass really said about thieving politicians in his 1875 Lecture on our national capitol

UPDATED AGAIN 07/31/2014 in Don't get it twisted

UPDATE 6/10/2013
By email, Ed Folsom has kindly supplied important background showing that a previous incarnation of his plenary lecture included just what seemed to me was missing from the talk as I heard it.  Introducing the attributed remark of Douglass, Folsom originally gave fuller context, duly noted the questionable authenticity of the quotation, and also explicitly acknowledged the biographical work of John Muller, both in Muller's recently published book and his reflections online.  Wow!  Before cutting Folsom had said all I was thinking about, only more expansively and eloquently.  The thing that to me most needed emphasizing, was Muller's most perceptive and essential insight about the incongruity of the ever-principled Douglass wanting to identify with a thief.  Turns out that before cutting, Folsom also had made a point of noting this same incongruity, how the confessed impulse to "steal something" attributed to Douglass "seems so out of keeping with Douglass’s character."   

Below, a long excerpt from Ed Folsom's email reply, in which he helpfully gives the relevant text from the earlier version of his conference talk, before the regrettable deletions:

"As I told a number of people at the conference, I felt like I was presenting a much-too-edited-down version of a paper that, as I wrote it over the past few months, had grown to nearly three times the size it needed to be for the keynote talk.  In an earlier version of the piece, I offered a fuller contextualization of the quote from Williams.  First, here’s what you heard me say in the talk at the conference:
I want us, finally, to begin to understand what Frederick Douglass might have meant when he made one of his most enigmatic statements, reported by a Wisconsin congressman in the House of Representatives: “Douglas said he could never account for it: but somehow, whenever he got in sight of the Dome of the Capitol in Washington, he always felt as though he wanted to steal something.” Douglass, looking back at the years just after emancipation, said: “The South wouldn’t have us; the North didn’t want us. We were strangers in a strange land.” But the land was least strange here in DC, where emancipation had come nine months before Lincoln’s proclamation, and where, for a very few short years after the war, a biracial democracy had begun to form, one that desperately needed the encouragement and imagination of writers who failed to see the possibilities of the emancipated Freedom that looked down on them from above.
 And here’s what that passage looked like in the earlier and longer draft:
Finally, I want to consider a statement attributed to Frederick Douglass by a Republican Wisconsin congressman, Charles G. Williams, in 1878, who recalled his friend Douglass (they met when both lived in Rochester, New York) saying something quite enigmatic: Williams reported in the House of Representatives that “Douglas said he could never account for it: but somehow, whenever he got in sight of the Dome of the Capitol in Washington, he always felt as though he wanted to steal something.”  A colleague of mine pointed this comment out to me some time ago, and I have since talked with several colleagues about what the comment could have meant, since it seems so out of keeping with Douglass’s character.  Douglass’s most recent biographer, John Muller, whose new book on Douglass’s life in Washington, D.C., just appeared last year, recently reproduced the quotation on his blog for the book, and he asks: “Was Douglass joking or dead-serious or dead-serious although joking?”  Of course, Douglass may never have said it.  But I want to have us think about the statement in relation to the way in which the Capitol dome came to be so racially inflected during the period it was being constructed.  Muller’s new book makes clear just how betrayed Douglass felt when Andrew Johnson became president and began quickly to try to stand in the way of the formation of a biracial democracy.  Douglass, looking back at the years just after emancipation, said: “The South wouldn’t have us; the North didn’t want us.  We were strangers in a strange land.” But the land was least strange here in DC, where emancipation had come nine months before Lincoln’s proclamation, and where, for a very few short years after the war, a biracial democracy had begun to form, one that desperately needed the encouragement and imagination of writers who failed to see the possibilities of the emancipated statue of Freedom that looked down on them from above.  Something in those years following the war had been stolen from the newly emancipated slaves, and, as we will soon see, many Americans were seeing the Capitol dome as the symbolic site of a stolen Liberty.
At least the longer version made clear a little more about the Williams quote and suggested that its provenance was uncertain.  I had had so many interesting and illuminating talks with my colleagues here at Iowa about the quote over the past few months that I thought it was worth throwing it out there in the context of the new material I had found that attached the dome so thoroughly to the battles over civil rights for freed slaves.  Your pointing out Douglass’s citation of the Brownlow quote certainly could indicate that Williams simply was misremembering what Douglass said, or it could mean that Douglass adapted Brownlow’s statement for his own purposes in a conversation with Williams.  In any case, it’s an interesting and strange quotation by Williams of Douglass."
(Ed Folsom, quoted by permission from his email of June 9, 2013)

In his instructive and well-received plenary lecture June 4, 2013 at the recent Melville and Whitman conference in Washington, DC, Whitman scholar Ed Folsom quoted (twice, at least) Frederick Douglass on the Capitol Dome.  The quotation sounded odd to me and Folsom did not explicate, but rather floated it out there as a possible (and vaguely "disturbing," maybe) instance of the way the Dome symbolized and provoked racial divides and themes during and after the Civil War.  Folsom quoted Douglass as saying something like, whenever he saw or came near the Capitol Dome he always felt like he "wanted to steal something."

That did not sound anything like the deeply principled Douglass to me, so naturally I had to Google it. 

Turns out Douglass was quoting (approvingly yet perhaps ironically, too) an old anecdote about crooked politicians associated with William Gannaway Brownlow, the former Tennessee governor and US Senator.  As itinerant Methodist preacher, Brownlow had once refused to debate Douglass.  Later Brownlow famously supported the Union, Reconstruction and black enfranchisement.   The context of Douglass's citation of Brownlow is Washington with its corrupt politicians as a "moral monster" for supporting slavery and the southern rebellion:
"Like any other moral monster, there was contamination in its touch, poison in its breath, and death in its embrace. There was something more than a wild and witty exaggeration in the saying of Senator Brownlow when he remarked to a fellow passenger that he must be getting near Washington, for he began to feel as if he wanted to steal something.  In fostering and fomenting the late slaveholders' rebellion, Washington performed its full share. It sustained Buchanan when he trifled with treason. It applauded Breckenridge when he served the rebellion better in the Senate with his tongue then he could possibly serve it in the field with his sword. It stood between President Johnson and deserved impeachment and cheered him on in his ministry of disorganization. It smiled upon the cowardly and murderous assault of Brooks upon Senator Sumner. It hatched out in its heat and moral debasement the horrible brood of assassins who murdered the noble Lincoln and attempted the murder of Seward. Its people would, at any time during the great war for union and liberty, have preferred Davis to Lincoln and Lee to Grant." (Frederick Douglass: a Lecture on our National Capital)
The main idea of the original anecdote is proverbial, "when in Rome..."  When in Washington, you do as they do in the nation's capitol, which is STEAL.

Douglass borrows the Brownlow anecdote for his own purposes, adapting it to a discussion of pro-slavery racism.  However, the anecdote as transcribed here more generally describes Washington and Washington political culture, and not specifically the Capitol Dome as building or architecture, which was the focus of Folsom's talk. 

Maybe Folsom saw this blog entry or the new book on Frederick Douglass in Washington, DC where Wisconsin congressman Charles G. Williams is cited from the Congressional Record, loosely recounting the remark by Douglass a few years earlier.  Unfortunately I don't have the book yet, I'm getting this part from the wordpress blog of  John Muller.

What I like about Muller's handling of Williams's misremembered quotation in the blog and book is that he can't quite believe the upright Douglass would ever say such a thing, despite the authority of the Congressional Record.  Therefore Muller perceptively guesses if he did say that he must have been "joking" somehow

Link to source at American Memory, Library of Congress:
Frederick Douglass: a Lecture on our National Capital. By Frederick Douglass. Smithsonian Institute Press, Washington D.C., 1978. Chesapeake Bay Book Collection.

For more on the extant manuscript versions of Douglass's remarks on Washington, see the updated Melvilliana post Don't get it twisted.


  1. Scott,

    Thank you for this great post. I appreciate not only your link and kind words but your rock solid scholarship. I was unable to attend this conference, although a friend did.

    If I had attended I am sure I would have quickly bounced on Mr. Folsom's remark, which sounds to be highly speculative and/or used in the improper context.

    I am not the "Douglass police" but after studying his life very closely over the past couple of years, and especially his post-Emancipation, post-Civil War years I would have most likely interrupted the presenter in mid-sentence to say, "That's not what Douglass meant."

    As you know, the problem with history is once it
    is put out there, or presented, and accepted, even when completely wrong, it is very difficult to correct the record.

    I do not have an advanced degree but I take scholarship on Douglass very seriously. However, I am sure that I have made mistakes and/or errors unknowingly. I welcome a debate and discussion which unfortunately we still don't have with Douglass.

    As a journalist, I know the process of corrections. Libel can only be proven if there was malicious intent. I hope Folsom was not libelous. If so, we have problems.

    As they say, "Get it right and keep it right."

    Thank you for getting it right and keeping it right.

    Sincerely and respectfully,
    John Muller

    PS 1. There's a history of Douglass's lecture on the National Capital that I go into in the book. There's an unidentified newspaper clipping in a scrapbook in the Douglass collection at Howard's Moorland-Spingarn Research center that re-printed the entire speech. The paper is dated late Nov. 1875. The speech was made at a church right outside of Historic Anacostia that is still active today. When Douglass was U.S. Marshal for Washington he made nearly the same speech in Baltimore in May 1877. It almost cost him the job. In "Life and Times" Douglass details this and I discuss in the book.

    PS 2. The blog entry I did that you cite was a short research note the day I discovered the mention in the Congressional Record / Globe doing research at LOC Law Library. In further research I discovered, as you have so well detailed, that Douglass mentions the same remark by Sen. Brownlow which is assuredly its provenience. I am going to add a link to your page so folks can get more background -- to get it right and keep it right.

    PS 3. The best way to get the book is to check your local library, book store, or Amazon...

    Appreciate the shout!

  2. John, thank you so much for the detailed response with much new (to me) information. I am eager to learn more about Douglass's lecture, in 1875 and later. Not surprised, but I did not know it almost cost him his job. Can't wait to get your book.

    Also I hope you will check out the update with Ed Folsom's clarifying reply. I think this is a good discussion to have and absolutely welcome any additional comments, corrections, explications, further insights...


    1. Mr. Ed Folsom,

      Thank you for mentioning my work and for your clarification. Any and all discussion on Douglass is welcome and overdue as his life and work is still severely understudied. I am thankful for this discussion and for you and Scott taking time to share your insights.

      In the immediate years before and after the Civil War Washington, D.C. was the city where Solomon Northrup's name rang bells. Garrison originally wanted to publish "The Liberator" in Washington, D.C. There is definitely a history of place, with the Capitol being its symbol and defining the skyline before the Washington Monument was completed in 1885, that was not lost on abolitionists and those sympathetic/empathetic to black folk during the 19th century.

      I won't go into too much detail but Douglass recognized the significance of Washington, D.C. before he had even seen the city with his own eyes and his two feet had touched the streets. I discuss this in the Preface to "Frederick Douglass in Washington, D.C." and alluded to it in a recent article on Huffington Post DC.

      Here's an excerpt:

      In his 1845 autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Douglass revealed he finally came to understand who abolitionists were when he read in a Baltimore newspaper of their activities in Congress.

      "In its columns I found, that, on a certain day, a vast number of petitions and memorials had been presented to Congress, praying for abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia, and for the abolition of the slave trade between the states of the Union."

      He would later tell this story throughout the country and across the Atlantic Ocean adding, "From this time I understood the words abolition and abolitionist, and always drew near when that word was spoken, expecting to hear something of importance to myself and fellow-slaves."

      From a distance, Douglass knew the nation's capital city symbolized an inherent hypocrisy in the United States Constitution. In May 1846, while in England, Douglass said, "In the national District of Columbia, over which the star-spangled emblem is constantly waving, where orators are ever holding forth on the subject of American liberty, American democracy, American republicanism, there are two slave prisons."