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:
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:
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."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 “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.”
(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.