Friday, June 20, 2008

Frederick Douglass and Reconciliation

Claudia Anderson's cover story for the The Weekly Standard ends with this moving account:
Frederick Douglass marked the tenth anniversary of his escape in a special way. He published in the North Star an open letter to his former owner, Thomas Auld, one of the slaveholders whose religious profession he deemed a travesty. It is a most unusual and highly charged communication, and this is how it ends:

I will now bring this letter to a close; you shall hear from me again unless you let me hear from you. I intend to make use of you as a weapon with which to assail the system of slavery--as a means of concentrating public attention on the system, and deepening the horror of trafficking in the souls and bodies of men. I shall make use of you as a means of exposing the character of the American church and clergy--and as a means of bringing this guilty nation, with yourself, to repentance. In doing this, I entertain no malice toward you personally. There is no roof under which you would be more safe than mine, and there is nothing in my house which you might need for your comfort, which I would not readily grant. Indeed, I should esteem it a privilege to set you an example as to how mankind ought to treat each other.

I am your fellow-man, but not your slave.

There is a postscript that cannot be omitted. Twenty-nine years after writing this, Douglass was invited to return to Talbot County, Maryland, for the first time since he had been a slave there. Thomas Auld, over 80 and dying, heard of his presence in the neighborhood and sent for him. Douglass records that he was ushered straight into the bedroom, and the two old men were overcome with emotion. Neither showed malice. Each acknowledged ways he had wronged the other. They "conversed freely about the past" and parted reconciled.

Read the whole article.

(You can also read the whole letter, written in 1848.)