Friday, June 5, 2015

Letter to His Old Master

Frederick Douglass (1818–1895)
From Frederick Douglass: Autobiographies

Daguerreotype of Frederick Douglass in 1848, the
year he wrote his open letter to his former master.
Albert Cook Myers Collection, Chester County
Historical Society. Image courtesy of
In September 1848, ten years after he had escaped from slavery and two years after he had purchased his freedom for roughly $1,250, Frederick Douglass printed in North Star, the abolitionist newspaper he had founded the previous year, an open letter to his former master Thomas Auld. The document “is one of the strangest pieces in the literature of American slavery,” acknowledges biographer William S. McFeely, who points out that some of the actions attributed to Auld personally were actually committed by relatives, overseers, or nearby plantation owners. In Douglass’s letter, “Auld is made to stand in for all slaveholders.”

The Aulds appear to have closely followed the career of the most famous person ever to have lived in their household. “One of the most interesting items in the Maryland State Archive,” McFeely adds, “is a copy of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass with marginal comments—more perplexed than angry—written by a member of the Auld family who went through that book noting where it errs as to fact.” Thus, it is nearly certain that Douglass’s open letter, later reprinted in 1855 as an appendix to his best-selling My Bondage and My Freedom, made its way to the target.

In October 1859, after giving a lecture in National Hall (Philadelphia), Douglass received a message revealing that Amanda Sears, the daughter of Thomas Auld, had been in the audience. Included was the address of her husband’s business in West Philadelphia. As Douglass later recounted in his Life and Times, the two men soon met, but John Sears was reluctant to allow a reunion with his wife because the former slave “had done his father-in-law injustice, for he was really a kind-hearted man, and a good master.” Douglass responded “that there must be two sides to the relation of master and slave, and what was deemed kind and just to the one was the opposite to the other.” After a lengthy conversation, Sears agreed to host him at home the next day. Although Douglass had not seen Amanda Auld Sears since she was a child of six or seven, he recognized her immediately in the crowd gathered in the family parlor, whereupon “Amanda made haste to tell me that she agreed with me about slavery, and that she had freed all her slaves as they had become of age.” They both reminisced about her mother, who had died while she was a child and whom Douglass always recalled fondly in his writings. Douglass and Amanda Sears kept in touch, seeing each other on at least two more occasions before her death in 1878.

Soon after that first meeting, Thomas Auld visited Philadelphia, learned of the reunion, and told John Sears “he had done right” in welcoming Douglass to his house. And finally, in June 1877, after his appointment to the position of U.S. Marshal of the District of Columbia, Douglass traveled to Baltimore and his old home of St. Michaels. Once there he received an invitation from his “old master,” now infirm and eighty-two years old. Composing himself after both men had become “excited by deep emotion,” Auld said, "Frederick, I always knew you were too smart to be a slave, and had I been in your place I should have done as you did." For his part, Douglass apologized for his error (included in the open letter and elsewhere) in blaming Auld for the treatment of his grandmother. Auld responded, “I never owned your grandmother; she in the division of the slaves was awarded to my brother-in-law, Andrew Anthony; but [after he learned about her condition from Douglass’s writings] I brought her down here and took care of her as long as she lived.” The entire meeting between former slave and former master lasted only twenty minutes.

Thomas Auld lived another three years, and his death was noted in the Baltimore Sun. As Leigh Fought, author of a forthcoming volume on Douglass, has written, “Thomas Auld may be one of the few former slaveholders whose obituary named one of his former slaves and indicates that he, the owner, was renowned for owning that particular slave.”

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SIR—The long and intimate, though by no means friendly, relation which unhappily subsisted between you and myself, leads me to hope that you will easily account for the great liberty which I now take in addressing you in this open and public manner. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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