Thursday, January 29, 2015

Tom Chaffin's "Giant's Causeway"

Tom Chaffin is the author, most recently, of Giant's Causeway: Frederick Douglass's Irish Odyssey and the Making of an American Visionary. His other books include Pathfinder: John Charles Frémont and the Course of American Empire and Met His Every Goal: James K. Polk and the Legends of Manifest Destiny. His writings also have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Time, Harper's, the Oxford American, and other publications. He is also a frequent contributor to the New York Times' acclaimed "Disunion" series on the American Civil War. He lives in Atlanta.

Chaffin applied the “Page 99 Test” to Giant's Causeway and reported the following:
Drawing on primary source documents, many heretofore unpublished, Giant's Causeway chronicles Frederick Douglass's 1845-47 lecture tour of the British Isles, his first venture into foreign climes. For Douglass, the trip, particularly its four months in Ireland, marked, in myriad ways, a new beginning. The tour accelerated his transformation from more than a teller of his own life-story into a commentator on contemporary issues. Challenges in Ireland, Scotland and England also encouraged and prepared him for his transition from a salaried lecturer—financially and ideologically bound to his early mentor William Lloyd Garrison — to independent writer and editor, eventually with his own newspaper and vision of America's future. The book also examines the lasting impact of the tour on Douglass's career, as well as his subsequent interactions with Ireland and Irish America.

Page 99 of Giant's Causeway recounts a brief visit by Douglass to Birmingham, England, to attend a temperance meeting. He had been long scheduled to lecture at the meeting, but to fulfill the commitment had to interrupt an extended stay in Belfast, Ireland, where he was giving multiple lectures on abolition, and travel, successively by ship and rail, to Birmingham.

The Birmingham interlude typified, in many ways, the trials faced by Douglass during the tour as he sought to juggle philosophical commitments—in this case abolitionism and temperance. His ties to Garrison—by then, even among abolitionists, a controversial figure—were also becoming burdensome: Depending upon the individual, as Douglass was increasingly discovering, the Boston abolitionist's name could prompt either good-will or suspicions.

Page 99 finds Douglass and his Birmingham host, Garrison ally William Boultbee, on the eve of the temperance meeting, as they call on some of its prominent organizers—beginning with John Angell James, a local Congregationalist minister and social reformer.
"I found him not only cold toward me—-but absolutely suspicious of me." But mere coldness plummeted into iciness after James inquired, "if I came recommended, and if I belonged to the Garrison party in America [and] Whither I was a member of any Church-—and if any to what Church."

"I told him," Douglass answered, "I was not a member of any Church—and that I belonged to the Garrison party—and that I had credentials."

James, according to Douglass, answered, "I understand," then alluded vaguely to "the different antislavery parties in the United States."

Afterward, Douglass and Boultbee visited Joseph Sturge, then in his early fifties, the Quaker founder of the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society. During their meeting, Sturge-—likely out of a sense of obligation to Richard Webb-—invited the visiting American to dine with him the following day. Even so, Douglass felt an aloofness from Sturge "amounting to coldness."

Finally, before the day's end, Douglass and Boultbee called on John Cadbury, forty-five years old, a prominent Quaker abolitionist and prosperous chocolate manufacturer. Unlike Sturge, Cadbury greeted Douglass warmly. But Cadbury also soon admitted that, as an organizer of the temperance meeting, fearing that Douglass would not attend, "he had left my name off the bill."

The temperance meeting convened that evening in Birmingham's town hall. "It is a splendid building-—said to hold 7,000 people," Douglass soon wrote. The room, however, was "not full"; moreover Douglass sensed an unwelcoming indifference from the society's officers seated at the front of the hall. "They acted for a long time as though I were not there-—and as though they had not invited me."

Hours passed. "Six or seven speeches had been made—-The interest of the meeting was on the decline. We had been together nearly three hours—-a strong current set toward the door. At this moment the committee-—as if waked by-—a clap from the sky-—turned to me, and asked me to second a resolution." Moments later, as Douglass walked toward the platform at the hall's front, audience members who had been heading for the door, returned to their seats. To cheers and applause, he spoke for twenty-five minutes. When he sat down, to his delight, cries of "go, on" filled the hall.

The following day, Douglass dined with Joseph Sturge, who, following Douglass's oratorical triumph the previous evening, was now engaged and friendly. Before leaving Birmingham, he also bid farewell to his host: "Father Boutlbee—-is a fine old man, he cried like a child when I left. God bless him in his declining years."

Returning to Belfast on December 19, Douglass resumed his lecturing. Even as he relentlessly criticized Protestants churches, his orations-—dashing earlier fears among some of his sponsors—were proving wildly popular.
Learn more about Giant's Causeway at Tom Chaffin's website.

--Marshal Zeringue