This week on CenterStage, a lecture by historian Christopher Cameron profiling abolitionist icon Frederick Douglass.
On August 16th and 17th, 2014, the Center for Inquiry presented a conference entitled “Robert Green Ingersoll and the Reform Imperative” at its headquarters in Amherst, New York. This event celebrated Ingersoll, perhaps the best-known unbeliever of America’s Gilded Age. Ingersoll was born in 1833 in Dresden, a village in New York’s Finger Lakes district. The conference placed Ingersoll in context with other freethinking reformers with roots in west-central New York State, such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Frederick Douglass, and Matilda Joslyn Gage.
Christopher Cameron examines Frederick Douglass as an anti-slavery campaigner, feminist, and freethinker. An escaped slave, Douglass became America’s most prominent African-American critic of slavery in the South. He spent the most productive quarter-century of his life in Rochester, New York, and is buried there.
Christopher Cameron is assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He is introduced to the Ingersoll conference audience by Tom Flynn.
To center stage, bringing you the best from the Center for Inquiry, a nonprofit organization that seeks to foster a secular society based on science reason. Freedom of inquiry and humanist values.
Presenting lectures and events at its headquarters in Amherst, New York, and in New York City, Washington, Los Angeles and elsewhere, there’s always something thought provoking and controversy along on stage at some center for inquiry. Join us now on center stage.
Welcome to Center Stage. I’m Debbie Goddard director of outreach at the Center for Inquiry. Today on center stage, a lecture by historian Christopher Kameron profiling abolitionist icon Frederick Douglass.
And I’m Tom Flynn editor of Free Inquiry magazine. On August 16th and 17th, 2014, the Center for Inquiry presented a conference entitled Robert Green, Ingersoll and the Reform Imperative at its headquarters in Amherst, New York.
This event celebrated Ingersol.
Perhaps the best known unbeliever of America’s Gilded Age, Ingersoll was born in 1833 in Dresden, a village in New York’s Finger Lakes district.
The conference placed Ingersol in context with other freethinking reformers with roots in west central New York state, such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Frederick Douglass and Matilda Johnson Gage.
Over our next six episodes, Center Stage will present key lectures from this one of a kind event this week.
Christopher Kameron examines Frederick Douglass as an antislavery campaigner. Feminist and free thinker. An escaped slave. Douglass became America’s most prominent African-American critic of slavery in the South. He spent the most productive quarter century of his life in Rochester, New York, and is buried there.
Christopher Cameron is assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte.
He is introduced to the Ingersol conference audience by my co-host, Tom Flynn.
Well, we are back. And fortunately, the library zombies did not claim our next speaker. And we’re a deepening our acquaintance with all of the principal reformers who we are focusing on at this conference. And Christopher Cameron is here to speak to us about Frederick Douglass Greeces, an assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. He received his M.A. and P.H. D in American history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a B.A. in history from Keene State College. Is research and teaching interests include early American history, the history of slavery and abolition, and American religious and intellectual history. His first book to Plead Our Own Cause African-Americans in Massachusetts and the Making of the Anti Slavery Movement, was published by Kent State University Press in June 2014. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome guest Christopher Cameron.
Like to start by thinking Tom Flynn for the invitation to speak here today, as well as the Council for Secular Humanism and the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum for sponsoring and hosting this wonderful conference. It’s truly an honor to be included among such a great line of both speakers and members of the Freethought community. My topic for this afternoon is Frederick Douglass. As antislavery campaigner, feminist and free thinker, Douglass is widely known among historians as the greatest African-American abolitionist and intellectual of his age. From the time of his first anti slavery speech at a convention in Nantucket in 1841 until his death in 1895, Douglass was a tireless advocate for the cause of slaves. Equal rights for blacks and equal rights for women. He was perhaps the harshest critic of American Republicanism in American Christianity during these 54 years, as he believed deeply in the humanist words of the founding father, Thomas Paine, namely, the cause of America is in great measure, the cause of all mankind. Douglass never lost his sense of optimism, although as we’ll see later in this talk, his strategies and tactics for promoting human rights shifted and matured over the years, especially with his move to upstate New York. Douglass was born on a plantation in eastern Maryland in February 1818. We know this because of the recovery work done by historian Philip Foner in the 1970s. But Douglass himself never knew exactly when he was born. In his first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American slave written by himself, he noted that by far the larger part of the slaves know as little of their age as horses know of theirs. And it is the wish of most masters, within my knowledge, to keep their slaves thus ignorant during the antebellum period. The Upper South states of Maryland, Delaware and Virginia had a reputation as being more hospitable to slaves than regions such as Mississippi and especially the Caribbean. But Douglass has poignant words here show that was most certainly not the case. The worst aspects of slavery for him was that it denied human beings knowledge about themselves and the world, as well as the social ties that are natural in human communities. Douglas’s route toward becoming an abolitionist began when he was just 11 years old and went to live with his master’s son in law, Hugh Orld in Baltimore, going to live in Baltimore. He wrote, laid the foundation and opened the gateway to all my subsequent prosperity. It was there that his new master’s wife, Sophia Orld, began to teach him how to read. These lessons were short lived. As Hugh Olds caught wind of them and told Sophia that, quote, learning would spoil the best [Unrecognized] in the world. Now, if you teach that [Unrecognized] how to read. There would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable and of no value to himself. All those words proved extremely Prussian. Douglass, once his appetite for knowledge had been whetted, can no longer be happy as a slave. He started sneaking, reading lessons from the white children in the neighborhood, bribing them with bread and tricking them into trying to spell words better than he could. When his reading skills had improved, he got hold of Caleb Bingham’s book, The Colombian Orator, first published in 1797, which contains speeches from figures such as Cato, Socrates, George Washington, William Pitt, the great British novelist, abolitionist Charles Fox and others discussing freedom, liberty, virtue, courage and antislavery thought. The speeches and dialogs in this book, Douglas recalled, gave tongue to interesting thoughts of my own soul, which had frequently flashed through my mind and died away for want of utterance. The moral which I gained from the dialog was the power of truth over the conscience of even a slave holder. The reading of these documents enabled me to utter my thoughts and to meet the arguments brought forward to sustain slavery. While Douglass were would remain enslaved for the next six years, the influence of his early reading would stay with him. And when he finally got the chance, he ran away from his master in 1838, settling first in New Bedford, Massachusetts. By 1839, Douglass had become a subscriber of William Lloyd Garrison’s newspaper, The Liberator, a publication that began his long involvement in American abolitionism. As Douglas’s reading of the Liberator suggests, he began his antislavery career as a follower of William Lloyd Garrison or as a garrison in Garrison. Believe deeply that moral suasion using the power of truth to convert slave holders and other supporters of the institution. Was the best means to attack slavery as such. He was a pacifist who believed that violence was an unacceptable means of bringing down the institution. Douglas followed Garrison in this belief early in his career, helping to defeat a resolution at an 1843 conference of black leaders, for example, that called for slaves to rebel against their masters. Henry Highland Garnet was a black Presbyterian minister who is the one pushing for that convention to adopt the resolution about slave rebellion. And Douglass helped defeat it by just a couple of votes. The two would basically be intellectual competitors for the next couple of decades.
Garrisoning has also issued participation in electoral politics because they believed the American political system was corrupt and most were advocates of disunion, thinking that the North should separate completely from the slave holding south. It was not long before Douglas started to shift away from this brand of abolitionism and carve out his own stake as an independent thinker and activist. For one, Douglass began to reject the philosophy of disunion ism, believing that it would simply mean the North abandon the south and its slaves. So just like those people who rejected schemes for colonization, Douglas believed that the entire nation had a moral obligation to end slavery and that this unionism would hurt those efforts. Douglass also began to reassess the use of electoral politics as a means of ending slavery, while Garrison Garrison’s belief that the U.S. Constitution was, quote, a covenant with death and an agreement with hell motivated his disdain for politics. Douglass came to believe that the Constitution was a glorious liberty document that could be clearly interpreted in favor of abolitionism. As such, those who wish to end slavery could use the nation’s founding documents and should make use of all means at their disposal, including electoral politics. By the late eighteen forties, and especially the eighteen fifties, Douglass would become an ardent supporter of the free soil and then the Republican Party’s. It was in the eighteen fifties that Douglas also came who reject the pacifism and nonviolence of the garrisoning ends while he still believe deeply in moral suasion. He also thought that other means might be more effective. This is not surprising, given that a key moment in his own personal history and in his route towards freedom included a violent encounter with his then master, Edward Covey. After the compromise of 1850, which included a strengthened Fugitive Slave Act. Douglass began to support violent resistance to re enslavement on the part of Northern Vigilance Committees and once fighting broke out in bleeding Kansas in the mid eighteen fifties. Douglas supported the efforts of individuals such as John Brown to prevent slavery from gaining a stronghold in the state. While Douglas refused Brons attempt to enlist him in the raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859, he did support the spirit of Brown’s mission and had fully come to embrace violence as a just and useful means for ending slavery. Now, much of his work as an in the antislavery movement came as the editor of two newspapers in Rochester, the North Star, published between 1848 in 1851, and Frederick Douglass. His paper, published from 1851 to 1860 and actually starting his own newspaper, was a major source of contention between him and the Garrison IANS, who he had been following up until about 1845, 1846 or so. A number of people told him as he started becoming a more effective speaker, as he started to sort of become more independent, that audiences would not believe his story if he sounded too educated, if he sounded too smart, that he had to sound like he had just come off the plantation in order for his audiences to sort of empathize with him. As a former slave. Right. They would think that he was trying to sort of pull the wool over their eyes or something like that. So on that that was something that a lot of abolitionists counseled him. And, you know, the garrisoning is really opposed his starting his own newspaper. Right. So you’d see in editorials, in both papers, sort of attacking each other’s positions over the eighteen fifties. Now, it was in these two papers and in the hundreds of speeches that he gave in the 20 years before the Civil War, that Douglass honed his message of human equality and political liberation for slaves and free blacks. One area in which Douglass did stay true to the philosophy of the Garrison Iain’s was his feminism. In 1840, the American Antislavery Society had split into rival factions over two key issues. One was the participation of abolitionists in electoral politics. The Garrison IANS wanted to stay out of that, while all the other half wanted to get involved with the Liberty Party, then the Free Soil Party and eventually the Republican Party. But the other major issue that split abolitionism was the woman question, as it was known back then. While garrisoning supported the participation of women such as Stanton, such as Lucretia Mott in their organizations, conservatives such as Arthur and Lewis Tapan in New York City believe that women should work primarily in their own subordinate organizations and not try to join and participate in leadership and ones run by men. Now, initially, Douglass was troubled by the fact that the woman in question was causing a split in abolitionist ranks. After discussion with Stanson, however, where she tried to convince him of the injustice of women’s exclusion from politics, he noted that I could not meet her arguments except with the shallow plea of custom natural division of duties. Indelicacy of women’s taking part in politics. The common talk of women’s sphere, all of which that able women who then no less logical than now brushed away. Along with the influence of Stanton’s logic, Douglass came to his feminism through the work of, quote, the honorable woman who have not only assisted me, but who, according to their opportunity and ability, have generously contributed to the abolition of slavery and the recognition of the equal manhood of the colored race. In his third autobiography, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, published in 1881, he noted that when the true history of the antislavery cause shall be written, women will occupy a large space in its pages. For the cause of the slave has been peculiarly women’s cause her heart and conscience have supplied in large degree its motive and mainspring her skill, industry, patience and perseverance have been wonderfully manifest in every trial hour. Not only did her feet run on willing Arun’s and her fingers do the work, which in large degree supplied the sinews of war. But her deep moral convictions and her tender, humane sensibilities found convincing expression by her pen and her voice. As the latter. Part of this statement suggests Douglass, as feminism was very much rooted in the 19th century, 19th century male feminists often base their claims for a woman’s equality on what we’re seen to be the biological and physiological distinctions between men and women. Women were kind hearted, tender, sympathetic and virtuous by nature and as such. The argument when their voices were especially needed in social and political causes, 19th century feminists such as Douglass went to great pains to argue that equal rights and political participation for women would not disturb or disrupt their work in the home, but would in fact advance it. Unlike many feminists today, Douglass and feminist thinkers of his age still believe strongly in separate spheres ideology, even as their work in the movement helped to undermine that ideology. So their feminism was politically radical but socially conservative. Douglas thought that equal political rights for men and women would come in stages. The first, in his estimation, was pushing for women’s right to speak in public. Mariah Stewart and the Grim Keith Sisters, among others, had begun to defy social conventions in the early eighteen thirties and their speeches before male audiences and Douglas consistently supported this in the columns of his newspapers and as public speeches. The second step for Woman was to gain access to higher education, while the third included expanded career prospects. These social and economic changes, Douglas believed, would lay the foundation for political changes. Douglas was also a proponent of women’s suffrage at a time when few male leaders of American abolitionism publicly endorse this position. He seconded and gave a speech supporting Elizabeth Cady Stinson’s resolution demanding women’s suffrage at the first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls. His support helped the resolution pass by a small margin. And for Douglas, suffrage was just another part of the broader women’s rights movement, as he believed deeply that voting was a natural right to which women should not be deprived.
Douglas usually put his abolitionism before his feminism in the years before the Civil War, even as he spoke in favor of women’s suffrage, equal pay for equal work, equality and property ownership and better education. He still bemoaned the fact that many women were putting their cause ahead of the slaves. After the Civil War, the women’s rights movement allowed him to redirect his reform energies. But he still argued, for instance, that black men needed the vote more than white women did with us. The matter is a question of life and death, he noted, at least in fifteen states of the union, when women, because they are women, are hunted down through New York and New Orleans, when they are dragged from their houses and hung upon lampposts, when their children are torn from their arms and their brains dashed out upon the pavement when they are the objects of insults and outrage at every turn, when they are in danger of having their homes burned down over their heads, when their children are not allowed to enter schools, then they will have an urgency to obtain the ballot equal to our own.
The issue became moot once the states ratified the 15th Amendment in 1870, and Douglas’s speeches and interviews would more consistently support women’s suffrage and women’s rights for the next quarter century.
Now, just like his feminism, Douglas, his relationship to American Christianity and American churches was complicated, to say the least. Well, he never openly espoused a theism or agnosticism. Douglas can certainly be termed the first significant black freethinker in the United States. As Susan Jacoby notes and free thinkers, the most useful definition of free thought is not a total absence of faith in God, but rather a phenomenon running the gamut from the truly antireligious. Those who regarded all religion as a form of superstition and wish to reduce its influence in every aspect of society to those who adhere to a private, unconventional form of faith, revering some form of God or providence, but at odds with Orthodox religious authority. So it’s in this latter category that Frederick Douglass falls. He converted to Christianity at the age of 13 while enslaved. He attempted to operate to Sabbath schools for his fellow slaves when he ran away from Maryland and settled in New Bedford. He was actually an exhort air in the local African Methodist Episcopal Church for a short time. He notes in all of his autobiographies a feeling as if he were chosen by Providence to perform a special work in the world. And he used religious language and biblical allusions to great effect in many of his speeches and writings. Despite this, however, Douglas was one of the staunchest critics of American Christianity and ministers during the antebellum period. He begins by critiquing the religion of the South, noting in his first autobiography that religious masters are usually the worst masters. In August 1832, he writes, My master attended a Methodist camp meeting held in the Bayside Talbot County and their experience religion. I indulged a faint hope that his conversion would lead him to emancipate as slaves and that if he did not do this, it would, at any rate, make him more kind and humane. I was disappointed in both these respects and neither made him to be humane to his slaves nor to emancipate them if it had any effect on his character and made him more cruel and hateful. In all his ways, for I believe him to have been a much worse man after his conversion than before. Prior to his conversion, he relied upon his own depravity to shield and sustain, sustain him and his savage, barbaric, savage barbarity. But after his conversion, he found religious sanction and support for slave holding cruelty. Both times at Douglass attempted to open a Sabbath school to teach fellow slaves to read the Bible, he recalled. Whites broke it up by violent means. For Douglass, Christianity in the South was non-existent.
Instead, they practiced a hypocritical religion that sanctioned cruelty and injustice. But the problem was not just Southern churches, but northern ones as well. And as 1852 speech, What to the Slave is the Fourth of July. He said the church of this country is not only indifferent to the wrongs of the slave, it actually takes side with the oppressors. It has made itself the bulwark of American slavery and the shield of American slave hunters. Many of its most eloquent divines who stand as the very lights of the church have shamelessly given the sanction of religion in the Bible to the whole slave system. These eloquent divines included ministers such as the Unitarians, as Restyled Garnette and Orville Dhuey, both of whom preach, for instance, that people should obey man’s law before God’s law or a higher law and not resist statutes such as the Fugitive Slave Act.
By not coming out in favor of abolitionism, ministers throughout the country committed a great sin of omission in Douglass’s eyes. For my part, he thundered. I would say Welcome in fidelity. Welcome Athie ism. Welcome. Anything in preference to the Gospel as preached by those divines? Douglas’s critique of American Christianity extended beyond white churches and into the post civil war era of black churches. He felt that most ministers lack of education was troubling and that blacks would be better served in progressive white churches with a settled, educated minister. He also felt disdain for the emotionalism prevalent in black Christianity. But his biggest critique was that black churches were to other worldly. He despised any religious creed that said blacks should look to the next life for happiness rather than trying to achieve it now along similar lines. Douglas ran into conflict. With black ministers in 1870, when at the final meeting of the American Anti Slavery Society, he remarked that while many people have thank God for freeing the slaves, I like to thank men. I want to express my love to God and gratitude to God by thanking those faithful men and women who have devoted the great energies of their soul to the welfare of mankind. It is only through such men, in such women that I can get a glimpse of God anywhere. The response by black religious leaders was to put forth a statement saying that we will not acknowledge any man as a leader of our people who will not thank God for the deliverance and enfranchisement of our race and will not vote to retain the Bible, the book of God in our public schools. To which Douglass replied, I bowed to no priests, either of faith or on faith, I claim, as against all sorts of people, simply perfect freedom of thought. Along with his opposition to Bibles and schools, Douglass openly embraced the great agnostic Robert Ingersoll during the 1980s. The two met when Douglas introduced him for a speech on the 1875 Civil Rights Act. And after a later encounter with Ingersol, Douglass remarked that being an infidel was not indicative of one’s moral character. His embrace of Ingersol is not surprising, given the latter’s strongly voiced support of black equality and civil rights.
In Ingersoll’s 1883 speech on the Supreme Court’s overturning of the earlier Civil Rights Act, for instance, Ingersol, it said Any government that makes a distinction on a kind of color is a disgrace to the age in which we live. The idea that a man like Frederick Douglass can be ended can be denied entrance to a car, that the doors of a hotel can be shut in his face, that he may be prevented from entering a theater. The idea that there shall be some ignominious corner into which such a man can be thrown by decision of the Supreme Court. This idea is simply absurd.
Now, as I mentioned earlier, Douglas never openly espouse AP ism or agnosticism in his writings and speeches. For one, critiquing religion in general rather than just slaveholding religion, would have made his autobiographies and newspaper articles less appealing to his abolitionist readership, many of whom were evangelical Christians, despite his opposition to black churches. Many of his speeches were delivered in those black churches. So coming out as atheist or agnostic would have hurt his reform and political agenda. But he certainly was a secularist in that he believed in a strong separation of church and state. And he was a humanist who felt that the best religion was simply one that helped men and women prosper on Earth. Some blacks in his era did embrace Athie ism. However, one of the key reasons that African-Americans in the 19th century became atheist was an inability to resolve the problem of evil or the question of how to reconcile the existence of evil in the world with the presence of a benevolent and omnipotent dedi. For many slaves, the problem of evil was intimately related to their daily lives as a central component of slavery was suffering. This is not to say there were no moments of joy or happiness in the lives of slaves. Wedding, the birth of a child. Time off for holidays. Reunion with family members. All of these could bring moments of great joy and happiness. But in reading slave narratives, it is impossible to escape the simple fact that slaves lives were filled with suffering, pain and loss that was attributed not to life in general, but to slavery in particular. I’ll give just a couple of examples. Austin Steward, an enslaved man in Prince William County, Virginia, during the early 19th century, notes in his narrative that one pleasant Sabbath morning as I was passing the house where she lived on my way to the Presbyterian Church where I was sent to ring the bell. As usual, I heard the most piteous cries and earnest pleadings issuing from the dwelling, to my horror and astonishment of those with me. My poor sister made her appearance, weeping bitterly and followed by her inhuman master who was polluting the air of that clear Sabbath morning with the modal most horrid implications and threatened things and at the same time flourishing a large rawhide. Very soon, his bottled wrath burst forth, and the blows aimed with all its strength, descended upon the unprotected head, shoulders and back of the helpless woman until she was literally cut to pieces.
She ride than his powerful grasp, while shriek after shriek cried away and heart rending moaning. And yet the inhuman demon continued to beta through her, though her pleading cries had ceased until obliged to desist from the exhaustion of his own strength.
Another enslaved man named Henry Bibb wrote, I was brought up in the counties of Shelby, Henry Oldham and Trimble. Or, more correctly, speaking in the above counties. I may safely say I was flogged up for where I should have received moral, mental and religious instruction. I received stripes without no the object of which was to degrade and keep me in subordination. Reader, believe me when I say that no tongue nor pen has or can express the horrors of American slavery. Consequently, I despair in finding language to express adequately the deep feeling of my soul as I contemplate the past history of my life. Beatings, starvation, sexual assaults, separation from family, lack of adequate medical care and early death are omnipresent throughout slave narratives and interviews with former slaves. Many of these slaves did turn to religion for comfort in the face of such suffering, believing that the God of Israel was on their side and would one day free them from slavery. Many dreamed of the day when the tables would be turned. Imagining their masters would suffer in hell for eternity while they watched on from heaven. Christianity was one of the central religious systems in slave life, while others practice Islam, traditional African faiths and conjure or voodoo. But the presence of intense suffering, combined with the knowledge of the tenants of Christianity, the religion of their masters, made some slaves reject religion altogether. As I mentioned, this rejection of religion was based on an inability to reconcile their fate as slaves with notions of a benevolent and omnipotent God. And the second major factor was a belief in the hypocrisy of their masters, who claimed to be Christians while engaging in very unchristian like behavior. And the evidence. The rejection of Christianity from slaves comes from their narratives and from accounts of travelers to the south. So, for instance, the same year that Frederick Douglass published his first autobiography in 1845. Charles Ball published a slave narrative and wrote, There is in general very little sense of religious obligation or duty among the slaves on the cotton plantations. And Christianity cannot be with propriety called the religion of these people. They have not the slightest little religious regard for the Sabbath day, and their masters make no efforts to impress them with the least respect for this sacred institution. Harriet Jacobs narrative recounts a story of going with her grandmother to see her uncle Benjamin, who was put in jail for trying to escape slavery. We knelt down and took Benjamin’s cold hands and arms, she wrote. We did not speak. Sobs were heard and Benjamin’s lips were unsealed. For his mother was weeping on his neck. How vividly does memory bring back that sad night? Mother and son talked together. He had asked her pardon for the suffering he had caused her. She said she had nothing to forgive. She could not blame his desire for freedom. He told her that when he was captured, he broke away and was about casting himself into the river. When thoughts of her came over him and he desisted, she asked if he did not also think of God. I fancied I saw his face grow fierce in the moonlight. He answered, No, I did not think of him. When a man is hunted like a wild beast, he forgets there is a God, a heaven. He forgets everything in a struggle to get beyond the reach of the bloodhounds. Jacob’s his uncle, is a prime example of the way that slavery and suffering could challenge prevailing religious ideas. Now, after witnessing his sister’s brutal whipping and his master’s subsequently attending church, Austin Stewart asked, Can anyone wonder that I and other slaves often doubted the sincerity of every white man’s religion? Can it be a matter of astonishment that slaves often feel that there is no just God for the poor African? And speaking about slave holders getting slaves to wrestle, gamble and get drunk on Sundays, Henry Bibb argued that these amusements take place among the slaves, principally for wants of moral instruction. This is where they have no Sabbath schools, no one to read the Bible to them, no one to preach the gospel who is competent to expound the scriptures except slave holders. And the slaves, with but few exceptions, have no confidence at all in their preaching because they preach a pro slavery doctrine. They say Servants’ be obedient to your masters and he that knoweth his masters will and do with and not Shelby. Being with many stripes means that God will send them to hell if they disobey their masters. This kind of preaching has driven thousands into infidelity, Bibb notes. They view themselves as suffering unjustly under the lash, without friends, without protection of law or gospel and the green eyed monster Tyranny’s staring them in the face. They know that they are destined to die in that wretched condition unless they are delivered by the arm of omnipotence and they cannot believe or trust in such a religion as above named. Now, travelers to slave regions likewise commented on the presence of Black Athie ism upon the occasion of his ordination in 1839. Daniel Payne, bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church from 1852 to 1893 and gave a speech titled Slavery Brutalizes Man Here. Paine noted that many slaves hear their masters professing Christianity. They see these masters preaching the gospel. They hear these masters praying in their families. And they know that oppression and slavery are inconsistent with the Christian religion. Therefore, they scoff at religion itself, mocked their masters and distrust both the goodness and justice of God. Yes, I have known them even to question his existence. Now, while he would become one of the foremost black religious figures of his age. Paine himself questioned God’s existence at one point in 1830. He had opened a school for slaves and free blacks in Charleston, South Carolina, while his teaching at the school, the South Carolina General Assembly, passed an updated literacy ban, which said that if a free black person taught a slave to read or write, they could be whipped with 50 lashes and fined fifty dollars. And the law also stipulated. That free blacks couldn’t even teach other free blacks to read or write. Also forced to close down a school in 1835. Payne notes that I began to question the existence of God and to say if he does exist, is he just. If so, why does he suffer one race to oppress and enslave another? To rob them by and righteous enactments of rights which they hold most dear and sacred? Sometimes I wished for the lawmakers what Nero wished that the Romans had but one neck. I would be the man to sever the head from its shoulders again, said I. Is there no God? Daniel Paine would quickly return to the comfort of his religious belief. But as we have seen, that was not the case for many slaves, the suffering they endured on a day to day basis, and the perceived religious hypocrisy of their masters and those in the north who supported slavery caused many to reject Christianity and disavow religion altogether. It is impossible to know just how many slaves became atheists, but it is clear that black, a theism and free thought had its origins in the peculiar institution. African-American Freethought would become seemingly less prominent after the Civil War, a period which witnessed a drastic increase in the number of black Christians with their newfound freedom. Many skeptics may have come to believe that there was a just God after Raul who was looking after their interests. Aside from Frederick Douglass, there are no examples of black free thinkers I’ve found in the 30 or so years after the Civil War. That doesn’t mean they didn’t exist. I just haven’t found them yet. The rise of Jim Crow segregation would, combined with the increased presence of blacks in universities to alter this trend. By the end of the 19th century, DWB Dubois noted that he had become a free thinker, especially after being exposed to German biblical criticism. And if the late 19th century was the golden age of American free thought, then the early 20th century would be the golden age of African-American free thought. As Harlem Renaissance writers such as Richard Wright, Nella Larsen, Zora Neale Hurston and James Weldon Johnson used their writings to critique religion and posit secular humanist themes. While secular humanism has never been accepted by wide swaths of the black population. It is clear that it has been a critical intellectual tradition motivating both the writing and activism of some of this nation’s most prominent African-American activists. Thank you.
Question. What do you think led? What do you think led Frederick Douglass to turn down John Brown, number one and number two? How did he escape recapture? He was pretty public. Yeah.
He turned down John Brown because he wasn’t crazy. He talked to Brown extensively about the plan and decided that maybe Brown was a little kind of off his rocker.
I mean, he supported slave rebellion for sure. By that point. But he didn’t think that Brown’s particular scheme of going into western Virginia and trying to incite the slave population there was likely to pan out. And he was right. Douglas, initially, after publishing his autobiography, knew that he would have a lot of sort of notoriety. He went on a trip to England and stayed there for, I think, 14 to 16 months, ended up raising money among English abolitionists and was able to purchase his own freedom. So once he came back to the states in 1847, he didn’t have to worry about about being recaptured. I mean, that’s right around the time when he moved from Massachusetts to New York.
So thanks for gathering all that information on slave Athie is probably more than has ever been gathered in one place before. And I was just wondering why it had why no one else had done this before. And it occurred to me that one reason might be, well, that they weren’t looking for it for various reasons, one of which was this idea that the idea of poly genesis dominated Freethought in the 19th century and Freethought wouldn’t be attracted to slaves for that reason. And I wonder if you’d ever come across. That was probably Genesis on their radar at all? Or is that just something that historians kind of used to not look in a particular direction?
Yeah, this story and Me at Bay examines this and her work on the white image and the Black Mind, which is published, I believe, in 2002. And among most slaves, they rejected notions of poly genesis. Most of them believed in I sort of just one creation. And we had all descended from Adam and Eve, at least for those who were religious, which was the overwhelming majority of them. What we see from black atheists of the 19th century is less of a philosophical or epistemological critique of religion and more of a political critique of the function that religion serves and keeping them in a subordinate position in society. But that that same sort of epistemological critique would start arising in Black’s writings in the 19 teens in the 1920s, arguing that arguing for Athie ism agnosticism based upon the limitations of human knowledge.
I wonder what the timeline was with regard to the fact that when the country was first formed, the vote was largely limited in the various states to property holders? Yeah, no, this was the case at the time of the abolition movement, so forth. And the suffrage movement for women getting the vote would have been far less significant because, you know, it would be very limited. Mm hmm.
Yeah. I mean, I think that was the argument of a lot of women suffragists. Right.
That if you give black men the vote, it’s just a small proportion of the population. Right. But giving women the vote is basically half of the country and can be much more powerful politically. So that that was one of their major arguments for.
The average age is about to start over again altogether.
Mm hmm. Well, he always was a proponent of women’s suffrage.
He just did not think that it was as important as black suffrage. Right. He thought for blacks, it was a matter of life and death.
You know, he in a sense, he couldn’t escape sort of some of the arguments of his time period. One of the major arguments against women’s right to vote is that they’re virtually represented by the vote of their husbands. Right. And in placing women’s suffrage below that of African-Americans, he was sort of subscribing to that same idea. Right. That that women had some sort of representation. But blacks had none.
Did he have close relations with Mark Twain and other people like he had with Ingersol and some of the prominent prefigures?
Yeah, I’m not I’m not so sure about Twain. And I wouldn’t say he necessarily had a close relationship with Ingersol, but the two met on a number of occasions and he was a great admirer of them. He had close relations with Elizabeth Cady Stanton for a time, and then the two would really start to grow apart right around the time of the Civil War, when Stanton and her sort of wing of feminist critique, the notion that blacks should get black men should get the right to vote before women. So they really started to kind of grow apart in the eighteen sixties and.
So given that, why does he stand for election as vice president with Victoria Woodhull? Or is it simply that they picked his name and he never agreed to it or because that’s sort of like a later episode of his involving feminism?
Yeah, well, I think after like I mentioned once, the 15th Amendment has passed in 1870, a lot of the arguments and divisions between blacks and Stinson’s wing of of the women’s rights movement would have become of no real consequence anymore. Right. There’s no point in arguing that women should have the right to vote before blacks if they’ve already got it right. That was that was something that they really focused on during the eighteen sixties up until 1870 after that. It wasn’t really that big of an issue. So I’m guessing that’s why. I mean, after that he could really more consistently support women’s suffrage without feeling that he was taking away energy from black equality.
We have heard Christopher Cameron examined Frederick Douglass as an antislavery campaigner, feminist and free thinker. He lectured at the Ingersol conference held at Amherst, New York, in August of 2014.
The original recording was engineered by Monica Harmsen. The music was by Adam Fields. Postproduction was by Inquiry Media Productions.
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