Friday, October 7, 2011


In the paper that I'll be presenting at the BrANCH meeting in Cambridge next week, one of the minor points on which I touch is that of trust. A paper doesn't permit the time to truly evoke an atmosphere, so I could only suggest the near-paranoid degree to which Douglass trusted no one in the late 1840s. On the one side, he was pretty sure that the American Anti-Slavery Society was trying to sabotage his newspaper, a not entirely unjustified fear overlaid on several years of prior mistrust. On the other side, he seems not to have trusted the Western New York Anti-Slavery Society that was supporting his paper, obscuring the extent of the mess into which his finances had become tangled in order to keep their support. The antislavery world watched him, his success or failure a statement on the integrity of his race, his ideas, and his person. That doesn't even begin to touch on the importance it had for sustaining his family. All of this meant that he was suspicious of everyone.

When I was talking with my very good friend and fellow historian, Douglas Egerton, about this, Doug pointed out that Douglass came from a place where you trust no one at all. Everyone was a potential threat. He pointed to the compatriots who turned in Gabriel in the 1800 conspiracy and Vesey in the 1822 conspiracy. True, so true, I thought but had to move on to the next paper.

The next paper I will present at the University College, Dublin, Department of History and Archives' weekly Research Forum. This next paper will be about Douglass's mother, Harriet Bailey. Because it is also a part of yet another chapter (eventually, I will complete another whole chapter and not just several bits and parts of many), I started to think of her in the context of the full chapter in order to figure out which ideas would be best to develop in the paper. The paper is turning out to be pretty straightforward, or as straightforward as a paper can be about someone who made so little an impression on the historical record. Meanwhile, I am working out an idea that the four, maybe five, women in this chapter all represent mother-figures to Douglass and that he had certain unarticulated expectations of these mothers that they were able to fulfill or not fulfill based upon their own status. At some point, no matter how good of a "mother" the woman might be, and whether she wants to or not, in the eyes of the little boy Frederick, she ultimately abuses or abandons him. She betrays him.

These two thoughts, the first being that Douglass trusts no one and the second that he feels betrayal by these mother figures, coming one after the other as they did, made me think more about this childhood he experienced. From the age of six or seven, the continual lesson he learned was to trust no one, black or white. His grandmother dropped him off at Wye House and left, never to be seen again. His mother seldom visited and then died. His mistress in Baltimore began to teach him to read, then backed off when her husband forbid the lessons, and was not as sweet to him afterward. His mistress at Wye House, who treated him kindly, died. His buddies turned the rest of their group in when they planned to escape. Some slaves, like Aunt Katy, used what little power they had to abuse those weaker than themselves. Fellow apprentices in the shipyards beat him. Northern caulkers refused to work with him in New Bedford. The Narrative and early parts of his later two autobiographies are catalogues of betrayals and evidence that trust in his fellow Man was misplaced. That's what a slave society and a racist society did to a person. Not only was his humanity under assault, but also his ability to form human connections. As he says about motherhood and slavery, the system was designed "to blunt and destroy the natural affection."

So, when he does trust someone, I think it is important to ask "why?" I touch slightly on that in the paper next week (but not in great detail), but I'm thinking that I should also incorporate that into my completed (yea!) chapter on Anna and the "revise and resubmit" version of the Harriet Bailey/Ruth Cox Adams article (which I shall get to one day!), as well as her part in that Anna chapter.

Also, I have two instances in which he reacts rather emotionally toward the prospect of losing someone he trusts, the first being his outrage at Adams announcement of her marriage, and the second in a letter that indicates he did not behave "beautifully" when Julia Griffiths planned to return to England in the early 1850s (eventually she did in 1855).

What about these women did he deem trust-worthy, assuming, of course, that he does trust them? Was that trust so precious and fragile that he experienced abandonment or perhaps betrayal when they tried to leave? Did he trust mostly women because, as women, they were in a subordinate position to him? I have to think a lot about these sorts of questions because I think they are also related to the ways in which he was best friends with a person at one point and in mortal combat with them at another, sometimes over only the slightest shifts in ideology.


  1. A slave is by definition an abused child. Is there anything in the psych literature on trust issues among adults who were abused as children that you can build on?

  2. I think this is a fascinating discussion. In 'Love, Intimay and Power: marriage and patriarchy in Scotland, 1650-1850' (Manchester UP, 2011), Katie Barclay argues that men in the late 18th and early 19thC see their wives as extensions of themselves, and so see any acts of female independence in their wives as personal betrayals. This is an emotional dynamic framed by a patriarchal culture (so for example coverture removes a wife's legal self and subsumes it in her husband- this is the emotional equivalent). We can also see this beyond the intimate in discussions of women's role in Enlightenment discourse as 'enabling' men to be political actors, but not allowing women to be political actors in their own right (numerous references discuss this). In that enabling role, women are not seen for their own sake, but in relationship to the men in their lives (including by the men themselves). I don't think it would be surprising that men would extend this understanding to their other intimate relationships. I also think that it may be exasperated in 'big men', who can use the 'movement' to justify their sense of betrayal at female independence (so the women aren't just betraying them, which might seem illogical in non-wives, but are betraying the movement). So, I guess I am saying that Douglass's seemingly odd jealousy over his female supporter's marriages or choices are actually perfectly explicable within this world view.

  3. Ubab: Exactly! I realized that I had been conceiving of his experience of this time as one of constant abuse. I thought that perhaps that did not do justice to being a child in slavery; nevertheless, there it was. I'm trying to decide how far I want to go in that direction.

    Feminist Avatar: Thank you for the reference. That is exactly the sort of thing I was hoping existed somewhere in the historiography because emotions are a recurring theme and I don't feel entirely comfortable assuming that they were experienced the same way in the 19th c as now, which seems to be what many biographers do. That sounds exactly like the way he behaved and it adds this patriarchal context to his behavior that always creeps in and limits the extent to which he can imagine women's rights.