Frederick Douglass Sends Condolences on the Death of an Abolitionist Friend
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Douglass pens a poignant letter to the widow of a close friend, Dr. John L. Clarke of Fall River, Massachusetts. His tone resonates with quiet philosophy on the question of life and death. “There is sunshine as well as shadow in the valley of death although we are compelled to see it through fast flowing tears.” FREDERICK DOUGLASS.
Autograph Letter Signed “Fred.k Douglass,” Washington D.C., to Mrs. John L. Clarke of Fall River, Massachusetts, November 14, 1880, 5 x 8 in., 3 pp., with envelope.
“Washington D.C. Nov. 14. 1880.
I know that words are tame, that sorrow is its own solace, that mourning is its own comforter, that the lesson of death is silence and resignation, and yet ever since I read the sad announcement of of [sic] the death of Dear Doctor Clarke, my heart has ached to tell you how deeply touched by that sad event I was and am. I have felt that one of the truest and best of my friends has departed. It is a consolation that I saw him so recently. I shall not soon forget the quiet Sunday afternoon spent with you both, and his last words to me “Frederick” when you come again to Fall River, come to our house and make it your house. No dream at that moment crossed me that < p. 2 > I was seeing the face and hearing the voice of dear Doctor Clarke for the last time in this life. The great age attained by his father, and his own regular and quiet life led me to hope that he would yet live many years and at first it was not easy to bring my feelings to accept the conclusions of my reason.
There is sunshine as well as shadow in the valley of death although we are compelled to see it through fast flowing tears. The body is gone but the spirit is near. You are to my vision still together. I see you as in the days when the cause of the slave had a few friends, cheering me on in my work by the silent influence of your presence and your sympathy. And so I shall always see you. < p. 3 > The living friends of those days are fast disappearing, the circle is dissolving, and you and I are in a grand procession marching toward the sunset. We are not far behind our loved ones, and though no man can tell what there is beyond, there is reason to trust that the Almighty power that has called us into existence will do all things well in all Eternity. May you, my friend, have a large share of this all sustaining trust, in your present bereavement.
And yet I sorrow with you.
Respectfully and Truly yours,
The daughter of the recipient has written a note on the envelope “From Frederick Douglass after my father’s death. . . . I remember well his last visit . . . a dignified white haired man.”
When Frederick Douglass wrote this letter of condolence to the widow of John L. Clarke, he had been working in Washington D.C. as a U.S. Marshall for three years. His government employment overseeing the D.C. criminal justice system was a considerable contrast to his past work as a social reformer, and an even greater contrast to the subject of the letter. John L. Clarke was born in Scituate, Rhode Island in 1812 of Fall River, Massachusetts was a homoeopathic doctor and at one time, President of the Bristol County Homoeopathic Medical Society. Clarke “took great interest in all progressive movements of the day” and an “earnest worker in the antislavery cause, when it cost something to be an abolitionist.” Douglass and Clarke had the opportunity to see the fruits of their abolitionist labor before Clarke died on October 25, 1880 at age 70. Perhaps it was Clarke’s strong progressive leanings, deep religious faith, and homoeopathy practice that led Douglass to muse so philosophically on his passing.
Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) was born into slavery in Talbot County, Maryland and named Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey. He escaped North using the Seaman’s Protection Certificate of a free black sailor in 1838. He lived in New Bedford, Massachusetts and in 1841 began his career as an abolitionist orator. After honing his personal story on the lecture circuit, he wrote The Narrative of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, which was published in 1845. In 1847, he moved with his wife, Anna, and their children to Rochester, New York, where he founded a newspaper, The North Star. His abolitionist work in Rochester brought him into contact with leading feminist Susan B. Anthony. Douglass continued the fight to end slavery, and during the Civil War, he helped recruit black soldiers for the 54th Massachusetts Regiment. He met President Lincoln on two occasions. After the war, Douglass continued fighting for black voting rights and women’s rights. In 1889, he was named ambassador to Haiti. After teaching himself to read while still a slave, Douglass went on to publish three versions of his autobiography. His literacy and oratorical skills made him a living example to counter any notions of African American inferiority.
New England Medical Gazette, Volume 15 pp. 352.
New England Medical Gazette, Volume 16 p. 31-32.