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Frederick Douglass to the Woman who was Negotiating
to Buy his Freedom (SOLD)
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A uniquely important Douglass letter, written while still a fugitive slave, mentioning his desire to return to America, negotiations with his owner to purchase his freedom, and speaking engagements in London. “My Anna says ‘Come home’ and I have now resolved upon going home … I shall sail for America on the fourth November--and hope to meet the beloved one of my heart by the 20th of that month. Do not allow this arrangement [to] interfere in any way with your correspondence with my owner--as whether you succeed or fail good may come of the effort.”

FREDERICK DOUGLASS. Autograph Letter Signed to Anna Richardson, London, Free Trade Club, Aug. 19, 1846. 4 p.

Inventory #21062       SOLD — please inquire about other items

Complete Transcript

                                                                                                Free Trade Club

                                                                                                London 19-Aug

My Dear friend- I have received yours of 17 instant--I have no time to write you as I would wish to do--I am in the midst of hurry, noise and confusion I should have wrote to you immediately after my arrival here, but I found a number of letters from the United States and from home that required answers which took up al the time. My Anna says ‘Come home and I have now resolved upon going home--the day is fixed and my dear Anna will be informed of it in a few days. I shall sail for America on the fourth November--and hope to meet the beloved one of my heart by the 20th of that month. Do not allow this arrangement [to]interfere in any way with your correspondence with my owner--as whether you succeed or fail good may come of the effort. Our meeting here on Monday [possibly the meeting of the Evangelical Alliance]was a good one. I was much fatigued and worried out by my journey so that I could say but little and that little not much to the purpose. I carried the parcel committed to me by Mr. Forster and sure enough an attempt was made to make me swear. I didn’t feel at liberty to do so--I therefore left the parcel--it is very embarrassing to a stranger to be subjected to such questions as may be put to him by being placed in the position which I was placed by Mr. Forster. I leave this tomorrow and shall proceed to Playford Hall that I may with grateful eyes behold the venerable Thomas Clarkson. Please make my love to your own dear Henry and believe very Sincerely yours,

F. Douglass.

Anna Richardson.

Historical Background

Borrowing papers from a free black sailor, Frederick Douglass escaped from slavery to New York in 1838. Three years later, abolitionists William C. Coffin convinced him to speak about his life as a slave a at a Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society convention and, impressed by his speech, the Society hired him to advocate for the abolitionist cause. In 1845, he published his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. A tremendous success, the book sold more than five thousand copies in the first four months. His growing notoriety, however, placed him in danger of being recaptured and brought back to his former master, Thomas Auld. As a result, Douglass sailed to Britain for a speaking tour in early 1846.

Months later, still nervous about the possibility of being caught upon his return to the United States but financially unable to bring his family over to join him in Britain, Douglass stayed with Ellen Richardson and her brother and sister-in-law Henry and Anna, Quakers long active in the British anti-slavery movement. Ellen and Anna, upon hearing of Douglass’ predicament, decided that the only possible solution to his problem was to buy his freedom. This was a complex and thorny issue. Many staunch anti-slavery advocates believed Douglass should not have allowed himself to be bought, thus tacitly acknowledging the right of one man to own another. Douglass deals with this issue in his Life and Times, saying that were he not a public figure, he might have agreed with them, but he felt he could be of more use to his people as a free man.

While Douglass continued traveling and promoting the Anti-Slavery League, Ellen and Anna began raising money for his purchase. Auld had named Douglass’ price – £150 sterling ($750) – and transferred his legal ownership to his brother, Hugh. Douglass alludes to the ongoing negotiations between the Richardsons and Hugh Auld. It would take several months, but on December 12, 1846, Hugh formally registered a bill of manumission for “Frederick Baily, otherwise called Frederick Douglass” and Douglass was able to book his passage home aboard the Cambria. Even as a free man his first-class return ticket, which cost £40, was not honored; he was made to stay in steerage for the duration of the trip.  

In a later account of his life, Douglass wrote about returning to Britain to visit the:

“two ladies who were mainly instrumental in giving me the chance of devoting my life to the cause of freedom. These were Ellen and Anna Richardson, of Newcastle-upon-Tyne…without any suggestion from me they…bought me out of slavery, secured a bill of sale of my body, made a present of myself to myself, and thus enabled me to return to the United States, and resume my work for the emancipation of the slaves.”

The Mr. Forster who he is upset with in the letter is very likely William Forster (1784-1854), a Quaker preacher and philanthropist. A large group of Quakers were incensed over the Friends’ world-wide dictum that Quakers should abstain from attending any non-Quaker abolitionist meetings. As a result, nearly 2,000 of them were seceding from the Society of Friends. Forster was charged with bringing them back into the fold. It would appear that Douglass resented being put into the middle of this internecine battle among white abolitionists.

Thomas Clarkson (1760-1846) was a leading campaigner against the slave trade in the British Empire. Beginning with an essay written as a Cambridge student in 1785, Clarkson wrote a series of works exposing the horrors of slavery, conducting research and gathering evidence to bolster the abolitionist cause. His efforts culminated in the passage of the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833. Towards the end of his life, he continued to campaign for the abolition of slavery, this time in the United States. Douglass here writes of Clarkson with admiration and mentions his plan to visit him at Playford Hall; Clarkson died only weeks later, on September 26th. He is the secondary subject, with William Wilberforce, in the recent feature film, Amazing Grace.