“AFTER FRED. DOUGLASS.—” barked an October 1850 headline in the Mississippi Free Trader, the state’s leading Democratic newspaper. The article below it went on to note: “We are very much pleased to learn that a party of Marylanders are in pursuit of the sweet pet and fragrant expounder of the white negroes of the North. He is a fugitive slave, and the intention is to reclaim him under the late Fugitive Slave Law.”
This was an outstanding antebellum example of what we have lately come to call “fake news.” After eight years as a fugitive, Frederick Douglass had been legally emancipated in 1846 when a group of British abolitionists collected funds to purchase his freedom. No party of Maryland slave-hunters was headed north to pursue him, even after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act. The Free Trader wasn’t reporting on events; it was indulging in a kind of vicarious hate crime.
Yet in its mix of gossip, malice, and braggadocio, the Free Trader’s false report was characteristic of the opposition that Douglass faced in his lifetime of political struggle. For Mississippi’s Slave Power, Douglass presented an existential threat in two dimensions. First, his physical person, as an ex-slave turned celebrity abolitionist, was a dramatic personification of his radical belief in human equality. To adapt what W.E.B. Du Bois once said of John Brown, Douglass didn’t just use argument, he was himself an argument. Second, Douglass was feared because his oratory had dangerous implications: It might help generate a popular political movement against the slaveholding South. Thus the Mississippi Free Trader reserved equal scorn for the “white negroes of the North”—Douglass’s anti-slavery allies and the larger Northern public that they hoped to awaken.
The power of the antebellum slaveholding class, after all, resided not only in its direct domination of black slaves, but in its ability to divide and exploit an even larger multiracial working class. Douglass knew how well this system worked from bitter personal experience: As a hired slave in Baltimore, he was assaulted by white dockworkers with bricks and handspikes. Yet he remained clearheaded about who benefited from this racial violence. As he wrote in 1855: “The slaveholders, with a craftiness peculiar to themselves, by encouraging the enmity of the poor, laboring white man against the blacks, succeeds in making the said white man almost as much a slave as the black slave himself…. Both are plundered, and by the same plunderers.”
To uproot these plunderers required democratic organization in both the North and South. The obstacles were enormous, Douglass knew, for he seldom underestimated the tenacity of American racism—the prejudices and powers wielded by those Americans “who happen to live in a skin which passes for white.” Nevertheless, the basic premise of his career was that slavery and white supremacy, for all their fearsome might, could be defeated through a political struggle that transcended racial and regional divisions. Only a broad popular movement, led by an abolitionist vanguard but embracing “the masses at the North,” could overthrow “the slave-holding oligarchy” and establish a government truly devoted to liberty and equality for all.