Inculcated Forgetfulness at a New England Port

Frederick Douglass, ca. 1879. George K. Warren. (National Archives Gift Collection)

In the fall of 1865, Frederick Douglass riveted a small New England audience for more than two hours. Long forgotten, his so-called “extremely radical” lecture, “The Assassination of Lincoln and Its Lessons,” was held on short notice at a Methodist church that overlooked Gloucester’s harbor, about thirty miles north of Boston. Fragments of Douglass’s speech in two local papers hint at how he addressed a conflicted audience.1

Reeling from Lincoln’s assassination, Douglass toured the lecture circuit with a version of this speech for months. In Gloucester, his lecture had special resonance. For more than a century, Cape Ann captains and investors had established enduring relationships with their Southern counterparts in the “coasting trade.” Until the 1861 Confederate port blockade put an end to it, Cape Ann cotton packets sailed regularly to New York, Charleston, Savannah, New Orleans, and often onto English ports.

During the Civil War, Douglass had called out New Yorkers who had engaged in the same slavery-dependent trade. He calculated that the price extracted from the Northern merchant by “the imperious exactions of an insolent slaveholding oligarchy [was selling] their souls as a condition precedent to selling their goods.”2 Now that the “abolition war” was over, Douglass suspected that Gloucester shippers intended to resume Southern business and refresh Southern relationships.

In the fall of 1865, when Douglass spoke, the Thirteenth Amendment had not yet been ratified and its future was in peril. These “murderers of our sons, brothers, and fathers—are the men,” he said, whose “plantations are being restored to them—from which the freedmen are being driven; these are the men to whom the reins of government in these States are given, and who are to make laws for the South.” The gentlemen planters, contracting once again with Northern mills, appeared unstoppable in their unapologetic quest for quasi-free labor. “I believe that we are on the verge, my friends, of being surrendered to the conquered rebels.”

Gloucester had enlisted more than 1,200 men and sacrificed 132 men for the Union.3 Yet support for Black rights and suffrage was still precarious at this Northern port. Numerous Gloucester families had held slaves in the middle decades of the eighteenth century. Although people of color were almost entirely absent by then, belittling accounts of several of the enslaved Africans that continued to circulate in print.

Douglass had probably heard about the town’s harsh attitudes towards African Americans directly from Gloucester-born Black abolitionists Thomas Dalton and Nancy Gardner Prince and Salem-born Charles L. Remond. No doubt, Douglass discussed Gloucester’s hostile response to antislavery talks given in the 1840s and 50s by Garrisonians such as Parker Pillsbury and Daniel Foster. He probably recalled that his own newspaper printed the news that when Gloucester Captain Babson found a man hidden aboard his cotton-laden ship, he returned him to slavery.4 In 1861, a town-wide resolution supported both the Union as well as the rights of slaveowners to their property. And in 1863, forty-three Cape Ann citizens signed an exclusion petition to prevent more “colored persons” from settling in Massachusetts.

Surely Douglass was aware that some eight months into the Civil War, Parker Pillsbury’s antislavery lecture was smoke bombed at a local church, a few blocks from a cotton mill, the largest manufactory on Cape Ann. At the time of Douglass’ appearance, the mill was completing a large expansion.

Taking his place at the pulpit, Douglass faced those Gloucester citizens with social, economic, or kin ties to the South. They should be wary of welcoming the perfidious cotton merchants too easily, of resuming “fraternal relations,” and of getting back to business too soon.

 “. . . the faculty of memory does not seem to be very strong in our day . . . We have even inculcated forgetfulness as a duty. I call to mind the character of the men with whom we are about to resume fraternal relations. Treason is forgiven and forgotten.”

Already, said Douglass, the minister Henry Ward Beecher, well known in Gloucester, had joined President Johnson in a “forgiving and forgetting mood.” But the dangerous embrace of former foes who refused to repent would defile the nation.

We are a great people, a noble people. But great and noble as we are, we are unable to bear the stigma that we shall bring upon ourselves if we remember our enemies and forget our friends; if we enfranchise our enemies and disfranchise our friends; if we elevate our enemies and depress our friends; if we arm our enemies and disarm our friends.

Now was the time, he said, to support Negro suffrage earned by “blackmen whose iron arms and steel fingers stood up in defense of our flag.” It was time to root out all vestiges of slavery, all discriminatory laws, and all injustice for even the “poorest negro.” Otherwise, the slavocracy would reemerge unimpeded and prejudice would regenerate, leaving a barbarous legacy for succeeding generations.

“We commit a great mistake if we do not now and forever settle the negro question; we have got hold of it, and should settle it now and forever, in the light of our recent contest, and of justice, so that it may never again arise in any form.”

***

Two months after Douglass’s speech, Mississippi and Louisiana instituted Black Codes, forcing freedmen to continue to labor on plantations in conditions approximating slavery. Among their beneficiaries was the granddaughter of Gloucester-born Winthrop Sargent, the first Governor of the Mississippi Territories. Mary Sargent Duncan had married the son of perhaps the largest slave holder in the nation, a partner in a banking firm precursor to JP Morgan. In 1863, she argued that as a “long suffering—devoted Unionist” she should retain her family’s plantations and “negroes.” An investigation found her “hands” terrorized.5

At Gloucester, where the “fraternal” ties of North and South were twisted together among its most prominent families, Frederick Douglass’s disapproval of a dutiful “inculcated forgetfulness” was disregarded.

Consider the Sargent House Museum, the former home of Judith Sargent (Stevens) Murray, known best as an early advocate for women’s education. In her parlor, the white stone busts of Judith Sargent’s brother, the slave plantation owner Winthrop Sargent, and his granddaughter, Mary Sargent Duncan, are displayed along with portraits of other slave-labor profiting relatives and associates. They are glossed as gentlemen planters, wealthy merchants, and community leaders. Long overlooked are Judith Sargent Murray’s own letters, copied for posterity, where she wrote that she sold her two enslaved “lads” in Gloucester as late as 1783, and that she tried to recover her brother’s Mississippi slave when he fled while visiting Boston in September of 1807. Left largely unremarked is that Gloucester-born Sargent Murray spent her last years on her daughter’s Natchez plantation.6 Instead, the Museum’s well-meaning but shaky reconstruction of an abolitionist-leaning, all-white past predominates at a Northern port.

  1. Lecture of Frederick Douglass,” Cape Ann Light and Gloucester Telegraph, October 28, 1865, pp. 1, 2; Cape Ann Advertiser, Oct. 27, p 2.
  2. “The Mission of War,” January 13, 1864, in Lift Every Voice, African American Oratory 1787–1900, Philip S. Foner and Robert James Branham, eds. (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1998), p. 420.
  3.  Gloucester City Archivist, Sarah Dunlap, email, Jan. 12, 1018. About 1,260 men enlisted. The total population in Gloucester was almost 11,000 in 1860. https://www.census.gov/population/www/documentation/twps0027/tab09.txt
  4.  The North Star, November 10, 1848, p. 2. The Gloucester papers ignored the news.
  5. Mary Duncan, Staten Island, NY, May 30, 1863 to Edwin Stanton. The investigating officer was advised to return improperly confiscated property in order “to protect our friends.” See Berlin, Ira, ed. Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861–1867. Selected from the Holdings of the National Archives of the United States. Series II: The Black Military Experience. “Absentee Mississippi and Louisiana Planter to Secretary of War.” (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), pp. 707-709; Cf. Stephen Duncan’s reference to “our slaves” in a subsequent letter to Mary Duncan. https://www.loc.gov/resource/mal.2582400/?sStephen; Duncan to Mary Duncan, August 25, 1863, Abraham Lincoln Papers: Series 1. General Correspondences, 1833-1916.
  6. Papers of Judith Sargent Murray. Letter 312, To Madame Walker, October 8, 1783; Microfilm Roll 1; Letter To My Friend, My Sister, Oct. 5, 1807, p. 82; Roll 4, (Mississippi Dept. of Archives and History). Sargent House Museum Guide, 2015. Unpublished guide to the collections for docents and interns. Sargent House Museum website, https://www.sargenthouse.org/about.
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Lise Breen

Lise Breen is an independent researcher in Gloucester, Massachusetts. She is currently at work on a manuscript on Cape Ann's citizens' practice of slavery, their participation in the mid-nineteenth century, international slave trade, and their responses to the abolition movement. Lise holds a Masters in Anthropology from New York University and co-authored Objects of Myth and Memory: American Indian Art at The Brooklyn Museum. Lise formerly served on the Board of the Sargent House Museum.

Comments on “Inculcated Forgetfulness at a New England Port

  • In the nation’s capital, our Congress held a hearing yesterday on Restitution. Four hundred years of slavery, of importing free enslaved labor, or laws designating black humans as “property” not “people,” has built the banks and the corporations that continue today. I am not surprised that one of them was the forerunner of JP Morgan. Lise Breen refuses to whitewash history. Ten years ago when I first heard the stories from her research, I found them unbelievable. But then they were true. We cannot become an honorable nation until we are as honest and unflinching as this researcher. Great harm was done when we allowed centuries of otherwise often good and hard work to be built upon such an immoral foundation. The first step is to own up to it.

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