Item #368493 Autograph letter signed, to an unnamed recipient, responding to his query about the role of the Society of Friends in the abolition movement. Frederick Douglass.
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Autograph letter signed, to an unnamed recipient, responding to his query about the role of the Society of Friends in the abolition movement.

Washington, D.C: February 9, 1885.

Price: $25,000.00

About the item

1p., ruled paper. 9-1/4 x 5-7/8 inches. Old folds, pin hole at top. Later owner's pencil notations on verso.

Item #368493

Although the Society of Friends were among the first to condemn slavery on moral and religious grounds in the second half of the 18th century, by the rise of the abolition movement in the 1830s its stance became more complicated. Realizing the divisiveness of the issue, and the potential, indeed inevitability, of violence between pro- and antislavery supporters, the Society of Friends refused to take an official position on the matter. Indeed, beginning around 1840, New York and New England meetings refused to allow antislavery speakers, with the Westbury Meeting, for example, uninviting Frederick Douglass from speaking at a meeting in 1849. Beyond being conflicted about causing disagreement over slavery, on religious grounds the Society felt that it was unclear if slavery was the will of man or the will of God and was unsure how to navigate the tension when two people heard the will of God in opposite messages.

That said, individual members of the Society of Friends had proven, since the 18th century, as among the most ardent of abolitionists, with many of the early societies composed largely of Quakers. Furthermore, Quakers served an outsized role in assisting fugitive slaves as stops on the underground railroad. Individual actions of members that did not co-opt others and left decisions up to each person were allowed and encouraged by the Meetings. However, "advocacy, agitation, and overt action, particularly in cooperation with non-Friends, were frowned upon" (Gretchen Haynes, "The Conflict over Abolition Activism" Friends Journal, March 1, 2004).

At the time of writing this letter, Douglass was living in Washington, D.C., serving as recorder of deeds. The mid-1880s was a time of retrospection about the Civil War, with various anniversary celebrations and memorials being held with some frequency. Evidently replying to an inquiry about the role of the Society of Friends in the abolition movement, writing just a couple months shy of the twentieth anniversary of the end of the Civil War, Douglass penned, in his typical direct and honest prose:
"The Society of Friends was opposed to cooperating with the abolition movement and to that extend made themselves liable to be called pro slavery. Individual members of the Society however were among the most devoted and self sacrificing members of outside antislavery societies. The Yearly Meeting of Friends at Richmond Ind.[iana] invited Henry Clay, a noted slaveholder of his time to occupy its high seats, an act which brought great scandal on the society as giving aid and comfort to slavery. Pardon brevity"

The incident with Henry Clay was recounted by Douglass in his third autobiography, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881): "At our first meeting we were mobbed, and some of us had our good clothes spoiled by evil-smelling eggs. This was at Richmond, where Henry Clay had been recently invited to the high seat of the Quaker meeting-house just after his gross abuse of Mr. Mendenhall, because of the latter presenting to him a respectful petition, asking him to emancipate his slaves."

A scarce letter by Douglass commenting on the movement for the abolition of slavery.