In August 1845 Frederick Douglass began what proved to be a nearly two-year-long tour of Ireland, Scotland, and England. Just twenty-seven years old, Douglass had escaped from slavery seven years earlier and had been speaking at abolitionist meetings for four years. In May 1845 his autobiography--The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave--appeared in print and created an instant sensation, selling 4,500 copies in the first three months. (1) At once Douglass became one of the leading antislavery voices in the nation.
The attention that Douglass received was deeply disturbing to his friend and mentor in the antislavery movement, William Lloyd Garrison. As an escaped slave, Douglass could be captured and returned to his former master in Maryland. Garrison urged Douglass to leave the country and not return until the furor sparked by the Narrative had subsided. Douglass concurred and decided to tour Great Britain, which had a strong network of antislavery organizations, a number of which had close ties to Garrison's American Anti-Slavery Society (AAAS). (2) The journey would have a dramatic impact on Douglass: He would leave Ireland much more self-assured, and with a new political vision that would start to set him apart from Garrison.
Douglass set sail from Boston to Liverpool on the Cambria in the company of James Buffum, a white carpenter from Lynn, Massachusetts, who was closely allied with Garrison. The two were forced to travel in steerage because of Douglass's race. Undaunted, Douglass went on deck whenever he got the chance and spoke about slavery to anyone who would listen. Near the end of the trip, the captain invited him to address the passengers on the subject. In his lecture, Douglass sharply criticized the American government and then began reading excerpts from various Southern slave statutes. His statements so antagonized some of the Americans on board that they started to riot. A couple of men whom Douglass described as being "under the inspiration of slavery and brandy" threatened to throw him overboard. (3) Before order was restored, the captain punched one of Douglass's hecklers in the face and threatened to put another in chains. (4)
The ship docked in Liverpool the following day without any further incident, but Douglass was still livid. As soon as he and Buffum reached Dublin, he wrote a long letter to Garrison informing him that he was "now safe in old Ireland, in the beautiful city of Dublin" in spite of the best efforts of a "real American, republican, democratic, Christian mob" to thwart him. (5) In the weeks to come, Douglass would repeatedly contrast "Old Ireland" and "monarchical England" with the democratic, slave-owning American Republic. (6)
In Dublin, Douglass and Buffum boarded with Richard D. Webb and his family. Webb was a Quaker abolitionist and good friend of Garrison. (7) Best of all for Douglass, Webb was a publisher who was eager to print thousands of copies of the Narrative for Irish readers. (8) Webb was also willing to coordinate Douglass's schedule and shepherd...