Letter to William Lloyd Garrison (February 26, 1846)

Frederick Douglass

Citation Information:  Frederick Douglass, [Letter], Montrose, [Scotland], February 26, 1846. To William Lloyd Garrison. Foner, Philip (ed). Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass. New York: International Publishers, 1950. Vol. I, p. 138.

Frederick Douglass
Montrose, [Scotland]
February 26, 1846

To William Lloyd Garrison

My dear Friend Garrison:

  1. In my letter to you from Belfast, I intimated my intention to say something more about Ireland; and although I feel like fulfilling my promise, the Liberator comes to me so laden with foreign correspondence, that I feel some hesitancy about increasing it. I shall, however, send you this, and if it is worth a place in your columns, I need not tell you to publish it. It is the glory of the Liberator, that in it the oppressed of every class, color and clime, may have their wrongs fully set forth, and their rights boldly vindicated. Your brave assertion of its character in your last defense of free discussion, has inspired me with a fresh love for the Liberator. Though established for the overthrow of the accursed slave system, it is not insensible to other evils that afflict and blast the happiness of mankind. So also, though I am more closely connected and identified with one class of outraged, oppressed and enslaved people, I cannot allow myself to be insensible to the wrongs and sufferings of any part of the great family of man. I am not only an American slave, but a man, and as such, am bound to use my powers for the welfare of the whole human brotherhood. I am not going through this land with my eyes shut, ears stopped, or heart steeled. I am seeking to see, hear and feel, all that may be seen, heard and felt; and neither the attentions I am receiving here, nor the connections I hold to my brethren in bonds, shall prevent my disclosing the results of my observation. I believe that the sooner the wrongs of the whole human family are made known, the sooner those wrongs will be reached. I had heard much of the misery and wretchedness of the Irish people, previous to leaving the United States, and was prepared to witness much on my arrival in Ireland. But I must confess, my experience has convinced me that the half has not been told. I supposed that much that I heard from the American press on this subject was mere exaggeration, resorted to for the base purpose of impeaching the characters of British philanthropists, and throwing a mantle over the dark and infernal character of American slavery and slaveholders. My opinion has undergone no change in regard to the latter part of my supposition, for I believe a large class of writers in America, as well as in this land, are influenced by no higher motive than that of covering up our national sins, to please popular taste, and satisfy popular prejudice; and thus many have harped upon the wrongs of Irishmen, while in truth they care no more about Irishmen, or the wrongs of Irishmen, than they care about the whipped, gagged, and thumb-screwed slave. They would as willingly sell on the auction-block an Irishman, if it were popular to do so, as an African. For heart, such men have adamant—for consciences, they have public opinion. They are a stench in the nostrils of upright men, and a curse to the country in which they live. The limits of a single letter are insufficient to allow any thing like a faithful description of those painful exhibitions of human misery, which meet the eye of a stranger almost at every step. I spent nearly six weeks in Dublin, and the scenes I there witnessed were such as to make me “blush, and hang my head to think myself a man.” I speak truly when I say, I dreaded to go out of the house. The streets were almost literally alive with beggars, displaying the greatest wretchedness—some of them mere stumps of men, without feet, without legs, without hands, without arms—and others still more horribly deformed, with crooked limbs, down upon their hands and knees, their feet lapped around each other, and laid upon their backs, pressing their way through the muddy streets and merciless crowd, casting sad looks to the right and left, in the hope of catching the eye of a passing stranger—the citizens generally having set their faces against giving to beggars. I have had more than a dozen around me at one time, men, women and children, all telling a tale of woe which would move any but a heart of iron. Women, barefooted and bareheaded, and only covered by rags which seemed to be held together by the very dirt and filth with which they were covered—many of these had infants in their arms, whose emaciated forms, sunken eyes and pallid cheeks, told too plainly that they had nursed till they had nursed in vain. In such a group you may hear all forms of appeal, entreaty, and expostulation. A half a dozen voices have broken upon my ear at once: “Will your honor please to give me a penny to buy some bread?” “May the Lord bless you, give the poor old woman a little sixpence.” “For the love of God, leave us a few pennies—we will divide them amongst us.” “Oh! my poor child, it must starve, for God’s sake give me a penny. More power to you! I know your honor will leave the poor creature something. Ah, do! ah, do! and I will pray for you as long as I live.” For a time I gave way to my feelings, but reason reminded me that such a course must only add another to the already long list of beggars, and I was often compelled to pass, as if I heeded not and felt not. I fear it had a hardening effect upon my heart, as I found it much easier to pass without giving to the last beggar, than the first. The spectacle that affected me most, and made the most vivid impression on my mind, of the extreme poverty and wretchedness of the poor of Dublin, was the frequency with which I met little children in the street at a late hour of the night, covered with filthy rags, and seated upon cold stone steps, or in corners, leaning against brick walls, fast asleep, with none to look upon them, none to care for them. If they have parents, they have become vicious, and have abandoned them. Poor creatures! they are left without help, to find their way through a frowning world—a world that seems to regard them as intruders, and to be punished as such. God help the poor! An infidel might ask, in view of these facts, with confusing effect—Where is your religion that takes care for the poor—for the widow and fatherless—where are its votaries—what are they doing? The answer to this would be, if properly given, wasting their energies in useless debate on hollow creeds and points of doctrine, which, when settled, neither make one hair white nor black. In conversation with some who were such rigid adherents to their faith that they would scarce be seen in company with those who differed from them in any point of their creed, I have heard them quote the text in palliation of their neglect, “The poor shall not cease out of the land”! During my stay in Dublin, I took occasion to visit the huts of the poor in its vicinity—and of all places to witness human misery, ignorance, degradation, filth and wretchedness, an Irish hut is pre-eminent. It seems to be constructed to promote the very reverse of every thing like domestic comfort. If I were to describe one, it would appear about as follows: Four mud walls about six feet high, occupying a space of ground about ten feet square, covered or thatched with straw—a mud chimney at one end, reaching about a foot above the roof—without apartments or divisions of any kind—without floor, without windows, and sometimes without a chimney—a piece of pine board laid on the top of a box or an old chest— a pile of straw covered with dirty garments, which it would puzzle any one to determine the original part of any one of them—a picture representing the crucifixion of Christ, pasted on the most conspicuous place on the wall—a few broken dishes stuck up in a corner—an iron pot, or the half of an iron pot, in one corner of the chimney—a little peat in the fireplace, aggravating one occasionally with a glimpse of fire, but sending out very little heat—a man and his wife and five children, and a pig. In front of the door-way, and within a step of it, is a hole three or four feet deep, and ten or twelve feet in circumference; into this hole all the filth and dirt of the hut are put, for careful preservation. This is frequently covered with a green scum, which at times stands in bubbles, as decomposition goes on. Here you have an Irish hut or cabin, such as millions of the people of Ireland live in. And some live in worse than these. Men and women, married and single, old and young, lie down together, in much the same degradation as the American slaves. I see much here to remind me of my former condition, and I confess I should be ashamed to lift up my voice against American slavery, but that I know the cause of humanity is one the world over. He who really and truly feels for the American slave, cannot steel his heart to the woes of others; and he who thinks himself an abolitionist, yet cannot enter into the wrongs of others, has yet to find a true foundation for his anti-slavery faith. But, to the subject.
  2. The immediate, and it may be the main cause of the extreme poverty and beggary in Ireland, is intemperance. This may be seen in the fact that most beggars drink whiskey. The third day after landing in Dublin, I met a man in one of the most public streets, with a white cloth on the upper part of his face. He was feeling his way with a cane in one hand, and the other hand was extended, soliciting aid. His feeble step and singular appearance led me to inquire into his history. I was informed that he had been a very intemperate man, and that on one occasion he was drunk, and lying in the street. While in this state of insensibility, a hog with its fangs tore off his nose, and a part of his face! I looked under the cloth, and saw the horrible spectacle of a living man with the face of a skeleton. Drunkenness is still rife in Ireland. The temperance cause has done much—is doing much—but there is much more to do, and, as yet, comparatively few to do it. A great part of the Roman Catholic clergy do nothing about it, while the Protestants may be said to hate the cause. I have been frequently advised to have nothing to do with it, as it would only injure the anti-slavery cause. It was most consoling to me to find that those persons who were most interested in the anti-slavery cause in the United States, were the same that distinguished themselves as the truest and warmest advocates of temperance and every other righteous reform at home. It was a pleasure to walk through the crowd with gentlemen such as the Webbs, Allens and Haughtons, and find them recognized by the multitude as the friends of the poor. My sheet is full.

Always yours,

Frederick Douglass

The Liberator, March 27, 1846