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Frederick Douglass corrects an "injustice" done to Robert C. Winthrop

Letter from Frederick Douglass to Robert C. Winthrop, Jr., 3 March 1882

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In 1881, Frederick Douglass published a revised version of his autobiography, the Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. In it, he was very critical of Robert C. Winthrop's role during the Civil War, but in this March 1882 letter to Winthrop's son, Robert C. Winthrop, Jr., Douglass apologizes for the "injustice" he had done to the elder Winthrop's reputation, and promised to "redress this wrong" in future editions of his Life and Times.

In his memoirs, Douglass recollected that in 1865, he had shared a speaking platform at Faneuil Hall in Boston with Winthrop to celebrate the capture of Richmond and the collapse of the Confederacy. Douglass wrote scornfully of Winthrop's late "conversion" to the Union cause during the Civil War. He compared the "aristocratic" Winthrop, a former speaker of the house and senator in the United Sates Congress, unfavorably to the late Henry Wilson, a rough-hewn shoemaker who had risen up to represent Massachusetts in the senate and who died in office as vice president of the United States. Douglass reflected that while:

 

Regiment after regiment, brigade after brigade, had passed over Boston Common to endure the perils and hardships of war... a word from Winthrop [a celebrated public speaker] would have gone far to nerve up those young soldiers going forth to lay down their lives for the life of the republic; [but] no word came. Yet now, in the last quarter of the eleventh hour, when the day's work was near done, Robert C. Winthrop was seen standing upon the same platform with the veteran Henry Wilson.

 

Unfortunately, Douglass' opinion of Winthrop had been shaped by the latter's opposition to the anti-slavery movement and his support for George B. McClellan in the 1864 presidential election, rather than Winthrop's actual role as a strong supporter of the Union cause. In fact, Winthrop had done exactly what Douglass accused him of not doing; he had delivered speeches when Massachusetts regiments received their colors or departed for the front.

As the letter indicates, an examination of Winthrop's published speeches made this point clear and Douglass, true to his word, revised his text, first by adding a chapter note apologizing for his mischaracterization of Winthrop, and later by substantially modifying--reversing--his description of Winthrop's role during the Civil War in later editions of his Life and Times:

 

For, when the Union needed him, and all others, as the slaveholding rebellion was raising its defiant head...the beloved Winthrop, the proud representative of what Daniel Webster once called the "solid men of Boston," showed that he was not prepared to sacrifice his patriotism to party. He made the loyal cause his own.

 

Douglass did retain an ironic anecdote about how, twenty-five years before they spoke together in Boston, during Douglass' fugitive slave days in New Bedford, he had been a waiter at a dinner for Winthrop. In his diary, Winthrop recorded his impression of the 1865 Faneuil Hall program: while he did not believe that he had ever seen Douglass before, he thought that Douglass had done well. "It was an odd company for me," the conservative Winthrop wrote, "but I can rejoice at the success of Union arms in any company."

Frederick Douglass

After escaping from slavery in 1838, twenty-year-old Frederick Bailey settled in New Bedford where he took the name Douglass to conceal his identity as a fugitive slave, although he soon became an active abolitionist and antislavery lecturer. The publication of his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass in 1845, and a subsequent tour of Europe brought him international celebrity; see the online display of a photograph of Frederick Douglass. In 1847 Douglass moved to Rochester, New York, where he published the abolitionist journal, the North Star, but he retained strong personal and political connections to the Bay State, and returned to Boston many times. During the Civil War, he served as a recruiting agent for Massachusetts when it became the first state to enlist African-American soldiers in the North; two of his sons served in the famous Massachusetts 54th Infantry Regiment.

Robert C. Winthrop

Born in Boston in 1809, Robert C. Winthrop was a direct descendent of a founder of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Governor John Winthrop. A graduate of Harvard College, Winthrop studied law with Daniel Webster. He served in the Massachusetts legislature before his election in 1840 to the House of Representatives in the United States Congress. In 1847, he became Speaker of the House, even though his compromise stand on the extension of slavery to the Western territories had divided the Whig Party. In 1850, Winthrop was appointed to fill Daniel Webster's seat in the United States Senate, but the Massachusetts legislature, like the country, had become bitterly divided over slavery, and refused to re-elect him to the Senate, or to elect him governor when he did not receive a majority of the popular vote in the 1851 gubernatorial contest.

Although he did not seek political office again, Winthrop remained active in public life as a public speaker, antiquarian, and philanthropist. After the Civil War, he promoted education in the South through the Peabody Education Fund; Winthrop University, founded as a training school for teachers in Rocky Point, South Carolina, is named for him. He was a member of the Massachusetts Historical Society from 1839 until his death in 1894, serving as president of the Society for thirty years.

For Further Reading

Douglass, Frederick. Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, Written by Himself. Hartford: Park Publishing Co., 1881.

Douglass, Frederick. The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, From 1817 to 1882, Written by Himself. London: Christian Age Office, 1882.

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave Written by Himself. Boston: Anti-Slavery Office, 1845.

Mayo, Lawrence S. The Winthrop Family in America. Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1948.

Winthrop, Robert C. Addresses and Speeches on Various Occasions. Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1852-1886. 4 vol.; vol. 2 contains Winthrop's Civil War speeches.

Winthrop, Robert C., Jr. A Memoir of Robert C. Winthrop. Prepared for the Massachusetts Historical Society. Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1897.