Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Giant's Causeway

Giant's Causeway: Frederick Douglass's Irish Odyssey and the Making of an American Visionary

Tom Chaffin
Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 368
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Giant's Causeway
    Book Description:

    In 1845, seven years after fleeing bondage in Maryland, Frederick Douglass was in his late twenties and already a celebrated lecturer across the northern United States. The recent publication of his groundbreakingNarrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slavehad incited threats to his life, however, and to place himself out of harm's way he embarked on a lecture tour of the British Isles, a journey that would span seventeen months and change him as a man and a leader in the struggle for equality.

    In the first major narrative account of a transformational episode in the life of this extraordinary American, Tom Chaffin chronicles Douglass's 1845-47 lecture tour of Ireland, Scotland, and England. It was, however, the Emerald Isle, above all, that affected Douglass--from its wild landscape ("I have travelled almost from the hill of 'Howth' to the Giant's Causeway") to the plight of its people, with which he found parallels to that of African Americans. Writing in theSan Francisco Chronicle,critic David Kipen has called Chaffin a "thorough and uncommonly graceful historian." Possessed of an epic, transatlantic scope, Chaffin's new book makes Douglass's historic journey vivid for the modern reader and reveals how the former slave's growing awareness of intersections between Irish, American, and African history shaped the rest of his life.

    The experience accelerated Douglass's transformation from a teller of his own life story into a commentator on contemporary issues--a transition discouraged during his early lecturing days by white colleagues at the American Anti-Slavery Society. ("Give us the facts," he had been instructed, "we will take care of the philosophy.") As the tour progressed, newspaper coverage of his passage through Ireland and Great Britain enhanced his stature dramatically. When he finally returned to America he had the platform of an international celebrity.

    Drawn from hundreds of letters, diaries, and other primary-source documents--many heretofore unpublished--this far-reaching tale includes vivid portraits of personages who shaped Douglass and his world, including the Irish nationalists Daniel O'Connell and John Mitchel, British prime minister Robert Peel, abolitionist John Brown, and Abraham Lincoln.

    Giant's Causeway--which includes an account of Douglass's final, bittersweet, visit to Ireland in 1887--shows how experiences under foreign skies helped him hone habits of independence, discretion, compromise, self-reliance, and political dexterity. Along the way, it chronicles Douglass's transformation from activist foot soldier to moral visionary.

    eISBN: 978-0-8139-3611-6
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-x)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. xi-xii)
  3. PREFACE: Great Brunswick Street
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
    (pp. xvii-xxii)
    (pp. xxiii-xxxiv)
  6. [Map]
    (pp. xxxv-xxxvi)
  7. PROLOGUE: Commercial Wharf
    (pp. 1-6)

    Banish the notion, snapped the steamship company manager. It was Boston, August 1845, and James Needham Buffum, his Quaker temperament being put to the test, was in the office of Samuel Shaw Lewis, in Commercial Wharf, a long, five-story Greek Revival–style edifice of gray Massachusetts granite on the busy North End waterfront.

    Lewis, forty-six, was a handsome, clean-shaven man of aristocratic bearing. He was a native of nearby Plymouth, and his development of land, wharves, railroads, and other fixtures of this port had made him rich. Typifying that Midas touch, five years ago, he had brought to Boston the...

  8. PART I Republican Slavery to Monarchical Freedom, Atlantic World, August 1845

    • CHAPTER 1 “They Need No Credentials”
      (pp. 9-10)

      On August 11, days after James Buffum purchased the steamship tickets, he and Frederick Douglass were attending an abolitionist meeting in Lynn, Massachusetts, at which Douglass was to lecture. There, they encountered the Hutchinson Family Singers, neighbors in Lynn and old friends, who were at the gathering to perform.

      The brothers John, Jesse, Judson, and Asa and sister Abby—the family lineup in the act varied over time—were favorites on the abolitionist circuit. Jesse Hutchinson had long been affiliated with abolitionism, but it was only after meeting Douglass that other family members embraced the cause. The Hutchinsons had helped...

    • CHAPTER 2 RMS Cambria
      (pp. 11-21)

      The RMSCambria’s bell clanged across Boston Harbor through the summer’s haze of Saturday, August 16. Moments later, the whooshing revolutions of the ship’s paddle wheels, one on each bow side, rained cooling splatters of salt spray over the passengers crowded along the main deck’s rail. With that, the steamer commenced chugging northeasterly on her 2,800-mile course. Stem to stern, her wooden hull stretched 219 feet, with a 35-foot beam.

      Over six feet in height, Douglass towered over most passengers. He was handsome. He dressed well, appearing on the deck attired in a crisp white shirt and elegantly cut suit....

    • CHAPTER 3 “Throw Him Overboard”
      (pp. 22-31)

      Not everyone aboard the RMSCambriaadmired Frederick Douglass. Even as hisNarrativecirculated aboard the ship, so did another book published that same year. South Carolina governor James Hammond’sTwo Letters on Slavery in the United Statesdefiantly defended slavery (“anestablishedas well asinevitable condition of human society”). And during theCambria’s August crossing, among passengers who objected to Douglass’s views, Hammond’s book served as a counternarrative to the former slave’s memoir.

      “We had,” Douglass recalled, “nearly all sorts of parties in morals, religion, and politics, as well as trades, callings, and professions.” Numbering among the ship’s...

    • Illustration galleries
      (pp. None)
  9. PART II Ireland, August 1845–January 1846

    • CHAPTER 4 Dublin
      (pp. 35-40)

      On Tuesday, August 26, Captain Judkins informed theCambria’s passengers that, that evening, they would get their first glimpse of land since leaving Halifax. The announcement, John Hutchinson later recalled, “caused a small commotion on board, each one anxious to be the first one to discern it.” Sure enough, at 10:30 p.m., lights from Ireland’s southernmost coast pierced the night; on the following morning, August 27, “before breakfast we hailed the land with delight. It was the Emerald Isle; the mountains loomed up in their grandeur.” Still later that day, on the ship’s starboard, the Welsh coast floated into view....

    • CHAPTER 5 Friend Webb
      (pp. 41-47)

      Richard Webb’s home at 160 Great Brunswick Street, where Douglass and Buffum lived during their five weeks in Dublin, belonged to a neighborhood shared by homes and thriving businesses. In fact, Webb’s home on Great Brunswick—now Pearse—Street—adjoined the print shop, which he co-owned with his business partner, fellow Quaker Robert Chapman. Moreover, the Webb household and shop sat between coal merchants on either side. Other neighbors included a maker of billiard tables, oboe teachers, lawyers, and statuary manufacturers.

      Webb and Chapman had set up their print shop in a structure behind Webb’s home that had once been...

    • CHAPTER 6 A Storm over Drayton
      (pp. 48-53)

      On August 11, 1845, a week before Frederick Douglass and James Buffum sailed from Boston aboard the RMSCambria,Sir Robert Peel, the fifty-seven-year-old prime minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, still had his signature hawkish nose. But he no longer had the bright-red hair and chiseled chin of the young dashing politician he had once been. Still, neither age nor a few added pounds had taken the edge off Peel’s famous steely work ethic or his unshakable, Anglican-bred sense of obligation to his fellow man.

      Those circumstances explained why, that day, at his country estate...

    • CHAPTER 7 The Liberator
      (pp. 54-69)

      Whatever Frederick Douglass knew, if anything, of the destruction of Ireland’s potato crop in the early fall of 1845 remains unclear. His words, public and private, from those months contain few, if any, references to the destruction. To be sure, information concerning crop conditions tended to be localized and not widely disseminated; and none in Ireland foresaw the scale of the broader disaster that the crop failure portended.

      But, then again, during those months, Douglass was regularly interacting with prominent people who knew of the crop failure and, in many cases, were getting daily updates on it.¹ And it beggars...

    • CHAPTER 8 Cork
      (pp. 70-78)

      When, on Tuesday, October 7, Frederick Douglass and James Buffum, accompanied by Richard Webb, departed Dublin, summer’s brightness had surrendered to fall’s dwindling days, leaden skies, gusty winds, and slanting rains. As the men wandered south via horse and buggy, their clanking, bonerattling ride took them through the Wicklow Mountains that rise beside the Irish Sea.

      Passing through the forlorn, glacier-sculpted, granite uplands with their green, orange, and yellow splotches of bog, heath, and grassland, Douglass savored the remoteness. Away from Dublin’s glad-handers and bustle, he now could reflect on the past weeks and coming challenges: in Dublin, keeping his...

    • CHAPTER 9 The Apostle of Temperance
      (pp. 79-83)

      Now largely forgotten, Father Theobald Mathew, of Cork, ranked in 1845 among Ireland, Britain, and America’s most celebrated public figures. American abolitionists appreciated the fact that Mathew’s name had appeared as the second signatory, following Daniel O’Connell’s, on the 1841 “Address from the People of Ireland to Their Countrymen and Countrywomen in America,” circulated by the American Anti-Slavery Society. And it had been, in part, Mathew’s presence that, in September, led Douglass to the two temperance rallies he had attended, shortly after his arrival in Ireland, in the towns, near Dublin, of Celbridge and Booterstown.¹

      The temperance campaign—actually a...

    • CHAPTER 10 Limerick
      (pp. 84-93)

      As Frederick Douglass had assured an audience in Cork, although James Buffum was eager to speak against slavery while in the British Isles, he remained unbeholden to American benefactors. Buffum, Douglass said, “did not come on any mission; he came for the purpose of improving his mind by Foreign contact.” By those self-dictated terms, Buffum felt at liberty to improvise, to alter his itinerary at will. Thus, on October 21, he said good-bye to Cork; to his hosts, the Jennings family; and to Douglass.

      Buffum had found Cork welcoming. But, he told his hosts, he longed for Massachusetts. As Isabel...

    • CHAPTER 11 Belfast
      (pp. 94-101)

      Leaving Limerick in late November, Douglass returned to Dublin for a brief stay. There, from Webb, he obtained freshly printed copies of theNarrative.He also caught up with correspondence—including, on December 1, penning a thank-you letter to Thurlow Weed, editor of Albany, New York’sEvening Journal,for an article that defended Douglass’s behavior, months earlier, aboard theCambria:“In attempting to speak aboard the Cambria, I acted in accordance with a sense of duty and with no desire to wound or injure the feelings of any one on board,” he wrote. “My object was to enlighten such of...

    • CHAPTER 12 “The Half Has Not Been Told”
      (pp. 102-106)

      Before leaving Belfast, Douglass, writing to William Lloyd Garrison on January 1, gathered his impressions of Ireland. In the letter—soon published in theLiberator—he wrote: “My opportunities for learning the character and condition of the people of this land have been very great. I have travelled almost from the hill of ‘Howth’ to the Giant’s Causeway and from the Giant’s Causeway to Cape Clear.”

      Douglass otherwise left no accounts of his travels to those particular locales—respectively, in Dublin’s harbor, the northern coast of Ireland, and an island off the County Cork coast. And even if one accepts...

    • Illustration galleries
      (pp. None)
  10. PART III Britain, January 1846–April 1847

    • CHAPTER 13 Britain
      (pp. 109-117)

      In January 1846, leaving Belfast and Ireland, Frederick Douglass sailed to Scotland. There, Douglass reunited with James Buffum; in turn, they were soon joined by two other abolitionist orators—George Thompson and Henry Clarke Wright. Thompson, then forty-one, was a long-standing and close friend of Garrison. Self-educated and a brilliant orator, Thompson was deeply respected by abolitionists on both sides of the Atlantic. Beyond his work for the cause in his native England, he had conducted a fifteen-month U.S. lecture tour in the mid-1830s, during which he braved public hostility and frequent threats.

      The American Henry Clarke Wright was in...

    • CHAPTER 14 “Lonely Pilgrimage”
      (pp. 118-127)

      Over the summer of 1846, as Frederick Douglass roamed Britain, he was also reassessing plans. The tour he had been conducting for a full year now had arisen from concerns over his safety. In spring 1845, he and William Lloyd Garrison—fearful of growing threats against him after theNarrative’s publication—had deemed it prudent for him to leave the United States until publicity generated by the book waned. But word was now reaching Douglass that the tour, by keeping his name in the American press, was actually increasing his notoriety at home. Moreover, in theNarrativeand in public...

    • CHAPTER 15 RMS Cambria Redux
      (pp. 128-131)

      By early spring, Douglass knew in his bones that it was time to come home. On March 4, seeking to book return passage from Liverpool to Boston, he visited the London office of the RMSCambria’s owners—by then reorganized to form the Cunard line. Assuming the company’s racial restrictions remained in place and that he was eligible only for steerage passage, he asked the price of a ticket. The answer surprised him—forty pounds, nineteen pence. Assuming the agent was referring to the cost of first-class passage, Douglass clarified his question. He asked the cost for a second-class ticket....

    • CHAPTER 16 “This Piteous Storm”
      (pp. 132-138)

      Between January 1846, when Douglass left Belfast for England and Scotland, and April 1847, when he reboarded theCambriaat Liverpool, momentous events had transpired in North America and Europe. In April 1846, U.S. president James K. Polk—to consolidate his country’s claim on Mexico’s former province of Texas and in hopes of acquiring other Mexican territory—had committed the United States to a war against Mexico. The following June, ending widespread expectations of a U.S. war with Britain, Polk agreed to the Buchanan-Pakenham Treaty, which ended the two countries’ long-standing rivalry over the Oregon Country. The treaty established a...

  11. PART IV America, 1847–1865

    • CHAPTER 17 “I Am Now Buying Type”
      (pp. 141-149)

      Frederick Douglass had sailed from Liverpool on April 4, 1847. The crossing—during which he adhered to the Jim Crow strictures to which he had agreed—proceeded without a repetition of the sort of confrontation that had erupted during his earlier crossing aboard the same ship. Even so, his later recollections of his 1847 Boston-boundCambriavoyage contrast starkly with his comparatively sunny presentation of his outbound Atlantic crossing. “It was rather hard,” he recalled, “after having enjoyed nearly two years of equal social privileges in England, often dining with gentlemen of great literary, social, political and religious eminence—never,...

    • CHAPTER 18 “Mr. Editor, If You Please”
      (pp. 150-154)

      By Operating his own paper, Douglass could keep his words from being subject to the vagaries of other writers, editors, and publishers. Like other abolitionist papers, theNorth Staroffered modest editorial fare—four pages, each with six columns. Also like other antislavery papers, it ran reports on the activities of abolitionist societies, texts of speeches by antislavery members of Congress, as well as presidential addresses. And, typical of other papers of that era—abolitionist and general—theNorth Starroutinely reprinted materials from other publications.¹

      During that period, however, Douglass did not entirely forsake lecturing. Through the late 1840s,...

    • CHAPTER 19 “Ourselves Alone”
      (pp. 155-168)

      During the late 1840s, as Frederick Douglass toiled, in Rochester, to place hisNorth Staron a steady course, famine, across the broad Atlantic, continued to ravage Ireland. Once it became clear that more than unseasonable weather was affecting the potato crop, numerous Irish leaders had anticipated the scope of the disaster. But few, if any, held out serious hope that catastrophe could be averted. In Dublin in early 1846, the printer Richard Webb, with guarded optimism, had been following Prime Minister Robert Peel’s efforts in London to repeal the Corn Laws. Even so, Webb was by then already resigned...

    • CHAPTER 20 Self-Made Man
      (pp. 169-174)

      In late 1852, Julia Griffiths left the Douglass family’s household. Three years later, she left Rochester entirely. Ostensibly she returned to England to raise funds for theNorth Star.Truth be known, however, her departure resulted, in large part, from the pain of persistent rumors—many fostered by Garrison and his allies—of inappropriate relations between her and Douglass. The precise nature of their relationship remains unknown, but local speculation had commenced during the first months of her residency in Douglass’s home. In 1854, the reformer Caroline Healey Dall, after spending time with the two, confided to her journal: “I...

    • CHAPTER 21 “Abolition War”
      (pp. 175-183)

      As Frederick Douglass became increasingly embroiled in electoral politics, he supported, not without ambivalences, presidential candidates John Frémont in 1856 and Abraham Lincoln in 1860, nominees of the newly formed Republican Party. The Republicans had been organized from the remnants of the Whigs, the Free Soil, Liberty, and other reformist parties.¹

      Douglass aligned himself with the Republicans, in part, because of their abolitionist and free-soil elements; but his embrace of the new party also issued from his ongoing disdain of the Democrats, with their large Irish American constituencies. Even amid otherwise heady days for Republicans, he complained, Irish Americans continued...

    • Illustration galleries
      (pp. None)
  12. PART V Reckonings, Atlantic World and Beyond, 1865–1895

    • CHAPTER 22 “Traced Like a Wounded Man, by the Blood”
      (pp. 187-194)

      To his traveling companions, Daniel O’Connell, journeying across Europe in 1847, had instructed that if he died before reaching Rome, his heart was to be sent to Rome and placed in a silver urn, and his body returned to Ireland. Thus, following his death that May in Genoa, his heart was taken to Rome, and, on Monday, August 2, aboard the steamshipDuchess of Kent,a coffin bearing his body reached Dublin.

      Draped in red velvet, the coffin was, an observer noted, of “regal magnificence.” A silver plate affixed to its outside, translated from the Latin, read: “Daniel O’Connell, Ireland’s...

    • CHAPTER 23 Dénouements
      (pp. 195-206)

      To those whose lives, directly or otherwise, had intersected with Frederick Douglass’s, their later years brought a variety of fates. Former prime minister Robert Peel was spared the debilitating spiral of defeat that befell his nemesis Daniel O’Connell. Even so, after leaving 10 Downing Street in late June 1846, Peel’s days were numbered. He retained his seat in the House of Commons; and, over the coming three years, as a member of the Conservative opposition to Lord John Russell’s Whig government, he did his best to serve his party and the entire United Kingdom—including Ireland.

      Over those years, Peel’s...

    • CHAPTER 24 Janus Days
      (pp. 207-212)

      Like William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass puzzled over the challenge of finding a meaningful role for himself in Reconstruction era America. His children were grown. He no longer ran a newspaper, and he now, in theory, enjoyed the full rights of U.S. citizenship. New opportunities soon beckoned. Of course, he would continue to write for national publications such as theAtlantic Monthly.But, as a loyal Republican, he also considered—and soon rejected—suggestions that he move to the South and run for Congress. “That I did not yield to this temptation was not entirely due to my age,” he...

    • CHAPTER 25 A Height above the Work and the World
      (pp. 213-222)

      In January 1886, ten months into the administration of the Democratic president Grover Cleveland, Republican Frederick Douglass, at the new chief executive’s request, resigned his recorder of deeds post. Eight months later, never having taken a proper honeymoon, Douglass and his second wife, Helen, traveled to New York City. There they booked a first-class cabin aboard the Liverpool-bound steamerCity of Rome.Their plans called for an extended tour of the British Isles, the European Continent, and Egypt. For this Atlantic crossing, unlike those of 1845 and 1847, Frederick had had no trouble obtaining first-class tickets.

      Since the 1840s, Frederick’s...

    (pp. 223-224)
  14. NOTES
    (pp. 225-256)
    (pp. 257-272)
  16. INDEX
    (pp. 273-292)