Happy Birthday, John Jones!

John Jones, portrait by Mosher & Baldwin, 1882, courtesy of the Chicago History Museum

When I visited Springfield, Illinois last summer, I found a very interesting plaque at the Old State House downtown. It told the story of John Jones and his activism against Illinois’s Black Laws, a set of legal codes that pertained only to black people, and, as you likely and immediately supposed,  were terribly oppressive. Such laws have a long history in the United States and as long as they’ve been around, lovers of justice have been around to fight them. John Jones was one such person.

Born on November 3rd, 1816 to an American black mother and German white father, Jones had to make his own way early in the world. Jones’ mother did not trust his father to do right by his son so she apprenticed him to a tailor when he was very young. The resourceful Jones taught himself to read and write and, having learned what he needed to, he released himself from the tailor’s service by age 27. He then obtained official free papers for himself and his wife, née Mary Jane Richardson, and secured their freedom to live and travel by posting a $1,000 bond in 1844. While he and his wife were both born free, they had to worry about the numerous ‘fugitive’ slave catchers and kidnappers prowling around, all too happy to capture as many black persons as they could get ahold of, passing them off as escaped slaves in exchange for a substantial payoff.

The Joneses moved to Chicago from Alton, Illinois in 1845, where there was an established community of black entrepreneurs and therefore, more opportunities for families such as theirs. Jones worked hard and savvily, building up a very successful tailoring business and amassing an impressive fortune within just a few years. The Joneses used their success to help their fellow black citizens, making their home one of the key Chicago stops on the Underground Railroad. Jones poured much of his money and time into civil rights activism, working for the abolitionist cause and to overturn the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and the already decades-old Black Laws of Illinois, sometimes with his fellow autodidact and activist Frederick Douglass. For the rest of his life, Jones was a prominent intellectual, moral, religious, and political leader in the black community of Chicago and beyond.

Learn more about the courageous civil rights leader John Jones at:

John Jones (1816–1879): Activist, politician, tailor, entrepreneur  ~ by Jessie Carney Smith for Encyclopedia.com

Jones, John ~ by Cynthia Wilson for Blackpast.org

Historical placard for John Jones, Old State House, Springfield, Illinois

*A version of this piece was previously published at Ordinary Philosophy

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Happy Birthday, John Adams!

John Adams by John Trumbull, 1793, National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C.

Like many who watched the excellent 2008 miniseries John Adams with Paul Giamatti in the title role and Laura Linney as Abigail Adams, my interest in the United States’ second president increased quite a bit after watching it. And when I subsequently read John Ellis’ Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams, I found myself thoroughly engrossed. I read of a man who was brilliant, insecure, honest, vain, visionary, retrograde, loving, selfish… all character traits which I believe are often found in the most interesting and accomplished people. The same traits that drive people to do wonderful and unusual things are often the same as, or found in conjunction with, those which make people thoroughly insufferable. For example, the insecure egoist’s need to be loved and admired provides the drive for accomplishment, and those who are intelligent enough to surpass most others in this regard are also intelligent enough to recognize it, which can result in an overinflated ego. Perhaps because I don’t have to put up with him personally, I can freely admire and even feel affection for Adams as the sensitive, flawed human being  revealed in his massive correspondence; an egoist who nevertheless was obsessed with justice and did his best to see it done in the world, who sacrificed his own posterity and a second term in office to preserve his new country from the existential threat of an ill-conceived war; whose dignity was far too easily wounded but at times proved himself a loyal friend even to those that betrayed him – Thomas Jefferson being a prime example.

Americans may have more easily forgiven all of this if he hadn’t championed the Alien and Sedition Acts and signed them into law, parts of which are seen today as contrary to essential American principles. In his fear that the bond between the states in his newly united country would break apart under the strain of war and the spiraling controversies of party politics, Adams overreached. But his legacy shouldn’t be overshadowed by this one, though admittedly significant, mistake. As Ellis writes for Encyclopædia Britannica,

Although Adams was regarded by his contemporaries as one of the most significant statesmen of the revolutionary era, his reputation faded in the 19th century, only to ascend again during the last half of the 20th century. The modern edition of his correspondence prompted a rediscovery of his bracing honesty and pungent way with words, his importance as a political thinker, his realistic perspective on American foreign policy, and his patriarchal role as founder of one of the most prominent families in American history.

Learn more about the oh-so-human, brilliant president John Adams at:

John Adams ~ Miniseries by HBO, 2008

John Adams As He Lived: Unpublished Letters to Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse, Professor of Physic at Harvard College ~ published in The Atlantic, May 1927

John Adams: The Case of the Missing John Adams Monument ~ Lillian Cunningham for the Presidential podcast series presented by The Washington Post

John Adams: President of the United States ~ Joseph J. Ellis for Encyclopædia Britannica

Plain Speaking: In David McCullough’s Telling, the Second President is Reminiscent of the 33rd (Harry Truman) ~ by Pauline Maier for The New York Times: Books, May 27, 2001

Sorry, HBO. John Adams Wasn’t That Much of a Hero ~ Jack Rakove for The Washington Post, April 20, 2008

*A version of this piece was previously published at Ordinary Philosophy

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Happy Birthday, Erasmus!

Erasmus, from page 32 of The Century of Sir Thomas More by Benjamin Orange Flower, 1896, public domain via the British Library

Desiderius Erasmus (October 27, 1469 – July 12, 1536) was, by his own account, born in Rotterdam, Holland. His father was a priest and his mother the daughter of a physician, who, unsurprisingly, were not married. As a child of an illicit union, he had no apparent prospects for a successful worldly career, so he was initially educated for the life of a cleric. However, he was very unhappy during these early years of his education and training, feeling that the strict, narrowly constrained life didn’t suit him. Though he was ordained a priest, Erasmus later insisted he was pressured into doing so, likely because by that time he had long been an orphan of no means to speak of and so had no apparent alternative means of support.

Erasmus was, however, a very pious man, but in his own way. The Catholic Church, at this time, was seen by Erasmus and others of like mind as a decadent, corrupt, licentious institution in deep need of reform, as it had largely cast aside the pure, simple Christianity of its humble founder. Nevertheless, Erasmus’ reformist instincts did not ally him with those who wished to do away with the Catholic Church altogether: like his friend and protégé Thomas More, he saw the Church as a unified spiritual body that must be preserved. While he was sympathetic to Martin Luther’s impassioned and wholehearted rejection of ecclesiastical corruption, Erasmus rejected his views on the hopelessly sinful nature of humanity, so corrupt that goodness and redemption were dependent entirely on God’s grace. Erasmus contended that human beings had God-given free will, and thus were capable of goodness by exercising that will to choose good and reject evil. Erasmus also rejected Luther’s radical and wholesale rejection of the Church. Erasmus believed, rather, that reform would be achieved within its institutions by its conscientious members and through individual inner spiritual renewal, characterized by a life of love and humility in conjunction with a simple piety unconcerned with convoluted doctrines and earthly show.

Moriæ Encomium, or, In Praise of Folly by Desiderius Erasmus, page from J. Woodward’s 1709 English translation

The Church, Erasmus believed, would also hugely benefit from a greater focus on secular and classical learning. After all, the human mind was one of God’s greatest creations, so the products of human intelligence deserved attention and reverence second only to sacred writ. Besides, secular scholarship could act as a valuable corrective to theologians’ tendencies to get so wrapped up in fine points of doctrine that their convoluted wranglings served only to confuse and confound the faithful. These convictions, and his long and successful career as a scholar and writer inspired by them, made Erasmus the godfather and patron saint, so to speak, of humanism. Erasmus did not invent that school of thought, but he created so many seminal works in that genre that his name has come to be nearly synonymous with humanism. A brilliant and deeply read scholar, Erasmus’ incredible body of work included annotated translations of classical Greek and Roman works; theological treatises; collections of proverbs and adages; works on aesthetics, style, and writing; voluminous correspondence with the most learned scholars of his time; and much, much more. Erasmus’ most widely known and popular work, however, remains his In Praise of Folly. However brilliant Erasmus was otherwise, he was unsurpassed as a satirist, and he used his cutting wit as a reformist tool, arguably more effective and memorable than his erudition and most eloquent argument.

Despite Erasmus’ disadvantageous start in life in other ways, he made the most of the education he was fortunate to receive. Over the course of his long life, his dissatisfaction with monastic and court life and restless curiosity drove him to create a career as a man of letters on his own terms, seeking patrons that allowed him a career of as much intellectual freedom as the times would allow. Erasmus is often a slippery character, and his motivations and true convictions are hard to pin down, by design. He was least as pragmatic as he was idealistic, and however sharp and potentially dangerous his religious and political satire, he deftly avoided getting himself in trouble in the turbulent and dangerous era he lived in. Not so Erasmus’ friend and protégé More, whose similarly sharp wit and lawyerly skill did not sufficiently counteract his religiosity enough to avoid the chopping block.

Learn more about the brilliant and witty Erasmus by following the links below. I’ve included selections about Erasmus from a variety of religious publication as well which illustrate the mixed admiration and vexation that Erasmus’ idiosyncratic intellect and religiosity still inspire:

Desiderius Erasmus ~ by Erika Rummel for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Desiderius Erasmus ~ in New Advent’s Catholic Encyclopedia

Desiderius Erasmus ~ in Reformation500

Desiderius Erasmus (1468?—1536) ~ by Eric MacPhail for Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Desiderius Erasmus: Dutch Humanist and Scholar ~ by James D. Tracy for Encyclopædia Britannica

Erasmus ~ Melvin Bragg discusses Erasmus with Diarmaid MacCulloch, Eamon Duffy, and Jill Kraye for In Our Time

In Praise of Folly ~ by Desiderius Erasmus, with an introductory biography, Erasmus’ ‘Epistle to Sir Thomas More’, and illustrations by Hans Holbein at Project Gutenberg

The Praise of Folly ~ Nathan Gilmour, David Grubbs, and Michial Farmer discuss this work for The Christian Humanist Podcast

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O.P. Recommends: Patrick Deneen and Ezra Klein Discuss the Failures (and Successes?) of Liberalism

‘The Liberal Deviseth Liberal Things,’ memorial at St Bernard’s Well on the Water of Leith

I have not yet read the book and it may be some time before I get the opportunity, but as is the case so often these days as I work towards my doctorate degree, I rely on discussions with authors to keep up with what’s happening out there in the world of ideas. This little review is, therefore, of the ideas expressed in the context of this discussion only, not of those discussed in the context of the book.

Yesterday morning, as I walked to a class, I listened to this particularly fascinating discussion on Ezra Klein’s podcast: Patrick Deneen says liberalism has failed. Is he right?

Klein and Deneen base their discussion, in part, around the origins of classical liberal thinking, which include John Locke’s thought experiment regarding humankind ‘in the state of nature.’ This is the state of being prior to or outside civil government, and is a way to puzzle out which rights, if any, human beings have according to nature rather than according to civil law. Deneen points out, rightly I think, that this thought experiment is so artificial, so divorced from the actual reality of human nature, that it might lead to misleading results. Human nature, in fact, is bound up in ties to family, friends, society, the political sphere, and so on. To derive rights from the nature of the rootless individual is to derive them from a nature that is, well, not fully human. Liberalism, as Deneen defines it, is the prioritization of the rights and interests of the individual above all else, and points out that this is the central project of both the liberal and conservative parties of the United States. For the former, the personal and expressive life of the individual should suffer little interference from the state, and for the latter, the economic choices of the individual should suffer little such interference. Of course, this is a very rough characterization of the left-and-right political divide, and I suspect that Deneen would agree with my own observation that many on both sides of the political divide no longer seem to adhere very closely to these general principles.

As Klein points out, though there’s much to critique in Deneen’s views, his discussion of why so many people in liberal societies suffer loneliness, depression, alienation, addiction, suicide, and other ills, is often insightful and timely throughout. Deneen sees these as inevitable results of societal values that promote the rights and interests of the individual without sufficient, healthy checks on the single-minded pursuit of individual satisfaction and fulfillment. Human beings intimate ties to others to be happy and healthy, and it appears that without the corrective of social and spiritual concerns, the thoroughly liberal person (again, as Deneen defines it) may very well end up enslaved to the whims and vagaries of appetites, often unhealthy ones, unmoored from personal values or love and loyalty to others.

I consider myself more of a political liberal in many respects, and I felt myself recognizing that some of my reasons echo Deneen’s sentiments. For one, I believe that inherent to the ethos of personal responsibility, often cited as a core value of western conservatism, is taking individual responsibility for behaviors that contribute to larger problems. Further, if individuals continue to behave in a way that significantly erodes the healthy functioning of individuals, families, and societies, then people might have the right to demand that others change their behavior. For example, the degradation of ecosystems that sustain life, health, and happiness through thoughtless over-consumption is, then, it seems to me as it does to Deneen, at least as important a social issue as it is a moral and spiritual one. This is only one of the many matters on which Deneen, in this discussion, offers a timely and well-considered critique of many of the mores and practices the western world takes for granted.

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Happy Birthday, Philippa Foot!

‘Philippa Foot [, born on October 3rd, 1920, was] a philosopher who argued that moral judgments have a rational basis, and who introduced the renowned ethical thought experiment known as the Trolley Problem…’ William Grime’s New York Times obituary of this philosopher, far less widely known than she is influential, is an excellent introduction to the life and ideas of the brilliant Foot.

You can also learn more about Philippa Foot at

Is Goodness Natural? Philippa Foot was one of a group of brilliant women philosophers who swam against the tide of 20th-century moral thought ~ by Nakul Krishna for Aeon

Philippa Foot ~ by Martin L. White for Encyclopædia Britannica

Philippa Foot ~ Interview by Rick Lewis for Philosophy Now, conducted in the autumn of 2001

Philippa Foot (1920-2010) ~ by Lawrence Solum for Legal Theory Blog

Philippa Foot Obituary: A ‘Grande Dame of Philosophy’, She Pioneered Virtue Ethics – by Jane O’Grady for The Guardian, October 5th, 2010

Philippa Foot: Trolleys and Natural Goodness ~ by Edward Harcourt for Prospect magazine, Oct 7, 2010

Professor Philippa Foot: Philosopher Regarded as Being Among the Finest Moral Thinkers of the Age ~ by Peter J Conradi and Gavin Lawrence for The Independent, Oct 18th, 2010

and a multitude of citations in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entries

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Happy Birthday, Mahatma Gandhi!

Mahatma Gandhi spinning yarn in the late 1920's. Gandhi started the ultimate 'Shop Local' movement, in which he called on his fellow Indians to wear only homespun, locally made fabrics to counteract the British colonialist's exploitation of Indian textile worker

Mahatma Gandhi spinning yarn in the late 1920’s. Gandhi started the ultimate ‘Shop Local’ movement in which he called on his fellow Indians to wear only homespun, locally made fabrics to counteract British colonialist’s policies which impoverished and nearly destroyed India’s textile industry. I founded an apparel and accessory line and boutique in the early 2000’s based on the same principles, carrying only locally and US-made products as an alternative to buying goods made in overseas sweatshops whose workers were unprotected by labor laws. Gandhi’s and my own approach were nationalistic and protectionist, which I no longer believe goes far enough in promoting equal human rights for all. While such approaches may be a good place to start in some circumstances, a better way to go about improving the lives and prospects of workers around the world is to require our governments to institute more comprehensive labor laws and rigorously enforce them. This must include holding companies responsible for the abuses of their contractors, of course, to actually be effective. But Gandhi did, I think, point us down the right path, towards consciousness about what we buy, why we buy it, and how our market decisions effect others.

There are very few non-Americans, outside of our mother country of Britain and our godmother France, who have had a greater impact on the history of the United States and our attitudes towards human rights than the incomparable Mahatma Gandhi. For someone who preached simplicity, often wearing nothing but a loincloth, weaving his own fabric, and living a severely rustic lifestyle to exemplify his own teachings, Gandhi was a very complicated person.

He was a human rights activist, politician, journalist, social and religious reformer, and to many, a sort of messiah. Originally a British loyalist, Gandhi’s studies and personal observations led him to change his own views, often radically, many times over the course of his long life. His beliefs in the revolutionary and morally suasive power of civil disobedience and nonviolent resistance were and continue to be particularly influential in the United States, beginning with the mid-20th century civil rights movement. Martin Luther King, Jr, Gandhi’s intellectual and spiritual descendant, emerged as the leader of this movement following his role in the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott. King’s and Gandhi’s ideas about the civil disobedience and non-violence, in turn, both incorporate Henry David Thoreau’s ideas from his landmark essay ‘Civil Disobedience’.

Here are excerpts on Gandhi’s influence on the American civil rights movement from the encyclopedia of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University:

‘Upon his death, Mohandas K. Gandhi was hailed by the London Times as ‘‘the most influential figure India has produced for generations’’ (‘‘Mr. Gandhi’’). Gandhi protested against racism in South Africa and colonial rule in India using nonviolent resistance. A testament to the revolutionary power of nonviolence, Gandhi’s approach directly influenced Martin Luther King, Jr., who argued that the Gandhian philosophy was ‘‘the only morally and practically sound method open to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom’’ (Papers 4:478)…

Gandhi was born 2 October 1869, in Porbandar, in the western part of India, to Karamchand Gandhi, chief minister of Porbandar, and his wife Putlibai, a devout Hindu. At the age of 18, Gandhi began training as a lawyer in England. After completing his barrister’s degree he returned to India in 1891, but was unable to find well-paid work. In 1893, he accepted a one-year contract to do legal work for an Indian firm in South Africa, but remained for 21 years. It was in South Africa that Gandhi was first exposed to official racial prejudice, and where he developed his philosophy of nonviolent direct action by organizing the Indian community there to oppose race-based laws and socioeconomic repression.

Gandhi returned to India in 1914. In 1919, British authorities issued the Rowlatt Acts, policies that permitted the incarceration without trial of Indians suspected of sedition. In response, Gandhi called for a day of national fasting, meetings, and suspension of work on 6 April 1919, as an act of satyagraha (literally, truth-force or love-force), a form of nonviolent resistance. He suspended the campaign of nonviolent resistance a few days later because protestors had responded violently to the police.

Within the next few years, Gandhi reshaped the existing Indian National Congress into a mass movement promoting Indian self-rule through a boycott of British goods and institutions…’ (Continue reading)

I’ve included a list of links of many excellent online sources on Gandhi below, including journalist and social critic Christopher Hitchen’s critique. Gandhi did, at times, express ideas and make decisions that many regard as problematic to this day, such as his early rhetoric on black Africans and his relations with some of the women in his life, including his wife Kasturba. Gandhi was no plaster saint: like the rest of us, he struggled to find truth and meaning in a world of mutually contradictory yet worthy-seeming values, principles, and goals; sometimes, like the rest of us, he didn’t get it right, and sometimes, he was very, very wrong. True understanding, I believe, is never reached through uncritical hero worship, even of one as influential, internationally revered, and I believe ultimately beneficial to the intellectual, activist, and political history of human rights as Gandhi.

Appreciating Gandhi Through His Human Side ~ by Hari Kunzru for the New York Times‘ Books of the Times, Mar 29, 2011

Civil Disobedience ~ by Kimberley Brownlee for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Gandhi and Civil Disobedience ~ from the Constitutional Rights Foundation.

Gandhi the Philosopher: Better Known as the Face of Non-violent Protest, Gandhi Was Also a Surprising, Subtle Philosopher in the Stoic Tradition ~ by Richard Sorabji for Aeon

In Search of Gandhi ~ by Lalit Vachani, from BBC’s Radio Four Storyville Why Democracy? series

Life of Gandhi ~ a documentary by GandhiServe Foundation: Mahatma Gandhi Research and Media Service.

Gandhi, Mohandas Karamchand (1869-1948) and India Trip (1959)two entries from Martin Luther King, Jr. and The Global Freedom Struggle: Encyclopedia of the MLK Research and Education Institute at Stanford University

Mohandas Gandhi ~ by Salman Rushdie for Time magazine, Apr 13, 1998

The Real Mahatma Gandhi: Questioning the Moral Heroism of India’s Most Revered Figure ~ by Christopher Hitchens for The Atlantic, July/August 2011 issue.

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Frederick Douglass in Newcastle upon Tyne, England

Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle upon Tyne banner in the Library of the Great North Museum: Hancock, Newcastle, England

Wednesday, August 29th, 2018

Since my work on Frederick Douglass took me to the University of Edinburgh to live and study, I had expected to open my Douglass in the British Isles series in Edinburgh or at least one of the many cities in Scotland where Douglass traveled, lived, and worked. I have lots of that research already done and am raring to go. But there are some exciting things happening this fall and winter throughout Scotland in celebration of this bicentennial year of his birth that I’d like to include in my story, so I’m going to plan my trips around them and tell you all about that I’ve learned and experienced there. It just so happened, in the meantime, that I had the opportunity to travel to Newcastle for a couple of days. Since an especially important thing happened for Douglass in Newcastle, I decided to take the opportunity and start this series here.

I have a list of sites and events to explore for this story but my geographical information is very incomplete. So, I begin my inquiry at the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle upon Tyne. It’s located in the Library on the top floor of the Great North Museum: Hancock at Newcastle University. I head east and north from Newcastle Central Station, taking my time and exploring a bit along the way. I know that this journey will take me to sites that are all pretty centrally located since Newcastle was much smaller then, later growing outwards from the older parts of town in all directions. I check out many of the city’s major historical structures, the Castle and its Black Gate, the Cathedral Church of St. Nicholas, remaining sections of its ancient city walls, and Grey’s Monument, making mental notes of the layout of old Newcastle along the way. I veer east from the monument and eventually, I approach the University from King’s Walk and admire the Arches, which access the Quadrangle from King’s Road across from the end of the King’s Walk. It’s a handsome red brick, three-story building with lovely details topped by a castellated decorative roof. It was erected in 1911 when this place of learning was still called Armstrong College. I turn right at the King’s Road and continue past campus buildings, ascending a short rise across the road where, to my left, I find a classical, clean-lined cream stone building with ‘The Hancock Museum’ engraved in the grey stone-edged roof. I pass museum case after museum case, exhibit after exhibit, of all manner of things with of scientific, historic, and cultural interest. I make a mental note to make time to return next time I’m in town.

The Arches, King’s Road, Newcastle University

A few floors up, I find a small cozy library stuffed with old histories, directories, and all manner of local records and documents. First another patron who, as she explains, spends a great deal of time in the collection, then the librarian, help me in my search. I’m here, first, to find out the precise locations of sites associated with Douglass in Newcastle. For three of them, I only have the name or description and the street that they’re on. For one of them, the street no longer exists under that name, so I’ll have to do some more digging. With the patron’s help, I locate an 1847 Newcastle directory. The directory gives me names and addresses of people associated with this story, but there are no maps or atlases to locate them on so that I can compare them with current street names and addresses. For maps, the librarian refers me to Newcastle City Library on New Bridge Street. It turns out to be an excellent resource, with a wealth of maps, directories, and more. By the time it comes to leave and rejoin my travel companion for dinner, I’ve gathered a good deal of information about the city, the places I’ve seen thus far, and the sites I’m seeking for my Douglass journey, though I have a bit more digging to do before I go and visit those sites tomorrow. On my way back, I chance to see a historical plaque, high up on near the corner of a building over a shop window, related to the stories I’m following. I make another mental note to return the next day, and I’ll tell you all about it then.

Summerhill Grove, looking east with Summerhill Park to the left, Newcastle

Thursday, August 30th, 2018

I begin my day with lots of coffee and more research, mostly online following up on yesterday’s discoveries at Newcastle City Library, and putting two and two together with previous Douglass research I’ve done. It’s a lovely day with a blue, puffy-cloud-scattered sky, balmy, with just enough coolness in the air to keep one from getting too warm on a brisk walk. I make my way north and east from the coffeeshop near Central Station, passing sections of the ancient city wall. At Westgate Road, I turn left. It’s a wide thoroughfare which takes me uphill past tree-lined Blandford Square and shops and eateries. At Elswick Road, I find I’ve overshot the mark a bit and make my way back west through a lovely old neighborhood. My destination, 5 Summerhill Grove, is on a quiet, pretty little street across from Summerhill Park. Part of the three-story red brick house is under repair, its left side fronted by scaffolding.

Frederick Douglass plaque at 5 Summerhill Grove, Newcastle

There’s a round black plaque to the right of the doorway. Placed by the City of Newcastle upon Tyne, it’s dedicated to Frederick Douglass. It commemorates the time he stayed here with the Richardson family, who spearheaded the effort to ‘formally buy his freedom in 1846.’ This was the home of Anna and Henry Richardson. Anna, her husband Henry, and his sister Ellen were abolitionists who aided others who had escaped from slavery as well. In addition to welcoming Douglass into their home and raising the money to purchase his freedom, they did the same for Douglass’ abolitionist colleague, fellow self-liberated slave, and fellow author William Wells Brown.

The Richardsons’ and their fellow abolitionists’ payment to Hugh Auld for Douglass’ freedom was controversial. Many abolitionists and fellow self-liberated slaves believed that buying Douglass’ freedom was tantamount to participating in the slave trade and acted as a tacit recognition of the legitimacy of trafficing in human flesh, regardless of intentions. Abolitionist and fellow activist in the ‘Send Back the Money!’ campaign Henry C. Wright made these arguments in a strong letter of rebuke to Douglass for accepting these arrangements on his behalf. Douglass responded affectionately but firmly to Wright. As Douglass saw it, this payment was no different in kind to the payment of a ransom or handing over money to an armed robber. The fault was not with those who pay such forms of ransom, the fault was with those who extorted money so that their fellow human beings could enjoy the life and freedom they were naturally entitled to.

Frederick Douglass inscription to Ellen Richardson, 1860, in a copy of My Bondage and My Freedom in the Fliegelman Collection at Stanford University (image credit S.U.)

The Richardsons were a well-to-do Quaker family who dedicated themselves to all manner of religious and moral societies and causes including antislavery and temperance work, making goods available not produced through slave labor, education for poor and working-class children, and religious improvement. Anna also visited prisons to offer cheer, comfort, and spiritual support. The Richardsons and their extended family, women and men alike, took leading roles in the church; for example, Ellen was an Elder for a time until her failing eyesight made it too difficult to fulfill that role. In accordance with Quaker beliefs, the women of the family were well-educated and very active in religious and public life even as they were responsible for keeping a well-run family home. Though city directories list mostly male members of the Richardson family as prominent members of religious and moral societies, Jonathan Mood of the University of Durham describes Anna, Ellen, and other women in the family as generally even more involved, especially in the correspondence and day to day running of things.

Like many others who benefited from their good works and generosity, Douglass never forgot what the Richardson family had done for him. In 1860, he sent Ellen a copy of his second autobiography My Bondage and My Freedom, dedicating it to her as his ‘friend and benefactress.’

5 Summerhill Grove in its row of houses, red brick with cream and white trim, Newcastle, England

Anna Richardson of Newcastle, image via Newcastle ChronicleLive.co.uk

5 Summerhill Grove, with scaffolding, Newcastle

I find the door of the house ajar, with a large black extension cord passed over the doorsill. I ring the doorbell, but there’s no answer. I knock and call, but still, no answer. Since the door’s open and there’s construction work apparently going on, it seems to me at first that the house is unoccupied. I enter and stop in the foyer, again calling out again to announce my presence and ask if I could take a look around. But only a few seconds reveal that, though the door was open and new appliances are in the foyer awaiting installation, the house appears to be occupied, or soon to be. From where I stand, it’s an attractive home with a high foyer, steep winding stairway through tall-ceilinged stories, and well-cared-for old wood floors. I can see, through an open door, a large windowed entryway to a sunny, tree-filled back garden. It looks like a cozy, cheerful home with lots of natural light. My history detective instincts have me agog with curiosity but since I’m still unable to discover anyone here after a few more calls and rings of the doorbell, I depart.

From here, I head to my next destination via St James’ Blvd, where I cut over to the narrow green park that runs along a long section of the ancient city walls and towers (including Morden Tower), past Chinatown, then east on Gallowgate, then north on Percy St. I’m led here by an entry in Hannah Murray’s site Frederick Douglass in Britain and Ireland which describes and maps out Douglass’ travels in the British Isles.

Leazes Park Rd, formerly Albion St, showing the approximate site of George and Ellen Richardson’s house in Newcastle. The nearest brick building on the right of the photo stands on or near where that house once stood.

One of the map’s entries for Newcastle reads: ’28 Dec 1846: Music Hall, Albion Street, evening. Meeting of the Newcastle branch of the Antislavery League. 700 people there.’ The Frederick Douglass Papers, Series One, Volume I also lists two late December speeches in Newcastle, one on December 28th with no listed location, and one on December 29th at the Music Hall. Try as I might, I can find no evidence of a Music Hall on Albion Street in directories, maps, or other contemporary documents about the people and places in Newcastle. The only listed music hall in Newcastle is elsewhere, and I’ll tell you about that location shortly. However, I have found other intriguing clues which indicate that Douglass may have visited, attended a meeting, or given a talk at a location on this street.

From White’s General Directory of the Town and County of Newcastle-upon-Tyne…, 1847, Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle upon Tyne Library

First, I consulted an 1847 Newcastle directory yesterday at the Antiquities Society for listings of locations on Albion St. There is no music hall or other public building listed there. It does, however, show that three George Richardsons lived at 9 Albion street, one ‘sen.’ (senior), one ‘jun.’ (junior), and one ‘gentleman.’ This likely describes a grandfather, father, and a grandson not yet employed, or perhaps a nephew or cousin. Then this morning, I found two more sources of information about the Richardsons of Newcastle: a website by a Benjamin S. Beck which has a series of pages detailing the genealogy and history of his family, especially the page ‘Children of George and Eleanor Richardson,’ and Mood’s journal article  ‘Women in the Quaker Community: The Richardson Family of Newcastle, C. 1815-60‘. The first of these list Ellen Richardson as living first at 9 and then at 21 Albion St. When Douglass was at Newcastle in 1846, Ellen was still living at no. 9. Though there are two address for Albion St over time, all of the sources I’ve consulted indicate that the family lived in the same home for a very long time. I suspect, then, that the two different addressed reflect only a change in the numbering over the years rather than a move to another nearby location.

Ellen and her sister-in-law Anna’s leadership in the anti-slavery movement in Newcastle may very well have meant that antislavery society meetings may have been held at Ellen’s family home on Albion St, and if so, Douglass would surely have attended if he was in town. However, an entry in the Newcastle Courant of Friday, Jan. 1st, 1847 specifies that the speech Douglass delivered for a soiree of the ‘the Newcastle branch of the Anti-Slavery League’ for 700 ‘members and friends’ was held at the ‘Music-hall’ on ‘Monday evening.’ December 28th, 1846 was a Monday, so it appears that both the December 28th and 29th speeches listed in the Frederick Douglass Papers were held at the Music Hall. This does not preclude Douglass giving a talk at an event held at the Richardsons’ home on Albion St, however, if such an event took place.

Albion St, Newcastle upon Tyne, from Thomas Oliver’s 1830 plan of the city at the National Library of Scotland

Even given the address at 9 Albion St, however, I still would not have enough information to find this location. That’s because, first, there is currently no Albion St in Newcastle. The man who helps me find sources at the Newcastle City Library, however, is able to help me with that one. He just so happens to have recently read something which informed him that the street once named Albion is now called Leazes Park Road. The maps room of the National Library of Scotland is able to provide the final piece of the puzzle. When I visit Albion St, I can only guess at the exact location given the maps, plans, and directories of Newcastle I find during my visit. In the following days, Louise and Rosemary help me locate a city plan and its guide for 1830-1831, also published by Thomas Oliver, which show that George Richardson lived at plot 352. The street has undergone very little change, if any, in its layout, and the nearest cross-street retains its old name. By comparing the location of the old map to Google Maps, I find that the Richardson family home used to stand on or near the place where 23 Leazes Park Road now stands, just south of the parking lot at the southwest corner of Leazes Park Road and Strawberry Place.

At the other side of the street at Leazes Park Rd and Strawberry Pl, there’s a nice roomy bar called Soho. The tablet I’m using for maps and photography is nearly out of power and I’ve forgotten to bring my portable charger, so I take a break with a pint of Guinness while it’s plugged in. As I wait, I read more about the Richardson family.

From William Whellan & Co.’s History, Topography, and Directory of Northumberland… and a History of the Town and County of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, National Library of Scotland

As mentioned earlier, Ellen, her sister in law Anna, her brother Henry, her brother George, and her father George were all very active in various societies. In addition to Ellen and Anna’s anti-slavery and charity work, the Richardsons were active in promoting their Quaker religion. White’s 1847 directory lists George Richardson, senior (or rather, his house), as the ‘depository for the bible society’ and Whellan’s 1855 History of Northumberland and Newcastle lists George (presumably junior) as treasurer of the Bible Society, with George Sr. serving as accountant and ‘depositary.’ Ellen, who never married, cared for her father after the death of her mother in 1846 (the same year she and Anna organized Douglass’ ‘ransom’) and dedicated herself to education and other worthy causes. She worked for the school for impoverished children called, quaintly to modern sensibilities, the Girls Ragged School, and made other efforts on behalf of impoverished members of the community as well. On November 5th, 1859, for example, she wrote a letter to the editor of the Newcastle Guardian and Tyne Mercury about the plight of a large Jewish family, explaining why they were appropriate and worthy recipients of ‘parochial charity.’ She signed her letter ‘Ellen Richardson, Secretary to the Jubilee School.’ It just so happens that there’s a link between Ellen and two of the places I visited yesterday: in 1864, at a meeting held in the Castle, she donated a book of Arabic prayers and a document containing the seal of Elizabeth I to the Newcastle Society of Antiquaries. She lived a long life, dying at the age of 87 after a long-time chest ailment worsened as she developed other ailments. Mary Spence Watson wrote of her recently departed cousin ‘I believe she is the last proper Quakeress in Newcastle, & the last who wore the Quaker’s dress, & she was so splendid.’

Building at the corner of Grainger and Nelson Streets with a Giuseppe Garibaldi, Louis Kossuth, and William Lloyd Garrison historical plaque, Newcastle

Once my tablet has charged sufficiently, I continue my tour by heading east and south toward Grey’s Monument, erected honor of the second Earl Grey, who was instrumental in the passage of the Reform Act of 1832 and namesake of that delicious bergamot-flavored black tea. Besides vastly expanding the electoral franchise in Britain, the Reform Act also led directly to the abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire in 1832. At the monument square, I turn south down Grainger St then stop at the corner of Grainger and Nelson Streets. This is the place I spotted yesterday with the historical plaque above the shop window. The plaque reads: ‘To commemorate visits to this city and to a book shop in this house by Giuseppe Garibaldi in 1854, Louis Kossuth in 1856, W. Lloyd Garrison in 1876.William Lloyd Garrison was, famously, the abolitionist colleague and eventual ideological rival of Douglass who had given him his start in the movement only to later oppose Douglass’ moving on from Garrison’s abolitionist society to found his own paper The North Star, and Douglass’ newfound commitment to political activism and armed resistance to slavery. Since this city had a vibrant antislavery movement, Garrison visited Newcastle more than once in his multiple tours of the British Isles, including at least twice in 1846, so it’s a delight but no surprised to stumble across this plaque. I less expected to find, and am very interested to have done so, this link to Louis Kossuth, the revolutionary 19th-century Hungarian president lauded by Douglass and his colleague James McCune Smith as a great freedom fighter.

Facade of the old Music Hall at 10-12 Nelson Street, Newcastle, England

Behind me on the other side of the road and a few buildings west, I find my next destination: the facade of the Music Hall I mentioned more than once earlier in my story, at 10-12 Nelson St. According to Thomas Oliver’s reference book for his 1844 plan of Newcastle, it stood to the ‘east of the Primitive Methodist Chapel,’ which can still be seen in the 1896 Ordnance Survey I find later at the National Library of Scotland. According to Oliver, the Lecture Room was located underneath the Music Hall. It was in that room that Douglass delivered his 1860 speeches. Today, the only remnants of the Nelson St Music Hall and its rooms is its arch-windowed facade with the name and date carved in the front door’s pediment. There’s a City of Newcastle upon Tyne historical plaque on the building to the left of the doorway, like the one at 5 Summerhill Grove, but unfortunately The Alchemist, the bar and restaurant now occupying the spot, has placed a big umbrella right in front of it. I could crane my neck from under the umbrella just enough to read the plaque: ‘Music Hall, Nelson Street, Charles Dickens 1812-1870. Charles Dickens gave public readings of his works in this theatre during 6 visits to Newcastle between 1852 and 1867. “A finer audience is there not in England.” City of Newcastle upon Tyne.

Frederick Douglass ca. 1847-52, Samuel Miller, American 1822-1882, Art Institute of Chicago, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

This is where Douglass almost certainly spoke at that 700-person antislavery event in December 1846, and where he did speak on February 19th and the 23rd, 1860. Douglass had returned once again to the British Isles that year, fleeing possible arrest and prosecution in connection with his militant abolitionist friend John Brown‘s unsuccessful raid on Harper’s Ferry. While he was back in Britain, he embarked on another abolitionist speaking tour. In 1860, Douglass was dismayed to find that anti-black prejudice, which he was so grateful to find nearly absent during his last visit to the Isles fourteen years before, had become more commonplace in British sensibilities. Nevertheless, the talk was so highly anticipated that the event space was packed as full as could be and many who sought tickets had to be turned away. Douglass told the crowd that he feared that the ‘malign influence’ of the American slave system and its apologists were infecting the mother country even though she had already abolished it. Yet Douglass was here once again to seek British support for the cause. American slavery was proving so difficult to eradicate that American abolitionists needed the moral and religious example and support of their freedom-loving British counterparts more than ever.

Even with that support, however, it seemed that armed resistance may have been necessary to end slavery, and in that, Britain could lend its support by withdrawing its trade with and support to slaveholding states. Douglass ended his speech with a defense of Brown’s raid on the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry in hopes of inciting a slave insurrection. Though Douglass had, in person, turned down his friend’s plea to assist the raid on the grounds he thought it unlikely to succeed, Douglass defended the raid’s practicability and propriety to his Newcastle audience. For one thing, he said, the location of Harper’s Ferry was in proximity to a series of mountain ranges perfect for insurrectionists to hide, plan their course of action, and attack from. For another, the raid and planned guerrilla war to follow was not the cruel and criminal attack on peaceable citizens as it was generally portrayed. Slavery was essentially a cruel and bloody system of oppression that placed all involved in it in a state of war already. Slave resistance was merely the counterattack by those who had been savaged in the first place.

Ordnance Survey of Newcastle upon Tyne, Gateshead and Environs 1896, showing the location of the Music Hall on Nelson St, here designated Central Hall, and the apparent site of the Salem Methodist Chapel, here designated Church of England Institute, at the National Library of Scotland

My last destination leads me just a little ways south and east to Hood Street. According to Oliver’s reference to his 1844 city plan, the Salem Methodist Chapel ‘forms the centre building to the north side of Hood Street; the front is of polished stone, with a recessed Grecian Doric portico of four columns, approached by stone steps.’ It opened its doors in 1836. There is a building at number 11, at about the right location but a bit further west than I’d expect from the 1896 ordnance survey, which has a small portico supported by two full Doric columns and two pilasters, with three steps leading to the modest-sized front entry. However, the building doesn’t seem otherwise to have the appearance of a church. Photos I find of old Hood St online from 1912 and onward, few as they are, don’t appear to show a church or other building with a Doric-column-decorated entryway. It appears to me that there’s nothing left of the old Salem Chapel.

Buildings on the center north side of Hood Street around the approximate site of the old Salem Chapel, Newcastle, England

Douglass spoke at the Salem Chapel on August 3rd and 13th of 1846 at meetings of the Newcastle Antislavery Society. On the first occasion, the 1200-capacity church was packed nearly to overflowing, evidence of the strong popular support in Britain, particularly Newcastle, for the abolitionist cause. Douglass, the only lecturer at the August 3rd event, opened his speech by pointing out the danger of characterizing too many things as forms of slavery that were not, in fact, comparable to American chattel slavery, with all its depredations and horrors, its thorough denial of the rights and humanity of a certain class of human beings. Since chattel slavery was far away and out of sight in the free British Isles, he could see how some Britons might tend to conflate slavery with such practices as the exploitation of workers, unjust taxation, or political disenfranchisement. However, Douglass stressed, to do so undermined the message and urgency of the antislavery cause.

Douglass’ impassioned plea against equating actual slavery with other forms of exploitation, coercion, or cruelty reminds me of the trend I see so often in our hyperbolic age with its outrage culture run amok. So many things are characterized as assaults, as rape, as silencing, or as other trespasses on human rights and dignity that in some ways serve to equate minor with egregious forms with minor or less egregious forms, or at least serve to confuse them in the public consciousness. For example, speaking disrespectfully to or groping women, however deplorable, is not akin to physically raping them. Aggressive speech, leering looks, and insults are not akin to physical assault. Promoting one set of views, however loudly, meanly, or distastefully is not akin to silencing competing views. There are plenty of grounds for demanding we treat each other in ways that respect human rights and dignity without conflating these important issues. In fact, conflating the less egregious wrongs we do one another with more egregious ones undermine human rights causes. When it’s not clear what precise harms we are arguing about, the degree to which they damage ourselves and others, and the rights we are violating when we inflict them, then the arguments against them are hard to craft and defend, and our efforts to counteract them are rendered scattershot and ineffective.

Constitution of the United States, first page of the original, provided by the National Archives and Records Administration, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Douglass went on to criticize the various ways the legal system of the United States systematically supported and protected the institution of slavery, from the federal Constitution to the laws of states and municipalities. To remove any doubts in the minds of his audience that he might be embellishing his rhetoric with hyperbole, he read out example after examples of such laws so that they could judge for themselves. Over time, Douglass changed his mind about the Constitution as a proslavery document. To Douglass, interpreting the Constitution correctly as an antislavery document meant it could no longer be used as a tool by proponents of the slave system. It also made local laws supporting slavery that much more egregious, since they not only infringed on the natural rights of black people, they infringed on Constitutionally guaranteed rights as well. Armed with this Constitutional interpretation, Douglass went on after his early years as an abolitionist moral suasionist in the United States and the British Isles to focus on political and social activism.

My search for Douglass in Newcastle has proved to be an invigorating and fascinating one, and he has led me to learn about and appreciate not only more about his own work and his circle of friends and colleagues, but about the history of one more great city as well. I look forward to my next adventure following Douglass in the British Isles, stay tuned!

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Sources and Inspiration

Alston, Charlotte. ‘William Lloyd Garrison visits Newcastle.’ Mapping Radical Tyneside website

Beck, Benjamin S. ‘Children of George and Eleanor Richardson.Ben Beck’s Website

Black Plaque № 48714.Open Plaques website

Richardson, Ellen. ‘The Board of Guardians: To the Editor of the Newcastle Guardian.‘ Newcastle Guardian and Tyne Mercury. Saturday, 12 November 1859

Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey.‘ History: Past Prime Ministers at GOV.UK

Douglass, Frederick. ‘Antislavery Principles and Antislavery Acts.Frederick Douglass Papers, Series One: Speeches, Debates, and Interviews Volume 2: 1847-1854

Douglass, Frederick, annotated by Henry L. Gates. Autobiographies: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave: Written by Himself (1845), My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1893). New York: The Library of America, 1996

Douglass, Frederick. ‘British Racial Attitudes and SlaveryFrederick Douglass Papers, Series One: Speeches, Debates, and Interviews Volume 3: 1855-1863

Douglass, Frederick. ‘Frederick Douglass to Henry C. Wright, Manchester, 22 Dec 1846.’ Frederick Douglass Papers, Series Three: Correspondence Volume 1: 1842-1852

Douglass, Frederick. ‘Men and Brothers.‘ Frederick Douglass Papers, Series One: Speeches, Debates, and Interviews Volume 2: 1847-1854

Douglass, Frederick. ‘Slavery, the Free Church, and British Agitation Against Bondage.’ Frederick Douglass Papers, Series One: Speeches, Debates, and Interviews Volume 1: 1841-1846

Frederick Douglass Speaks: 3 August 1846.’ Mapping Radical Tyneside (website)

Garrison, William Lloyd. ‘Letter from Mr. Garrison, Oct 1846.’ The Liberator, October 30, 1846

Garrison, William Lloyd. ‘Letter from Mr. Garrison, Liverpool, Oct 20, 1846.’ The Liberator, Nov 20th, 1846

General Directory of the Town and County of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Gateshead. Francis White & Co, 1847

Greenspan, Ezra. William Wells Brown: An African American Life. W. W. Norton & Company: 2014

Hodgson, Barbara. ‘Former Slave ‘Freed’ by Newcastle Couple is to be Honoured in Martin Luther King Anniversary Year.ChronicleLive, Nov 5, 2016

Hood Street.‘ Co-Curate (website)

Levine, Robert S. The Lives of Frederick Douglass. Cambridge, Massachusetts ; London, England: Harvard University Press, 2016. (Online via DiscoverEd)

‘Local & General Intelligence.’ Newcastle Journal, 25 February 1860.

‘London, Thursday December 31.’ Newcastle Courant, 1 January 1847.

Macartney, Carlile Aylmer. ‘Lajos Kossuth.’ Encyclopædia Britannica

Mood, Jonathan. ‘Women in the Quaker Community: The Richardson Family of Newcastle, C.1815-60.‘ Quaker Studies: Vol. 9: Iss. 2, Article 5

Murray, Hannah. Frederick Douglass in Britain, website http://frederickdouglassinbritain.com/

The Nelson Street ‘Music Hall’ of 1838.’ Gen UKI: UK and Ireland Geneology

O’Connor, Peter. ‘The Richardson Family Help Free Frederick Douglass: Oct 1, 1846 to 31 December 1846.’ Mapping Radical Tyneside (website)

Oliver, Thomas. Plan of the Town and County of Newcastle upon Tyne and the Borough of Gateshead… From an Actual Survey by T. Oliver. 1830

Oliver, Thomas. Reference to a Plan of the Town and County of Newcastle upon Tyne and the Borough of Gateshead… From an Actual Survey. Thomas Oliver, 43 Blacket Street: 1831.

Ordinance Survey, Newcastle, 1861-62

Ordnance Survey, Newcastle upon Tyne, Gateshead and Environs 1896 (revised 1894)

Pettinger, Alasdair. Frederick Douglass and Scotland, 1846: Living an Antislavery Life. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2019 (forthcoming)

A Plan of the Borough of Newcastle Upon Tyne, Thomas Oliver,1844.

Quandrangle Gateway (The Arches).Historic England website

Reference to A Plan of the Borough of Newcastle Upon Tyne. Thomas Oliver, 1844

Society of Antiquaries.‘ Newcastle Journal, 3 November 1864

To commemorate visits to this city and to a book shop in this house by Giuseppe Garibaldi in 1854, Louis Kossuth in 1856, W. Lloyd Garrison in 1876.’ Open Plaques website

Tyne and Wear HER(7109): Newcastle, Nelson Street, Nos. 10 and 12, Music hall – Details.SiteLines (website)

Ward, Brian. ‘Frederick Douglass: The Ex-slave and Transatlantic Celebrity Who Found Freedom in Newcastle.The Conversation, Feb 21, 2018

Whellan, William & Co. History, Topography, and Directory of Northumberland… and a History of the Town and County of Newcastle-upon-Tyne… London: Whittaker and Co, 1855

White, Francis & Co. General Directory of the Town and County of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Gateshead… Francis White, 1847

Wright, Henry C. ‘Henry C. Wright to Frederick Douglass, Doncaster, 12 Dec 1846.‘ Frederick Douglass Papers, Series Three: Correspondence Volume 1: 1842-1852