Autographs for Freedom

Frederick DOUGLASS   |   Julia GRIFFITHS

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Autographs for Freedom
Autographs for Freedom
Autographs for Freedom
Autographs for Freedom


(DOUGLASS, Frederick) (GRIFFITHS, Julia). Autographs for Freedom. Boston / Cleveland / London: John P. Jewett / Jewett, Proctor, and Worthington / Low, 1853. Small octavo (5 by 7-3/4 inches), original blind-stamped, gilt-lettered brown cloth. Housed in a custom clamshell box.

First edition of a powerful volume of nearly 40 works by leading abolitionists, together in print for the first time, co-edited by Frederick Douglass and Julia Griffiths, containing the first publication in book form of Douglass' novella, The Heroic Slave, his only work of fiction, invoking the defining leadership of fugitive slave Madison Washington in the 1841 successful slave rebellion on the Creole, a core event in the history of the "revolutionary Black Atlantic." With engraved frontispiece and two full-page engraved illustrations, especially rare in original unrestored cloth.

The legendary 1841 slave revolt on the Creole, led by fugitive slave Madison Washington, was "one of the most successful slave revolts" in American history: renowned, as well, "for the impact it had on the North-South sectional conflict in Congress, interpretations of the legal standing of slavery on the high seas, and American-British diplomacy" (Harrold in Journal of African American History V102). Frederick Douglass often spoke of Washington and the Creole in speeches throughout the 1840s, where he "kept its memory alive as a historical precedent for slave rebellion… Douglass left those public audiences with a dire warning: 'There are more Madison Washingtons in the South, and the time may not be distant when the whole South will present again a scene something similar to the deck of the Creole.'" In early 1853 Douglass sat at his desk to write The Heroic Slave—his only work of fiction—a novella that reflects "his personal state of mind, his evolving ideas on violence, and the national crisis he sought to influence… The turn to fiction to expose the full danger of the fugitive-crisis was also a logical progression in his evolution as a man of words." The work was prompted by his vow to write an original piece for Autographs for Freedom, co-edited with British abolitionist Julia Griffiths: "an extremely important friend and coworker in Douglass' life" (Blight, Frederick Douglass, 248-49, 171).

With Heroic Slave, Douglass "gave a profound voice" to the rebel slave (Blight, 249). Madison Washington, leader of the historical Creole revolt, was a fugitive slave who had escaped from Virginia to Canada. In 1841 he returned "to rescue his wife from slavery… upon reaching Virginia, he was apprehended and re-enslaved. On October 25 he was among the 38 slaves of Thomas McCargo who boarded the brig Creole at Richmond," headed for the New Orleans slave markets. That November Washington commanded 18 male slaves in a revolt on the Creole that "left one of the slaveholders dead, one mutineer mortally wounded." He "ordered an experienced white passenger to navigate the brig to Nassau… [where] slaves not involved in the mutiny were immediately freed under British law… Washington and the other 18 rebels also gained their freedom when the local British authorities determined that they had no jurisdiction over the crimes of mutiny and murder on the high seas." Soon afterward Washington "mysteriously passed from the historical record and into legend" (Harrold in Antislavery Violence, 90-91). "The Creole rebellion was indeed a core "story of the revolutionary Black Atlantic'" (Sinha, Slave's Cause, 412).

In Douglass' novella, Washington is "a man of transformative eloquence as well as action… he conquers foes with courage, character, and with the power of the word. He also conquers with the sword as he must." David Blight, Douglass' biographer, writes: "would that Douglass had attempted more works of fiction; he possessed a stunning ability with narrative. By the force of his will, from constant discipline, and from the help of his friends, especially Julia Griffiths, he had emerged by the mid-1850s as a versatile and accomplished writer, one deserving a place eventually in that era's literary American renaissance" (Frederick Douglass, 250-51). First edition: precedes the first English edition (with sole London imprint of Sampson Low). Co-edited by Douglass and Griffiths, "the 39 pieces of short fiction, poetry, essays and correspondence in the 263-page anthology were envisioned as tools to construct a wider and politically more potent antislavery alliance than any in which the two abolitionists had previously participated. In the diverse composition of its collection of authors and antislavery themes, Autographs for Freedom was both a cultural and political tool designed by them to help assemble a more powerful antislavery coalition" (McKivigan & Pattillo, in Journal of African American History, Winter 2017). With engraved frontispiece, individual works with printed facsimile signatures, preface by Julia Griffiths, dated in print, "Rochester, 1852." Also included are works by black abolitionists such as James Monroe Whitfield, James M'Cune Smith, and William Gustavus Allen, along with those by white abolitionists such as William Seward, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Catherine Beecher, Lewis Tappan, Charles Sumner and Gerrit Smith. With engraved frontispiece; two engraved plates. Heroic Slave earlier appearing in Douglass' newspaper in March 1853 (Blight, 248). Sabin 28835. Blockson 9204. Contemporary gift inscription dated "Christmas 1853."

Interior very fresh with scant foxing mainly to a few rear leaves, tiny bit of edge-wear to spine ends of bright gilt-lettered cloth. A very rare about-fine copy.

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