Frederick Douglass with his back to the viewer at his desk in his library with books in background.

Frederick Douglass Beyond the United States

Transatlantic Activism and Correspondence

  • Author: Rene H. Treviño (California State University, Long Beach)
  • External Peer-Reviewer: Fionnghuala Sweeney (Newcastle University)
  • Internal Peer-Reviewing Editor: Adrian S. Wisnicki (University of Nebraska-Lincoln)
  • Date (publication and updates): 2021
  1. Introduction
  2. Letter to John Scoble, May 9, 1846
  3. Letter to Catherine Impey, July 9, 1888
  4. Conclusion
  5. Works Cited
  6. Page Citation
  7. Lead Image Details


Shortly after the May 1845 publication of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, esteemed abolitionist Frederick Douglass embarked on a lecture tour of Great Britain and Ireland. In the new preface to the second of the editions of Narrative published in Dublin by Richard D. Webb, Douglass outlines his motivations for going abroad, one of which was to internationalize his activism. He also lists the cities and towns across Ireland and Scotland where he held meetings and sold copies of Narrative, and he expresses his hope that his stay will result in “thousands and tens of thousands of the intelligent and philanthropic” of Great Britain joining forces “with the noble band of American abolitionists” (Douglass 1846b, iv). Douglass worked tirelessly throughout the visit, which began in August 1845 and ended in April 1847, to foster such cooperation between social reformers on both sides of the Atlantic (Rice and Crawford 1999, 1-3). As evidenced in part by the two letters published by One More Voice (Douglass 1846a, 1888), Douglass also continued to maintain an interest in transatlantic activism long after his departure.

Letter to John Scoble, May 9, 1846

Writing from Edinburgh, Douglass addresses the earlier of the two letters (1846a) to John Scoble (1799-1877), then secretary of the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society (BFASS), and politely declines Scoble’s invitation to attend the annual meeting of the BFASS, scheduled for May 18, 1846, in London. Douglass (1846a, 0002-0003) then goes on to deem Scotland “the place for all [his] effort” and explains to Scoble that it is “of the utmost importance to the cause of emancipation – that British Christians of all denominations should declare non fellowship to slave holders, or churches to which slave holders are admitted to membership.”

These points grow out of Douglass’s participation in the “Send Back the Money” campaign, during which British and American abolitionists attempted to convince the Free Church of Scotland to return funds it raised from enslavers in the southern United States (Pettinger 1999). With one political victory of that kind achieved at a recent meeting of the Scottish Presbyterian United Secession Synod, Douglass notes in the letter that he expects a similar result from an upcoming meeting of the Relief Synod, another Scottish Presbyterian denomination formed through secession from the Church of Scotland.

Beyond adding context for Douglass’s activism in Scotland, the Scoble letter reveals Douglass’s savvy as a rhetorician. Douglass (1846a, 0003) uses language that he would later refashion into a rallying cry and tells Scoble, “Slave holding exists in the United States, because it is reputable, and it is reputable in the United States, because it is not so disreputable out of the United States as it ought to be.” Douglass also implicates “Christian churches of this country” in perpetuating the US slave system through their continued association with it. Douglass, however, would later turn this condemnatory language into an appeal to a collective “us” of transatlantic activists bound together by a moral imperative that transcends religious affiliation. In an address he delivered in London on March 30, 1847, days before his return to the US, Douglass advocates for abolitionism built upon shared humanity above all else:

Why, sir, does slavery exist in the United States? Because it is reputable: that is the reason. Why is it thus reputable in America? Because it is not so disreputable out of America as it ought to be. Why, then, is it not so disreputable out of the United States as it should be? Because its real character has not been so fully known as it ought to have been. Hence, sir, the necessity [. . .] of men leaguing themselves together for the purpose of enlightening, raising, and fixing the public attention upon this foulest of all blots upon our common humanity. Let us, then, agitate this question. ([1847] 1999, 70-71)

Douglass, speaking to a receptive crowd at the close of a triumphant visit, modifies his previous statements in order to portray his listeners as a help and not a hindrance to the cause of abolition, even though the Scoble letter demonstrates that Douglass (1846a, 0003) understood that “British Christians,” generally speaking, impeded his mission of discrediting slavery. While Douglass reserves his assessment of Britain’s role in supporting US slavery for his private discourse with Scoble, he opts in his public farewell speech, and elsewhere (see McClish 2015), for constitutive rhetoric, an audience-specific form of communication designed to form a collective subject positioned to enact societal change.

Letter to Catherine Impey, July 9, 1888

The second Douglass letter (1888), written to English Quaker activist Catherine Impey (1847-1923), shows him taking a transatlantic approach to a different racial crisis. Impey’s first visit to the United States in 1878, during which she witnessed firsthand the oppression suffered by Black Americans, inspired her to write to Douglass in 1883 and state the need for antiracist activism. The two, bonded by their shared interest in the topic, would meet during Douglass’s final trip to England in 1886-87 (Bressey 2013, 27-29). Soon afterwards, in March 1888, Impey launched Anti-Caste (1888-1895), a periodical whose use of “caste” in the title “meant to stand for the politics of ‘race’” and whose purpose was “to present the British public with articles that exposed and condemned racial prejudice across the British empire and in the United States” (Bressey 2013, 39, 6).

Douglass, of course, had a long history of challenging racial prejudice, even during the antebellum period when abolition – what Douglass (1881, 380) once called his “deepest desire and the great labor of [his] life” – was his foremost goal. For instance, his first periodical, The North Star (1847-1851), while “mainly Anti-Slavery” in focus (Douglass 1847, 2), featured the antiracist declaration “Truth is of no Color” on its masthead. With the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which legally prohibited slavery, Douglass shifted his primary focus as an activist from abolition to combating the racial prejudice that he correctly presumed would live on post-Emancipation. Faced with a new sociopolitical reality, Douglass ([1865] 1999) reframed the phrase “anti-slavery work” to mean any undertaking aimed at ensuring civil rights protections for those long subjected to enslavement and second-class citizenry under the racist legal framework of the US.

Having experienced the painfully slow progress made on racial equality in the United States, Douglass found Impey’s antiracist efforts not only commendable but urgent. Writing to her mere months after she launched Anti-Caste, Douglass (1888, 0001) says, “I think however, that you are more needed in America than in England.” He adds, somewhat defensively, “You must not think I am doing nothing in the line of your work because you hear little of me. I am doing what I can to promote the cause of human Brotherhood in this country where it is most needed.” Impey reported on the racial prejudice that plagued the United States, but, as Douglass implies, the reading public there could benefit – even more so than Anti-Caste’s British readers – from greater awareness of the issue, more so because Douglass had witnessed the failed Reconstruction effort in the United States that resulted in the “violent maintenance of racial segregation and the systematic removal of social and civil rights for black Americans” (Bressey 2013, 9). Seemingly disheartened by the state of race relations in his own country, Douglass nonetheless offers Impey words of encouragement, and, well aware of the financials strains associated with running a periodical – he estimated to have lost $10,000 on his final newspaper venture, The New National Era (1870-1874) (Blight 2018, 550) – he closes his letter by noting that he is sending five dollars in support of Anti-Caste.


Written over forty years apart, Douglass’s letters to John Scoble (9 May 1846) and Catherine Impey (9 July 1888) demonstrate Douglass’s long-term engagement with transatlantic activism, an aspect of his legacy often overshadowed by Narrative, the “most widely read slave narrative of the antebellum period, and the one generally taken as representative of the genre and of Douglass himself” (Levine 2016, 31). Although rightly celebrated as Douglass’s earliest major work, the first American edition of Narrative only captures the first twenty-three of his nearly eighty years of life and, indeed, appeared in print before he set off on the European tour that would greatly influence his career and make him internationally famous.

Douglass would revise and expand his life story twice more with My Bondage and My Freedom (1855) and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, Written by Himself (1881/1892). Both these books include a chapter on his first tour of Great Britain, but only the latter – via a lengthy, descriptive subtitle that references “His Labors in Great Britain as Well as in His Own Country” – foregrounds the tour as an episode in his life that Douglass chose to present upfront to his readers as the most noteworthy. As indicated by that addition to his final autobiography, Douglass came over the course of his career to highly value the trip that made him a transatlantic activist (see Blackett 1983).

Douglass’s letters also reveal his use of correspondence to “assert his pre-eminence within [...] international reformist circles” (Bernier 2016, 302). Over the span of his career, Douglass’s international network included Scoble and Impey as well as countless others, including notable British women activists Julia Griffiths (1811-1895) and Anna Richardson (1806-1892). Douglass may have been “by far the most renowned American abolitionist” when visiting Britain for the second time in 1859 (Blackett 1983, 116), but before and after then he was far from alone in trying to bring about transatlantic racial reform. As part of a large network of activists exchanging ideas and strategies across the Atlantic, Douglass honed the craft of letter-writing and eventually produced a substantial archive of correspondence.

As is the case with Douglass’s letters in general, the ones published by One More Voice not only provide valuable insights into his approach to political activism but also reflect the development of his activist voice. Celeste-Marie Bernier (2016, 303) observes that Douglass’s antebellum correspondence indicates a conflicted “dual personae” of an enslaved man and a free one, whereas his postbellum letters display a “well-choreographed and well-rehearsed public persona.” In the One More Voice letters, one finds a contrast between the polite, apologetic Douglass writing to Scoble and the more self-assured Douglass writing to Impey. Accordingly, these letters provide those studying Douglass with a glimpse into how he cultivated an epistolary voice that he used in social justice efforts unbound by the limitations of nationhood.

Works Cited

Bernier, Celeste-Marie. 2016. “‘Frederick Douglass, the Freeman’ and ‘Frederick Bailey, the Slave’: Private Versus Public Acts and Arts of Letter-Writing in Frederick Douglass’s Pre-Civil-War Correspondence.” In The Edinburgh Companion to Nineteenth-Century American Letters and Letter-Writing, edited by Celeste-Marie Bernier, Judie Newman, and Matthew Pethers, 302–13. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Blackett, R.J.M. 1983. “Frederick Douglass and the International Movement.” In Building an Antislavery Wall: Black Americans in the Atlantic Abolitionist Movement, 1830-1860, 79–117. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press.

Blight, David. 2018. Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Bressey, Caroline. 2013. Empire, Race and the Politics of “Anti-Caste.” London: Bloomsbury.

Douglass, Frederick. 1846a. Letter to John Scoble. 9 May 1846. Manuscript. MSS. Brit. Emp. s. 18, C16/75. Bodleian Library, Oxford. Also see the edition published by One More Voice.

Douglass, Frederick. 1846b. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. 2nd ed. Dublin: Webb and Chapman.

Douglass, Frederick. 1847. “Our Paper and Its Prospects.” The North Star, December 3, 1847.

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

Douglass, Frederick. 1888. “Letter to Catherine Impey. 9 July 1888.” Manuscript. MSS. Brit. Emp. s. 20, E5/7. Bodleian Library, Oxford. Also see the edition published by One More Voice.

Douglass, Frederick. (1847) 1999. “Farewell Speech to the British People, at London Tavern, London, England, March 30, 1847.” In Frederick Douglass: Selected Speeches and Writings, edited by Philip S. Foner, abridged and adapted by Yuval Taylor, 54–75. Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books.

Douglass, Frederick. (1865) 1999. “The Need for Continuing Anti-Slavery Work, Speech at Thirty Second Annual Meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society, May 10, 1865.” In Frederick Douglass: Selected Speeches and Writings, edited by Philip S. Foner, abridged and adapted by Yuval Taylor, 577–80. Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books.

Levine, Robert S. 2016. The Lives of Frederick Douglass. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

McClish, Glen. 2015. “The Instrumental and Constitutive Rhetoric of Martin Luther King Jr. and Frederick Douglass.” Rhetorica: A Journal of the History of Rhetoric 33 (1): 34–70.

Pettinger, Alasdair. 1999. “Send Back the Money: Douglass and the Free Church of Scotland.” In Liberating Sojourn: Frederick Douglass & Transatlantic Reform, edited by Alan J. Rice and Martin Crawford, 31–55. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press.

Rice, Alan J., and Crawford, Martin. 1999. “Triumphant Exile: Frederick Douglass in Britain, 1845-1847.” In Liberating Sojourn: Frederick Douglass & Transatlantic Reform, edited by Alan J. Rice and Martin Crawford, 1–12. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press.