Even If He Weren’t My Friend: Frederick Douglass & Mark Twain

The following essay is published as part of Emancipation Week, alongside Frederick Douglass’s 1880 speech, “The Lessons of Emancipation to a New Generation,” delivered as part of Emancipation Day celebrations in Elmira, NY. In the following essay, Dr. Seybold assembles evidence that Mark Twain was in the audience for Douglass’s speech, as well as traces the relationship between Douglass and Twain which begins in the 1860s.

“I would like to hear him make a speech,” Mark Twain says of Frederick Douglass in a letter to his fiancée, Olivia Langdon, composed the night of December 15, 1869. Twain describes meeting Douglass in Boston. At the time, they were two of the most in-demand lecturers in the United States. They shared a publicist and booking agent, James Redpath. Though Twain does not confirm where their meeting took place, it was likely at Redpath’s Boston Lyceum Bureau, famously a hangout of the agency’s clients and other notable persons in Redpath’s orbit.

The envelope of Sam’s 1869 letter to Livy, part of the Mark Twain Project archives in The Bancroft Library at UC-Berkeley, has been stamped with the return address of Redpath’s Boston Lyceum Bureau.

Later that day Twain caught a train to Pawtucket for a performance that evening, while Douglass had recently performed as part of the Parker Lectures at Music Hall in Boston and on the night of the 15th was, according to his schedule book, appearing in Leominster, Massachusetts.

Douglass was the significantly older and more experienced lecturer, but Twain was never easily starstruck, nor was he quick to compliment those he regarded as his competitors for bookings and fees on the precarious lyceum circuit. His hostility towards more established lecturers is evident, for instance, in his rather scathing review of Charles Dickens’s performance a year earlier. Twain’s early tendency towards professional jealously makes his description of Douglass in 1869 all the more exceptional. Indeed, I am hard-pressed to recall any occasion, at any point in his career, when Twain more ecstatically compliments a public figure:

We are grateful to the Mark Twain Project for providing access to the manuscript of this letter:

Had a talk with Fred Douglas, today, who seemed exceedingly glad to see me – and I certainly was glad to see him, for I do so admire his “spunk.” He told me the history of his child’s expulsion from Miss Tracy’s school, and his simple language was very effective. Miss Tracy said the pupils did not want a colored child among them – which he did not believe, and challenged the proof. She put it at once to a vote of the school, and asked “How many of you are willing to have a colored child be with you?” And they all held up their hands! Douglass added: “The children’s hearts were right.” There was pathos in the way he said it. I would like to hear him make a speech. Had a grand face.

Samuel Clemens to Olivia Langdon (December 15-16, 1869)

I open this essay – which is, in part, a case that Samuel Clemens attended Frederick Douglass’s 1880 Emancipation Day lecture in Elmira – with this 1869 letter to Livy Clemens because it establishes two crucial points. First, that Twain idolized Douglass (as much as he was capable of idolizing anybody) and, in particular, he admired Douglass’s methods of elocution and storytelling so much as to express an explicit desire to see them deployed in a public venue. Second, that Douglass – both his person and his politics – were a feature of the discourse between Sam and Livy Clemens from early on in their more than 36-year relationship.

This is the first meeting between Douglass and Twain which is confirmed by the historical record, but it isn’t clear from Twain’s description whether it is, in fact, their first meeting. To the contrary, his perception that they were “glad to see” each other seems to suggest some kind of preexisting relationship, whether personal acquaintance or merely mutual admiration from afar. This is a common characteristic of the record of the Douglass-Twain relationship. While the surviving evidence of their interactions is not insignificant, it is sometimes frustrating because it often suggests of a more extensive, though undocumented friendship. The most-cited example of this is Twain’s letter to President-Elect James A. Garfield, in which he encourages Garfield to retain Douglass, who he describes as “a personal friend of mine.” More on that to come.

The Hub of The Underground Railroad

Like many things in Twain Studies, the story of the Twain-Douglass relationship begins in Elmira, with the family Samuel Clemens married into and the broader community he thereafter became a part of. In his Emancipation Day speech, Douglass describes returning to Elmira as “a welcome home,” and says of the city and the region surrounding it, “for enlightenment, liberality and civilization, the people have no superiors in this country or any other.”

Douglass’s affection for Elmira and Western New York derives in part from it being not only part of his personal path to freedom, but also the most common path to freedom for fugitive slaves from the 1830s until 1861. Elmira was a crucial junction on the Underground Railroad, with many of the town’s prominent citizens actively participating in the abolitionist movement, even in its more radical and militant forms.

The President of the Emancipation Day festivities was John W. Jones, one of the more notorious conductors of the Underground Railroad, who had settled in Elmira after escaping enslavement himself. In the hours preceding the Emancipation Day celebration, Jones and Douglass visited the Park Church, in part to reminisce about their mutual friend and the church’s founder, Jervis Langdon, who would become Mark Twain’s father-in-law.

As Jones describes in a Letter To The Editor of the Elmira Daily Advertiser the following week, he and Douglass stood before the portrait of Langdon which still hangs in the Park Church parlor. Jones was reminded of a day on which he had called upon Langdon to lend support for ten fugitives who were passing through his territory on the Underground Railroad. The businessman emptied his wallet, as was his habit, even though, as Jones found out the next day, Langdon’s firm had just gone bankrupt.

from Elmira Advertiser (August 9, 1880)

Whether or not this anecdote is apocryphal (by most accounts, Langdon’s businesses were very successful during the years he and Jones were friends and co-conspirators), it demonstrates the exceptionally high esteem for Langdon in the memory and lore of abolitionism in this region.

Douglass also mentions passing through Park Church and seeing Jervis’s portrait in a letter to Jervis’s son, Charley, a week later. “I went through the church at Elmira with all the more interest after seeing the face of your father there,” Douglass writes. (We will review this letter more closely later.)

Douglass had been harbored by the Langdons during his flight to freedom in September of 1838. After Jervis died in 1870, Douglass read Thomas K. Beecher’s eulogy for his Park Church benefactor, which evocatively describes Langdon’s work as an abolitionist and mentions Douglass’s presence in the Langdon home, and was moved to write to Olivia Lewis Langdon. This letter survives in the collections at the Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford, and we reproduce it here with their permission:

Courtesy of The Mark Twain House & Museum, Hartford, Connecticut. Gift of Olivia Loomis Lada-Mocarski, 1965.

Again, with the line “if I had never seen nor heard of Mr. Langdon since the days that you and he made me welcome under your roof” Douglass teases historians, subtly implying that he has seen the Langdons since, but without specifying exactly when. Much of the ambiguity and inaccessibility of the historical record on these matters is, of course, intentional, as the antebellum interactions between Douglass and the Langdons likely involved collaboration in what was then illegal activity. As we have documented before, including in my work on the Juda Barber case and Jill Spivey Caddell’s recent Park Church Lecture, the Langdons, Jones, and many other members of the Park Church and other Elmirans were perpetually involved in facilitating the “flight to Canada” during the 1840s and 1850s, as, of course, was Frederick Douglass. Though there were many paths from the Langdon’s Elmira, where fugitives often arrived as stowaways in specially-outfitted baggage cars, one of the most common routes would’ve taken them to Rochester, where Douglass settled.

But Douglass’s visits to Elmira continued, long after the Emancipation Proclamation made the Underground Railroad dispensable, and, indeed, long after many of his co-conspirators went to early graves. As Douglass puts it in his Emancipation Day speech, “Most of the men with whom I lived and labored, five and thirty years ago, have passed away. There are but few left to tell the story of the early days of anti-slavery. Scarcely any of the colored men who advocated the cause, during that time, are now on the stage of active life – and I begin to feel lonely.”

from Elmira Advertiser (February 23, 1872)

Among Douglass’s postbellum visits to Elmira was a lecture at the Elmira Opera House on the topic of Santo Domingo in 1872. We know via the testimony of another Langdon guest, Anna E. Dickinson, that Douglass spent that evening in the Langdon home, and that Charley Langdon (Twain’s brother-in-law and the first member of the Langdon family befriended by Sam Clemens) accompanied Douglass to the hotel (Delevan House) nearest the train station to ensure he would not be refused a room on account of his late arrival…and his race.

Dickinson’s account suggests that this was the first time Douglass had visited the family since the death of Jervis two years earlier, for he was overcome with emotion upon his arrival. As Dickinson describes second-hand to her mother, Douglass took Olivia Lewis’s hands and “with the tears so choking and blinding him, as to make him drop her hand and go out to the streets,” he said “Thirty years ago when it was an invitation to the incendiary, your husband took me home, sick, nursed, and cared for, and tended me as a mother, and now it is his son who invites me, in days when hospitality yet costs something to give.”

Letter Dated March 30, 1872 from the Anna E. Dickinson Papers at Library of Congress
Samuel Clemens with John Lewis in the driveway at Quarry Farm, East Hill, Elmira, New York. John Lewis, a friend of the Clemens and Crane families was a pig farmer with land near Quarry Farm.
Twain with John T. Lewis at Quarry Farm in 1903. The two became friends in 1877.

All of the above further demonstrates that from the time Sam Clemens first visited Elmira in 1868, Douglass was treated as a friend of the family, as well as a revered figure for many in the Langdon’s orbit, from John T. Lewis to Rev. Beecher, Charley Langdon, and John B. Stanchfield, all of whom would become what we might delicately characterize as Twain’s favored “drinking buddies.” By the time Twain expresses his admiration for Douglass in late 1869, he certainly knows that offering anything but praise for Douglass to a member of the Langdon household would likely be met with stern rebuke.

But from the time Twain expresses his desire to “hear [Douglass] make a speech,” it is not evident he ever has an opportunity, until Emancipation Day, 1880. When Douglass came to Elmira in 1872, the Clemenses were in Hartford. Douglass’s appearances in Hartford predate the Clemens’ relocation there. During the late 1860s and early 1870s, Douglass and Twain frequently toured the same lecture circuit and appeared in the same venues, but as they criss-crossed the country I have found no other occasion, after Boston in 1869, when they were definitely in the same place at the same time. Until 1880.

Who Was There?

The Clemens family began their annual Summer pilgrimage to Elmira in mid-June and remained in residence at Quarry Farm until the end of September. Their youngest daughter, Jean Clemens, was born there in July. In his study, Twain worked particularly feverishly on The Prince & The Pauper (1881). On August 2, the same day Douglass arrived in town, Twain delivered a joking note to the offices of the Elmira Daily Advertiser requesting that they nominate him for the presidency (a jest pointedly aimed at the confusion and conflict during the recent nominating conventions).

from Elmira Daily Advertiser (August 5, 1880)

Emancipation Day was not a small or secluded event. Preparation for it began at least as early as May, with Douglass’s participation confirmed in early June. Twain’s friend, John T. Lewis, was part of the organizing committee, which included African-Americans from throughout the region. They advertised the event far and wide, hoping to attract a large crowd, which they did.

The celebration was expected to continue from dawn until midnight, involving church services, musical performances, picnicking, speech-making in various venues, a “military ball,” and a parade which would begin at the site of two of the largest Black congregational churches and progress through downtown Elmira, past the Langdon mansion and the Park Church before turning North toward “Hoffman’s Grove” (at what is now Grove Park) where the main event, Douglass’s speech, would take place.

I want to be clear at this point about two facts. First, Twain could not have avoided knowledge of this event. It involved his friends. His family members record their awareness of it. It was covered by every local paper, and several national ones. Thousands of visitors descended on the town and made revelry – what Shelley Fisher Fishkin has called a “noisy hoopla that engulfed Elmira” – for more than twelve hours.

It is also true that, so far as I have been able to confirm, Twain never directly commented upon the event in his public or private writings. Once again, given what we do know about the Twain-Douglass relationship, it is hard for me to imagine they were not both in Grove Park on August 3, 1880, but neither expressly remarked upon seeing the other there.

There is, however, much circumstantial evidence.

Before I catalog that evidence, I want to offer one explanation for why Twain might have chosen to refrain from commenting on the event, at least in public venues. The Emancipation Day celebration was explicitly planned as an event by and for “colored people,” as was the preferred nomenclature of the day. It wasn’t that Elmira’s white residents were not welcome (they attended in large numbers), but the organizing committee was entirely comprised of Black men, as was the roster of speakers, officers, delegates, and performers.

The prime objective of the event was to attract and entertain other Black men and women from throughout the Southern Tier, and perhaps even further afield. The parade began in what was then the center of the city’s Black community and it involved congregations of Black parishioners, veterans of the U.S. Colored Troops, Black trade organizations, Black marching bands, and Black pageanteers. Everything I have read about this event indicates that the Black community raised the funds, drafted the contracts, secured the venues and permits, publicized the event, and in every way made Emancipation Day happen with little to no help from white patrons or collaborators.

It is also the case that Twain was not alone in respecting their communal wish for autonomy in the preparations and publicity. I have found no instance of other prominent Elmirans commenting on, pledging support, or in any way taking credit for what turned out to be a rather spectacular and noteworthy event. No Langdons, no Beechers, no Elmira College faculty, nor Park Church elders, no Republican Congressmen, all of whom are frequently named as participants and or benefactors for local events focused on “the advancement of colored people.” The emphasis on self-determination is reiterated in Douglass’s speech. In two paragraphs which strikingly resemble Booker T. Washington’s later work, Douglass preaches self-reliance and self-respect, explicitly instructing his auditors to “practice it yourselves and teach it to your children.”

Douglass’s speech is also notable for its emphasis on the inferiority of emancipation measures in the United States by comparison with their British analogues, which came much earlier and, according to Douglass’s account, yielded more immediate and complete emancipation of Black British imperial subjects without violence. While one might quibble with the characterization of West Indian Emancipation as a bloodless revolution, Douglass was undeniably correct in presenting U.S. politics as still driven by the recriminations of the Civil War period, just as he was right to present the project of Reconstruction in the South as unfinished and even regressing.

It’s likely that some auditors, particularly white auditors committed to the narrative of successful reconciliation which was increasingly popular, would have found Douglass’s message unpatriotic and rejected his claims that “in most Southern States, the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments, are virtually nullified,” “our reconstruction measures were radically defective,” and “the newly enfranchised class” had been left “in a condition but little above that in which they were found before the rebellion.”

It is painful to think that nearly two decades after secession, with millions of lives lost in pursuit of emancipation and Reconstruction, the situation was barely better than it had been before the war. This was likely a reality too hard to accept for some in attendance, particularly partisans of the Republican Party who had controlled the government throughout those two decades and whose candidates Douglass was allegedly endorsing later in the very same speech. Is the relative paucity of white commentary on Douglass’s speech and the associated Emancipation Day celebrations a reflection of respect for the desired autonomy of Black organizers? Or does it reflect a wish to obscure and undermine the inconvenient truths of Douglass’s account?

I don’t know.

What I can report is that, at least in private, Mark Twain was increasingly in full agreement with Douglass on the failure of Reconstruction to create a more egalitarian and enlightened South. In his notebook, presumably sometime in early to mid-August, soon after Douglass’s speech (based upon the surrounding entries), Twain produced a few very suggestive entries. With the help of the Mark Twain Project (and specifically its General Editor, Robert H. Hirst), I’m reproducing two consecutive pages from that notebook, so that you can review these entries for yourself:

On the first page, Twain begins to set a scene, describing a gathering of people from throughout the United States. He then jumps into an excoriation of Southern accomplishment, or lack thereof.

There is not a single hardly a single not a single celebrated Southern name in any of the departments of human industry except those of war, assasination, lynching, murder, the duel, repudiation, & massacre.

There is not a living Southern celebrity in art, today; nor science etc.

Mark Twain’s Notebooks & Journals: Volume II, 1877-1883 (pg. 368)
One of several passages in Douglass’s speech elaborating on the ongoing cruelty of the “Old Master Class.”

As you can see from his furious editing of these thoughts, they were not easy for him to express. He abandons the more specific (assassination, lynching) for the more general (murder). He modifies the universal (not a single) into the proportional (hardly a) and then goes back to the universal. He then crosses out the whole passage dealing with Southerners native capacity for violence and settles for a more milquetoast estimation of their failures in art and science. Twain was, quite clearly, grappling with the legacy of the South, which was his own legacy. He still sometimes (selectively) introduced himself as a Southerner, and frequently traded upon this identity in his humor and personal branding. But it is hard for him to face the truth. His first, rejected estimation of Southern celebrity could easily have been ripped directly from Douglass’s own descriptions of the ingrained and degrading culture of violence in the South. But he is not fully comfortable, even in his private journal, with naming that culture of violence, though his representation of it was already starting to take shape in the manuscript of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn he had been working on earlier in the Summer of 1880.

On the next page of the notebook, he begins mapping a scene for what would become Extract From Captain Stormfield’s Visit To Heaven (1907). While this narrative will not be published for several decades, it is, in part, a parody of Elizabeth Stuart Phelps’s sappy evangelical novel, The Gates Ajar (1868), which had been one of the bestsellers of the 1870s. Twain reimagines what Heaven might actually be like for an American (as many critics have noted, an American who strikingly resembles Sam Clemens himself or is, at least, a representative man of his generation). Stormfield is initially “delighted with the social equalities” amongst what he terms a “menagerie” of races, but is eventually overwhelmed and frightened by the unfamiliarity and diversity of the Elect:

The menag[erie] continued to grow, till it had in it cannibals, Presbyterians, pariahs, politicians, teetotalers, Turks, tramps, – indeed, all sorts of disagreeable people; & they all called him “Brother Stormfield” & kept falling on his neck & weeping down his back in pious joy. Finally he said “Heaven is a most unpleasant place; there is no privacy in it. I must move.”

Mark Twain’s Notebooks & Journals: Volume II, 1877-1883 (pg. 368-369)

None of the specific language of this initial draft made it into the final version of Captain Stormfield, though the premise remains largely intact. Stormfield, a patriotic American, is shocked by the scarcity of white people in Heaven and a little disappointed that what he discovers are the universal standards of virtue don’t closely mirror those of the mortal society he was accustomed to.

By the time Stormfield was published, bitter satire of U.S. nationalism and grotesque depictions of the human costs of white entitlement had become commonplaces in Twain’s writings, but these passages in Twain’s journal are much harsher than was characteristic of him up to 1880.

At the time he was making these notes, he was campaigning for a presidential candidate, James A. Garfield. He was also increasingly in the sway of Ulysses S. Grant, whose administration he had savaged only a few years earlier. And, in both Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and Old Times on The Mississippi (1875) Twain had demonstrated a perceptible, if fleeting nostalgia for the people and places of his youth which makes both works (far more than their sequels) adaptable to the toxic literary tradition of The Lost Cause.

Whether you see Captain Stormfield as a heroic or antiheroic avatar of his manic-depressive creator; whether you read Twain’s remorseful estimation of Southern achievements as challenging himself to do better, or a wholesale reputation of the irredeemable culture in which he was raised, it is hard not to regard these brief passages, sandwiched between notes on the history of British monarchy (for The Prince & The Pauper) and domestic reminders, as inspired, most likely, by the Emancipation Day celebration that took place in close proximity to when they were composed. The immense, multi-racial crowd in Elmira on August 3, 1880 would certainly have been enough to shock and discomfort Captain Stormfield. And Douglass’s descriptions of the resentment and cruelty of the “old master class” would have easily made even a “reconstructed Southerner,” as Twain has often been called, feel shame.

Soon thereafter, Twain would make a point to see the “the New South” for himself. He had been fantasizing about returning to the Mississippi River since he began writing Old Times on The Mississippi in 1874, but had never gone much beyond fantasy. He largely dropped the subject for several years after Old Times was completed. But, less than one week after Emancipation Day, he took it up again, and began planning in earnest a voyage which would actually begin in April of the following year.

This trip led directly to the composition of Life On The Mississippi (1883) – the less idyllic sequel to Old Times – but is most often credited for renewing Twain’s interest in the manuscript of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885). The assumption (sometimes called the Holbrook Thesis because Hal Holbrook articulates it so convincingly in Ken Burns’s Mark Twain) is that the continued degradation of formerly enslaved people which Twain witnessed during his first trip to the region since the outset of the Civil War (and which Douglass also describes in vivid detail) convinced him that a novel focused on the blinding hypocrisy, dehumanization, absurdity, and ritualized violence of the antebellum period was still relevant.

Whether or not Douglass’s speech was a catalyst for Twain’s return to Mississippi and thereafter Huck’s decision to “go to hell” to protect Jim’s freedom, it is clear that the novels of the 1880s would be decidedly less nostalgic, and less optimistic, than those of the late 1870s.

There are other ways in which Douglass’s “Lessons of Emancipation” are imprinted upon Twain’s later work as well.

The Day We Celebrate

The page from Douglass’s manuscript raises the question, “We celebrate West India Emancipation when we might celebrate American Emancipation?”

Douglass’s speech, though it veers into indictments of the “old master class” and the Democratic Party, as well as arguments for Black self-reliance and endorsements of Garfield, begins with a justification for the occasion. The event was scheduled to coincide roughly with the anniversary of the implementation of the British Slavery Abolition Act in the West Indies, which took place on August 1, 1834. Though it was publicized, including by Douglass himself, as a celebration of both British and American emancipation, and the American Emancipation Proclamation was read aloud before Douglass was introduced, it is clear that the the committee chose to prioritize the British anniversary. And in his speech Douglass asks the rhetorical question, “Why celebrate West India Emancipation when we might celebrate American Emancipation?”

He makes an extensive and compelling case that the emancipation of the West Indies was a crucial, early victory in the long campaign which led to the emancipation of enslaved African-Americans, and moreover contends that the two events should be “coupled” in part because the cause of freedom “is bounded by no geographical lines or national limitations.”

But while Douglass explains why “we may properly celebrate this day because of its special relation to our American Emancipation,” he does not back down from his original thesis:

Let no American, especially no colored American withhold a generous recognition of this glorious achievement. What though it is not American, but British; what though it was not Republican, but monarchal; what though it was not from the American Congress, but from the British Parliament; what though it was not from the chair of a President, but from the throne of a queen, it was none the less a triumph of right over wrong, of good over evil and a victory for the whole human race.

“Lesson of Emancipation To The New Generation”

The idea that “the downfall of slavery under British power, meant the downfall of slavery ultimately, under American power, and the downfall of negro slavery everywhere” and that this achievement should produce “the day we celebrate,” a phrase used several times in Douglass’s speech, is something which stuck with Mark Twain.

In 1907, for instance, he was asked specifically, during a Fourth of July banquet in London, to respond to Whitelaw Reid’s speech titled “The Day We Celebrate,” and explain what and why his countrymen were celebrating. By this point, Twain had several times delivered subversive and scorching July 4th toasts. His hosts likely expected he would repeat the performance for their entertainment. And he did. He attributes the rituals of the American holiday tradition to its British predecessor, Guy Fawkes Day. He expresses his virulent hatred of fireworks, which is equalled only by his disdain for the cheap patriotism of cowardly politicians incapable of original thought. In other words, Twain leans into the tropes of toasts he’d been giving for decades, until the end.

We have, however, one Fourth of July which is absolutely our own, and that is that great proclamation issued forty years ago by that great American to whom Sir Mortimer Durand paid that just and beautiful tribute — Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln’s proclamation, which not only set the black slaves free, but set the white man free also. The owner was set free from the burden and offense, that sad condition of things where he was in so many instances a master and owner of slaves when he did not want to be. That proclamation set them all free. But even in this matter England suggested it, for England had set her slaves free thirty years before, and we followed her example. We always followed her example, whether it was good or bad.

And it was an English judge that issued that other great proclamation, and established that great principle that, when a slave, let him belong to whom he may, and let him come whence he may, sets his foot upon English soil, his fetters by that act fall away and he is a free man before the world. We followed the example of 1833, and we freed our slaves as I have said.

“Independence Day” (1907), as published in Mark Twain’s Speeches (1910)

As you can see, in this moment, Twain somewhat awkwardly but unmistakably resurfaces Douglass’s argument from “Lessons of Emancipation,” even seems to be paraphrasing the speech of John Philpot Curran that Douglass quotes: “The spirit of British Law makes liberty commensurate with, and inseparable from British Soil.” Twain provocatively conflates U.S. and U.K. political histories and recollects the general timeline and pattern of influence which Douglass had laid out 27 years earlier.

Twain was evidently quite pleased with this performance and especially the finale because he chose to include an account of it in his autobiographical dictations the following month, as well as clippings from newspaper accounts, concluding with a “compliment” which gratified him from the then-President of Columbia University, Murray Butler. “In the very beautiful and eloquent passage at the close of his speech,” Butler said, “[Clemens] has pointed out with absolute fidelity to historical fact that we are celebrating, not something which Englishmen do not want and do not believe in, but something which England throughout its history has fought for and stood for.”

In the weeks and months before this speech, Twain had been actively working on Captain Stormfield, the first installment of which would appear later in 1907.

A Glimpse of Mrs. Langdon

A mild detour here before I close with the meat of Twain’s endorsement letter in the context of the Garfield campaign. There is yet another provocative gap in the historical record. On August 9th, 1880, less than one week after his Emancipation Day speech, Frederick Douglass wrote to Charley Langdon, brother of Livy, from Washington, D.C. It is in this letter that he remarks on passing through the Park Church with John W. Jones, as mentioned above.

Douglass was evidently responding to a letter from Langdon. Though that letter does not survive, it is easy enough to guess from what Douglass say in reply that it contained regrets that Langdon was not able to attend Douglass’s speech or otherwise show him hospitality during the recent visit to Elmira. Langdon and his immediate family were in Wisconsin that Summer and their return was apparently delayed due to illness, something Twain mentions in his own correspondence.

Gracious, of course, Douglass describes the hospitality shown him by their mutual friends. I reproduce his full letter here, courtesy of The Mark Twain House & Museum:

Frederick Douglass (dictated) to Charley Langdon (August 9, 1880) Courtesy of The Mark Twain House & Museum, Hartford, Connecticut. Gift of Olivia Loomis Lada-Mocarski, 1965

In the line that runs across the bottom third of the first page, Douglass writes, “I caught a glimpse of your mother,” followed by two words that are difficult to parse, concluding the sentence, “and was delighted to see one near and dear to you, who was kind and friendly to me when friends were few and foes were many.” Douglass had clearly recently seen Olivia Lewis, though only briefly, perhaps even at a distance. The unclear words in the middle of the sentence create, in my opinion, two conflicting interpretations.

If Douglass “caught a glimpse of your mother at Livonia,” that would presumably mean that in his travels through upstate New York in the preceding week he had made an appearance in Livonia, a village of only 700 people, located about 25 miles south of Rochester.

If Douglass “caught a glimpse of your mother and Livinia [or Livonia or Livonea],” it would presumably mean he had seen Livy Clemens with her mother on Emancipation Day (the only day he spent in Elmira) and was making an incorrect deduction about the unabridged version of her first name.

I have thus far found no record of Douglass making a stop in Livonia, NY in 1880, but Douglass was acting as one of candidate Garfield’s surrogates throughout this campaign season, devoting his attentions particularly to the swing states of New York and Indiana.

Nor have not been able to ascertain exactly where Olivia Lewis Langdon was in early August of 1880. Earlier that Summer she had visited the resort at Avon Springs, as Sam mentions in a July 19 letter to Joe Twichell, but I haven’t confirmed her presence back in Elmira until August 19, though I assumed she would have returned much sooner, given the birth of a grandchild on July 26. But the Avon Springs resort and the town of Livonia were within 15 miles of one another, so one can reasonably imagine a meeting taking place there.

However you read this line, I think it supports the case that Sam was in the audience on Emancipation Day. If Douglass caught his glimpse of two Langdon women in Elmira, it’s hard to imagine the 70-year-old woman and nursing mother were not accompanied by Mr. Clemens. If Mrs. Langdon made the effort to see Douglass in Livonia, it further confirms how esteemed he was by her family, as does the fact that Charley felt compelled to send Douglass his own regrets. Even if Livy were not well enough to attend the speech herself, it seems likely her well-established sense of familial duty would’ve inclined her to want a report of it and to have her family represented in the audience. And, she and her husband had bonded over mutual admiration of Frederick Douglass since before they were married.

Douglass’s reply to Charley closes, just as his speech did, with an expression of support for Garfield and his plan to campaign on his behalf: “I go to Indiana 1st September, but shall hold myself ready for work in our State of New York in Oct.”

Fellow Garfield Surrogates

The most frequently cited documentation of the Douglass-Twain relationship is, by far, the letter Twain sent to President-Elect Garfield on January 12, 1881, as well as the thank you note Douglass sent to Twain ten days later. Again, based upon these letters, we can deduce that Charley Langdon also corresponded with both parties, but his part in the conversation does not survive.

Twain’s letter to Garfield is now part of the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature collection in the Albert & Shirley Small Special Collections Library at University of Virginia.

The letter closes with what most scholars have treated as the most substantive lines in his endorsement (and justifably so):

I offer this petition with peculiar pleasure and strong desire, because I so honor this man’s high and blemishless character and so admire his brave long crusade for the liberties and elevation of his race. He is a personal friend of mine, but that is nothing to the point – his history would move me to say these things without that. And to feel them too.

Samuel L. Clemens to James A. Garfield (January 12, 1880)

In our attempt to clarify the Douglass-Twain relationship, these lines cut both ways. They are, overtly, an unqualified expression of friendship and admiration, reminiscent of Twain’s amiable impression of Douglass from the letter to Livy eleven years earlier. However, this expression has the misfortune of appearing in a letter of recommendation, a genre in which writers are notoriously prone to hyperbole, obfuscation, and outright fabulation. As Twain jests on the opening page, famous men such as himself are frequently asked to write letters of recommendation for people they barely know.

To fully appreciate the real potency of Twain’s endorsement of Douglass, we have to take into account his lifelong aversion to the practice of writing letters of recommendation and “using his influence” on behalf of nepotistic office-seeking, as was customary, particularly in party politics. While Twain was often generous with advice, mentorship, and even patronage, giving liberally of time and sometimes money, he disdained the practice of writing letters of introduction and believed they were often counterproductive. As he discusses most extensively in his autobiography, Twain believes employers are likely to distrust letters of introduction because they are usually banal and unreliable, and even when people do succeed in being hired on recommendation they are permanently tainted in the eyes of those privy to the circumstances by the impression they got ahead via connections rather than merit.

Twain could be persuaded to write letters of recommendation in only the most exceptional situations, a point he is careful to make in his letter to Garfield. And, curiously, in his expression of gratitude, Douglass seems to be aware of Twain’s aversion. “If a man is mean enough to want an office,” he writes, “he ought to be noble enough to ask for it, and use all honorable means of getting it.” He promises that Twain’s letter will only be “part of any petition” and that he will also make his own case to Garfield on merits. We reproduce this letter with permission from the Mark Twain Project:

As you can see, on the envelope in which Douglass’s letter arrived, Clemens wrote, “From Fred. Douglas the famous orator, formerly a slave – now Marshal of Washington and desirous of retaining the office.” Though one can only speculate as to why Twain deemed it necessarily to annotate this correspondence for posterity, it was part of his habit. Having recognized himself, by this point, as a noteworthy historical figure, he self-curated his papers and, I suppose, wanted to make sure future scholars would take seriously this interlocutor. It is unintentionally ironic (Douglass being now as canonized as Twain), but also reflective that Twain’s admiration was not simply for show.

Headline above transcript of Hawley’s speech and Twain’s introduction in October 20, 1879 issue of Elmira Daily Advertiser.

This exchange of letters must be understood as a kind of exclamation point on the Garfield campaign in which both men had been active supporters, even surrogates, for the eventual victor and President. In October of 1879, papers across the country reported that the Republican Party had “procured the services of” Douglass and Twain, a “combination” which The Washington Post called “ludicrous.” As you can see from Douglass’s letter to Langdon, as well as his Emancipation Day speech, he embraced the role of surrogate, scheduling speeches throughout two crucial swing states, Indiana and New York, both of which had gone to the Democrats in 1876 and would be won narrowly by the Republicans in 1880, thanks in large part to the turnout of Black voters.

Twain sometimes protested that he didn’t make campaign speeches, but then he went ahead and made them anyway. The same month it was reported that his “services” had been “procured,” he came to Elmira with Connecticut Governor Joseph R. Hawley for an event the local papers characterize as the opening of the presidential campaign. He stumped for Garfield several more times in the Fall of 1880 and spoke at the Republican Election Day celebration in Hartford.

The 1880 campaign, of which Emancipation Day in Elmira turned out to be an unofficial, but important part, captures again the paradoxes of the Douglass-Twain relationship. They were working towards the same ends, both using oratorical talents, though their styles contrasted starkly. They were aware of each other’s efforts, and praiseful, but they never shared the stage. Douglass energetically worked on behalf of a party he well knew was sacrificing the rights of African-Americans to protect its spoils system. Twain somewhat reluctantly showed up to make jokes about tariffs and corruption, and to express his intention to “vote the Republican ticket from old habit.” He may have sensed that something ugly was afoot in his old rebel home, but was afraid, as yet, to go see what it was.

He had the privilege to move slowly. Douglass did not.

Douglass’s retention of the office of U.S. Marshal became something of a controversy (which we will examine later in more detail), and Garfield finally decided to give him a different appointment, but not before he had acted as Marshal at the Inauguration. Of this, Douglass wrote in his new autobiography, published later that year, “It was a glad day for me, that I – one of the proscribed race – was permitted to bear so prominent a part it its august ceremonies.” And in the same work morned Garfield’s assassination.

A few years later, Douglass accompanied Garfield’s successor, President Arthur, to a performance in Washington D.C. of the now famous “Twins of Genius” tour featuring Mark Twain and George Washington Cable. Only Cable, the unreconstructed Southerner, made note of Douglass and Arthur coming backstage to meet with Twain: “They met as acquaintances. Think of it! A runaway slave!”

Matt Seybold is Associate Professor of American Literature & Mark Twain Studies at Elmira College, resident scholar at the Center For Mark Twain Studies, & editor of MarkTwainStudies.org. He would like to acknowledge the following people who have been crucial in preparing this essay, the reconstruction of Douglass’s Emancipation Day speech, and other materials we’re featuring during this Emancipation Week:

Robert H. Hirst, General Editor of The Mark Twain Project & Curator of The Mark Twain Papers at Bancroft Library, UC-Berkeley

Mallory Howard, Assistant Curator at The Mark Twain House & Museum

Joe Lemak, Director of The Center For Mark Twain Studies

J. D. Iles, Host of Hidden Landmarks

Charlie Mitchell, Professor of History at Elmira College

Jenny Monroe, President of The Park Church

Lewis Wyman, Reference Librarian at Library of Congress

Jillian Spivey Caddell, Lecturer in Nineteenth-Century American Literature at University of Kent

Shirley Samuels, Director of American Studies at Cornell University

Rebecca Bultman, Special Collections Researcher at Albert & Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia

Rachel Dworkin, Archivist of Chemung County Historical Society

Katie Boland, CEO of YWCA Elmira & The Twin Tiers

Ann Hayes, Reference Librarian at Big Flats Historical Society