The Fickle Affections of The Elmira Advertiser For Frederick Douglass
On the front page of the August 4, 1880 issue of the New York Times, above the fold no less, there appears a report on Frederick Douglass’s Emancipation Day speech the previous afternoon. Events in the city of Elmira are rarely so prominently featured in “the grey lady” of Manhattan. Even less so when those events do not involve Mark Twain.
But Douglass’s speech and the associated celebration, involving thousands of residents from the counties surrounding Elmira, garnered front-page coverage not only in the Times, but papers of record in Baltimore, Brooklyn, and Philadelphia. Excerpts from Douglass’s speech appeared at least as far away as Kansas.
The national attention on Elmira’s Emancipation Day celebration was made possible, in part, by the wide circulation of the Times, as well as by an Associated Press wire which characterized the gathering as “largely of a political nature.” The few historians who have made note of the event since have generally accepted this characterization. David Blight, in his recent biography of Douglass, calls it “a typical campaign address” and quotes the same lines which punctuate the Times report and most other newspaper dispatches from the ensuing days, in which Douglass firmly denounces the Democratic Party.
For the habitual oversimplification of Emancipation Day, we can thank the Elmira Daily Advertiser. But also, in my efforts to gain a fuller perspective on the event, there have been few more useful resources than the Elmira Daily Advertiser.
It was the Advertiser that provided the most comprehensive reporting on the event, both before and after Emancipation Day, as well as the most extensive transcription of Douglass’s speech, which filled the back page of that paper’s August 4th issue. A few days ago, we published this page beneath our reconstruction of the speech. As I discussed in my “Note On The Text,” though it omits roughly a third of Douglass’s address and inexactly paraphrases all the portions of the speech which do not deal with the presidential election, the Advertiser transcription was likely based upon pages from Douglass’s manuscript which somehow ended up in the hands of the Advertiser editor, Dr. Ira F. Hart.
Did Hart choose to prioritize the “typical campaign address” portion of the speech because that was the portion of Douglass’s manuscript which he possessed? Or did he possess that portion of the manuscript because it was only Douglass’s electoral endorsement which he cared to publicize? In either case, the Advertiser transcription is likely the reason the AP and others inaccurately characterized the Emancipation Day celebration as a campaign event.
The header above the Advertiser‘s backpage feature emphasizes the “political nature” of the Emancipation Day speech, calling it a “splendid campaign document” that captures “why all voters should support Garfield,” and encouraging subscribers to “read and circulate.” Drawing attention to the transcription on the first column of the front page, the editors of the Advertiser recommend it “should be carefully read and thoroughly perused by every voter, no matter what may be his nationality or the hue of his skin.” In the following issue, they further jest about the partisan nature of the speech, saying, “The Democratic papers did not like it because Fred Douglass made a political speech. We would very much dislike to have Fred Douglass make a speech which would be pleasing to the Democrats.”
Douglass did dedicate more than a third of his speech to making a full-throated endorsement of James A. Garfield and the Republican ticket. And following the Nominating Convention, Douglass certainly saw himself as a surrogate of the Republican Party. He devoted much of the Fall to giving “typical campaign addresses” in the two major swing states of the 1880 election: New York and Indiana. Undoubtedly, he saw the Emancipation Day ceremony, attended by thousands of Black New Yorkers from throughout the western half of the state, as an opportunity to boost Republican turnout in the region.
Two months later, a political correspondent for the New York Times would report surprising enthusiasm for Garfield in Chemung County. In Elmira, he speculated, “converts to the Republican ranks from Democracy have probably been more numerous than in any city of its size in the State, and have included all classes of citizens.” The Times quotes one of the Advertiser‘s editors, Charles M. Beecher, making what turned out to be a laughably wrong prediction of local balloting. It turned out the Democrats won Chemung County, barely, but the overall increased turnout of the Republican base in upstate New York did flip the state back the Republicans, securing Garfield’s victory.
But while Douglass’s speech concludes with a political endorsement and may have had electoral effects, I think it is disingenuous to call it a “campaign document” or to treat Emancipation Day as merely part of the election cycle. The greater part of Douglass’s speech focuses on the real occasion, the anniversary of West Indies Emancipation, which he explicitly treats as the precedent for U.S. Emancipation. Douglass’s comparative history of the Abolitionist movements in the U.S. and U.K., as well as the process of emancipation and Reconstruction in the American South, is far more ambitious than his comparison of Garfield and Hancock.
And, though the Advertiser clearly chooses to prioritize the political implications of the event, its reporting on Emancipation Day does extend beyond the transcription of Douglass’s speech and speculation about its electoral implications. Indeed, the newspaper had a complicated relationship with Frederick Douglass during the months preceding and following his appearance in Elmira.
Douglass’s name appeared in the pages of the Advertiser frequently. The paper’s coverage of both Emancipation Day and the chosen “Emancipation Orator” is an essential and revealing complement to the speech itself. Without the Advertiser, our knowledge of the proceedings would be extremely limited. It was, at the time, the only daily newspaper in the city of Elmira, and, of all the papers, the one most willing to not only report on the Black community, but to amplify Black voices in its pages. But we must also take into account the heavily partisan and sometimes factional politics of the Advertiser’s editors. So, before looking at the Emancipation Day coverage, I offer a brief introduction to the three people who were most responsible for the paper’s content during this period.
The Advertiser was a self-described “stalwart Republican” paper. For much of the 1880 campaign season, it dedicated one page in every issue to making the case for Garfield and his running mate, Chester A. Arthur. At the time of Emancipation Day, the newspaper’s largest shareholder and executive editor, Charles G. Fairman, was actually serving as New York’s Superintendent of Insurance, appointed to that office by Republican Governor Alonzo B. Cornell.
Fairman founded the Elmira Daily Advertiser with his brother, Seymour Fairman, who died in a notorious and tragic accident on the Erie Railroad in 1868. The Fairmans ran their newspaper with minimal outside input through the tumultuous years preceding the Civil War and through the war itself. The paper flourished as the community it served grew increasingly radical, especially in terms of Abolition, while also growing rapidly in population, fueled by a “boom” in timber, coal, and steel, as well as the migration of Blacks. By the outset of the war, Elmira had (and still has) one of the largest Black communities in the state. During the 1860s, the Fairmans sold shares in the Advertiser to other wealthy and prominent Elmirans who shared their political leanings in order to offset the costs of the paper’s increasing circulation.
Among those who “bought in” was a respected local physician who ran the Union Army hospital (now known as Foster House) and had a private practice on the east side of Elmira. Dr. Ira F. Hart and his wife, Marion, joined the famously progressive Park Church in 1852, immediately upon settling in Elmira, when the congregation was still in its infancy, so he knew Jervis Langdon and Olivia Lewis Langdon (friends of Frederick Douglass and in-laws of Mark Twain) and would’ve seen the Park Church grow into an institution of national repute under the leadership of Thomas K. Beecher, who accepted the Langdon’s invitation to become minister in 1853. Hart would later spearhead the chartering and development of the Elmira chapter of the YMCA.
Throughout his long residency in Elmira, Hart was involved in the newspaper trade. He began contributing to the Advertiser part-time at least as early as 1860. After he acquired a stake in the paper, likely the largest stake outside the Fairman family, he became increasingly involved in its management and influential over its editorial direction. When Seymour Fairman died, Hart became the full-time managing editor, though Charles Fairman retained executive authority. The relationship between Fairman and Hart grew rockier over the next decade, in part due to a difference of opinion on how openly partisan the Advertiser should remain as postbellum Elmira became more diverse, not only with Black migrants, but white ethnic immigrants, especially Irish, Germans, and Eastern Europeans.
According to Hart, when Fairman accepted his government appointment in April of 1880, it was with the understanding that he would not only fully cede editorial control, but also gradually unwind his ownership position. Fairman never returned to active duty at the Advertiser, in part because he fell ill during his tenure as Superintendent and died in 1884, soon after resigning the office. The fact that in 1883 Fairman did invest in a short-lived competitor, the Elmira Republican, suggests that his separation from the Advertiser was by then complete and, perhaps, somewhat resentful.
Hart became the acting executive editor in 1880, promoting Charles Beecher (no relation to the famous Beecher family, so far as I know) to managing editor. Beecher also died young, in 1881. The Elmira Gazette, primary rival to the Advertiser, wrote, “Charley Beecher, we believe, fell a victim to overwork and anxiety caused by his editorial duties.” Years later, Hart admitted “The Gazette editorial probably expressed the truth.” He characterized the period surrounding Fairman’s departure as one of extraordinary stress. Hart explicitly blames this stress (and implicitly, himself) for causing Beecher’s death. This period of extraordinary stress also happens to be the same period as the 1880 election cycle and the Emancipation Day celebration.
Unlike his fellow editors, Hart lived an unusually long life. He gave up the reins of The Advertiser in 1886, but continued to write for it and other local periodicals until his death in 1914. In 1894, he produced a series of memoirist essays for the Elmira Daily Gazette & Free Press titled “The Writers of Old: The Men Who Helped Make the Newspapers of Elmira,” which are a useful source of testimony for the story I’m now telling.
Hart reveals, for instance, that the factional tensions within the Republican party during the election of 1880 created a challenge for the Advertiser and precipitated its change in direction. Speaking of Beecher, he says, “The managing editor was required to guide the paper between Republican Charybdis and Scylla of Half Breed and Stalwart.” Fairman had been, according to Hart, the only true “stalwart” among the editors. As such he represented the majority of the paper’s readership. Yet, at both the state and federal level the Republicans were increasingly divided, largely on issues related to Reconstruction. The so-called “half breed” wing of the part sought reconciliation with the South, expecting economic benefit for the nation as a result. The “stalwarts” resisted compromises which they feared would bring about a return to the “tyranny of the minority” which plagued Congress from 1820-1860. Both factions accused the other of laying the groundwork for renewed sectional violence.
Since the “penny paper” revolution of 1835, which birthed mass media in the U.S., newspapers had almost always aligned themselves with partisan factions. This remained the case in 1880, although an aspiration to independence was increasingly common, at least for the publications which had large circulations. The Elmira Advertiser had always been a Republican paper, but if it aspired to grow, it could not be afford to ostracize any faction of Republicans, and perhaps even needed to appeal to more moderate Democrats and independents. Hart and Beecher sensed that the national party was moving towards reconciliation (they were right) and expected the state and perhaps thereafter the city to follow suit. Under these conditions of uncertainty, they were challenged, as Hart put it,
To make the Advertiser neither stalwart nor half-breed – that was the rubber. If on one day hopes were raised, they might be doomed to disappointment in the next issue. To sustain the national government, to steer clearly between the Albany senatorial factions, to meet the hot partisanship that prevailed were the issues. That the Advertiser suited no particular faction showed the genius of the pilot. Still Mr. Beecher was not called upon to do the entire editorial work. The Advertiser could not have been the paper it was – single-handed.“The Writers of Old” by Dr. Ira F. Hart, Elmira Daily Gazette & Free Press (July 21, 1894)
That Hart remembers this time as a period of precariousness and power struggle, both within the Republican Party and his own newsroom, is an insight into his paper’s reporting on Emancipation Day, and on the political career of Frederick Douglass more generally.
After all, the transcription of the Emancipation Day speech was not the first occasion Douglass’s words had been prominently featured in the pages of the Advertiser. Just one year earlier, on January 15, 1879, the first column of the first page the Advertiser featured a Letter To The Editor from Douglass, reprinted here in its entirety:
Douglass is somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more, so any documentation related to his life and work is noteworthy. But I offer this letter as a kind of prequel to the Emancipation Day speech the following year. Douglass takes umbrage with the Advertiser‘s characterization of his position on the reconciliation measures of Rutherford B. Hayes’s administration. As Douglass would say in no uncertain terms in his Emancipation Day speech, those measures left “the newly enfranchised class in a condition but little above that in which they were found before the rebellion.”
This dire warning about the state of emancipation in the South had been a part of his speeches since 1878, but he also counseled optimism about legal recourses and the tenuousness of what he called the “old master class,” an political alliance around white supremacy which had the potential to fray if and when constituencies within it realized the benefits of the emergent Jim Crow system redounded disproportionately to the wealthiest white men. That some stalwarts regarded Douglass’s position as a betrayal shows the virulence of the factionalism within the Republican Party which Hart would later blame, in part, for Beecher’s death.
In both the substance of the above Letter To The Editor and the fact that chooses to write it at all, Douglass reveals his affection for Elmira. He was, after all, not unaccustomed to “public criticism,” and did not usually stoop to respond directly to the editorials from a newspaper with circulations of only 5,000 or so. But he “sets a high value upon the respect and good will” of the Advertiser‘s readers and reminds them that he well knows their local history. His first documented speech in Elmira was given in 1840 and he may have passed through it as a fugitive even before that.
In its reply, the Advertiser‘s editor likewise reveals knowledge of Douglass’s past relationship to the city, referencing his 1848 lecture at “Old Temperance Hall” and his fugitive status: “That was Frederick Douglass when he was hunted, hated, and despised. He was himself outside the law, and his remedies were equally outside the law.” We reprint just a selection from the Advertiser‘s reply (below), but you can review the whole page here.
I hypothesize that this reply was authored by Charles Fairman, the Advertiser‘s surviving stalwart editor, as well as the individual who, in 1879, would have retained the responsibility for final approval over the contents of each issue. By the placement of Douglass’s letter and Fairman’s reply, we can conclude that Fairman wanted to draw attention to it, believing either that Douglass’s political activity was already of utmost interest to readers or that it should be.
Obviously, the characterization of Douglass as a trafficker in “namby-pampy sentiment” and a hypocrite corrupted by his ceremonial position as U.S. Marshal for Washington, D.C contradicts Douglass’s historical reputation. Even at the time, it was obviously a gross mischaracterization of Douglass’s position, as must have been evident to at least some of the Advertiser staff. As recently as December 2, 1878, in a report title “Fred Douglass and The South,” they had applauded his assessment “that a state of terrorism exists at the South,” but expressed reservations about his “faith” in legal recourses and fragility of the factional alliances which were upholding Southern resistance to Black emancipation and enfranchisement.
The Advertiser stuck to the most sensational of its allegations against Douglass for many months after they published Douglass’s Letter To The Editor. On February 9, they excerpted an editorial from the Rochester Union which stated, “Mr. Douglass has within two years been transformed from an irrepressible Radical into an amiable Conservative, and  the U.S. Marshalship has had its effect in producing the change.” On May 24, an Advertiser editor, presumably Fairman, wrote, “Fred Douglass wants his colored brothers to come back to the sunny South. But will Fred be willing to go with them?” The same month, he joked, “Fred Douglass has handed over the job of Moses of his race to ‘Bob’ Ingersoll.” Douglass’s name returned to the first column of the front page on September 15, in the inflammatory squib reproduced here:
These are but a few of the most outrageous criticisms leveled at Douglass in the Advertiser’s pages over the course of 1879. One cannot help but wonder what role the Advertiser‘s negative coverage played in Douglass’s decision to accept the Emancipation Day invitation in the Spring of 1880. Clearly, he had friends in Elmira who were subscribers to the paper. In his Letter To The Editor he had demonstrated his “sensitivity” to the paper’s influence. Did Douglass return to Elmira in part to defend his reputation amongst the citizens of the city whose “respect and good will” he valued?
It is also possible that the paper’s treatment of Douglass was one of the issues that brought about the internal tumult and eventual change of leadership which Hart describes. The tone of the Advertiser‘s coverage changes over the course of 1880, during the period when Fairman was withdrawing from active duty and his successors were trying to move the paper in a less stalwart direction.
On June 2, 1880, the Advertiser reported that Douglass had accepted the invitation of the Emancipation Day organizing committee, but makes no editorial comment on this fact. Given the sarcasm and sensationalism of the commentary on Douglass throughout 1879, it is somewhat surprising the the paper has so little to say about the prospect of Douglass actually visiting their territory. But this subdued style is sustained in all the reports leading up to Emancipation Day. By reporting on the details of the organizing committee’s correspondence with Douglass, the editors show that they still expect readers to be interested in this celebrated figure, regardless of how they might judge his political activity.
In the issue published on the morning of Emancipation Day, the Advertiser devoted more than a full column to describing the participants and the schedule of events, as well as providing a brief bio of Douglass, and, most notably, quoting the organizing committee’s mission statement. This is, so far as I know, the best surviving document of the identities and intentions of the organizers, invaluable to any further attempts at historicization. You can view the whole page here, but I draw your attention for now to the “press release” of the organizers:
As I discussed elsewhere, part of the challenge of researching the 1880 Emancipation Day celebration is that the organizers strove for autonomy. They wanted to fully control the planning and publicity, to amplify the voices of Black speakers and performers, and to do so without the patronage of whites, even those who they considered friends and allies. More spectacularly, the white citizens of Elmira and the rest of the region seem to have largely respected this wish. I have found no public commentary on the event from prominent figures in the community.
Even the Advertiser reporting conforms to these wishes, as it confines itself almost exclusively to materials provided by the organizers, with the exception, a week prior to the event, of pleading, “Don’t fail to hear the oration of Fred Douglass on Emancipation Day. He is a colored Demosthenes.” Since Beecher had no formal education to speak of (like Sam Clemens, he began his career as a printer’s apprentice) and Hart had an extensive classical education from Homer Academy and Hamilton College before he went to medical school, I’m tempted to attribute this rather silly allusion to the latter.
Given their striving for control over the event, the organizers’ mission statement should be read with interest. Notably, it makes no mention of the ongoing presidential election. By referring to “our race,” it reiterates the autonomy of the Black community in producing this celebration, but also emphasizes that all are invited to attend. They succeeded in attracting a multiracial crowd, according to the Advertiser‘s descriptions of Emancipation Day in the succeeding issue.
Again, the reporting on the events is relatively exhaustive, extending for more than a full column, and capturing several evocative details. You can view the whole page here. Here is a map of the parade route:
The Advertiser‘s coverage was substantial and extended well beyond analyzing the event in terms of the 1880 election. Via Letters To The Editor, the paper further captured some responses from the community. Most notable, undoubtedly, is the letter from John W. Jones, President for the Day and Douglass’s host, whose report on visiting the Park Church before the parade began I discussed at some length earlier this week in my essay on Douglass, Twain, and their mutual friends. Jones appears to have had some ongoing relationship with the Advertiser. That Jones chose on this occasion to also remark upon the legacy of the Park Church congregation and specifically its founder, Jervis Langdon, would no doubt have gratified Hart.
But here I’m going to share another letter, from an anonymous auditor:
From this letter you can extrapolate some of the ongoing efforts to frame and reframe Douglass’s visit as a campaign event, efforts undertaken by partisans on both sides of the aisle. But unlike many of those efforts, “X.” ignores the presidential candidates and focuses instead on Douglass’s vitriolic history of the Democratic Party, shifting the focus, just as Douglass himself does, from the real tensions between the Republican factions to the relatively consistency of the Democrats: consistency in cruelty, oppression, and sabotage.
While the coverage of Douglass from the resignation of Fairman in April of 1880 to Emancipation Day in August is mixed, or, at least, ambiguous, the rousing endorsements of Douglass’s speech printed in the week following Emancipation Day forecast a marked shift in the Advertiser‘s editorial bent, at least as far as Douglass is concerned. The most comic evidence of this is that following Garfield’s victory in November of 1880, the paper which had spent much of the preceding calendar year lambasting Douglass as corrupted by the “soft seat” of his government appointment sets about aggressively lobbying for him to retain exactly that position!
The question of Douglass’s reappointment was raised on the front page of the Advertiser at least half a dozen times between the Election and his eventual placement as Commissioner of Deeds in April of 1881. The oddest of these blurbs is definitely this one:
Flattering commentary about Douglass’s speeches and, later in 1881, his new autobiography which included an excerpt from his Emancipation Day speech, continued to appear for as deep into the 1880s run of the Advertiser as I have so far had time to check. In my notes on Douglass’s speech earlier this week, I expressed my curiosity about how Ira Hart ended up with the latter part of Douglass’s manuscript for “Lessons of Emancipation.” And this remains a mystery.
But in the days since that was published, I realized that just because he was parted from that portion of his manuscript did not mean Douglass’s words were lost to him. In Frederick Douglass Jr.’s scrapbook, now part of the Walter O. Evans Collection of Frederick Douglass & Douglass Family Papers at Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Liberary, we find the complete clippings of the Advertiser transcription:
More inexplicably, we also find what appear to be the proofs of the transcription from the offices of the Elmira Daily Advertiser, complete with the headlines as they appeared in the August 4, 1880 issue:
So, it would appear that not only did Ira Hart have Frederick Douglass’s handwritten manuscript, but Frederick Douglass had Ira Hart’s typewritten proofs.
The mystery thickens?!?
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 played crucial roles in preparing the reconstruction of Douglass’s Emancipation Day speech and other materials which we’ll be featuring during 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