The “Fanaticism” Frederick Douglass Found in the Columbian Orator

The thirteen-year-old Frederick Douglas put down fifty cents for a copy of Caleb Bingham’s The Columbian Orator, which had been first published in 1797.   He described the anthology both as “a rich treasure”  and as a source of fanaticism because its contents included the fiery speeches of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Lord Chatham, William Pitt, and Charles James Fox.  Armed with this volume, Douglass said “My own human nature, and the facts of my experience, to help me, I was equal to a contest with the religious advocates of slavery, whether among the whites or among the coloured people.”

But the selection he describes in the greatest detail is a dialogue between a master and his slave, who has been recaptured after a second attempt to run away.  Instead of being punished, he succeeds in winning his freedom  through the cogent analysis of the arguments for and against slavery.   Douglass recalls that “I could not help feeling that the day might come, when the well-directed answers made by the slave to the master, in this instance would find their counterpart in myself.”

This dialogue work had been extracted without credit by Caleb Bingham from the sixth volume of Evenings at Home (1796), a collaboration between John Aikin and his sister Anna Letitia Barbauld, author of the celebrated Lessons for Children (1778-1779) and Hymns in Prose for Children (1781). “A Dialogue between a Master and His Slave” was one of Aikin’s contributions to the project.  While the attribution has been known for some years, its significance has not always been appreciated.  Aikin and Barbauld were born into a family of Dissenters, which meant they were denied full religious liberty in their own country.  While their situation was not analogous to enslavement, they knew first hand the pain of  intolerance and alienation.  Aikin and Barbauld wrote as members of the cultured and liberal British middle class, they embraced the responsibility of teaching children how to read, analyze, and evaluate so that they would act as ethical social beings.   Here is the dialog:

Douglass was by no means the only nineteenth-century reader deeply influenced by a piece from Evenings, even though it is unclear if he ever learned that its author was John Aikin.  It was also among the favorite children’s books of George Eliot and John Ruskin, to mention two other distinguished writers.  We may never know what edition of The Columbian Orator Douglass owned or if it has survived in some collection, but it is testimony to the power of a school book to shape the minds of young readers who were not fortunate enough to own many books, but were hungry to read, analyze, evaluate, and act.

John Aikin, author of “A Dialogue between a Master and his Slave”

A Girl’s Silence Is Golden; or An Old Take on “Lock Her Up!”

Children’s books can contain surprising survivals and one of the strangest I’ve seen recently  is the woman’s mouth closed with a padlock, a symbol of female self-control that is at least as old as the Middle Ages.  Rather than succumb to the temptation of idle talk, the wise wife takes the precaution of locking her lips and entrusting the key to  her husband.

It turns up in an innocent looking illustrated pamphlet published in 1770 by Francis Newbery, the nephew of John.  The story is not what we would consider a proper fairy tale, being short of marvels, but the narrator Jacky Goodchild visits Fairy Land and is taught the secrets of their power as a token of the king and queen’s esteem.   Robin Goodfellow transports him to Francis Newbery’s bookshop, so Jacky can observe how useful fairies can be to humans.

Miss Betsy Pert and her maid call at the shop, where she talks so much that she does not hear any of Mr. Alphabet’s improving conversation.  Robin Goodfellow takes matters into his own hands and if you look carefully at the illustration on the right, you will see a padlock fastened to her mouth.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The anecdote is over, but not the curious history of the circulation of the alarming and cruel image of the girl who cannot keep quiet.  Such locks were real and could be purchased from vendors who specialized in the construction of devices in wood and metal. .

The earliest example of such lock I traced back to this 1703 work, which included the section Wit’s Activity Display’d, which consisted of instructions for performing all kinds of magic tricks.  You’ll notice that the lock on Miss Pert is a simple padlock, where this one is much more elaborate and formidable looking.Ornatissimus Joculator appeared twenty years before Henry Dean’s Whole Art of Legerdemain, or Hocus Pocus (1722), where he inserted an advertisement that any of the devices  illustrated in the text could be commissioned from his shop on Little Tower Hill near Postern Row.  Dean’s handbook went through many editions, some authorized, others not, usually under variant titles.  Here is an unauthorized one from the 1740s with a particularly good title page.

Editions of the Whole Art published as late as 1783 still carried Dean’s  address on Little Tower Hill, which must have been completely out of date.

I shudder to think of parents purchasing these instruments of torture to teach their daughters a lesson.  I’d prefer to believe that they destined for the theater or the stage itinerant.   Surely eighteenth-century drama, comic operas, and pantomimes had more characters than Papageno in Mozart’s Magic Flute who were punished for having their loose lips securely closed…  A salutary reminder that servants, as well as wives, were supposed to keep their masters’ secrets…