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”

Joining Jarvis D. Braham’s Swimming School in 1838 Boston.

The printer's name, S. N. Dickinson is visible in the lower left hand corner of the receipt. Cotsen 30631.

The printer’s name, S. N. Dickinson is visible in the lower left hand corner of the receipt. Cotsen 30631.

It’s too hot and humid this Fourth of July weekend to write about anything except cooling down in the pool.   This little receipt documents Henry Brown’s membership in the Swimming School operated by Jarvis Braman in Boston near Chesnut Street at the foot of Beacon Hill.  It opened its doors in 1836 and after the old man’s death in 1850, his son Jarvis Dwight continued to manage the business at least until 1872, according to Boston city directories.  The Bramans were not the first to operate a pool in Boston; that distinction belongs to Francis Lieber, who opened one in 1826 at the short-lived Boston Gymnasium.  Although the reason given for withdrawing support was that the exercises were too vigorous, there were uncomfortable questions about whether women and African-Americans should be allowed access.

Henry paid for admission on June 10, 1838 and it looks as if he were member number 52.  He did not sign up for lessons or a bathing costume, so perhaps he had learned to swim the previous year and now needed access to keep up his strokes, strength, and stamina. The $5.00 fee sounds very reasonable, even without any indication of how many months’ admission he signed up for.  That $5.00, however, had the purchasing power of $136.00 in today’s currency, so it was probably a lot for many people to pay.  Certainly less affluent Bostonians availed themselves of Braman’s public bath at a different address.

The back of the receipt states all the rules governing members.  Opening hours were between sunrise to sunset.  No swimming naked: the drawers were for the swimmer’s safety as well as modesty, because proficient swimmers were designated by the red cords around their waists. The interpretation of rule 8 poses a few difficulties. Does “interfere” mean no rough housing or horse play?  Or no physical contact of any sort between boys to forestall the temptation of self-pollution?  Rule 6, which states that boys may not go into any other boys’ apartments, suggests that management felt obligated to try and maintain their scholars’ purity.

Things on the Continent do not seem to have been quite so regimented, at least in book illustrations where children are shown swimming outside in idyllic settings.  In this German salute to the seasons, July was the time for swimming.  The boys are shown  a garment that looks like a modern pair of trunks, although they were probably made of woven cloth, not a knitted jersey.  Perhaps American boys wore something similar.

Ein Jahr und seine Freuden, between 1840 and 1850? This board book of hand-colored lithographs has no publishing information. Cotsen 31899.

G. de Pomaret, Les Diables a quatre. Illustrated by Petit and F. Appel. Paris: Theodore Lefevre, 1892. Cotsen 10780.

This illustration of a French Famous Five offers an interesting contrast to the previous illustration.  Coed bathing seems not to have been forbidden.  Certainly the children’s costumes are less revealing than the German ones.  The boy’s chest is covered up, but the trunks are shorter. The girls are wearing suits in two pieces, with the waists defined by drawstrings.  Their shorts come to the knee instead of mid-thigh.  The hems of the blouses and shorts are trimmed.  Everyone has short sleeves, conducive to getting what used to ungraciously be called a “farmer’s tan” in Southern California.  Did anyone in the nineteenth century use some kind of sunscreen to prevent sunburn????

To see more children enjoying swimsr, visit Cotsen’s virtual exhibition Water Babies.