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10/02/2014 02:19 pm ET Updated Dec 01, 2014

Frederick Douglass Meets the Queen (a historical fiction)

"I saw that colored man, Frederick Douglass," said Victoria to Albert in the spring of 1860, "and he was not what I expected at all."

"How do you mean, my dear?" said the consort.

"He seemed rather genteel," said the Queen, musing. "He has a marvelous head, leonine. He told an amusing anecdote about Henry Clay, the late American politician, and imitated his manner, and the Americans present found it remarkably accurate."

"Shall we meet him, then?" asked Albert. "I wonder what a man like that--a fugitive, formerly a chattel--understands of the world. How did he become so intelligent, so able to converse and write his books, and even lecture?"

And so the Queen suggested that her friend Harriet, the Duchess of Sutherland, a patroness of expatriate rebels, bring Douglass to the Palace, but discreetly, as she had done earlier with the Italian Garibaldi. The cabinet would be unhappy if another confrontation ensued with the United States. In 1853, the American Minister had requested that she forbear receiving Mrs. Stowe, at a time when the Queen was transfixed by the story of Uncle Tom and Eliza fleeing across the ice. Her friends had all found occasions to talk with the woman; even the Prime Minister, Lord Roseberry, admitted he read the novel three times, but reasons of state barred her meeting that remarkable authoress who depicted life on the Southern plantations with such affecting emotion.

Just a few weeks earlier, the Prince Consort had served as Honorary President of the International Statistical Congress meeting in London. At its opening, the Chairman, Lord Brougham, acknowledged a colored American physician in the audience. Mr. Dallas, the American Minister, was forced to listen silently as this man, a Doctor Delany, thanked Brougham with great ceremony. Albert had not betrayed any personal feelings, but privately enjoyed seeing the amour-propre of this country politician so disturbed; Dallas had even been his country's Vice-President at some point, and his horrified reaction to a black man was risible, like a lady frightened by a mouse. Now, the Prince was even more interested in these "Colored Americans," as they liked to be called, who had escaped the worst despotism. After he found that Delany, the Negro doctor, had never been a slave, his interest turned to Douglass, who had come to England via Canada, following his implication in John Brown's attack on the American arsenal in western Virginia.

This Douglass, aptly self-named for a famed Highland warrior in one of Walter Scott's novels, reminded the Prince of those fugitive generals, Paoli, Garibaldi, Kossuth, Napoleon--men of plain origins who raised armies and conquered empires. They were dangerous and not to be mocked. Now these Africans from what was once British America showed the same indomitable spirit. He was, at the least, worth meeting.

The Prince sent a message to his wife's friend, the Duchess, suggesting a private visit by Mr. Douglass, whereby the black man would take a train to a station nearby Windsor Castle in Berkshire, from which a closed carriage would bring him to the castle. The Duchess assured Albert that Douglass understood discretion, he had visited her in the country without causing any stir. At Windsor, he could walk around the grounds with Albert, and the Prince could satisfy his curiosity about ordinary life under slavery, with the kind of precise questions that Victoria found tedious; he had annotated his copies of The Narrative of Frederick Douglass and My Bondage and My Freedom, noting discrepancies and ellipses. In particular, he wanted to know about white families living in close quarters with their colored relations, and what effect that had on marital harmony, which touched on the evidently painful subject of Douglass' own paternity.

On a bright day in July 1860, the Negro editor stepped into a carriage at Paddington Station, accompanied by the Duke of Argyll, a famous abolitionist whom the Prince thought a fitting companion. Some people on the platform noticed the well-built man of color, having heard him lecture or read his books, and by the time he boarded, he was fatigued by their congratulations and questions about the upcoming presidential election, presuming him a partisan of the Republicans, which was hardly the case. After a short trip, Douglass and the Duke stepped off the train and were met by a coachman, who led them to an inconspicuous barouche. It entered the palace grounds by a secondary path through a small forest, and stopped at a side door, where the Prince, informally dressed, came down the steps at a brisk pace. Smiling, he greeted Argyll and turned to the newer guest, "Mr. Douglass, shall we walk in the garden before lunch?"

Douglass shook the Prince's hand and looked at him directly, knowing that what interested Albert was his refusal of servility. He presumed that the Prince had read his accounts and knew of the fight with Covey the slave-breaker and his stratagems to learn the ways of white men--how to present himself in public, how to command a stage and rebuff hecklers. Douglass had visited many noble homes in England, but still this was a new challenge: a prince, who lived at a remove from all others. He wondered what aid he might gain from this acquaintance, and whether the Queen and her Consort could keep England neutral in the slaveholders' rebellion that would likely break out if Abraham Lincoln won the presidency. The Republicans had made a canny nomination, putting up a conventional former Whig, a Clay partisan with no abolitionist baggage who could carry Illinois, one of the North's most pro-slave states. Douglass had concluded that Lincoln would win after the Democracy had broken apart along sectional lines at their convention in Charleston, South Carolina. Although publicly Douglass mocked Lincoln and the Republicans as half-way men, privately he saw the import of an anti-slavery party winning the presidency. The South could no more bear a Lincoln than they could bear a Douglass; they had become so jealous of their rights, they would rather tear the Union to shreds than make any concessions. The English could determine the course of any war on the North American continent by blockading the coast, or selling munitions to the weaker side. Only a few years earlier, Douglass would have assumed England's backing of the North, but now it was not so clear, as a divided United States might be in England's interest, and even former allies on this side of the water seemed taken in by Southern protestations that their liberties were in danger from a despotic federal government.

Occasionally Douglass allowed himself to think in a more expansive vein. He had grown up hearing white Southerners' fears about British ships coming up their rivers to arm the slaves, as they had in 1781 at Cape Fear in North Carolina, and again in 1814 all around Maryland's Eastern Shore, where he was born in 1818. Douglass himself had his eye on the ten thousand black men who had fled to Canada in recent years, many of whom left wives and children behind in the slave States. If the British had their Irish Guards and West Indian battalions of former slaves, plus the famous Highlander and Sepoy regiments, perhaps a colored legion could be recruited north of the border, if internal war came to the U.S. and Great Britain joined in. Such a force would need officers who knew the South, and Douglass, who had grown up amidst the estuaries of the Chesapeake, counted himself a man who might serve in such an instance. For that reason he had resisted Captain Brown's pleas to join in raiding the Harper's Ferry arsenal, 'keeping his powder dry,' as the saying went.

After exchanges of pleasantries regarding the grounds and the shooting, and inquiries about reception Douglass had found on his recent tour of Wales, the Prince introduced the subject of the presidential contest, hoping to draw his visitor out. "It seems Mr. Lincoln will win the election this November, no? All the Northern States appear likely to vote for him, and his opponents will divide the rest." Douglass agreed, but cautiously, since it would not do to let any Englishman, even this German princeling, presume that the party of Radical Political Abolitionists, to which Douglass belonged, had attached themselves to Republican coattails. "I am pledged as an Elector in New York State for Gerrit Smith, Your Royal Highness," he explained, "although many of my friends, colored and white, have decided that the best course is to vote for Mr. Lincoln, about whom we know little, and not all of it promising. The best we can say is that he parried Senator Douglas effectively in their debates two years ago, and acknowledged the humanity of the slave." Douglass presumed that the Prince knew the names and positions of the leading American politicians. "However, he has never taken any risks in favor of the colored people, unlike either Senator Seward or Governor Chase, both of whom I know and admire. Those gentlemen have defended my right to vote as a native-born American citizen. They have stood with us when we fought off the slave-catchers, with force when necessary. While Mr. Lincoln claims to abhor slavery, he has always repudiated the idea that we are Americans as much as he. He seems to be like a sailor, who wishes for the wind, but cannot bear the storm. There are many such in that party, and they worry us. I wish I knew him better, Sir, so I could trust him more."

"But isn't the restriction and eventual extinction of slavery the entire point of your campaign, Mr. Douglass?" asked the Prince, taken aback by the vigor of his guest's partisan feelings.

And so it went, the conversation between the monarch and the American, until the point when Douglass was introduced to Victoria. Although she paid careful attention to politics, it was Douglass' own life that fascinated her. As they sat at lunch, she plied him with questions--why did he never see his mother again, after the age of four? Could she not have been working on a nearby plantation? Why did more slaves not conspire to educate themselves, as he had, to run away, even to rebel against their masters? Gradually, however, the tall dark man led the conversation towards what might happen if a war broke out in America, and the role that English people might play in supporting the right.