MONMOUTH, Ill. — In his 2019 Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Frederick Douglass, David W. Blight says of the renowned abolitionist who lived 20 years in slavery: “…in sheer miles and countless number of speeches, he had few rivals as a lecturer in the golden age of oratory. It is likely that more Americans heard Douglass speak than any other public figure of his times.”
Those Americans included a large number of Monmouth citizens, who were spellbound by a two-hour speech delivered by Douglass on Feb. 21, 1866. Invited by the Eccritean literary society of Monmouth College, the popular orator was in the midst of a barnstorming cross-country tour that would last until April.
Douglass had made national headlines Feb. 7 when he led a delegation of 13 representatives of the National Convention of Colored Men to an uninvited meeting with President Andrew Johnson in the White House. There, they listened to a 45-minute rant by the former slaveholding president about why enfranchising Blacks to vote would provoke a race war. Douglass quipped in response, “If the President will allow me, I would like to say one or two words in reply. You enfranchise your enemies and you disfranchise your friends.”
Two days after the meeting with Johnson, Douglass lectured in both Philadelphia and Baltimore, followed by another speech in Washington on the 13th. Next, he spent five consecutive days in Pittsburgh before hitting the road for Illinois.
As was the case in Monmouth, many of Douglass’s appearances were sponsored by literary organizations, who paid the speaker a fee of $100 — approximately $1,800 today. But when a group in Springfield, Illinois, proposed booking Douglass in benefit of a fund for a new city library, it raised a firestorm.
The Democratic-leaning Springfield newspaper wrote: “The invitation of this negro is a slander upon the white talent of this country. We have no objection to Fred. Douglass at a negro minstrel concert, a circus or an abolition stump meeting. We object to the degradation consequent upon the idea that the intellect of the white man needs the aid of the negro to brighten it.”
When one library subscriber withdrew his $50 subscription, three Black men of Springfield pitched in to make up for the loss.
Douglass’s speeches on the lecture circuit that spring were, however, largely uncontroversial and in tune with popular Republican sympathies. His Monmouth talk, which would also be presented in Rockford and Chicago, was devoted to the lessons to be learned as a result of Lincoln’s assassination a year earlier.
In April 1865, Douglass had been on the road speaking as the Civil War wound down. Returning to his hometown of Rochester, New York, he was met by the reveling of residents celebrating the Union victory; then overnight was shocked by the news of the assassination. It struck him hard and he penned an address about what Lincoln had meant to the cause of freedom, which he would deliver widely in the ensuing months.
The most enduring lesson of his talk was that while he acknowledged that John Wilkes Booth and his conspirators were guilty of executing Lincoln, it was slavery itself — the “insolent, aggressive, and malignant oligarch” — that had murdered the president.
Monmouth’s Republican newspaper, The Atlas, did not report in detail on Douglass’s talk, but it summarized the appearance in glowing rhetoric:
“The ample space of Hardin’s Hall was densely packed on Wednesday evening to hear Fred Douglas (sic) expound the lessons to be drawn from the assassination of President Lincoln. We do not propose to go into any analysis of the discourse, for it seems to us that it would be a sin against oratory to put his utterances upon paper. For more than two hours he held his audience spell-bound by his rare eloquence, his inexorable logic, and his scathing satire.”
The paper continued: “He is a breathing, living, walking rebuke of that brutal theory which makes a black skin a necessary badge of degradation and intellectual imbecility. In all that constitutes chaste expression and powerful oratory, we doubt whether there are twenty men in the nation who can claim equality with him — Long may he live to plead the cause of the downtrodden and oppressed, and launch down bolts against the oppressed.”
The exact location of Hardin’s Hall, where Douglass spoke, is open to some conjecture, but my research seems to indicate it was on the second floor of what is today The Woodshed tavern. In 1865, Chancy Hardin purchased a lot in the southeast corner of the Public Square, which also fronted East 1st Avenue on the south. On the Square he constructed a hardware store (now Market Alley Wines), while behind it he built an adjoining two-story building which today houses the tavern.
City directories for Monmouth were non-existent until 1872, but there are occasional newspaper references to Hardin’s Hall (later Churchill’s Hall) having had an entrance on East Garden Street, which is now East 1st. It was common in those days for public halls to be on the second floor of business establishments.
Until an opera house was later built on South Main, Hardin’s Hall was a popular public venue, hosting lectures by some of the era’s most renowned celebrities, including P. T. Barnum and Mark Twain.
Jeff Rankin is an editor and historian for Monmouth College. He has been researching, writing and speaking about western Illinois history for more than 40 years.