Ruth, however, had already been making plans of her own. In 1846, she became engaged to Perry Frank Adams, a free black laborer who had also been born in Talbot County, Maryland, and was then living in Springfield, Massachusetts. If she wrote to Douglass in England to tell him about the marriage, the letter did not reach him. The letter in which she asked him to provide “a light silk dress – a wedding dress” did.
Shocked and infuriated, Douglass responded, “This is strange—passing strange. Something I cannot understand or account for…” He counseled her against any match, writing, “Marriage is one act of our lives – once performed It cannot be undone…it may lend to a life of misery and wretchedness for which you alone must be responsible.” He demanded to know the identity of the intended groom, writing, “I should like to know something about your lover previous to your getting married. I think this much due to me.” He sulked at having not been consulted in the match. “If I were absolutely certain that you were on the brink of destruction I might warn you,” he wrote, “if you had asked my advice.” “Now, My Dear Harriet,” he chastised her, “this is not treating me well, it is not treating me as a sister ought to treat a brother.”*
His seemed to have temporarily forgotten his parting promise in that letter, “Remember you need never be out of Doors while I have a house to shelter myself and family,”** as their quarrel escalated over the ensuing months. In the next surviving letter, Douglass wrote, “I have done you a serious injustice…and hope to be forgiven for it.” Continuing, he referred to some harsh words that he had written to her in a “letter asking you to leave my house.” “You know me too well and too long,” he wrote, “to imagine that I could take pleasure in harshly hurting you – in whom I have so long trusted, and have loved as a true friend, and even as a sister.” He then asked her to remain in his home, but only if she wished to do so. “You are your own woman,” he wrote, “seek your own happiness.”*** Their quarrel apparently was not permanent. Ruth granted Douglass’s request to wait until he returned from England to marry. He, in turn, gave her a white wedding dress and stood beside her during the ceremony.****
Ruth's letters to Douglass have not survived, so her half of the quarrel escapes analysis. Douglass's complicated responses to Ruth's announcement of her engagement, on the other hand, provide one of the rare glimpses into Douglass's emotional life. Unlike the controlled rage that infuses his public writings power, his anger in these letters vascillates between the jealousy of a jilted admirer and the indignation of a slighted father as he struggles to find the appropriate means of rationalizing his reactions. Furthermore, his hostility toward the institution of marriage opens a space for provacative speculation on his own wedded bliss.
He interprets his relationship to Ruth as one of father to daughter, big brother to little sister, wise elder to naif. In other words, his responses indicate that he believed that he had a paternalist relationship with Ruth, an interpretation that she may not have shared. She had violated the agreement of that unspoken paternalism by agreeing to marry without consulting him, which in turn led to his escalating frustration that culminated in her expulsion from his house.
Herein lies the importance of this friendship in understanding Douglass [and my struggle to give this whole article some sort of theoretical framework or relevance]. How does his interpretation of this relationship compare with those of other women, and then to those of men, with whom he shared a bond? How does this relationship with this African American woman compare to the relationships that he shared with other African American women, and how do those compare with his relationships to white women, both as intimates and as activists? Did he, in fact, have a paternalist attitude toward women in general, or toward only particular women whom he did see as being in his care? Furthermore, if he did see gender relationships as inherently paternalist, how did he negotiate that very common attitude with his developing awareness and support of Woman's Rights? How did he, the Woman's Rights Man, reconcile his personal understanding of gender relations with his political position? These questions are not to condemn him, but rather to explore the difficult and frustrating work of making radical reforms when he was very much a participant, and a willing participant in many ways, of the gender system that he sought to reform.
Ruth, meanwhile, had her own life to negotiate; and her own life brought her into a very different circle of abolitionists than that of Douglass.
* FD to HB/RCA, London, England, 18 August 1846, Douglass Papers, DLC.
***FD to HB/RCA, Kensington, England, 31 January 1847, Douglass Papers, DLC.
****FD to HB/RCA, London, England, 18 August 1846, Douglass Papers, DLC; Coffee, “Lest We Forget,” AMH, NSH; “Adams’ Escape,” Norfolk Weekly News, 7 March 1894. A strip of the wedding dress is part of the Alyce McWilliams Hall Collection in the Nebraska State Historical Society.