Intern: Will Fassett
On October 27, 1847, Frederick Douglass wrote Amy Post, a Rochester abolitionist and close friend, "My Dear Amy, I have finally decided on publishing the North Star in Rochester and to make that city my future home."1 Shortly after this correspondence, Douglass set up shop in downtown Rochester's Talman Building at 25 Buffalo Street to begin the printing of his weekly newspaper.2 On December 3, the first edition of the North Star came off the presses. Two apprentices, and perhaps Douglass's oldest son, seven-year old Lewis, helped set the type for the first edition.3 The letters they laid out for the masthead of the North Star spell out, unequivocally, the paper's purpose. "The object of the North Star will be to attack slavery in all its forms and aspects; advocate universal emancipation; exalt the standard of public morality; promote the moral and intellectual improvement of the colored people; and hasten the day of freedom to the three millions of our enslaved fellow countrymen."4 One can argue whether or not Douglass's paper succeeded in these objects. Indisputable, however, are the financial failings of the North Star.
Just four months after the first issue, Frederick Douglass felt the paper's prospect for success was "far from encouraging."5 Douglass, with few valuable assets of his own, had been able to launch the paper thanks to a $2,135 gift from his British supporters.6 This money had quickly dissipated. Douglass, in his own words, "very foolishly" spent half of the sum to purchase a printing press.7 The expensive press was deemed inadequate by Douglass's printer, John Dick, and Douglass was forced to contract out the printing of the paper for an additional $20 per month.8 Meanwhile, subscriptions, at $2 per year, and advertisements, $1 for printing in three issues, failed to cover the paper's expenses.9 Douglass's remaining funds soon disappeared, and the North Star became steeped in debt. On April 28, 1848, just five months after the first issue was printed, Douglass mortgaged his home to support the paper.10
Douglass recognized that the survival of the paper lay in his increasing the number of subscribers. "Everything will depend upon our getting subscribers," he wrote to his co-editor Martin Delany, January 19, 1848.11 The original plan had been for Delany to travel and sell subscriptions, while Douglass remained in Rochester and minded the paper's editing. This arrangement failed, however, because Delany's attentions were elsewhere. Douglass was left to edit, lecture, and obtain subscribers.12 Selling subscriptions proved to be very difficult for Douglass. "Subscribers come in slowly, and I am doing all I can by lectures and letters to keep our heads above water," he wrote Delany.13
In 1848, the cost of printing each week was approximately $20. The average increase in subscriptions amounted to $25 per week. Thus, subscription money barely covered the cost of printing, leaving other expenses and the occasional sum given to Douglass for "sundries" to be covered by donation.14 The total cost per week, figuring in the paper's various expenses, was $60.15 Requiring more than $100 a month from donations to break even, Douglass desperately needed to increase the number of his subscribers. In the North Star on May 5 1848, he wrote an entreaty to his readers for "immediate pecuniary aid." "We have exerted ourselves to obtain subscribers, and have succeeded to an encouraging extent; but it is impossible in our circumstances, commencing as we did with but a few small number of subscribers to obtain a sufficient number to float unencumbered week by week."16
Douglass's failure to find a sufficient number of subscribers to meet his expenses was, in part, the result of the political environment in which the paper was published.
Douglass started the North Star in Rochester in order to prevent its circulation from interfering with The Liberator, his mentor William Lloyd Garrison's newspaper, and the Anti-Slavery Standard, another Garrisonian paper. He wanted also to help spread Garrison's ideals westward. He was committed to Garrison's "doctrine touching the proslavery character of the Constitution.and also [his] non-voting principle."17 Using the North Star as his sounding board, Douglass loudly advocated these principles.
If one looks at a map of the distribution of the North Star, generated from the names and addresses found in the back of the North Star's ledger, the consequence of Douglass's locating the paper in Rochester is apparent.18 The paper was mainly distributed in upstate New York. Seventy-eight subscriptions were sent to addresses in Monroe County, Douglass's home county, alone. It's important to point out, the subscriber list in the back of the ledger is not a comprehensive listing. There are only 685 names, some of which are crossed out. Douglass wrote that his subscriber list had reached 700 by January 12, 1848, just a month after the paper's start.19 He quoted the subscription number at as high as 4,000 on later dates.20 Thus, the subscription list in the ledger can be treated only as representative of the geographic distribution of the paper.
In Massachusetts, the paper received scant support with only 27 subscribers. Having lived there prior to moving to Rochester, Douglass had many abolitionist friends in the state. However, these friends were allies of Garrison's, which may be the explanation for the lack of support. Douglass had betrayed Garrison's advice by starting the paper, and this betrayal had created a rift between the two men. Additionally, although Douglass's ideals paralleled Garrison's, the Garrisonians found fault with Douglass's paper because it didn't denounce abolitionists who were non-Garrisonians. On the opposite side, the non-Garrisonians, the so-called political Abolitionists believed the paper too tainted with Garrisonianism to subscribe.21 The two factions of the abolitionist movement had, as Douglass described it, "only a negative interest" in his paper.22 It wasn't until 1851, that Douglass sided with the political abolitionists and split with Garrison.
Another important fact to be gleaned from the subscription list is of the 685 total subscribers listed, only 370 were located in the US. There were 111 subscribers listed for England. The paper was also sent as far a field as Nova Scotia and Australia. The pitfall of having so many foreign subscribers, almost half of the total, was the high cost for postage, which drained any income received from their subscriptions.23
While Garrison's paper, The Liberator, reached 30,000 readers in 1836, Douglass's circulation likely never exceeded 4,000.24 This failure to attract subscribers, grounded in the paper's neutral abolitionist politics, contributed greatly to the paper's financial troubles.
On the morning of September 11, 1849, just about two years after Douglass's optimistic declaration of the start of the paper, Amy Post confronted Douglass about the poor financial standing of the North Star. If Douglass didn't "put the economic concerns of the paper under the charge of a committee," Post threatened, she would discourage any further donations to the North Star. The threat incensed Douglass, who responded, "If those books have not been examined it is no fault of mine. I have said this again and again. Now if any person thinks that I am disposing of the public's money improperly or fraudulently the books are open to them."25 In compliance with Post's demand, Douglass asked four men, including Post's husband Isaac, to superintend the financial and economic concerns of the paper.26 Isaac Post, it should be noted, could have been the motivation behind Amy's confrontation with Douglass. He had written Amy a few months prior saying an "investigation" into the North Star's finances was needed to prevent Douglass's financial ruin.27 It is unclear what became of the committee or any investigation. If the committee in fact did investigate the paper's finances and took a look at the North Star's ledger in 1849, they would have encountered some perplexing accounting.
At first glance, it is evident the ledger's organization is unconventional. Instead of one comprehensive listing of all transactions, there are separate accounts in the names of 28 individuals, who appear to be employees and agents of the paper. Using this method, Douglass could have easily determined how much he owed to someone or how much someone owed him, but the overall financial standing of the paper would not have been as readily apparent. To monitor closely the paper's debt, he would have needed to keep a running tab of each individual's balance, then total these numbers to find the overall balance for the paper. Nowhere in the ledger does it appear that he did this. Isaac Post wrote in 1849, "I don't see how [Frederick Douglass] can tell how he stands without a regular look over [the books]."28 Post's statement suggests Douglass wasn't keeping a close tab on the transactions in the North Star's ledger.
From his correspondences, we get some idea of the debt the paper incurred. The numbers Douglass cites for the debt, however, conflict with the amount of debt found by totaling the balances of every account in the ledger. On March 13, 1849, he wrote Gerrit Smith, speaking of the paper, "I am now about two hundred dollars in debt."29 At the start of March 1849, the ledger indicates the North Star was nearly $900 in debt.30 Douglass wrote two years later that Julia Griffiths, a friend from England who had came to aid in the management of the paper in the summer of 1848, paid off a debt of $700 to $800 in a single year.31 The ledger, on the other hand, shows no improvement in the financial standing of the paper between 1848 and 1850. On New Year's Eve 1849, the paper was $2582.86 in the hole, according to calculations made from the ledger. Surely, the paper's condition was not so dire. Instead, this large figure calculated from the ledger points to Douglass's failure to keep the book current. As William McFeely writes, "Douglass's ceaseless lecturing trips, and his disinclination to bother with business, meant the paper's practical aspects were neglected."32 Constantly on the road selling subscriptions and pleading for donations, Douglass seems to have failed to enter all of the North Star's income in the ledger.
In the ledger, there are several errors ranging from slight arithmetic mistakes to a more fundamental misunderstanding of accounting practices. In four of the accounts, there are varying degrees of arithmetic miscalculations. Martin Delany's balance, on the first page after the cover, is miscalculated by twenty cents. George Curtis's debit and credit are added incorrectly by ten cents and ten dollars respectively. Likewise, for the second half of 1848, George Fisher's debit is off by ten cents and his credit by $7.60. In John Dick's account, which covers four pages, two arithmetic mistakes were made. On page eight of the ledger, the debit and credit for Dick's account are miscalculated by $10 each. On page 31, there is a more egregious miscalculation. Dick's credit has been totaled to $290. Yet if one adds the numbers in the credit column, the total is $418. The calculation in the book is off by $128. The arithmetic mistakes may be evidence that Douglass was less practiced in mathematics, than he was in writing and oratory. It's important to note, Douglass was a self-taught, self-made man. He never had any formal instruction in reading, writing, or math. As a slave, he taught himself arithmetic and multiplication tables by drawing numbers in the sand.33
Arithmetic mistakes aside, in Douglass's own account on page 2, a fundamental error in accounting appears. After subtracting the debit from the credit to determine a balance of $404.62 for 1847, this positive balance was placed on the left side, the debit side, of the account for 1848. The $404.62 should have been put on the right side, the credit side. Because of this error, if one were to look at Douglass's account without examining it closely, it would appear the paper had $800 less than it actually did. The confusion between debit and credit, as well as the organization of the ledger, expose not someone fraudulently manipulating the books, but instead an inexperienced accountant. In Douglass's third autobiography, he writes of his days as a publisher, "[I was] compelled often to do work for which I had no educational experience."34 Douglass had never needed to keep an account book before. He launched the paper just nine years after escaping slavery, and his finances were not complex enough, prior to the paper's start, to necessitate a detailed accounting. Inexperience, coupled with the lack of time he had to devote to the paper's business side, produced an account book fraught with errors.
Despite his inexperience, when Amy Post confronted Douglass about the North Star's debts, he made it clear he would not relinquish management of the paper's finances. The committee, in Douglass's words, would "kindly see that the books.are honestly and properly kept, and to point out where there can be a saving, and where there should be improvements." Although he would allow the committee to, essentially, audit the ledger, he refused to give control over the finances to outsiders. Having someone else manage his economic affairs, Douglass believed, was both "degrading" and an intrusion on his independence.35 For Douglass, the North Star represented self-reliance. The ledger itself was a declaration of Douglass's independence. The cover reads, "Leger No. 1 The Property of Douglass & Delany. Rochester, N.Y. November 3rd, 1847."36 No longer under the charge of William Lloyd Garrison, Douglass was insistent that this venture be his own. Douglass wrote, "[The paper] made it necessary for me to lean upon myself, and not upon the heads of our anti-slavery church-to be a principle and not an agent."37 He was adamant the editing, the writing, and the finances should all be under his control.
Douglass may have shouldered an undue amount of the paper's operation because he lived with the burden of constantly having to challenge white stereotypes of blacks. Throughout his life, Douglass faced skepticism. On his first speaking tours, some people refused to believe he was a former slave and accused him of fabricating the story. After he published his first autobiography, in part to dispel this assertion, people questioned if he truly had written it. He wrote in The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, "More than one gentleman from the South.came to see me, that they might know for themselves if I could indeed write, having, as they said, believed it impossible that an uneducated fugitive slave could write the articles attributed to me."38 Faced with this constant racist disbelief, many of Douglass's actions are colored with a desire to disprove white skeptics. The North Star, in addition to promoting the abolition of slavery in its content, was meant to show that a former slave was capable of managing and operating a newspaper.
The ledger examined here raises some questions. One wonders whether there might have been another book, in addition to this one, Douglass used to manage the North Star's affairs. The numbers generated from the ledger for the paper's debt don't correspond with the numbers quoted for the debt in Douglass's letters. The subscription listing is at least a thousand names short of the circulation numbers Douglass cites. Moreover, the names in the listing lack street addresses. The subscription listing includes, generally, only the subscriber's county and state. There is also no indication of how much, or if, the subscriber has paid. Finally, Julia Griffiths is credited with taking charge of the North Star's finances in the summer of 1848. Yet there is no noticeable change in the ledger's entries that signifies use by another person. The handwriting remains the same. Griffiths may have kept another accounting.
The lack of importance Douglass attached to the information in this ledger may be evidenced by the scribbling that appears atop many of the pages. It seems Douglass was practicing his penmanship years after the book's use. On a page listing subscribers from Oregon, the date June 9, 1859 is written. This is likely the date Douglass wrote the interesting, stream-of-consciousness-like mixture of names and phrases. The name Philip Barton Key appears. Key was the victim of a major sex scandal in the United States in 1859. Mysteriously, the name Theron P. Hawkins is written several times. There is no Theron Hawkins listed in the Rochester City Directory for the time, nor is the name listed in the New York State Census for 1850 or 1860. The phrase "emancipation in the West Indies" is written twice, and the words "Constitution of the United States" appear neatly written on one page. The dozens of names and phrases penned throughout the book have little connection. If Douglass were willing to practice his penmanship atop the entries in the ledger, could there have been another book that had a more accurate accounting of the North Star's finances? Fire destroyed Douglass's Rochester home in 1872, perhaps this other pertinent document was lost in the flames.39
The North Star's financial troubles began from the start with Douglass's ill-advised purchase of a printing press. This mistake was further compounded by the paper's insufficient number of subscribers. Yet despite its debts, and although some of Douglass's friends "drew gaunt pictures of starvation [for the paper]," the North Star survived 12 years.40 Over that span, the North Star was a major instrument of growth for Douglass. In the paper's first two years, Douglass's writing and analytical skills, if not his accounting skills, improved immeasurably.