Letter to Ludwig Feuerbach from Ottilie Assing
about Frederick Douglass
New York, 15 May 1871
My Dear Sir!
You may be amazed to be addressed from so great a distance by a person unknown to you. I might not have had the courage did I not believe that any success in your endeavors for the intellectual liberation of the human race must give you something of the satisfaction which the Christian missionary experiences when he, from his point of view has saved souls. I had always hoped to pay a visit to Germany, after a long period of absence, and to meet you personally, and although I have not abandoned this hope, so many obstacles are momentarily in the way of fulfillment that I prefer to tell you in the form of a letter what I had planned to talk to you about.
A number of years ago I met Frederick Douglass, a man whose name has possibly reached you. He is a mulatto, was born a slave in the South, and gained his freedom through flight to the North. Thanks to his exceptional talent, his skills as a writer, and his brilliant rhetoric he worked his way out of obscurity within a few years and became one of the most famous men in America. He was one of the most superior among the anti-slavery agitators, and since the abolition of slavery he excels no less by his discourse on political and social questions. Personal sympathy and concordance in many central issues brought us together; but there was one obstacle to a loving and lasting friendship—namely, the personal Christian God. Early impressions, environments, and the beliefs still dominating this entire nation held sway over Douglass. The ray of light of German atheism had never reached him, while I, thanks to natural inclination, training, and the whole influence of German education and literature, had overcome the belief in God at an early age. I experienced this dualism as an unbearable dissonance, and since I not only saw in Douglass the ability to recognize intellectual shackles but also credited him with the courage and integrity to discard at once the old errors and, in this one respect, his entire past, his lifelong beliefs, I sought refuge with you. In the English translation by Mary Anne Evans we read the Essence of Christianity together, which I, too, encountered for the first time on that occasion. This book—for me one of the greatest manifestations of the human spirit—resulted in a total reversal of his attitudes. Douglass has become your enthusiastic admirer, and the result is a remarkable progress, an expansion of his horizon, of all his attitudes as expressed especially in his lectures and essays, which are intellectually much more rich, deep, and logical than before. While most of his former companions in the struggle against slavery have disappeared from the public stage since the abolition, and, in a way, have become anachronisms because they lack fertile ideas, Douglass now has reached the zenith of his development. For the satisfaction of seeing a superior man won over for atheism, and through that to have gained a faithful, valuable friend for myself, I feel obliged to you, and I cannot deny myself the pleasure of expressing my gratitude as well as my heartfelt veneration.
Finally, I venture with typical American audacity to importune you with a request. Would you be so kind as to grant me the pleasure of receiving a photograph of you? I would ask you for two copies, one for me and one for Douglass. We as atheists, who create no god to worship according to our image of ourselves, are all the more attached in deep and ardent veneration to those human beings in whom we recognize the representatives and translators of the highest ideas of our age.
SOURCE: Diedrich, Maria. Love across Color Lines: Ottilie Assing and Frederick Douglass (New York: Hill and Wang, 1999), pp. 259-260. Original German letter published in Ausgewälte Briefe von und an Ludwig Feuerbach, ed. Hans-Martin Sass (Stuttgart: Friedrich Frommann, 1964), vols. 12/13, pp. 365-366.
Diedrich describes the literary encounter with Feuerbach on pp. 227-230, taking into account the history of Douglass's developing attitudes toward religion and churches and Assing's probable exaggeration. On the German-American engagement with Feuerbach and freethought, see pp. 113-114, 260-262, 288, also 328 for Assing's visit to Europe. On the intellectual and literary world that Douglass and Assing shared and Assing's fervent atheism, see pp. 190-192. On Douglass's hostility to clerical hypocrisy, see also pp. 292-293. See also photos and captions on pp. 225, 281, 353, 356.
Assing, Ottilie. Radical Passion: Ottilie Assing's Reports from America and Letters to Frederick Douglass, edited, translated, and introduced by Christoph Lohmann. New York: Peter Lang, 1999. (New Directions in German American Studies; v. 1)
of Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872)
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of David Strauss (1808-1874)
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