Speech delivered to the American Anti-Slavery Society, New York, 9 May 1848. Published in the National Anti-Slavery Standard, 18 May 1848. Douglass rose to speak following the speech of Lucretia Mott, "The Law of Progress."
Mr. Chairman, and Ladies and Gentlemen.
[1.1] It is with great hesitation that I consent to rise here to speak, after the able speech to which you have just listened. I had far rather remain a listener to others, than to become myself a speaker at this stage of the proceedings of this meeting. I do not hope to be able, in the few remarks I have to make, to say anything new or eloquent, for it will be time indeed to discuss new truths, when old ones shall have been recognized and adopted.
[2.1] For seventeen years, Mr. Chairman, the Abolitionists of the United States have been encountering obloquy, scorn, and opposition of the most furious character, for uttering,--what? Their conviction that a man is a man,--that every man belongs to himself and to no one else. In propagating this idea, this simple proposition, we have met with all sorts of opposition, and with all sorts of arguments drawn from the Bible, from the Constitution, and from philosophy, till at length many have arrived at the sage conclusion that a man is something else than a man, and that he has not the rights of a man. An event has just occurred in the District of Columbia, the Capitol of the country, known to you all, which furnishes the proof of this assertion. Some seventy-seven men, women, and children, took it into their heads, contrary to the Constitution, that they were men, not three fifths of men--that they would leave the refined avocation of blacking boots for nothing for members of Congress, and seek an asylum from oppression and tyranny in some of the Northern States, or under the protection of the British Lion in Canada. The sequel is well known; they were pursued by a band of armed men, overtaken, and brought back in chains, and the men who aided them in their flight are in a dungeon, and there they will probably end their lives.
[3.1] Very little is thought about this affair,--very little noise is made about it. It excites about as much remark, and about as much sympathy as if as many horses had broken away from the halters of their owners, and again been recovered.
[4.1] Sir, we have, in this country, no adequate idea of humanity yet; the nation does not feel that these are men, it cannot see through the dark skin and curly hair of the black man, anything like humanity, or that has claims to human rights. Had they been white men and women, or were they regarded as human beings, this nation would have been agitated to its centre, and rocked as with an earthquake shock, and like the nations of the Old World, would have rung with the thunders of freedom against tyranny, at such an event as this. We do not regard these men as formed in the image of God. We do not see that in the persons of these men and women whose rights have been stricken down, whose virtuous attempt to gain their freedom, has been defeated, the violation of the common rights of man. Even the gallant Hale, of the Liberty party, does not dare to speak of the men who aided their escape, as having done a noble deed. To be sure, he can bring in a proposition for the better protection of property in the District of Columbia, but he makes no allusion whatever, to the rights of black men. This proposition in relation to the rights of property, is regarded by his adherents as a noble act; as a timely measure; as indicating great courage and heroism. Nor do I care to deny it. But what is the inference? If it be a noble act, a courageous act, to move in the Capitol of the nation, in the Senate of the United States, a bill to protect property from the assaults of a brutal and ferocious mob,--if that be bold, of course it would be no less daring and fanatical to move in that District, that the rights of man be protected. (Applause)
[5.1] I do not propose to make a lengthy speech, but I would like to say a few words about how these things look to others.
- "O wad some power the giftie gie us
- To see oursels as others see us."
I would like to hold up to you a picture; not drawn by an American pen or pencil, but by a foreigner. I want to show you how you look abroad in the delectable business of kidnapping and slave-driving. Sometimes since--I think it was in the December number of "Punch,"--I saw an excellent pictorial description of America. What think you it was? It was entitled, "Brother Jonathan." It was a long, lean, gaunt, shrivelled looking creature, stretched out on two chairs, and his legs resting on the prostrate bust of Washington; projecting from behind was a cat o' nine tails knotted at the ends; around his person he wore a belt in which were stuck those truly American implements, a bowie knife, dirk, and revolving pistol; behind him was a whipping post, with a naked woman tied to it, and a strong-armed American citizen in the act of scourging her livid flesh with a cowskin. At his feet was another group;--a sale going on, of human cattle, and around the auctioneer's table were gathered the respectability,--the religion represented in the person of the clergy,--of America, buying them for export to the goodly city of New Orleans. Little further on there was a scene of branding,--a small group of slaves tied hand and foot, while their patriotic and philanthropic masters were burning their name into their quivering flesh. Further on, there was a drove of slaves, bound for New Orleans. Above these and several other scenes illustrative of the character of our institutions, waved the star spangled banner. Still further back in the distance was the picture of the achievements of our gallant army in Mexico, shooting, stabbing, hanging; destroying property, and massacreing the innocent with the innocent, not with the guilty, and over all this was a picture of the Devil himself, looking down with Satanic satisfaction on passing events. (Laughter.) Here I conceive to be a true picture of America, and I hesitate not to say that this description falls far short of the real facts, and of the aspect we bear to the world around us.
[6.1] Sir, although we have heard conflicting views uttered here to-day, of hopeful and desponding aspects, (if, indeed, we have any desponding aspects brought to us,) still, I think much more may be said in behalf of the hopeful aspects. The signs of the times have been already alluded to; we have very properly gone beyond the limits of the United States.
[7.1] I see some of the audience are going out, which makes me think I have spoken long enough; some plants thrive better by being cut off, and perhaps my speech may as well be cut off here; not because there is not more to be said, but because your energies have been taxed quite enough already. (Cries of go on!) Since, then, you wish me to proceed, and, as Henry Clay says, "I am always subject to the will of the people," there may yet be room for something of a speech. As I was proceeding to remark concerning the hopeful aspects of the times, I wish to bring with more distinctness before your minds, the news which comes from abroad--the action of the Provisional Government of France. We have been accustomed, in this country, to hear much talk about "Christian America, and Infidel France." I want to say in behalf of France, that I go for that infidelity--no matter how heinous it may be in the estimation of the American people--which strikes the chains from the limbs of our brethren; and against that Christianity which puts them on, (applause;)--for that infidelity, which, in the person of Cremieux, one of the members of the Provisional Government of France, speaks to the black and mulatto men, that come to congratulate them, and express their sentiments upon the immediate emancipation of their brethren in the French islands. I sympathize with that infidelity that speaks to them in language like this: friends! brothers! men! In France, the negro is a man, while you who are throwing up your caps, and waving your banners, and making beautiful speeches in behalf of liberty, deny us our humanity, and traffic in our flesh. Sir, I would like to bring more vividly to before this audience, the wrongs of my down-trodden countrymen. I have no disposition to look at this matter in any sentimental light, but to bring before you stern facts, and keep forever before the American people the damning and disgraceful fact, that three millions of people are in chains to-day--that while we are here speaking in their behalf, saying noble words and doing noble deeds, they are under the yoke, smarting beneath the lash, sundered from each other, trafficked in and brutally treated; and that the American nation, to keep them in their present condition, stands ready with its ten thousand bayonets, to plunge them into their hearts. If they attempt to strike for their freedom, I want every man north of Mason and Dixon's line, whenever they attend an Anti-Slavery meeting, to remember that it is the Northern area that does this--that you are not only guilty of withholding your influence, but that you are the positive enemies of the slave, the positive holders of the slave, and that in your right arm rests the physical power that keeps him under the yoke. (Applause.) I want you to feel that I am addressing slaveholders; speaking to men who have entered into a solemn league and covenant with the slaveholders of the country, that in any emergency, if at any time the spirit of freedom finds a lodgment in the bosom of the American slave, and they shall be moved to throw up barricades against their tyrants, as the French did in the streets of Paris, that you, every man of you that swears to support the Constitution, is sworn to pour leaden death into their hearts. I am speaking to slaveholders, and if I speak plainly, set it not down to impudence, but to opposition to Slavery. For God's sake, let a man speak when he cannot do anything else; when fetters are on his limbs, let him have this small right of making his wrongs known; at least, let it be done in New York. I am glad to see there is a disposition to let it be done here--to allow him to tell what is in him, with regard to his own personal wrongs at any rate.
[8.1] Sir, I have been frequently denounced because I have dared to speak against the American nation, against the Church--the Northern churches especially, charging them with being the slaveholders of the country. I desire to say here, as elsewhere, that I am not at all ambitious of the ill opinions of my countrymen, nor do I desire their hatred; but I must say, as I have said, that I want no man's friendship, no matter how high he may stand in Church or State, I want no man's sympathies or approbation who is not ready to strike the chains from the limbs of my brethren. I do not ask the esteem and friendship of any minister or any man, no matter how high his standing, nor do I wish to shake any man's hand, who stands indifferent to the wrongs of my brethren. Some have boasted that when Fred. Douglass has been at their houses, he has been treated kindly, but as soon as he got into their pulpits he began to abuse them--that as soon as the advantage is given him, he takes it to stab those who befriend him. Friends, I wish to stab no man, but if you stand on the side of the slaveholder, and cry out "the Union as it is," "the Constitution as it is," "the Church as it is," you may expect that the heart that throbs beneath this bosom, will give utterance against you. I am bound to speak, and, whenever there is an opportunity to do so, I will speak against Slavery.
[9.1] I meant to have said a word about Colonization, as I observed there was a very dark-looking individual here, (Gov. Pinney, of Liberia,) for whose special benefit I wished to say something on that subject. But as I do not see him here now, there is no necessity to discuss this subject for his benefit. When he was pointed out to me, I thought it remarkable, that so dark a man should be in favour of colonization; but there are some simple-minded men even among coloured people. (Laughter). I will just say, however, that we have had some advice given us lately, from very high authority. I allude to Henry Clay, who in his last speech before the Colonization Society, at Washington, advised the free coloured people of the United States that they had better go to Africa.
[10.1] He says he does not wish to coerce us, but thinks we had better go! (Laughter and applause.) What right has he to tell us to go? We have as much right to stay here as he has. (Laughter.) I don't care if you did throw up your caps for him when he came to this city--I don't care if he did give you "his heart on the outside of the city Hall and his hand on the inside;" I have as much right to stay here as he has! (With great humor.) And I want to say to our white friends, that we, coloured folks, have had the subject under consideration, and have decided to stay! (Great laughter.) I want to say to any colonization friends here, that they may give their minds no further uneasiness on our account, for our minds are made up. (Laughter.) I think this is about the best argument on that subject.
[11.1] Now there is one thing more about us colored folks; it is this, that under all these most adverse circumstances, we live and move and have our being, and that too in peace, (laughter,) and are almost persuaded that there is a providence in our staying here. I do not know but the United States would rot in its tyranny, if there were not some negroes in this land--some to clink their chains in the care of listening humanity, and from whose prostrate forms the lessons of liberty can be taught to the whites. (Applause.) It is through us now that you are learning that your own rights are stricken down. At this time it is the Abolitionist that holds up the lamp that shows the political parties of the North their fetters and chains. A little while ago, and the Northern men were bound in the strange fanatic delusion, that they had something to do with making of Presidents of the United States: that is about given up now. No one now of common sense, or common reading, imagines for a moment that New York has anything to do with deciding who the President shall be. They are allowed to vote, but what is the amount of this privilege? It is to vote for the slaveholder, or whom the slaveholders select. No men that are now accounted sane, think of any other than of a slaveholder or assassin, or both, who shall hold the destinies of the nation, (laughter)--and the reason is because the people are convinced that they belong--as they used to say to the coloured boys of the South, to the party. They used sometimes to ask me, "boy who do you belong to?" and I used to answer "to Captain Thomas Auld, of St. Michaels--a class-leader in the Methodist Episcopal church;" and now I would ask, "who do you belong to?" (Laughter.) I will tell you. You belong to the Democratic party, to the Whig party, and these parties belong to the slaveholder, and the slaveholder rules the country. As the boy said about ruling England: "I rule mamma, and mamma rules papa, and papa rules the people, and the people rule England." To be sure you have the right to vote, which is like what I heard once of a certain boy, who said he was going to live with his uncle Robert, and when I go there, said he, I am going to do just as I please--if uncle Robert will let me! The Northern people are going to do just as they please if the slaveholders will let them. The little bit of opposition that has manifested itself in that little protuberance on American politics--the Wilmot proviso--which our friend Gay has fully described as a tempest in a teapot, has now quite flattened down. The Whigs, who said we will stand by it at all hazards, have fairly backed out; they did so last fall; they got afraid of the Union. In Ohio I heard men striking their fists together, saying they would stand by it at all hazards; and after a little while, the Ohio State Legislature come to the conclusion, after having carefully considered the matter, that "to press the question of no more slave territory must be disastrous to our American Union." New York came out expressly in favour of the Proviso and it has since seen that the Union will be perilled by adherence to that principle. And all over the North there is this fainting away before that power which was before undefined, as has been so eloquently touched upon by my friend Phillips; for while men hold up their hands in favour of the Union and the Constitution, there is a moral conflict in their hearts, for, as was so beautifully expressed by Mr. Parker, of Boston, men cannot fight Slavery under the Constitution; the Constitution soils the armour about them; we cannot strike Slavery while we have it on us: there is no other way to throw it off.
[12.1] I have no prepared speech, and I will not weary you any longer. I have sometimes thought since the late occurrences in France, that there may be an under current in men's hearts here as there was in Paris; Louis Philippe thought himself perfectly secure surrounded by his 300,000 soldiers, who, with fixed bayonets, were ready to support him in the suppression of the riots; but the troops were found to fraternize with the people; the soldier joined the civilian to assert and defend his rights. So I believe here, after all we have said against the American people, there is yet an under current pervading the mass of the people in this country, uniting Democrat and Whig, and men of no party, taking hold in quarters we know not of, which shall one day rise up in one glorious Fraternity for Freedom, uniting into one mighty phalanx of freemen to bring down the haughty citadel of Slavery with all its bloody towers and turrets.
- "There's a good time coming boys,
- A good time coming,
- Wait a little longer.
- We may not live to see the day,
- But earth shall glisten in the ray
- Of the good time coming;
- Cannon balls may aid the truth,
- But thought's a weapon stronger,
- We'll win our battle by its aid,
- Wait a little longer."
[Douglass concluded his speech amidst great applause.]
[9.1] John Brooke Pinney, 1806-1883; former Governor of Liberia, Presbyterian minister and lifelong advocate for education of slaves and freedmen.
- ↑ Henry Clay, "Speech to the American Colonization Society," Washington, DC, 18 January 1848. The Papers of Henry Clay : Candidate, Compromiser, Elder Statesman, January 1, 1844-June 29, 1852 (1). Eds. Melba Porter Hay and Carol Reardon. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2015. 396-398.
- ↑ Wells, J. D. "John Brooke Pinney, LL.D." African Repository 57-59. Washington, DC: American Colonization Society. 94-99.