Frederick Douglass Speech at the West India Emancipation Celebration August 4, 1848
Mr. President and Friends:
We have met to commemorate no deed of sectional pride, or partial patriotism; to erect no monument to naval or military heroism; to applaud the character or commend the courage of no blood-stained warrior; to gloat over no fallen or vanquished foe; to revive no ancient or obsolete antipathy; to quicken and perpetuate the memory of no fierce and bloody struggle; to take from the ashes of oblivion no slumbering embers of fiery discord.
We attract your attention to no horrid strife; to no scenes of blood and carnage, where foul and unnatural murder carried its true designation, because regimentally attired. We brighten not the memories of brave men slain in the hostile array and the deadly encounter. The celebration of such men, and such deeds, may safely be left to others. We [can] thank Heaven, that [to us] is committed a more grateful and congenial task.
The day we have met to commemorate, is marked by no deeds of violence, associated with no scenes of slaughter, and excites no malignant feelings. Peace, joy and liberty shed a halo of unfading and untarnished glory around this annual festival. On this occasion, no lonely widow is reminded of a slaughtered husband; no helpless orphans are reminded of slaughtered fathers; no aged parents are reminded of slaughtered sons; no lovely sisters meet here to mourn over the memory of slaughtered brothers. Our gladness revives no sorrow; our joyous acclamation awakens no responsive mourning. The day, the deed, the event, which we have met to celebrate, is the Tenth Anniversary of West India Emancipation—a day, a deed, an event, all glorious in the annals of Philanthropy, and as pure as the stars of heaven! On this day, ten years ago, eight hundred thousand slaves became freemen. To congratulate our disenthralled brethren of the West Indies on their peaceful emancipation; to express our unfeigned gratitude to Almighty God, their merciful deliverer; to bless the memory of the noble men through whose free and faithful labors the grand result was finally brought about; to hold up their pure and generous examples to be admired and copied; and to make this day, to some extent, subservient to the sacred cause of human freedom in our own land, and throughout the world, is the grand object of our present assembling.
I rejoice to see before me white as well as colored persons; for though this is our day peculiarly, it is not so exclusively. The great fact we this day recognize— the great truth to which we have met to do honor, belongs to the whole human family. From this meeting, therefore, no member of the human family is excluded. We have this day a free platform, to which, without respect to class, color, or condition, all are invited. Let no man here feel that he is a mere spectator—that he has no share in the proceedings of this day, because his face is of a paler hue than mine. The occasion is not one of color, but of universal man— from the purest black to the clearest white, welcome, welcome! In the name of liberty and justice, I extend to each and to all, of every complexion, form and feature, a heartfelt welcome to a full participation in the joys of this anniversary.
The great act which distinguishes this day, and which you have this day heard read, is so recent, and its history perhaps so fresh in the memory of all, as to make a lengthy and minute detail of the nature and character of either superfluous. In the address which I had the honor to deliver twelve months since, on an occasion similar to this, at our neighboring town, Canandaigua, I entered quite largely into that investigation; and presuming that I now stand before thousands of the same great audience who warmly greeted me there, I shall be allowed to call your attention to a more extended view of the cause of human freedom than seemed possible at that time. The subject of human freedom, in all its grades, forms and aspects, is within the record of this day. Tyranny, in all its varied guises, may on this day be exposed—oppression and injustice denounced, and liberty held up to the admiration of all.
In appearing here to-day, and presuming to be the first to address you, frankness requires me to proclaim, at the outset, what otherwise might become evident in the end, my own inaptitude to the task which your Committee of Arrangements have in their kindness assigned me. Aside from other causes of my incompetency which I might name, and which I am sure all present would appreciate, I may, in justice to myself, state that my other numerous engagements and occupations have denied me the necessary time for suitable preparation. I would not, however, forget that there is an apparent fitness in your selection. I have stood on each side of Mason and Dixon’s line; I have endured the frightful horrors of slavery, and have enjoyed the blessings of freedom. I can enter fully into the sorrows of the bondman and the blessings of freemen. I am one of yourselves, enduring daily the proscription and confronting the tide of malignant prejudice by which the free colored man of the North is continually and universally opposed. There is, therefore, at least an apparent fitness in your selection. If my address should prove dull and uninteresting, I am cut off from the plea that the incidents and facts of our times are commonplace and uninteresting. In this respect, our meetings is most fortunate. We live in stirring times, and amid thrilling events. There is no telling what a day may bring forth. The human mind is everywhere filled with expectation. The moral sky is studded with signs and wonder. High upon the whirlwind, Liberty rides as on a chariot of fire. Our brave old earth rocks with mighty agitation. Whether we look at home or abroad, Liberty greets us with the same majestic air.
We live in times which have no parallel in the history of the world. The grand commotion is universal and all-pervading. Kingdoms, realms, empires, and republics, roll to and fro like ships upon a stormy sea. The long pent up energies of human rights and sympathies, are at last let loose upon the world. The grand conflict of the angel Liberty with the monster Slavery, has at last come. The globe shakes with the contest.—I thank God that I am permitted, with you, to live in these days, and to participate humbly in this struggle. We are, Mr. President, parties to what is going on around us. We are more than spectators of the scenes that pass before us. Our interests, sympathies and destiny compel us to be parties to what is passing around us. Whether the immediate struggle be baptized by the Eastern or Western wave of the waters between us, the water is one, and the cause one, and we are parties to it. Steam, skill, and lightning, have brought the ends of the earth together. Old prejudices are vanishing. The magic power of human sympathy is rapidly healing national divisions, and bringing mankind into the harmonious bonds of a common brotherhood. In some sense, we realize the sublime declaration of the Prophet of Patmos, “And there shall be no more sea.” The oceans that divided us, have become bridges to connect us, and the wide “world has become a whispering gallery.” The morning star of freedom is seen from every quarter of the globe.
From spirit to spirit—from nation to nation,
From city to hamlet, thy dawning is cast;
And tyrants and slaves are like shadows of night,’
Standing in the far West, we may now hear the earnest debate of the Western world.—The means of intelligence is so perfect, as well as rapid, that we seem to be mingling with the thrilling scenes of the Eastern hemisphere.
In the month of February of the present year, we may date the commencement of the great movements now progressing throughout Europe. In France, at that time, we saw a king to all appearance firmly seated on his costly throne, guarded by two hundred thousand bayonets. In the pride of his heart, he armed himself for the destruction of liberty. A few short hours ended the struggle. A shout went up to heaven from countless thousands, echoing back to earth, “Liberty—Equality—Fraternity.” The troops heard the glorious sound, and fraternized with the people in the court yard of the Tuilleries.—Instantly the King was but a man. All that was kingly fled. The throne whereon he sat was demolished; his splendid palace sacked; his royal carriage was burnt with fire; and he who had arrayed himself against freedom, found himself, like the great Egyptian tyrant, completely overwhelmed. Out of the ruins of this grand rupture, there came up a Republican Provisional Government, and snatching the revolutionary motto of “Liberty—Equality—Fraternity,” from the fiery thousands who had just rolled back the tide of tyranny, they commenced to construct a State in accordance with that noble motto. Among the first of its acts, while hard pressed from without and perplexed within, beset on every hand—to the everlasting honor of that Government, it decreed the complete, unconditional emancipation of every slave throughout the French colonies. This act of justice and consistency went into effect on the 23d of last June. Thus were three hundred thousand souls admitted to the joys of freedom.—That provisional government is now no more. The brave and brilliant men who formed it, have ceased to play a conspicuous part in the political affairs of the nation. For the present, some of the brightest lights are obscured. Over the glory of the great-hearted Lamartine, the dark shadow of suspicion is cast.—The most of the members of that government are now distrusted, suspected, and slighted.—But while there remains on the earth one man of sable hue, there will be one witness who will ever remember with unceasing gratitude this noble act of that provisional government.
Sir, this act of justice to our race, on the part of the French people, has had a widespread effect upon the question of human freedom in our own land. Seldom, indeed, has the slave power of the nation received what they regarded such bad news. It placed our slaveholding Republic in a dilemma which all the world could see. We desired to rejoice with her in her republicanism, but it was impossible to do so without seeming to rejoice over abolitionism. Here inconsistency, hypocrisy, covered even the brass face of our slaveholding Republic with confusion. Even that staunch Democrat and Christian, John C. Calhoun, found himself embarrassed as to how to vote on a resolution congratulating the French people on the triumph of Republicanism over Royalty.
But to return to Europe. France is not alone the scene of commotion. Her excitable and inflammable disposition makes her an appropriate medium for lighting more substantial fires. Austria has dispensed with Metternich, while all the German States are demanding freedom; and even iron-hearted Russia is alarmed and perplexed by what is going on around her. The French metropolis is in direct communication with all the great cities of Europe, and the influence of her example is everywhere powerful. The Revolution of the 24th February has stirred the dormant energies of the oppressed classes all over the continent. Revolutions, outbreaks, and provisional governments, followed that event in almost fearful succession. A general insecurity broods over the crowned heads of Europe. Ireland, too, the land of O’Connell, among the most powerful that ever advocated the cause of human freedom—Ireland, ever chafing under oppressive rule, famine-stricken, ragged and wretched, but warm-hearted, generous and unconquerable Ireland, caught up the inspiring peal as it swept across the bosom of St. George’s Channel, and again renewed her oath, to be free or die. Her cause is already sanctified by the martyrdom of Mitchell, and millions stand ready to be sacrificed in the same manner. England, too—calm, dignified, brave old England—is not unmoved by what is going on through the sisterhood of European nations. Her toiling sons, from the buzz and din of the factory and workshop, to her endless coal mines deep down below the surface of the earth, have heard the joyful sound of “Liberty—Equality—Fraternity” and are lifting their heads and hearts in hope of better days.
These facts though unfortunately associated with great and crying evils—evils which you and I, and all of us must deeply deplore, are nevertheless interesting to the lovers of freedom and progress. They show that all sense of manhood and moral life, has not departed from the oppressed and plundered masses. They prove, that there yet remains an energy, when supported with the will that can roll back the combined and encroaching powers of tyranny and injustice. To teach this lesson, the movements abroad are important. Even in the recent fierce strife in Paris, which has subjected the infant republic to a horrid baptism of blood, may be scanned a ray of goodness. The great mass of the Blouses behind the barricade of the Faubourgs, evidently felt themselves fighting in the righteous cause of equal rights. Wrong in head, but right in heart; brave men in a bad cause, possessing a noble zeal but not according to knowledge. Let us deplore their folly, but honor their courage; respect their aims, but eschew their means. Tyrants of the old world, and slaveholders of our own, will point in proud complacency to this awful outbreak, and say “Aha! aha! aha! we told you so—we told you so: this is but the result of undertaking to counteract the purposes of the Most High, who has ordained and annointed Kings and Slaveholders to rule over the people. So much for attempting to make that equal, which God made unequal!” These sentiments in other words, have already been expressed by at least one of the classes to which I have referred. To such, I say rejoice while you may, for your time is short. The day of freedom and order, is at hand. The beautiful infant may stagger and fall, but it will rise, walk and become a man. There may, and doubtless will be, many failures, mistakes and blunders attending the transition from slavery to liberty. But what then? shall the transition never be made? Who is so base, as to harbor the thought? In demolishing the old framework of the Bastille of civil tyranny, and erecting on its ruins the beautiful temple of freedom, some lives may indeed be lost; but who so craven, when beholding the noble structure—its grand proportions, its magnificent domes, its splendid towers and its elegant turrets, all pointing upward to heaven, as to say, That glorious temple ought never to have been built.
I look, Mr. President and friends, with the profoundest interest on all these movements, both in and out of France. Their influence upon our destiny here, is greater than may at first be perceived. Mainly, however, my confidence is reposing upon what is passing in England—brave and strong old England—Among the first to do us wrong, and the first to do us justice. England the heart of the civilized world. The nation that gave us the deed—the glorious deed, which we, on this day humbly celebrate.
In these days of great movements, she is neither silent nor slumbering. It is true, the world is not startled by her thunder, or dazzled by her splendor. Her stillness, however, is of deeper signification, than the noise of many nations.—Like her own fuel, she has less blaze—but more heat. Her passage to freedom is not through rivers of blood; she has discovered a more excellent way. What is bloody revolution in France, is peaceful reformation in England. The friends and enemies of freedom, meet not at the barricades thrown up in the streets of London; but on the broad platform of Exeter Hall. Their weapons are not pointed bayonets, but arguments. Friends of freedom rely not upon brute force but moral power. Their courage is not that of the tiger, but that of the Christian. Their ramparts are, right and reason, and can never be stormed! Their Hotel de Ville, is the House of Commons. Their fraternity, is the unanimous sympathy of the oppressed and hungry millions, whose war cry is not “Bread or death,” but bread! bread! bread!—Give this day our daily bread! That cry cannot, must not be disregarded. The last mails, brought us accounts of a stirring debate in the House of Commons, on the extension of suffrage. The opponents of the measure appeared like pigmies in the hands of giants. Friends of freedom in the House, are strong men. Among them is a man, whose name when I mention it, will call forth from this vast audience, a round of grateful applause. I allude to one, who, when he was but yet a youth, full eighteen years ago, dedicated himself to the cause of the West Indian bondman, and pleaded that cause with an eloquence the most pathetic, thrilling, and powerful ever before known to British ears—and who, when he had stirred the British heart to the core, until justice to the West India bondman rung through the British Empire—and the freedom which we celebrate, was gloriously triumphant; with life in hand, he left his native shores, to plead the cause of the bondman—and went through our land taking his lot with the despised abolitionists, and nominally free colored man; amid floods of abuse and fiery trials, he hazarded his precious life in our cause, at last was finally induced to leave our shores by the strong persuasion of his friends lest the enemies of liberty should kill him, as they had sworn to do, and returned to his own country, and is now an honorable member of the British Parliament. That man, is George Thompson. In grateful remembrance of whose labors, I now propose three cheers.
If there be one living orator more than another to whom we are indebted, that man is George Thompson. Faithful to the monitions of conscience which led him to devote himself to the cause of the West Indian Slave, he has now consecrated his great talents to the cause of liberty in his own country. There are other noble men Champions of liberty in the House of Commons, deserving honorable mention; but none, so intimately connected with the great event which distinguishes this day, as that of George Thompson. His life has been mainly devoted to our cause—and his very name carries with it an advocacy of our freedom. It is a gratifying fact, that Mr. Thompson, the reviled, abused, and rejected of this country, at this moment occupies the proud position of a British Legislator. It shows, that even in England, reward waits on merit. That a man with great talents and devotion to truth, may rise to eminence even in a monarchical and aristocratical government.
I now turn from the contemplation of men and movements in Europe, to our own great country. Great we are, in many and very important respects. As a nation, we are great in numbers and geographical extent—great in wealth—great in internal resources—great in the proclamations of great truths—great in our professions of republicanism and religion—great in our inconsistencies—great in our hypocrisy—and great in our atrocious wickedness. While our boast is loud and long of justice, freedom, and humanity, the slavewhip rings to the mockery; while we are sympathising with the progress of freedom abroad, we are extending the foul curse of slavery at home; while we are rejoicing at the progress of freedom in France, Italy, Germany, and the whole European continent, we are propagating slavery in Oregon, New Mexico, California, and all our blood-bought possessions in the South and South-west.—While we are engaged in congratulating the people of the East on casting down tyrants, we are electing tyrants and men-stealers to rule over us. Truly we are a great nation! At this moment, three million slaves clank their galling fetters and drag their heavy chains on American soil. Three million from whom all rights are robbed. Three millions, a population equal to that of all Scotland, who in this land of liberty and light, are denied the right to learn to read the name of God.—They toil under a broiling sun and a driver’s lash; they are sold like cattle in the market—and are shut out from human regards—thought of and spoken of as property—sanctioned as property by cruel laws, and sanctified as such by the Church and Clergy of the country.—While I am addressing you, four of my own dear sisters and one brother are enduring the frightful horrors of American slavery. In what part of the Union, they may be, I do not know; two of them, Sarah and Catharine, were sold from Maryland before I escaped from there. I am cut off from all communication with—I cannot hear from them, nor can they hear from me—we are sundered forever.
My case, is the case of thousands; and the case of my sisters, is the case of Millions. I have no doubt, that there are hundreds here to-day, that have parents, children, sisters and brothers, who are now in slavery. Oh! how deep is the damnation of America—under what a load of crime does she stagger from day to day! What a hell of wickedness is there coiled up in her bosom, and what awful judgment awaits her impenitence! My friends, words cannot express my feelings. My soul is sick of this picture of an awful reality.—The wails of bondmen are on my ear, and their heavy sorrows weigh down my heart.
I turn from these horrors—from these God-defying, man imbruting crimes, to those who in my judgment are responsible for them. And I trace them to the door of every American citizen. Slavery exists in this land because of the moral, constitutional, political and religious support which it receives from the people of this country, especially the people of the North. As I stand before many to whom this subject may be new, I may be allowed here to explain. The people of this country are held together by a Constitution. That Constitution contains certain compromises in favor of slavery, and which bind the citizens to uphold slavery. The language of every American citizen to the slave, so far as he can comprehend that language is, “You shall be a slave or die.” The history and character of the American people confirms the slave in this belief. To march to the attainment of his liberty, is to march directly upon the bristling bayonets of the whole military power of the nation. About eighteen years ago, a man of noble courage, rose among his brethren in Virginia. “We have long been subjected to slavery. The hour for our deliverance has come. Let us rise and strike for liberty. In the name of a God of justice let us stay our oppressors.” What was the result? He fell amid showers of American bullets, fired by United States troops. The fact that the Constitution guarantees to the slaveholder the naval and military support of the nation; the fact that he may under that Constitution, recapture his flying bondman in any State or territory within or belonging to this Union; and the fact that slavery alone enjoys a representation in Congress, makes every man who in good faith swears to support that Constitution and to execute its provisions, responsible for all the outrages committed on the millions of our brethren now in bonds. I therefore this day, before this large audience, charge home upon the voters of this city, county and state, the awful responsibility of enslaving and imbruting my brothers and sisters in the Southern States of this Union. Carry it home with you from this great gathering in Washington Square, that you, my white fellow-countrymen, are the enslavers of men, women, and children, in the Southern States; that what are called the compromises of your glorious Constitution, are but bloody links in the chain of slavery; and that they make you parties to that chain. But for these compromises— but for your readiness to stand by them, “in the fullness of their letter and the completeness of their letter,” the slave might instantly assert and maintain his rights. The contest now would be wonderfully unequal. Seventeen millions of armed, disciplined, and intelligent people, against three millions of unarmed and uninformed. Sir, we are often taunted with the inquiry from Northern white men—”Why do your people submit to slavery? and does not that submission prove them an inferior race? Why have they not shown a desire for freedom?” Such language is as disgraceful to the insolent men who use it, as it is tantalising and insulting to us.
It is mean and cowardly for any white man to use such language toward us. My language to all such, is, Give us fair play and if we do not gain our freedom, it will be time to taunt us thus.
Before taking my seat, I will call your attention to some charges and misrepresentations of the American press, respecting the result of the great measure which we this day commemorate. We continually find statements and sentiments like this, in the whirlpool of American newspapers—”The British Colonies are ruined,” “The emancipated Negroes are lazy and won’t work,” “Emancipation has been a failure.” Now, I wish to reply to these sentiments and statements— and to say something about laziness in general, as applied to the race to which I belong. By the way, I think I may claim a superior industry for the colored man over the white man, on the showing of the white men themselves. We are just now appropriating to ourselves, vast regions of country in the Southwest.— What is the language of white men, as to the best population to develop the great resources of those vast countries? Why, in good plain English this: that white industry is unequal to it, and that none but the sinewy arm of the sable race is capable of doing so. Now, for these lazy drones to be taunting us with laziness, is a little too bad. I will answer the statements respecting the ruined condition of the West India Islands, by a declaration recently made on this very subject by Lord John Russell, present Prime Minister of England, a man remarkable for coolness and accuracy of speech. In regard to the measure of emancipation, he says, and I read from the London Times of the 17th of June, 1848:—
“The main purpose of the act of 1834 was as I have stated, to give freedom to 800,000 persons, to place those then living in a condition of slavery in a state of independence, prosperity, and happiness. That object, I think, every one admits has been accomplished. [Cheers.] I believe a class of laborers more happy, more in possession of all the advantages and enjoyments of life than the Negro population of the West Indies, does not exist. [Cheers.]—That great object has been accomplished by the act of 1834.”
“It appears by evidence that the Negroes of the West India colonies since the abolition.of slavery had been in the best condition. They had the best food, and were in all respects better clothed and provided for than any peasantry in the world. There was a resolution passed by a committee in 1842 declaring that the measure of emancipation had completely succeeded so far as the welfare of the Negroes was concerned. I believe the noble lord the member for Lynn, moved a similar resolution on a subsequent occasion. We have it in evidence that the Negroes were able to indulge in the luxury of dress, which they carried to an almost ridiculous excess. Some were known to have dress worth 5ol.”
Now, sir, I call upon the press of Rochester and of this country at large, to let these facts be known, that a long abused and injured race may at last have justice done them.
I must thank you now my friends, for your kind and patient attention: asking your pardon for having trespassed so long upon your hearing, I will take my seat.