Photo credits: Samuel J. Miller
Frederick Douglass had been asked to address the people of Rochester, New York, on July 5, 1852.
Notwithstanding any hopes his listeners may have had on that 76th annual celebration of the Declaration of Independence’s signing, Douglass utilized the event to inform everyone about the country’s ongoing oppression of millions of black slaves – rather than to commemorate the country’s victory against its former colonizer.
The speech Douglass made titled, “What, to the Slave, is the Fourth of July?” is shown as follows:
Mr. President, friends and fellow citizens: He who can speak in front of this audience without quivering has stronger nerves than I do. I do not remember ever having appeared as a speaker before any assembly more hesitantly, nor with greater distrust of my ability, than I do this day. A feeling has crept over me, quite unfavorable to the exercise of my limited powers of speech. The task before me is one which requires much previous thought and study for its proper performance. I know that apologies of this sort are generally considered flat and unmeaning. I trust, however, that mine will not be so considered. Should I seem at ease, my appearance would greatly misrepresent me. The little experience I have had in addressing public meetings in country schoolhouses avails me nothing on the present occasion.
The papers and placards say that I am to deliver a 4th [of] July oration. This certainly sounds grand and out of the ordinary, for it is true that I have often had the privilege of speaking in this beautiful hall and addressing many who now honor me with their presence. But neither their familiar faces nor the perfect impression I have of Corinthian Hall appear to relieve my embarrassment.
The fact is, ladies and gentlemen, the distance between this platform and the slave plantation, from which I escaped, is considerable—and the difficulties to be overcome in getting from the latter to the former are by no means slight. That I am here today is, to me, a matter of astonishment as well as of gratitude. You will not, therefore, be surprised if in what I have to say I evince no elaborate preparation, nor grace my speech with any high-sounding exordium. With little experience and with less learning, I have been able to throw my thoughts hastily and imperfectly together; and trusting in your patience and generous indulgence, I will proceed to lay them before you.
This, for the purpose of this celebration, is the 4th of July. It is the birthday of your national independence and of your political freedom. This, to you, is what the Passover was to the emancipated people of God. It transports you back to the day and the act of your great deliverance, as well as the signs and wonders associated with that act and that day. This celebration also marks the beginning of another year of your national life and reminds you that the Republic of America is now 76 years old. I am glad, fellow-citizens, that your nation is so young. Seventy-six years, though a good old age for a man, is but a mere speck in the life of a nation. Three score years and ten is the allotted time for individual men, but nations number their years by thousands. According to this fact, you are, even now, only at the beginning of your national career, still lingering in the period of childhood. I repeat, I am glad this is so. There is hope in the thought, and hope is much needed under the dark clouds that lower the horizon. The eye of the reformer is met with angry flashes, portending disastrous times; but his heart may well beat lighter at the thought that America is young, and that she is still in the impressionable stage of her existence. May he not hope that the high lessons of wisdom, of justice, and of truth will yet give direction to her destiny? Were the nation older, the patriot’s heart might be sadder, and the reformer’s brow heavier. Its future might be shrouded in gloom, and the hope of its prophets go out in sorrow. There is consolation in the thought that America is young. Great streams are not easily turned from channels worn deep in the course of ages. They may sometimes rise in quiet and stately majesty and inundate the land, refreshing and fertilizing the earth with their mysterious properties. They may also rise in wrath and fury, and bear away, on their angry waves, the accumulated wealth of years of toil and hardship. They, however, gradually flow back to the same old channel and flow on as serenely as ever. But, while the river may not be turned aside, it may dry up, and leave nothing behind but the withered branch and the unsightly rock, to howl in the abyss-sweeping wind, the sad tale of departed glory. As with rivers, so with nations.
Fellow-citizens, I shall not presume to dwell at length on the associations that cluster about this day. The simple story of it is that, 76 years ago, the people of this country were British subjects. The style and title of your “sovereign people” (in which you now glory) were not then born. You were under the British Crown. Your fathers esteemed the English government as their home government and England as their fatherland. This home government, you know, although a considerable distance from your home, did, in the exercise of its parental prerogatives, impose upon its colonial children such restraints, burdens, and limitations as, in its mature judgment, it deemed wise, right, and proper.
But your fathers, who had not adopted the fashionable idea of this day of the infallibility of government and the absolute character of its acts, presumed to differ from the home government in respect to the wisdom and the justice of some of those burdens and restraints. They went so far in their excitement as to pronounce the measures of the government unjust, unreasonable, and oppressive, and altogether such as ought not to be quietly submitted to. I scarcely need to say, fellow citizens, that my opinion of those measures fully accords with that of your fathers. Such a declaration of agreement on my part would not be worth much to anybody. It would certainly prove nothing as to what part I might have taken, had I lived during the great controversy of 1776. To say now that America was right and England wrong is exceedingly easy. Everyone can say it; the dastard, no less than the noble brave, can disparage England’s tyranny over the American colonies. It is fashionable to do so; but there was a time when pronouncing against England and in favor of the cause of the colonies tried men’s souls. Those who did so were regarded as plotters of mischief, agitators and rebels, and dangerous men in their day. To side with the right against the wrong, the weak against the strong, and the oppressed against the oppressor! This is the mark, and it is the one that, above all, appears unfashionable in our day. The cause of liberty may be stabbed by the men who glory in the deeds of your fathers. But, to proceed
Feeling themselves harshly and unjustly treated by the home government, your fathers, like men of honesty and good spirit, earnestly sought redress. They petitioned and remonstrated; they did so in a decorous, respectful, and loyal manner. Their conduct was wholly unexceptionable. This, however, did not answer the purpose. They saw themselves treated with sovereign indifference, coldness, and scorn. Yet they persevered. They were not the men to look back.
As the sheet anchor takes a firmer hold when the ship is tossed by the storm, so did the cause of your fathers’ grow stronger, as they breasted the chilling blasts of kingly displeasure. The greatest and best of British statesmen admitted its justice, and the loftiest eloquence of the British Senate came to its support. But, with that blindness, which seems to be the unvarying characteristic of tyrants, ever since Pharaoh and his hosts were drowned in the Red Sea, the British government persisted in the exactions complained of.
We believe that even England recognizes the folly of this course, but we fear that the lesson has been lost on our current ruler.
Oppression makes a wise man mad. Your fathers were wise men, and if they did not go mad, they became restive under this treatment. They felt themselves the victims of grievous wrongs, wholly incurable in their colonial capacity. With brave men, there is always a remedy for oppression. Here, the idea of a total separation of the colonies from the crown was born! It was a startling idea, much more so than we, at this distance in time, regard it. The timid and the prudent (as has been intimated) of that day were, of course, shocked and alarmed by it. Such people lived then, had lived before, and will almost certainly have a place on this planet in the future; and their course, with respect to any great change, can be calculated with the same precision as the course of the stars, regardless of how great the good to be attained or the wrong to be redressed by it. They hate all change, but silver, gold, and copper change! They are always strongly in favor of this sort of change.
These people were known as Tories in your father’s day, and the term likely conveyed the same meaning as a more modern, albeit less euphonious, term that we frequently see in our newspapers applied to some of our older politicians.
Their opposition to the dangerous idea was earnest and powerful; but, amid all their terror and affrighted vociferations against it, the alarming and revolutionary idea moved on, and the country with it.
On the second of July, 1776, the old Continental Congress, to the dismay of the lovers of ease and the worshipers of property, clothed that dreadful idea with all the authority of national sanction. They did so in the form of a resolution; and as we seldom come upon resolutions drawn up in our day whose transparency is at all equal to this, it may refresh your minds and help my story if I read it.
[We] solemnly publish and declare that these United Colonies are, and should be, free and independent states; that they are free of all allegiance to the British Crown; and that all political ties between them and the State of Great Britain are, and should be, severed.
Citizens, your fathers made good on that resolution. They succeeded, and today you reap the fruits of their success. The freedom gained is yours, and you, therefore, may properly celebrate this anniversary. The 4th of July is the first great fact in your nation’s history—the very ring—bolt in the chain of your yet undeveloped destiny.
Pride and patriotism, not less than gratitude, prompt you to celebrate and to hold it in perpetual remembrance. I have said that the Declaration of Independence is the ring-bolt to the chain of your nation’s destiny; so, indeed, I regard it. The principles contained in that instrument are saving principles. Stand by those principles, be true to them on all occasions, in all places, against all foes, and at whatever cost.
From the round top of your ship of state, dark and threatening clouds may be seen. To the leeward, heavy billows, like distant mountains, reveal massive forms of flinty rocks! That bolt is drawn, that chain broken, and all is lost. Cling to this day and its principles like a storm-tossed sailor clutching a spar at midnight.
The coming into being of a nation, in any circumstances, is an interesting event. But, besides general considerations, there were peculiar circumstances which made the advent of this republic an event of special attractiveness.
The whole scene, as I look back on it, was simple, dignified, and sublime.
The population of the country, at the time, stood at an insignificant three million. The country was poor in munitions for war. The population was weak and scattered, and the country was a wilderness unsubdued. There were no such things as concerts and combinations back then. Neither steam nor lightning had then been reduced to order and discipline. From the Potomac to the Delaware was a journey of many days. Under these, and innumerable other disadvantages, your fathers declared for liberty and independence and triumphed.
Fellow Citizens, I do not lack respect for the fathers of this republic. The signers of the Declaration of Independence were brave men. They were great men too—great enough to give fame to a great age. It does not often happen to a nation to raise, at one time, such a number of truly great men. The point from which I am compelled to view them is not, certainly, the most favorable, and yet I cannot contemplate their great deeds with less than admiration. They were statesmen, patriots, and heroes, and for the good they did and the principles they contended for, I will unite with you to honor their memory.
They loved their country better than their own private interests; and, though this is not the highest form of human excellence, all will concede that it is a rare virtue, and that when it is exhibited, it ought to command respect. A man who will intelligently lay down his life for his country is a man whom it is not in human nature to despise. Your forefathers staked their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor on the cause of their country. In their admiration of liberty, they lost sight of all other interests.
They were peace men, but they preferred revolution to peaceful submission to bondage. They were quiet men, but they did not shrink from agitating against oppression. They showed forbearance but that they knew its limits. They believed in order, but not in the order of tyranny. With them, nothing was “settled” that was not right. With them, justice, liberty, and humanity were “final,” not slavery and oppression. You may well cherish the memory of such men. They were great in their day and generation. Their solid manhood stands out the more as we contrast it with these degenerate times.
How circumspect, exact, and proportionate were all their movements? How unlike today’s politicians! Their statesmanship looked beyond the passing moment and stretched away in strength into the distant future. They seized upon eternal principles and set a glorious example in their defense. Mark them!
Your fathers, the fathers of this republic, laid the corner-stone of the national superstructure, which has risen and continues to rise in grandeur around you, most deliberately, inspired by a glorious patriotism and with a sublime faith in the great principles of justice and freedom.
This day is the anniversary of this fundamental work. Our eyes are met with demonstrations of joyous enthusiasm. Banners and pennants wave exultingly in the breeze. The din of business, too, is hushed. On this day, even Mammon seems to have quit his grasp. The ear-piercing fife and the stirring drum unite their accents with the ascending peal of a thousand church bells. Prayers are made, hymns are sung, and sermons are preached in honor of this day; while the quick martial tramp of a great and multitudinous nation, echoed back by all the hills, valleys, and mountains of a vast continent, bespeaks the occasion as one of thrilling and universal interest, the nation’s jubilee.
Friends and citizens, I need not enter further into the causes which led to this anniversary. Many of you understand them better than I do. You could instruct me in regard to them. That is a branch of knowledge in which you feel, perhaps, a much deeper interest than your speaker. The causes which led to the separation of the colonies from the British crown have never lacked a tongue. They have all been taught in your common schools, narrated at your firesides, unfolded from your pulpits, and thundered from your legislative halls, and are as familiar to you as household words. They form the basis of your national poetry and eloquence.
I also remember that, as a people, Americans are remarkably familiar with all the facts that work in their own favor. This is esteemed by some as a national trait—perhaps a national weakness. It is a fact that whatever is good for the wealth or for the reputation of Americans and can be had cheaply will be found by Americans. I shall not be charged with slandering Americans if I say I think the American side of any problem may be safely left in American hands.
So I’ll leave your fathers’ great deeds to other gentlemen whose claim to being regularly descended is less likely to be contested than mine!
My business, if I have any here today, is with the present. The accepted time with God and his cause is the present moment.
No matter how pleasant the future appears to be, allow the dead of the past to be buried; act now in the living present, heart within, and God above.
We have to do with the past only so far as we can make it useful to the present and to the future. We are welcome to all the inspiring motives and noble deeds that can be gained from the past. But now is the time, the important time. Your fathers have lived, died, and have done their work, and have done much of it well. You live and must die, and you must do your work. You have no right to enjoy a child’s share in the labor of your father, unless your children are to be blest by your labors. You have no right to wear out and waste the hard-earned fame of your father to cover your indolence. Sydney Smith tells us that men seldom eulogize the wisdom and virtues of their fathers, but to excuse some folly or wickedness of their own. This truth is not a doubtful one. There are illustrations of it near and remote, ancient and modern. It was fashionable, hundreds of years ago, for the children of Jacob to boast, “We have Abraham for our father,” when they had long since lost Abraham’s faith and spirit. Those people contented themselves under the shadow of Abraham’s great name, while they repudiated the deeds which made his name great. Need I remind you that a similar thing is being done all over this country today? Need I tell you that the Jews are not the only people who built the tombs of the prophets and garnished the sepulchers of the righteous? He could not die till he had broken the chains of his slaves. Yet his monument is built up by the price of human blood, and the traders in the bodies and souls of men shout, “We have Washington for our father.”—Alas! that it should be, but it is.
The evil that men do lives after them; the good is often interred with their bones.
Fellow-citizens, pardon me. Permit me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here today? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? And am I thus called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, confess the benefits, and express heartfelt gratitude for the blessings that your independence has bestowed upon us?
For God’s sake, both for yours and ours, that an affirmative answer could be truthfully returned to these questions! Then my task would be light, and my burden easy and delightful. For who is there so cold that a nation’s sympathy could not warm him? Who was it that was so obstinate and deafeningly deafeningly deafeningly deafeningly stolid and selfish that he would not give his voice to swell the hallelujahs of a nation’s jubilee when the chains of servitude had been torn from his limbs? I am not that man. In such a case, the deafeningly deafeningly deafeningly deafeningly deafeningly deafeningly deafeningly deafeningly deafen.
But that is not the state of the case. I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the scope of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings on which you rejoice today are not shared by everyone. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity, and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, but I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems would be an inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me by asking me to speak today? If so, there is a parallel to your conduct. And let me warn you that it is dangerous to copy the example of a nation whose crimes, descending to heaven, were thrown down by the breath of the Almighty, burying that nation in irrecoverable ruin! Today, I can join in the wailing of beleaguered and bereaved people!
“By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down.” Yea! we wept when we remembered Zion. We hung our harps from the willows in the middle of the forest. For there, those who took us captive demanded a song, and those who wasted us demanded mirth, saying, “Sing us one of Zion’s songs.” How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth. “
Fellow-citizens, above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions! whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are today rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them. If I do forget, if I do not faithfully remember those bleeding children of sorrow this day, “may my right hand forget her cunning, and may my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth!” To forget them, to pass lightly over their wrongs, and to chime in with the popular theme, would be the most scandalous and shocking treason, and would make me a reproach before God and the world. My subject, fellow-citizens, is American slavery. I shall see this day and its popular characteristics from the slave’s point of view. Standing there, identified with the American bondman, making his wrongs mine, I do not hesitate to declare, with all my soul, that the character and conduct of this nation never looked blacker to me than on this 4th of July! Whether we turn to the declarations of the past or to the professions of the present, the conduct of the nation seems equally hideous and revolting. America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to being false to the future. “Standing with God and the crushed and bleeding slave on this occasion, I will, in the name of humanity, which is outraged; in the name of liberty, which is fettered; in the name of the constitution and the Bible, which are disregarded and trampled upon, dare to call into question and to denounce, with all the emphasis I can command, everything that serves to perpetuate slavery—the great sin and shame of America!” I will not equivocate; I will not excuse; “I will use the harshest language I can muster, and not one word will escape me that any man whose judgment is not clouded by prejudice, or who is not at heart a slaveholder, will not confess to be free and just.” But I fancy I heard someone in my audience say, “It is just in this circumstance that you and your brother abolitionists fail to make a favorable impression on the public mind.” Would you argue more and denounce less? Would you persuade more and rebuke less? Your cause would be much more likely to succeed. But, I submit, where all is plain, there is nothing to be argued. Which point in the anti-slavery creed would you have me argue? On what branch of the subject do the people of this country need light? Must I undertake to prove that the slave is a man? That point is conceded already. Nobody doubts it. The slaveholders themselves acknowledge it in the enactment of laws for their government. They acknowledge it when they punish disobedience on the part of the slave. There are seventy-two crimes in the State of Virginia which, if committed by a black man (no matter how ignorant he may be), subject him to the punishment of death, while only two of the same crimes will subject a white man to the like punishment. What else could this be but acknowledgment that the slave is a moral, intellectual, and responsible being? The manhood of the slave is conceded. It is admitted that the Southern statute books are littered with enactments that forbid, under severe fines and penalties, teaching slaves to read or write. When you can point to any such laws in reference to the beasts of the field, then I may consent to argue the manhood of the slave. When the dogs in your streets, the fowls in the sky, the cattle on your hills, the fish in the sea, and the crawling reptiles are unable to tell the slave from the brute, they will argue with you that the slave is a man!
For the present, it is enough to affirm the equal manhood of the Negro race. Isn’t it amazing that, while we’re ploughing, planting, and reaping, using all kinds of mechanical tools, erecting houses, constructing bridges, building ships, working in metals of brass, iron, copper, silver, and gold; that, while we’re reading, writing, and cyphering, acting as clerks, merchants, and secretaries, having among us lawyers, doctors, ministers, poets, authors, editors, orators, and teachers; and
Would you have me argue that a man is entitled to liberty? Is he not the rightful owner of his own body? You have already declared it. Must I argue the wrongfulness of slavery? Is that a question for Republicans? Is it to be settled by the rules of logic and argumentation, as a matter beset with great difficulty, involving a doubtful application of the principle of justice and hard to understand? How should I look today, in the presence of Americans, dividing and subdividing a discourse, to show that men have a natural right to freedom? Speaking of it relatively, and positively, negatively, and affirmatively. To do so would be to make myself ridiculous and to offer an insult to your understanding. There is not a man beneath the canopy of heaven that does not know that slavery is wrong for him.
What am I to say that making men brutes, robbing them of their liberty, working them without pay, keeping them ignorant of their relationships with their fellow men, beating them with sticks, flaying their flesh with the lash, loading their limbs with irons, hunting them with dogs, selling them at auction, severing their families, knocking out their teeth, buming their flesh, starving them into obedience and submission to their masters is wrong? Must I argue that a system thus marked with blood and stained with pollution is wrong? No! I will not. I have better employment for my time and strength than such arguments would imply.
What, then, remains to be argued? Is it that slavery is not divine, that God did not establish it, or that our doctors of divinity are mistaken? There is blasphemy in this thought. That which is inhuman, can not be divine! Who can reason about such a proposition? Those who can may do so; I cannot. The time for such an argument is past.
At a time like this, scorching irony, not persuasive argument, is needed. I would, had I the ability and could I reach the nation’s ear, I would, today, pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not a gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. The nation’s feelings must be roused; the nation’s conscience must be roused; the nation’s propriety must be shocked; the nation’s hypocrisy must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.
What, to an American slave, is your Fourth of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruel treatment of which he is a constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are hollow and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass-fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are mere bombast, fraud;
Go where you may, search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the old world, travel through South America, search out every abuse, and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me, that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival. Take the American slave-trade, which, we are told by the papers, is especially prosperous just now. Ex-Senator Benton tells us that the price of men was never higher than now. He mentions the fact to show that slavery is in no danger. This trade is one of the peculiarities of American institutions. It is carried on in all the large towns and cities in one-half of this confederacy, and millions are pocketed every year by dealers in this horrid trade. In several states, this trade is a chief source of wealth. It is called (in contradistinction to the foreign slave-trade) “the internal slave trade.” It is probably called so, too, in order to divert from it the horror with which the foreign slave-trade is contemplated. That trade has long since been denounced by this government as piracy. It has been denounced with burning words from the high places of the nation as an execrable practice. To arrest it, to put an end to it, this nation keeps a squadron, at immense cost, on the coast of Africa. Everywhere in this country, it is safe to speak of this foreign slave-trade as a most inhuman traffic, opposed alike to the laws of God and of man. The duty to extirpate and destroy it is admitted even by our doctors of divinity. In order to put an end to it, some of these last have consented that their colored brethren (nominally free) should leave this country and establish themselves on the western coast of Africa! It is, however, a notable fact that, while so much execration is poured out by Americans upon those engaged in the foreign slave-trade, the men engaged in the slave-trade between the states pass without condemnation, and their business is deemed honorable.
Behold the practical operation of this internal slave-trade, the American slave-trade, sustained by American politics and American religion. Here you will see men and women reared like swine for the market. Do you know what a swine-drover is? I will show you a man-drover. They inhabit all our southern states. They perambulate the country, and crowd the highways of the nation with droves of human stock. You will see one of these human flesh-jobbers, armed with a pistol, whip, and bowie knife, driving a company of a hundred men, women, and children, from the Potomac to the slave market at New Orleans. These wretched people are to be sold singly or in lots to suit purchasers. They are food for the cotton-fields and the deadly sugar-mill. Mark the sad procession, as it moves wearily along, and the inhuman wretch who drives it. Hear his savage yells and his blood-chilling oaths, as he hurries on his affrighted captives! There you see the old man, with his locks thinning and gray. Cast one glance, if you please, upon that young mother, whose shoulders are bare to the scorching sun, her briny tears falling on the brow of the babe in her arms. See, too, that girl of thirteen, weeping, yes! weeping, as she thinks of the mother from whom she has been torn! The car moves tardily. Heat and sorrow have nearly consumed their strength; suddenly you hear a quick snap, like the discharge of a rifle; the fetters clank, and the chain rattles simultaneously; your ears are saluted with a scream that seems to have torn its way to the center of your soul! The crack you heard was the sound of the slave-whip; the scream you heard was from the woman you saw with the babe. Her speed had faltered under the weight of her child and her chains! That gash on her shoulder tells her to move on. Follow the road to New Orleans. Attend the auction; see men examined like horses; see the forms of women rudely and brutally exposed to the shocking gaze of American slave-buyers. Never forget the deep, sad sobs that arose from that scattered multitude when this drive was sold and separated. Tell me, citizens, where under the sun can you witness a spectacle more fiendish and shocking? Yet this is but a glance at the American slave-trade as it exists, at this moment, in the ruling part of the United States.
I was born amid such sights and scenes. To me, the American slave trade is a terrible reality. When I was a child, my soul was often pierced with a sense of its horrors. I lived on Philpot Street, Fell’s Point, Baltimore, and I watched from the wharves the slave ships in the Basin, anchored from the shore, with their cargoes of human flesh, waiting for favorable winds to waft them down the Chesapeake. There was, at that time, a grand slave mart kept at the head of Pratt Street by Austin Woldfolk. His agents were sent into every town and county in Maryland, announcing their arrival through the papers and on flaming handbills headed “Cash for Negroes.” These men were generally well-dressed and very charming in their manners. Always ready to drink, gamble, and treat. The fate of many a slave has depended upon the turn of a single card, and many a child has been snatched from the arms of its mother by bargains arranged in a state of brutal drunkenness.
The flesh-mongers round up their victims by the dozens, chain them up, and transport them to the general depot in Baltimore. When a sufficient number have been collected here, a ship is chartered for the purpose of conveying the forlorn crew to Mobile, or to New Orleans. Since the antislavery agitation, they are usually driven at night.
In the deep, still darkness of midnight, I have often been aroused by the heavy footsteps of the dead and the piteous cries of the piteous gangs that passed our door. My boyish heart was in agony, and I was often consoled, when speaking to my mistress in the morning, to hear her say that the custom was very wicked, and that she despised hearing the rattle of the chains and the heart-rending cries. I was glad to find someone who sympathized with me in my horror. Fellow-citizens, this murderous traffic is, to-day, in active operation in this boasted republic. In the solitude of my spirit, I see clouds of dust raised on the highways of the South; I see the bleeding footsteps; I hear the doleful wail of fettered humanity on the way to the slave markets, where the victims are to be sold like horses, sheep, and swine, knocked off to the highest bidder. There I see the tenderest ties ruthlessly broken, to gratify the lust, caprice, and rapacity of the buyers and sellers of men. My soul sickens at the sight.
Is this the land your fathers loved, the freedom which they toiled to win? Is this the earth upon which they moved? Are these the graves they slumber in?
But a still more inhuman, disgraceful, and scandalous state of things remains to be presented. Slavery has been nationalized in its most horrible and revolting form by an act of the American Congress. It is not yet two years old. By that act, Mason & Dixon’s line has been obliterated; New York has become Virginia; and the power to hold, hunt, and sell men, women, and children as slaves remains no longer a mere state institution, but is now an institution of the whole United States. The power is co-extensive with the Star-Spangled Banner and American Christianity. Where these go, the merciless slave-hunter may follow. Where these are, man is not sacred. He is a bird for the sportsman’s gun. By that most foul and fiendish of all human decrees, the liberty and person of every man are put in peril. Your broad republican domain is a hunting ground for men. Not for thieves and robbers, enemies of society, but for men guilty of no crime. Your lawmakers have commanded all good citizens to engage in this hellish sport. Your President, your Secretary of State, and your lords, nobles, and ecclesiastics enforce, as a duty you owe to your free and glorious country, and to your God, that you do this accursed thing. Not fewer than forty Americans have, within the past two years, been hunted down and, without a moment’s warning, hurried away in chains and consigned to slavery and excruciating torture. Some of these had wives and children who relied on them for bread, but no account was taken of this. The right of the hunter to his prey stands superior to the right of marriage and to all rights in this republic, the rights of God included! For black men, there is neither law, justice, humanity, nor religion. The Fugitive Slave Law criminalizes showing mercy to them and bribes the judge who prosecutes them. An American judge gets ten dollars for every victim he consigns to slavery, and five when he fails to do so. Under this hell-black enactment, it is sufficient to send the most pious and exemplary black man into the remorseless jaws of slavery! His own testimony is nothing. He can bring no witnesses for himself. The minister of American justice is required by law to hear only one side, and that side is the oppressor’s. Let this damning fact be perpetually told. Let it be thundered around the world that, in tyrant-killing, king-hating, people-loving, democratic, Christian America, the seats of justice are filled with judges who hold their offices under an open and palpable bribe, and are bound, in deciding in the case of a man’s liberty, to hear only his accusers!
This Fugitive Slave Law stands alone in the annals of tyrannical legislation for flagrant violation of justice, shameless disregard for the forms of administrating law, cunning arrangement to entrap the defenseless, and diabolical intent. I doubt if there is another nation on the globe with the brass and the baseness to put such a law on the statute-book. If any man in this assembly thinks differently from me on this matter and feels able to disprove my statements, I will gladly confront him at any suitable time and place he may select.
I take this law to be one of the grossest infringements of Christian liberty, and if the churches and ministers of our country were not stupidly blind or wickedly indifferent, they, too, would so regard it.
At the very moment that they are thanking God for the enjoyment of civil and religious liberty and for the right to worship God according to the dictates of their own consciences, they are utterly silent with respect to a law which robs religion of its chief significance and makes it utterly worthless to a world living in wickedness. If this law concerning the “mint, anise, and cummin” abridged the right to sing psalms, to partake of the sacrament, or to engage in any of the ceremonies of religion, it would be smitten by the thunder of a thousand pulpits. A general shout would go up from the church, demanding repeal, repeal, instant repeal! And it would go hard with that politician who presumed to solicit the votes of the people without inscribing this motto on his banner. Further, if this demand were not complied with, another Scotland would be added to the history of religious liberty, and the stern old Covenanters would be thrown into the shade. A John Knox would be seen at every church door and heard from every pulpit, and Fillmore would be treated no differently than Knox treated the beautiful but treacherous queen, Mary of Scotland. The fact that the church of our country (with fractional exceptions) does not esteem “the Fugitive Slave Law” as a declaration of war against religious liberty implies that that church regards religion simply as a form of worship, an empty ceremony, and not a vital principle requiring active benevolence, justice, love, and goodwill towards man. It values sacrifice over mercy, psalm singing over righteousness, and solemn meetings over practical righteousness. A worship that can be conducted by people who refuse to give shelter to the houseless, to give bread to the hungry, and clothing to the naked, and who enjoin obedience to a law forbidding these acts of mercy, is a curse, not a blessing to mankind. The Bible addresses all such people as “scribes, Pharisees, hypocrites, who pay tithe of mint, anise, and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith.” But the church of this country is not only indifferent to the wrongs of slaves; it actually takes sides with the oppressors. It has made itself the bulwark of American slavery and the shield of American slave-hunters. Many of its most eloquent divines, who stand as the very lights of the church, have shamelessly given the sanction of religion and the Bible to the whole slave system. They have taught that man may, properly, be a slave; that the relationship between master and slave is ordained by God; that to send back an escaped bondman to his master is clearly the duty of all the followers of the Lord Jesus Christ; and this horrible blasphemy is palmed off upon the world for Christianity.
For my part, I would say, “Welcome to infidelity!” Welcome to atheism! Anything would be preferable to the gospel as preached by those divinities. They convert the very name of religion into an engine of tyranny and barbarous cruelty, and serve to confirm more infidels in this age than all the infidel writings of Thomas Paine, Voltaire, and Bolingbroke, put together, have done! These ministers make religion a cold and flinty-hearted thing, having neither principles of right action nor bowels of compassion. They take the beauty out of God’s love and leave religion in a huge, horrible, repulsive form.It is a religion for oppressors, tyrants, man-stealers, and thugs. It is not that “pure and undefiled religion” which is from above and which is “first pure, then peaceable, easy to be entreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy.” But a religion which favors the rich against the poor; which exalts the proud above the humble; which divides mankind into two classes, tyrants and slaves; which says to the man in chains, “stay there; and to the oppressor, oppress on; it is a religion which may be professed and enjoyed by all the robbers and enslavers of mankind; it makes God a respecter of persons, denies his fatherhood of the race, and tramples in the dust the great truth of the brotherhood of man. All this we affirm to be true of the popular church and the popular worship of our land and nation—a religion, a church, and a worship which, on the authority of inspired wisdom, we pronounce to be an abomination in the sight of God. In the language of Isaiah, the American church might be well addressed. “Bring no more vain ablations; incense is an abomination unto me; the new moons and Sabbaths, the calling of assemblies, I cannot do away with; it is iniquity, even the solemn meeting. My soul hates your new moons and your appointed feasts. They irritate me; I am tired of bearing them; and when you spread your hands, I will turn away from you.Yes, I will not hear your many prayers. Your hands are full of blood; cease to do evil, learn to do well; seek judgment; relieve the oppressed; judge for the fatherless; plead for the widow. “
The American church is guilty when it comes to what it does to support slavery, but it is especially guilty when it comes to its ability to abolish slavery.
The sin of which it is guilty is one of omission as well as of commission. Albert Barnes uttered what the common sense of every man at all observant of the current state of the case will receive as truth when he declared that “There is no power outside of the church that could sustain slavery an hour, if it were not sustained in it.”
Let the religious press, pulpit, Sunday school, conference meeting, and the great ecclesiastical, missionary, Bible, and tract associations of the land band together against slavery and slave-holding, and the entire system of crime and blood would be scattered to the winds; failure to do so involves them in the most terrible responsibility that the mind can conceive.
In prosecuting the anti-slavery enterprise, we have been asked to spare the church, to spare the ministry; but how, we ask, could such a thing be done? On the eve of our efforts for slave redemption, we are met by the church and ministry of the country in a battle arrayed against us, and we are forced to fight or flee.I beg to ask, from what quarter has a fire so lethal in our ranks in the last two years as the Northern pulpit? The chosen men of American theology have emerged as oppressors’ champions—men honored for their so-called piety and true learning. The Lords of Buffalo, the Springs of New York, the Lathrops of Auburn, the Coxes and Spencers of Brooklyn, the Gannets and Sharps of Boston, the Deweys of Washington, and other great religious lights of the land have deliberately taught us, against the example of the Hebrews and the remonstrance of the Apostles, “that we ought to obey man’s law before the law.”
My spirit is weary of such blasphemy, and how such men can be supported as “standing types and representatives of Jesus Christ” is a mystery that I will leave for others to solve. In speaking of the American church, however, let it be distinctly understood that I mean the great mass of the religious organizations of our land. There are exceptions, and I thank God that there are. And let me add that it is incumbent upon these men to instill in our ranks a strong religious faith and zeal, as well as to encourage us in the great mission of freeing the slaves.
One is struck with the difference between the attitude of the American church towards the anti-slavery movement and that held by the churches in England towards a similar movement in that country. There, the church, true to its mission of ameliorating, elevating, and improving the condition of mankind, came forward promptly, bound up the wounds of the West Indian slave, and restored him to his liberty. There, the question of emancipation was a highly [highly] religious question. It was demanded in the name of humanity and according to the law of the living God. The Sharps, the Clarksons, the Wilberforces, the Buxtons, the Burchells, and the Knibbs were alike famous for their piety and their philanthropy. The anti-slavery movement in that country was not an anti-church movement because the church participated fully in prosecuting that movement, and the anti-slavery movement in this country will cease to be an anti-church movement when the church of this country takes a favorable rather than a hostile stance toward that movement.
Americans! Your republican politics, not less than your republican religion, are flagrantly inconsistent. You boast of your love of liberty, your superior civilization, and your pure Christianity, while the whole political power of the nation (as embodied in the two great political parties) is solemnly pledged to support and perpetuate the enslavement of three million of your countrymen. You hurl your anathemas at the crowned-headed tyrants of Russia and Austria, and pride yourselves on your democratic institutions, while you yourselves consent to be the mere tools and bodyguards of the tyrants of Virginia and Carolina. You welcome fugitives from oppression in other countries; you honor them with banquets; you greet them with standing ovations; you cheer them; toast them; salute them; you protect them; and you pour out your money on them like water; but you advertise, hunt, arrest, shoot, and kill fugitives in your own country. You glory in your refinement and your universal education, yet you maintain a system as barbarous and dreadful as any that has ever stained the character of a nation—a system begun in avarice, supported in pride, and perpetuated in cruelty. You weep for fallen Hungary, and make the sad story of her wrongs the theme of your poets, statesmen, and orators, until your gallant sons are ready to fly to arms to vindicate her cause against her oppressors; but, in regard to the ten thousand wrongs of the American slave, you would enforce strict silence, and hail him as an enemy of the nation who dares to bring those wrongs to public attention! You are all on fire at the mention of liberty for France or for Ireland, but are as cold as an iceberg at the thought of liberty for the enslaved of America. You discourse eloquently on the dignity of labor; yet, you sustain a system which, in its very essence, casts a stigma upon labor. You can expose your bosom to the fury of British artillery to avoid a threepenny tax on tea while wringing the last hard-earned farthing from the grasp of your country’s black laborers. You profess to believe that “God made all nations of men to dwell on the face of the whole earth” and has commanded all men everywhere to love one another, yet you notoriously hate (and glory in your hatred) all men whose skins are not the same color as your own. You declare, and the world understands you to declare, that you “hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” and yet you secure a seventh paternity in a bondage that, according to your own Thomas Jefferson, “is worse than the ages of that which your fathers rose in rebellion to oppose.”
Fellow-citizens! I will not enlarge further on your national inconsistencies. The existence of slavery in this country brands your republicanism as a sham, your humanity as a base pretense, and your Christianity as a lie. It destroys your moral power abroad and corrupts your politicians at home. It erodes religion’s foundation; it makes your name hiss and a byword to a mocking earth. It is the antagonistic force in your government, the only thing that seriously disturbs and endangers your union. It stifles your progress; it is an enemy of progress, a deadly foe of education; it breeds pride, arrogance, vice, and crime; it is a curse to the earth that sustains it; and yet you cling to it as if it were the sheet anchor of all your hopes. Oh! Be warned! Be warned! A horrible reptile is coiled up in your nation’s bosom; the venomous creature is nursing at the tender breast of your youthful republic; for the love of God, tear away and fling from you the hideous monster, and let the weight of twenty million crush and destroy it forever!
But it is answered in reply to all this, that precisely what I have now denounced is, in fact, guaranteed and sanctioned by the Constitution of the United States; that the right to hold and to hunt slaves is a part of that Constitution framed by the illustrious Fathers of this Republic. Then, despite everything I’ve said before, I dare to say that your father stooped, basely stooped.
to palter with us in two ways, and to keep the word of promise to the ear while breaking it to the heart.
And instead of being the honest men I had before declared them to be, they were the veriest imposters that ever practiced on mankind. This is the inevitable conclusion, and from it there is no escape. But I differ from those who charge this baseness upon the framers of the Constitution of the United States. It is a slander upon their memory, at least, so I believe. There is no time now to argue the constitutional question at length — nor do I have the ability to discuss it as it ought to be discussed. The subject has been handled with masterly power by Lysander Spooner, Esq., by William Goodell, by Samuel E. Sewall, Esq., and last, though not least, by Gerritt Smith, Esq. These gentlemen have, as I think, fully and clearly vindicated the Constitution from any design to support slavery for an hour.
Fellow-citizens! There is no matter in respect to which the people of the North have allowed themselves to be so ruinously imposed upon, as that of the pro-slavery character of the Constitution. I believe there is no warrant, license, or sanction for the heinous act in that document. However, when interpreted correctly, the Constitution is a glorious liberty document. Read its preamble, consider its purposes. Is slavery among them? Is it at the gateway? Or is it in the temple? Neither of these is correct. While I do not intend to argue this point on this occasion, I do wonder if it is not odd that, if the Constitution was intended to be a slave-holding instrument by its framers and adopters, it contains no mention of slavery, slaveholding, or slaves. What would be thought of an instrument, drawn up, legally drawn up, for the purpose of entitling the city of Rochester to a track of land, in which no mention of land was made? Now, there are certain rules of interpretation for the proper understanding of all legal instruments. These rules are well established. They are simple, common-sense rules that you and I, and everyone else, can understand and apply without having spent years studying the law. I support the idea that the question of the constitutionality or unconstitutionality of slavery is not a question for the people. I hold that every American citizen has a right to fight to form an opinion about the constitution, to propagate that opinion, and to use all honorable means to make that opinion the prevailing one. Without this fight, the liberty of an American citizen would be as insecure as that of a Frenchman. Ex-Vice-President Dallas tells us that the constitution is an object to which no American mind can be too attentive and no American heart too devoted. He further says, “The constitution, in its words, is plain and intelligible, and is meant for the home-bred, unsophisticated understandings of our fellow-citizens.” Senator Berrien tells us that the Constitution is the fundamental law, that which controls all others. The charter of our liberties, which every citizen has a personal interest in understanding thoroughly, The testimony of Senator Breese, Lewis Cass, and many others that might be named, who are everywhere esteemed as sound lawyers, so regards the constitution. I take it, therefore, that it is not the presumption of a private citizen to form an opinion about that instrument.
Now, take the constitution according to its plain reading, and I defy the presentation of a single pro-slavery clause in it. On the other hand, it will be found to contain principles and purposes entirely hostile to the existence of slavery.
I have detained my audience entirely too long already. At some future period, I will gladly avail myself of an opportunity to give this subject a full and fair discussion. Permit me to say, in conclusion, notwithstanding the dark picture I have presented of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country.”
Permit me to say, in conclusion, notwithstanding the dark picture I have presented of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country. There are forces in operation which must inevitably work the downfall of slavery. “The arm of the Lord is not shortened,” and the doom of slavery is certain. I, therefore, leave off where I began: with hope. While drawing encouragement from the Declaration of Independence, the great principles it contains, and the genius of American institutions, my spirit is also cheered by the obvious tendencies of the age. Nations do not now stand in the same relationship to each other that they did ages ago. No nation can now shut itself up from the surrounding world and trot round in the same old path of its fathers without interference. The time had come when such a thing could be done. Long-established customs of hurtful character could formerly fence themselves in and do their evil work with social impunity. Knowledge was then confined to and enjoyed by the privileged few, and the multitude walked on in mental darkness. But a change has now come over the affairs of mankind. Walled cities and empires have become unfashionable. The arm of commerce has borne away the gates of the strong city. Intelligence is penetrating the darkest corners of the globe. It makes its pathway over and under the sea as well as on the earth. Wind, steam, and lightning are its chartered agents. Oceans no longer divide but unite nations. From Boston to London is now a holiday excursion. Space is comparatively annihilated. Thoughts expressed on one side of the Atlantic are distinctly heard on the other.
The far-off and almost fabulous Pacific rolls in grandeur at our feet. The Celestial Empire, the mystery of the ages, is being solved. The fiat of the Almighty, “Let there be Light,” has not yet spent its force. No abuse, no outrage, whether in taste, sport or avarice, can now hide itself from the all-pervading light. The iron shoe and crippled foot of China must be seen in contrast with nature. Africa must rise and put on her yet-unwoven garment. “Ethiopia shall stretch out her hand unto God.” In the fervent aspirations of William Lloyd Garrison, I say, and let every heart join in saying it.
God speed the year of jubilee. The wide world o’er, when from their galling chains set free, the oppressed shall vilely bend the knee, and wear the yoke of tyranny like brutes no more. That year will come, and freedom will reign, and he will be able to re-enlist in his plundered fight.
God hasten the day when human blood ceases to flow! The claims of human brotherhood are understood in all climes, and each return for evil is good; not blow for blow; the day will come when all feuds will end. and transform into a devoted ally to each foe.
God speed the glorious hour when no one on earth shall exercise lordly power, nor cower in the presence of a tyrant, but all to manhood’s stature, by equal birth! That hour will come, to each and to all, and from his prison-house, the thrall will go forth.
Until that year, day, hour, arrives, With head and heart and hand, I’ll strive to break the rod and rend the gyve. The spoiler of his prey deprives-so witness Heaven! And never from my chosen post, what’er the peril or the cost.