Country, Conscience, and the Anti-Slavery Cause
Country, Conscience, and the Anti-Slavery Cause
Date: May 13, 1847
Source: Douglass, Frederick. "Country, Conscience, and the Anti-Slavery Cause: An Address Delivered in New York, New York, May 11, 1847." New York Daily Tribune (May 13, 1847).
About the Author: Frederick Douglass was born in February 1818, on Maryland's Eastern Shore, with the name Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey. His mother, a slave, said his father was a white man whose identity remains unknown. In September 1838, he fled to New York City; once free, he changed his name to Frederick Douglass. He traveled to New England, pursued an education, and joined the fight to end slavery. In 1845, he published his autobiography and two years later began publishing his antislavery newspaper the North Star. Douglass was a key leader in the abolitionist movement and the first black American to gain significant government appointments.
The early years of Frederick Douglass's life were not that different from other slave children. He lived with his grandparents and an aunt, in slave quarters on a large plantation, and he saw his mother only a few times before her death. At eight years old, he was removed from his family and was sent to Baltimore to work for the ship carpenter Hugh Auld. Douglass learned to read and write while working for Auld and later noted that his Baltimore years gave him the desire and ability to escape his servitude and fight against slavery. After Auld's death, the sixteen-year-old Douglass was returned to the plantation to work as a field hand, forcing him to endure the brutal privations of slavery. He became determined to obtain his freedom.
Douglass first attempted to escape in 1833, but his owner learned of the plans and jailed him on the property, eventually releasing him only to rejoin the other field hands. In 1838, Douglass successfully fled to New York and settled in New Bedford, Massachusetts, with his bride Anna Murray a few weeks later. Once in Massachusetts, Douglass continued his education, joined a black church, and became an active member of the community.
He read abolitionist writings, heard key leaders like William Lloyd Garrison speak, and soon began speaking and writing against slavery himself. In 1845, he published his autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, even though he knew its publication would endanger his freedom. Slaveholders paid bounty hunters to return escaped slaves, and no law protected him from being recaptured. To make matters worse, in 1850 Congress signed the Fugitive Slave Act, which mandated the return of escaped slaves to their owners and rewarded anyone who captured runaways. Thus, Douglass and other escaped slaves lived in perpetual fear of being captured; not surprisingly, many worked for the abolitionist movement.
Douglass's public stature made him an especially tempting prize for slave catchers. To avoid being returned to his owner, who he'd named in his book, Douglass embarked on a speaking tour of England and Ireland. There, he found the treatment of blacks and attitudes against slavery to be far more enlightened. In 1847, upon returning to the United States, Douglass moved his family to Rochester, New York, where he began publishing his weekly abolitionist newspaper the North Star. The paper successfully expanded the abolitionist cause, and Douglass continued an active career of speaking against slavery. In 1858, the militant abolitionist John Brown tried to recruit Douglass for his ill-fated raid on Harper's Ferry. Although Douglass declined the offer, he continued his public fight against slavery, expressing his longing for a country that treated its people as equals.
4. You are aware, doubtless, that my object in going from this country was to get beyond the reach of the clutch of the man who claimed to own me as his property. I had written a book giving a history of that portion of my life spent in the gall and bitterness and degradation of Slavery, and in which I also identified my oppressors as the perpetrators of some of the most atrocious crimes. This had deeply incensed them against me and stirred up within them the purpose of revenge, and, my whereabouts being known, I believed it necessary for me, if I would preserve my liberty, to leave the shores of America and take up my abode in some other land, at least until the excitement occasioned by the publication of my Narrative had subsided. I went to England, Monarchical England, to get rid of Democratic Slavery, and I must confess that, at the very threshold, I was satisfied that I had gone to the right place. Say what you will of England—of the degradation—of the poverty—and there is much of it there—say what you will of the oppression and suffering going on in England at this time, there is Liberty there, there is Freedom there, not only for the white man but for the black man also. The instant that I stepped upon the shore and looked into the faces of the crowd around me, I saw in every man a recognition of my manhood, and an absence, a perfect absence, of everything like that disgusting hate with which we are pursued in this country. (Cheers.) I looked around in vain to see in any man's face a token of the slightest aversion to me on account of my complexion. Even the cabmen demeaned themselves to me as they did to other men, and the very dogs and pigs of old England treated me as a man! I cannot, however, my friends, dwell upon this anti-Prejudice, or rather, the many illustrations of the absence of Prejudice against Color in England, but will proceed, at once, to defend the Right and Duty of invoking English aid and English sympathy for the overthrow of American Slavery, for the education of Colored Americans, and to forward, in every way, the interests of humanity; inasmuch as the right of appealing to England for aid in overthrowing Slavery in this country has been called in question, in public meetings and by the press, in this City.
5. I cannot agree with my friend Mr. Garrison in relation to my love and attachment to this land. I have no love for America, as such; I have no patriotism. I have no country. What country have I? The Institutions of this Country do not know me—do not recognize me as a man. I am not thought of, spoken of, in any direction, out of the Anti-Slavery ranks, as a man. I am not thought of or spoken of, except as a piece of property belonging to some Christian Slaveholder, and all the Religious and Political Institutions of this Country alike pronounce me a Slave and a chattel. Now, in such a country as this I cannot have patriotism. The only thing that links me to this land is my family, and the painful consciousness that here there are 3,000,000 of my fellow creatures groaning beneath the iron rod of the worst despotism that could be devised even in Pandemonium,—that here are men and brethren who are identified with me by their complexion, identified with me by their hatred of Slavery, identified with me by their love and aspirations for Liberty, identified with me by the stripes upon their backs, their inhuman wrongs and cruel sufferings. This, and this only, attaches me to this land, and brings me here to plead with you, and with this country at large, for the disenthrallment of my oppressed countrymen, and to overthrow this system of Slavery which is crushing them to the earth. How can I love a country that dooms 3,000,000 of my brethren, some of them my own kindred, my own brothers, my own sisters, who are now clanking the chains of Slavery upon the plains of the South, whose warm blood is now making fat the soil of Maryland and of Alabama, and over whose crushed spirits rolls the dark shadow of Oppression, shutting out and extinguishing forever the cheering rays of that bright Sun of Liberty, lighted in the souls of all God's children by the omnipotent hand of Deity itself? How can I, I say, love a country thus cursed, thus bedewed with the blood of my brethren? A Country, the Church of which, and the Government of which, and the Constitution of which are in favor of supporting and perpetuating this monstrous system of injustice and blood? I have not, I cannot have, any love for this country, as such, or for its Constitution. I desire to see it overthrown as speedily as possible and its Constitution shivered in a thousand fragments, rather than that this foul curse should continue to remain as now. (Hisses and cheers.)
6. In all this, my friends, let me make myself understood. I do not hate America as against England, or against any other country or land. I love Humanity all over the globe. I am anxious to see Righteousness prevail in all directions. I am anxious to see Slavery overthrown here; but, I never appealed to Englishmen in a manner calculated to awaken feelings of hatred or disgust, or to inflame their prejudices toward America as a nation, or in a manner provocative of national jealousy or ill-will; but I always appealed to their conscience—to the higher and nobler feelings of the people of that country, to enlist them in this cause. I always appealed to their manhood, that which preceded their being Englishmen, (to quote an expression of my friend Phillips), I appealed to them as men, and I had a right to do so. They are men, and the Slave is a man, and we have a right to call upon all men to assist in breaking his bonds, let them be born when and live where they may.
7. But it is asked, "What good will this do?" or "What good has it done?" "Have you not irritated, have you not annoyed your American friends and the American people rather than done them good?" I admit that we have irritated them. They deserve to be irritated. I am anxious to irritate the American people on this question. As it is in physics, so in morals, there are cases which demand irritation and counter-irritation. The conscience of the American public needs this irritation, and I would blister it all over from center to circumference, until it gives signs of a purer and a better life than it is now manifesting to the world.
8. But why expose the sins of one nation in the eyes of another? Why attempt to bring one people under the odium of another people? There is much force in this question. I admit that there are sins in almost every country which can be best removed by means confined exclusively to their immediate locality. But such evils and such sins pre-suppose the existence of a moral power in their immediate locality sufficient to accomplish the work of renovation. But, where, pray, can we go to find moral power in this nation sufficient to overthrow Slavery? To what institution, to what party shall we apply for aid? I say we admit that there are evils which can be best removed by influences confined to their immediate locality. But in regard to American Slavery it is not so. It is such a giant crime, so darkening to the soul, so blinding in its moral influence, so well calculated to blast and corrupt all the humane principles of our nature, so well adapted to infuse its own accursed spirit into all around it, that the people among whom it exists have not the moral power to abolish it. Shall we go to the Church for this influence? We have heard its character described. Shall we go to Politicians or Political Parties? Have they the moral power necessary to accomplish this mighty task? They have not. What are they doing at this moment? Voting supplies for Slavery—voting supplies for the extension, the stability, the perpetuation of Slavery in this land. What is the press doing? The same. The pulpit? Almost the same. I do not flatter myself that there is moral power in the land sufficient to overthrow Slavery, and I welcome the aid of England. And that aid will come. The growing intercourse between England and this country, by means of steam navigation, the relaxation of the protective system in various countries in Europe, gives us an opportunity to bring in the aid, the moral and Christian aid, of those living on the other side of the Atlantic. We welcome it in the language of the resolution. We entreat our British friends to continue to send their remonstrances across the deep against Slavery in this land. And these remonstrances will have a powerful effect here. Sir, the Americans may tell of their ability, and I have no doubt they have it, to keep back the invader's hosts, to repulse the strongest force that its enemies may send against this country. It may boast, and rightly boast of its capacity to build its ramparts so high that no foe can hope to scale them—to render them so impregnable as to defy the assaults of the world. But, Sir, there is one thing it cannot resist, come from what quarter it may. It cannot resist TRUTH. You cannot build your forts so strong, nor your ramparts so high, nor arm yourselves so powerfully, as to be able to withstand the overwhelming MORAL SENTIMENT against Slavery now flowing into this land. For example: Prejudice against Color is continually becoming weaker in this land; and why? Because the whole European Continent denounces this sentiment as unworthy a lodgment in the breast of an enlightened community. And the American abroad dares not now, even in a public conveyance, to lift his voice in defence of this disgusting prejudice.
In addition to his writings and speeches, Douglass worked with others in the antislavery movement. One such individual was William Lloyd Garrison, whom Douglass considered his mentor despite their divergent views of the Constitution and the best way to end slavery. Garrison, a radical abolitionist who believed the Constitution was irredeemably proslavery, felt that the Union should separate into pro- and antislavery sections. In contrast, Douglass believed that the Constitution could be amended to ban slavery and publicly supported an intact Union.
Douglass, who served as an advisor to President Abraham Lincoln, continued to fight for civil rights even after the war ended. In 1870, he and his sons began publishing the New National Era in Washington DC. This newspaper, along with his career in public life, led him to a series of public offices. The first of these came in 1877 when President Rutherford B. Hayes appointed him U.S. Marshall for the District of Columbia. Until about two years before his death, other offices ranged from the Recorder of Deeds in Washington, DC, to the minister-resident and consul-general to the Republic of Haiti.
Bender, Thomas. The Antislavery Debate: Capitalism and Abolitionism as a Problem in Historical Interpretation. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.
Sweeney, Fionnghuala. "The Republic of Letters: Frederick Douglass, Ireland, and the Irish Narratives." Eire-Ireland: A Journal of Irish Studies (Spring-Summer 2001): 47-65.
National Park Service. "The Life of Frederick Douglass." 〈http://www.nps.gov/frdo/fdlife.htm〉 (accessed April 18, 2006).