Frederick Douglass to Henry Clay, December 3, 1847
FREDERICK DOUGLASS TO HENRY CLAY
[Rochester, N.Y. 3 December 1847].
I have just received and read your Speech, delivered at the Mass Meeting in Lexington, Kentucky, 13th November 1847,1In the summer and fall of 1847, Henry Clay, the 1844 presidential nominee of the Whig party, attempted to gather support to win his party's nomination once again. Frustrated by the lack of popular enthusiasm for his cause, Clay decided to clarify his sentiments on the slavery issue to win support among northern Whigs. On 13 November 1847, Clay delivered a speech at a general meeting of Whigs in Lexington, Kentucky. The speech largely consisted of a critique of the motivations behind the ongoing war with Mexico and ended with a series of resolutions asking Congress to oppose the annexation of Mexican territory. Clay, a slaveholder, also revealed that he "ever regarded slavery as a great evil," but also argued that emancipation would create "shocking scenes of rapine and carnage," which would certainly result in the "extinction or expulsion" of blacks. Clay's speech was immediately relayed by telegraph to eastern cities and reprinted in newspapers across the United States. His stated opposition to slavery shored up support among antislavery, or "conscience" Whigs, but Clay failed to win the nomination of the Whig party, which instead chose another slaveholder and war hero, General Zachary Taylor, as their presidential candidate in 1848. Henry Clay, The Papers of Henry Clay, ed. Melba Porter Hay and Carol Redrawn, 10 vols. (Lexington, Ky., 1959–92), 10:361–77; Peterson, Great Triumvirate, 431–41; Remini, Henry Clay, 690–95. and after a careful and
candid perusal of it, I am impressed with the desire to say a few words to you on one or two subjects which form a considerable part of that speech. You will, I am sure, pardon the liberty I take in thus publicly addressing you, when you are acquainted with the fact, that I am one of those “UNFORTUNATE VICTIMS”2Unless otherwise noted, Douglass accurately quotes Henry Clay throughout this letter. whose case you seem to commiserate, and have experienced the cruel wrongs of Slavery in my own person. It is with no ill will, or bitterness of spirit that I address you. My position under this government, even in the State of N.Y., is that of a disfranchised man.3New York effectively disenfranchised most of the state's African American population when the legislature revised the state constitution in 1821. The new constitution removed property qualifications for white males, but required that black men be state residents for three years and have more than $250 in real property before they could vote. In 1825 less than 300 of 30,000 black male residents could meet the requirement. Having only recently moved to New York in 1847 and lacking any real property, Douglass was unable to vote. Field, Politics of Race, 17, 32–33, 72; Horton and Horton, In Hope of Liberty, 168–69. I can have, therefore, no political ends to serve, nor party antipathy to gratify. My “intents” are not wicked but truly charitable. I approach you simply in the character of one of the unhappy millions enduring the evils of Slavery, in this otherwise highly favored and glorious land.
In the extraordinary speech before me, after dwelling at length upon the evils, disgrace, and dangers of the present unjust, mean, and iniquitous war waged by the United States upon Mexico, you disavow for yourself and the meeting, “in the most positive manner,” any wish to acquire any foreign territory whatever for the purpose of introducing slavery into it. As one of the oppressed, I give you the full expression of sincere gratitude for this declaration, and the pledge which it implies, and earnestly hope that you may be able to keep your vow unsullied by compromises, (which, pardon me,) have too often marred and defaced the beauty and consistency of your humane declarations and pledges on former occasions. It is not, however, any part of my present intention to reproach you invidiously or severely for the past. Unfortunately for the race, you do not stand alone in respect to deviations from a strict line of rectitude. Poor, erring and depraved humanity, has surrounded you with a throng of guilty associates, it would not, therefore, be magnanimous in me to reproach you for the past, above all others.
Forgetting the things that are behind, I simply propose to speak to you of what you are at this time—of the errors and evils of your present, as I think, wicked position, and to point out to you the path of repentance, which if pursued, must lead you to the possession of peace and happiness, and make you a blessing to your country and the world.
In the speech under consideration, you say,
“My opinions on the subject of slavery are well known; they have the merit, if it be one, of consistency, uniformity and long duration.”
The first sentence is probably true. Your opinions on slavery may be well known, but that they have the merit of consistency or of uniformity, I cannot so readily admit. If the speech before me be a fair declaration of
your present opinions, I think I can convince you that even this speech abounds with inconsistencies such as materially to affect the consolation you seem to draw from this source. Indeed if you are uniform at all, you are only so in your inconsistencies.
You confess that
“Slavery is a great evil, and a wrong to its victims, and you would rejoice if not a single slave breathed the air within the limits of our country.”
These are noble sentiments, and would seem to ﬂow from a heart overborne with a sense of the ﬂagrant injustice and enormous cruelty of slavery, and of one earnestly and anxiously longing for a remedy. Standing alone, it would seem that the author had long been in search of some means to redress the wrongs of the “unfortunate victims” of whom he speaks that his righteous soul was deeply grieved, every hour, on account of the foul blot inﬂicted by this course on his country’s character.
But what are the facts? You are yourself a Slaveholder at this moment,4Although he professed a deep dislike of slavery, Clay owned slaves for the operation of Ashland, his 500-acre estate outside Lexington, Kentucky. At any given time, Clay owned about fifty slaves, and he estimated that he had emancipated about eight or ten over his lifetime. To free the remainder of his slaves, he argued in a letter to a political associate in 1847, "would be an act of great inhumanity and extreme cruelty," since many of them were aged or helpless children who "would perish if I sent them forth in the world." Clay, Papers of Henry Clay, 10:356–57; Peterson, Great Triumvirate, 12, 351, 375–76, 488–89; Richard L. Troutman, "The Emancipation of Slaves by Henry Clay," JNH, 40:179–81 (April 1955). and your words on this point had scarcely reached the outer circle of the vast multitude by which you were surrounded, before you poured forth one of the most helpless, illogical, and cowardly apologies for this same wrong, and “great evil” which I ever remember to have read. Is this consistency, and uniformity? if so, the oppressed may well pray the Most High that you may be soon delivered from it.
Speaking of “the unfortunate victims” of this “great evil,” and “wrong,” you hold this most singular and cowardly excuse for perpetuating the wrongs of my “unfortunate” race.
“But here they are to be dealt with as well as we can, with a due consideration of all circumstances aﬂecting the security and happiness of both races.”
What do you mean by the security, safety and happiness of both races? do you mean that the happiness of the slave is augmented by his being a slave, and if so, why call him an “unfortunate victim.” Can it be that this is mere cant, by which to seduce the North into your support, on the ground of your sympathy for the slave. I cannot believe you capable of such infatuation. I do not wish to believe that you are capable of either the low cunning, or the vanity which your language on this subject would seem to imply, but will set it down to an uncontrollable conviction of the innate wickedness of slavery, which forces itself out, and defies even your vast powers of concealment.
But further, you assert,
“Every State has the supreme, uncontrolled and exclusive power to
decide for itself whether slavery shall cease or continue within its limits, without any exterior intervention from any quarter.”
Here I understand you to assert the most proﬂigate and infernal doctrine, that any State in this Union has a right to plunder, scourge and enslave any part of the human family within its borders, just so long as it deems it for its interest so to do, and that no one or body of persons beyond the limits of said state has a right to interfere by word or deed against it. Is it possible that you hold this monstrous and blood-chilling doctrine? If so, what confidence can any enlightened lover of liberty place in your pretended opposition to Slavery. I know your answer to all this, but it only plunges you into lower depths of infamy than the horrible doctrines avowed above. You go on to say:
“In States where the Slaves outnumber the whites, as is the case in several (which I believe are only two out of fifteen) the blacks could not be emancipated Without becoming the governing power in these states.”
This miserable bug-bear is quite a confession of the mental and physical equality of the races. You pretend that you are a Republican. You loudly boast of your Democratic principles: why then do you object to the application of your principles in this case. Is the democratic principle good in one case, and bad in another? Would it be worse for a black majority to govern a white minority than it now is for the latter to govern the former? But you conjure up an array of frightful objections in answer to this.
“Collisions and conﬂicts between the two races would be inevitable, and after shocking scenes of raping and carnage, the extinction or expulsion of the blacks would certainly take place.”
How do you know that any such results would be inevitable? Where, on the page of history, do you find anything to warrant even such a conjecture? You will probably point me to the Revolution in St. Domingo,5The Revolution of Santo Domingo began in August 1791 as a slave uprising in the French colony St. Domingue, later called Haiti, and resulted in the first black-led republic in the Western Hemisphere. The revolution sprang from two sources. First, the enslaved population could no longer tolerate the deplorable conditions on the colony's notorious coffee and sugar plantations. Second, the mulatto craftsmen absorbed the principles of the French Revolution of 1789 after learning their trades in France. After having experienced relative freedom during their apprenticeships, they returned to the harsh conditions of slavery in St. Domingue, where they began to agitate for freedom and political rights. Because this Haitian revolution was violent, and because the island republic experienced years of political upheaval in the aftermath, many white people used it in arguments against the emancipation or the political participation of black people. Thomas O. Mott, The Haitian Revolution, 1789–1804 (Knoxville, Tenn., 1973), ix–x, 28–42; Clarence J. Munford and Michael Zeuske, "Black Slavery, Class Struggle, Fear and Revolution in St. Domingue and Cuba, 1785–1795," JNH, 73:13–18, 20–21, 24–25 (Winter/Autumn 1988). the old and thread-bare falsehood under which democratic tyrants have sought a refuge for the last forty years. But the facts in that direction are all against you. It has been clearly proven that that revolution was not the result of emancipation, but of a cruel attempt to re-enslave an already emancipated people. I am not aware that you have a single fact to support your truly terrible assertion, while on the other hand I have many all going to show what is equally taught by the voice of reason and of God, “THAT IT IS ALWAYS SAFE TO DO RIGHT.”6In addressing the Liberty party nominating convention, which was held 8–10 June 1847 in Macedon Lock, New York, William Goodell stated, "Abolitionists in general, and Liberty party men in particular, have been accustomed to maintain, moreover, that it is always safe to do right, and safe as well as obligatory to do right at the present time—that it is morally wrong to defer doing right,—and that it is holding the truth in unrighteousness to acknowledge a truth in the abstract, and yet decline, on prudential considerations, reducing that truth to practice." William Goodell, Address of the Macedon Convention, by William Goodell; and Letters of Gerritt Smith (Albany, N.Y., 1847), 4. The promise of God is, “that thy light shall break forth as the morning, and thy health shall spring forth speedily, and thy righteousness shall go before thee, the glory of the Lord shall be thy
ward: then shalt thou call and the Lord shall answer; thou shalt cry and he will say, Here I am.”7Isa. 58:8–9.
The history of the world is in conformity with the words of inspired wisdom. Look, for instance, at the history of Emancipation in the British West Indies. There the blacks were, and still are, an overwhelming majority. Have there been any “shocking scenes of raping and carnage, extinction or expulsion.” You know there have not. Why then do you make use of this unfounded and irrational conjecture to frighten your fellow-countryman from the righteous performance of a simple act of justice to millions now groaning in almost hopeless bondage.
I now give your argument in support of the morality of your position.
“It may be argued that, in admitting the injustice of slavery, I admit the necessity of an instantaneous reparation of that injustice. Unfortunately, however, it is not always safe, practicable or possible in the great movements of States or public affairs of nations, to remedy or repair the infliction of previous injustice. In the inception of it, we may oppose and denounce it by our most strenuous exertions, but, after its consummation, there is often no other alternative left us but to deplore its perpetration, and to acquiesce as the only alternative, in its existence, as a less evil than the frightful consequences which might ensue from the vain endeavor to repair it. Slavery is one of these unfortunate instances.”
The cases which you put in support of the foregoing propositions, are only wanting in one thing, and that is analogy. The plundering of the Indians of their territory, is a crime to which no honest man can look with any degree of satisfaction. It was a wrong to the Indians then living, and how muchsoever we might seek to repair that wrong, the victims are far beyond any benefit of it; but with reference to the slave, the wrong to be repaired is a present one, the slave holder is the every day robber of the slave, of his birthright to liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness—his right to be free is unquestionable—the wrong to enslave him is self evident—the duty to emancipate him is imperative. Are you aware to what your argument on this point leads? do you not plainly see that the greatest crimes that ever cursed our common earth, may take shelter under your reasoning, and may claim perpetuity on the ground of their antiquity?
Sir, I must pass over your allusions to that almost defunct and infernal scheme which you term “unmixed benevolence” for expelling not the slave but the free colored people from these United States, as well as your charge against the Abolitionist.
“It is a philanthropic and consoling reflection that the moral and
physical condition of the African in the United States in a state of slavery is far better than it would have been had their ancestors not been brought from their native land.”
I can scarce repress the ﬂame of rising indignation, as I read this cold blooded and cruel sentence; there is so much of Satan dressed in the livery of Heaven,8The poet Robert Pollok wrote, “He was a man / Who stole the livery of the court of heaven, / To serve the devil in.” Robert Pollok, The Course of Time, A Poem (New York, 1833), 249. as well as taking consolation from crime, that I scarcely know how to reply to it. Let me ask you what has been the cause of the present unsettled condition of Africa? Why has she not reached forth her hand unto God?9Ps. 68:31. Why have not her fields been made Missionary grounds, as well as the Feejee Islands?10Fiji is a part of the Melanesian island group located in the South Pacific on the continental side of the Andesite Line. Cohen, Columbia Gazetteer, 1:999–1000. Because of this very desolating traffic from which you seem to draw consolation. For three hundred years Christian nations, among whom we are foremost, have looked to Africa only as a place for the gratification of their lust and love of power, and every means have been adopted to stay the onward march of civilization in that unhappy land.
Your declaration on this point, places your consolation with that of the wolf in devouring the lamb.11In the fables of Aesop, the tale of the wolf and the lamb illustrates the moral that might overcomes right. In the fable, a wolf drinking from a stream notices a lamb downstream also drinking from it. Wanting to kill the lamb to eat it, the wolf accuses the lamb of muddying the water that the wolf is drinking. When the lamb correctly points out that this is impossible, since the lamb is downstream, the wolf accuses the lamb of maligning his character a year ago. When the lamb explains that he could not have done this, since he is only six months old, the wolf proclaims that it must have been the lamb’s father who did this, and he kills the lamb and devours it. The story stands for the preposition that a defenseless innocence is frequently oppressed by the lawless power. Aesop’s Fables: With a Life of Aesop, trans. John E. Keller and L. Clark Keating (Lexington, Ky., 1993), 54–55; Fables of Aesop, 4–5. You next perpetrate what I conceive to be the most revolting blasphemy. You say:
“And if it should be the decree of the Great Ruler of the Universe, that their descendants shall be made instruments in his hands in the establishment of civilization and the Christian religion throughout Africa—our regrets on account of the original wrong will be greatly mitigated.”
Here, Sir, you would charge home upon God the responsibility of your own crimes, and would seek a solace from the pangs of a guilty conscience by sacril[e]giously assuming that in robbing Africa of her children, you acted in obedience to the great purposes, and were but fulfilling the decrees of the Most High God; but as if fearing that this refuge of lies might fail, you strive to shufﬂe off the responsibility of this “great evil” on Great Britain. May I not ask if you were fulfilling the great purposes of God in the share you took in this traffic, and can draw consolation from that alleged fact, is it honest to make England a sinner above yourselves, and deny her all the mitigating circumstances which you apply to yourselves?
You say that “Great Britain inﬂicted the evil upon you.” If this be true, it is equally true that she inﬂicted the same evil upon herself; but she has had the justice and the magnanimity to repent and bring forth fruits meet for repentance.12Matt. 3:8. You copied her bad example, why not avail yourself of her good one also?
Now, Sir, I have done with your Speech, though much more might be said upon it. I have a few words to say to you personally.
I wish to remind you that you are not only in the “autumn,” but in the
very WINTER of life. Seventy-one years have passed over your stately brow.13At the time that Douglass wrote this letter, Clay was seventy years old, but still in good enough mental and physical shape to tour the nation in hopes of winning the Whig party’s presidential nomination in 1848. Clay was unsuccessful in that endeavor, but returned to the U.S. Senate the following year. He died in 1852. Peterson, Great Triumvirate, 449–53, 484–89; Remini, Henry Clay, 686–713; DAB, 4:173–79. You must soon leave this world, and appear before God, to render up an account of your stewardship. For fifty years of your life you have been a slaveholder. You have robbed the laborer who has reaped down your fields, of his rightful reward. You are at this moment the robber of nearly fifty human beings, of their liberty, compelling them to live in ignorance. Let me ask if you think that God will hold you guiltless in the great day of account, if you die with the blood of these fifty slaves clinging to your garments. I know that you have made a profession of religion, and have been baptized, and am aware that you are in good and regular standing in the church, but I have the authority of God for saying that you will stand rejected at his bar, unless you “put away the evil of your doings from before his eyes—cease to do evil, and learn to do well—seek judgment, relieve the oppressed—and plead for the widow.”14Isa. 1:16–17. You must “break every yoke, and let the oppressed go free,”15Isa. 58:6. or take your place in the ranks of “EVIL DOERS,” and expect to “reap the reward of corruption.”16A reference to Gal. 6:8.
At this late day in your life, I think it would be unkind for me to charge you with any ambitious desires to become the President of the United States. I may be mistaken in this, but it seems that you cannot indulge either the wish or expectation. Bear with me, then, while, I give you a few words of further counsel, as a private individual, and excuse the plainness of one who has FELT the wrongs of Slavery, and fathomed the depths of its iniquity.
Emancipate your own slaves. Leave them not to be held or sold by others. Leave them free as the Father of his country left his,17In his will, George Washington (1732–99), first president of the United States, provided that all the slaves that he held in his own right be emancipated upon the death of his wife. In 1802, according to the estate inventory, 124 slaves were eventually freed. Fritz Hirschfeld, George Washington and Slavery: A Documentary Portrayal (Columbia, Mo., 1997), 209–12; Douglas Southall Freeman, Washington: A Biography (New York, 1968), 741. and let your name go down to posterity, as his came down to us, a slaveholder, to be sure, but a repentant one. Make the noble resolve, that so far as you are personally concerned, “AMERICA SHALL BE FREE.”
In asking you to do this, I ask nothing which in any degree conflicts with your argument against general emancipation. The dangers which you conjecture of the latter cannot be apprehended of the former. Your own slaves are too few in number to make them formidable or dangerous. In this matter you are without excuse.
I leave you to your conscience and your God, And subscribe myself, Faithfully yours,
PLSr: NS, 3 December 1847. Reprinted in Foner, Life and Writings, 1:284–90. PLeSr: PaF, 16 December 1847.