We Ask Only for Our Rights: An Address Delivered in Troy, New York, on September 4, 1855
WE ASK ONLY FOR OUR RIGHTS: AN ADDRESS DELIVERED IN TROY, NEW YORK, ON 4 SEPTEMBER 1855
Troy (N.Y.) Daily Whig, 6 September 1855. Another text in Troy (N.Y.) Daily Times, 5 September 1855.
A state convention of black New Yorkers met in Troy, New York, on 4-6 September 1855 to organize opposition against the state’s $250 property qualification for black voters. “New York sent her best men to the conven- tion,” proclaimed “Cosmopolite” in a letter to Frederick Douglass’ Paper, adding that Douglass, the “champion and leader,” was “as earnest, as eloquent, as enthusiastic as ever.” At the opening session delegates nomi- nated Douglass for president of the convention. Expressing his gratitude to them, especially since “efforts had been made in certain quarters to establish the impression that he had been unfaithful to the cause of the colored cit- izens.” Douglass declined the honor in the belief that “he could serve his friends better in a more subordinate capacity.” The convention named William Rich of Troy chairman of the proceedings, while Douglass accepted a seat on the business committee. The evening session of 4 September began at 7:30 P.M. After consideration of resolutions previously introduced, Doug- lass spoke briefly. At the conclusion of his remarks the audience “loudly called" for him to continue, “the whites who composed the major portion of the audience, joining in the encore with a hearty zest.” Douglass returned to the platform and explained that “fatigue and ill health" kept him from continuing. He promised, however, to address the convention at length the following day. Jermain W. Loguen then spoke. Cosmopolite to Mr. Junior Editor, 4 September 1855, in FDP, 14 September 1855; FDP, 17 August 1855; Troy (N.Y.) Daily Whig, 5 September 1855.
Gentlemen and Ladies—I am about worn out with public speaking. I have been making two speeches daily for the last three weeks. And I feel myself wholly unable at present to address you, and had no intention of doing so. But in consequence of the notice elsewhere given that I should address the Convention to-night, I have concluded to sacrifice my personal feelings, and make a few remarks.
In the platform here presented for your consideration, we place our- selves upon precisely the same grounds, and give utterance to our sentiments in precisely the same language adopted by the Fathers of the Republic. The science of government has received no very great alteration, illustration or illumination, since the signing of the Declaration of Independence by the American People. We are not here now to force any new consideration upon the public. We are especially to endeavor to carry out
the great fundamental principles of American government—to carry out those great truths long ago uttered by the Fathers of this Republic. Thus, Reason teaches us that a Republic is strong not so much in the number of its population, not so much in the glory and grandeur of its achievements, as in the affection of its people for the institutions under which they live. A Republic needs no towers, no fortresses, no bastions. Its great strength and unity lies in the fact that the nation to a man is ready to bare its bosom to the storm ofan invader; to form itself into a rampart to roll back the tide of war. That is where the Republic derives its strength. That is when a nation is strong.
I deny that any such conclusion or decision as I find upon the statute book of the State of New York, against a certain class of our citizens—a feeble class if you will—can have a tendency to attach us to this country, or to marshal us under the banners of the Republic. If there is one point in the great principle of government which deserves to be borne in mind and established before any other, it is the principle that the citizens ofa country should be made to love that country. We can see no justice, honor, or magnanimity in that provision of our State Constitution which legislates a distinction against the colored man; which says he shall be incompetent to have a voice at the ballot-box until he is worth $250 in real estate.1New York's first constitution (1777) established the same residence and property qualifications for all voters regardless of color, but during the 1810s the Republican-dominated legislature, concerned over the Federalist affiliation of most black voters, enacted several laws that limited, or at least discouraged, Negro voting. In 1821 the advocates of more restrictive suffrage persuaded the state constitutional convention to adopt special requirements for black voters. These were retained in the constitution of 1846: “No man of color, unless he shall have been for three years a citizen of this State. and for one year next preceding any election shall have been seized and possessed of a freehold estate of the value of two hundred and fifty dollars, over and above all debts and encumbrances charged thereon, and shall have been actually rated and paid a tax thereon, shall be entitled to vote at such election." Efforts to remove this provision were fruitless. Since all property qualifications for whites had been eliminated by 1826, equal suffrage was not realized in New York until the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1870. The Constitution of the State of New York (1846). Article II, Section 1; Charles H. Wesley, “Negro Suffrage in the Period of Constitution-Making. 1787-1865." JNH, 32 : 154-60 (April 1947); Dixon Ryan Fox, “The Negro Vote in Old New York," Political Science Quarterly, 32 : 252-75 (June 1917); Leon F. Litwack, North of Slavery: The Negro in the Free States, 1790-1860 (Chicago, 1961), 80-91; Freeman, “Free Negro in New York City." 118-43; Phyllis F. Field, The Politics of Race in New York: The Struggle for Black Suffrage in the Civil War Era (Ithaca, N.Y., 1982), 187-219. More especially do we fail to recognize this magnanimity when we see the fallen, the ignorant, the degraded of every foreign soil ﬂocking to us and almost immediately transformed into American citizens. They are welcomed to
the ballot-box, and called upon to exercise a voice in the government of a country of which they know almost nothing.
Now, we claim to be Native Americans. Two hundred and eighty-five years ago our forefathers settled in America. They were the first successful tillers of the soil. They leveled the forests, subdued the streams, cultivated the morasses, as pioneers. Even now, a great proportion of the luxuries and comforts which you enjoy can be traced directly to our labors—are the fruits of our toil. We are Americans—native Americans—and we ask only to be treated as well as you treat aliens. We have fought and shed our blood for your country. We ask only to be treated as well as you treat those who have fought against it. We love our country. We ask only to be treated as well as you treat those who hate our country. Is there anything wrong in this? Is there anything presumptuous in this? No. We ask only for our rights.
And yet we are disfranchised, degraded, and made to bear an odium, an intolerable distinction. The more unitedly you can attach us to your institutions, the more reason you give us to love your government, the more you strengthen the country in which we live. The more duties you impose on the individual, the more he is dignified; the more responsibility you attach to him, the more importance he is given in the world, [and] the more he will endeavor to make himself useful in the world. I believe that this country is awakening to the importance of this fact. I believe that my theory is right, and will ultimately prevail. I believe that the American people will yet learn to do the honorable, the just, the magnanimous thing toward their disfranchised colored brethren.
And I am led to this hope from the great changes which have taken place on this subject within the last few years. Nine years ago we had—and I believe its shell is still to be found ﬂoating somewhere on the ocean of time-a Colonization Society?2The American Colonization Society, the official name of which was the American Society for Colonizing the Free People of Color in the United States. This Colonization Society professed to be our friends, but how did they befriend us? The remedy for all our wrongs was to send us out of the country as soon as possible. So soon as they could get money enough, they packed us off to Liberia. But I believe it is now pretty generally settled that the Native American colored men design to remain in their own country—that they will not be sent away. Naturalists and travelers in South America tell us of a singular little animal which is to be found there. So soon as one of its race is wounded by a shot or otherwise
wise, or caught in a trap, its companions, although they cannot be able to liberate it, will gather about it, and set up a sympathetic wail. We will remain on this, our native soil, and send up our sympathetic wail, responsive to the groans of agony of three millions and a half of our brethren who are toiling in chains at the South.
I should not omit to notice another feature in this connection. When these charitable, these philanthropic gentlemen found we were not going to Liberia, they said—They will die out. Their humane hope was that in a few years we should become extinct. Now, I think the probabilities are slightly against the realization of that prophecy. There is an inherent tenacity to life about the colored man, which renders it almost impossible to kill or destroy him. Our own condition shows this. The history of our poor brethren in slavery illustrates it.
But the Indian, the red man of the soil, cannot survive under your civilization. He dies out, and is rapidly passing away. The day before yesterday, I was at an Indian settlement in the western part of this State, and I confess it made my heart bleed to see the manner in which those poor red men were fading out. Where two years ago there were two hundred and fifty members of that settlement, there are now but two hundred. They are the last of the Tonawanda tribe. The Indians cannot survive your approaches.3 Douglass, who with William J. Watkins had been canvassing Niagara and Orleans counties since mid-August, apparently made a brief visit to Tonawanda, one of several reservations in western New York set aside for the Seneca tribe of the Six Nations Iroquois. Although surrounded by white settlements and victimized by a series of land sales that drastically reduced their reservation, the Tonawanda Senecas successfully maintained an enclave of traditional Iroquois religious and political customs only a short distance east of Buffalo. In 1838 a treaty to which they had not assented threatened the elimination of the reservation and the forced removal of the Indians to the West. Labeling the treaty a fraud and refusing to leave, the Senecas, supported by Quakers and other sympathetic whites. eventually were allowed to retain a small portion of the old reservation. Adherence to traditional values and practices did not, however, preclude acceptance of the material culture of their white neighbors. During the 1850s Tonawanda's population included farmers, laborers, carpenters, broom makers, a lawyer, a physician, and a civil engineer. The latter, Ely Samuel Parker, who as a young man listened to Douglass's speeches in Rochester, later achieved the rank of brevet brigadier general and served as commissioner of Indian affairs under President Ulysses S. Grant. The New York census of 1845 recorded 505 people living at Tonawanda; ten years later, at the time of Douglass's visit, the population numbered 602. Census of the State of New York (Albany, 1857), 500-03; The Case of the Seneca Indians in the Slate of New York (Philadelphia, 1840); Anthony F. C. Wallace, The Death and Rebirth of the Seneca (New York, 1970), 324, 330, 335; William H. Armstrong, Warrior in Two Camps: Ely S. Parker, Union General and Seneca Chief (Syracuse, 1978), 5-11.
But severe and terrible as is American civilization, we have managed to live under it. Nay, what is more, we adopt it. We are following in the wake of the white man. We are beginning to do what you do. We see you
building bridges, whose magnificant arches span the waters of the broad rivers—and we try our hand at it, too. We see you fashioning ships, whose beautiful hulls sit gaily on the water, and whose tapering masts point upward to the Heavens, and attract the admiring eyes of men—and we try our hand at it. We see you circumnavigating the globe, and put after you. We see you going to California, forming a darkening train in the search for wealth, and we follow you there. You return with your pockets full of gold, and we endeavor to do the same. Not only this, but some of us are becoming so impudent that we take unto ourselves the title of Doctors and Professors; we are becoming doctors, lawyers, ministers, professional gentlemen. (A white auditor,—“and good editors”) Yes, and good editors, and most excellent book makers.
Now, since we will remain in this country, and since we will follow you in your civilization, would it not be policy to make us as decent as possible? This can only be done by attaching some importance to us, by clothing us with some responsibilities. It is this importance and responsibility that we seek to secure by the present movement. The negro is just as capable, nay, much more capable, of exercising a discriminative use of the elective franchise than the great mass of the alien population. Had the colored people had a vote on the fugitive slave bill, that hell-black enactment would never have stained this fair land. Her colored people, to be sure, have been somewhat under the lead of designing men, but they are not alone in this.
I remember one case to the point. Soon after the Dorr war in Rhode Island, and after a law had been passed admitting the colored citizens to the right of the elective franchise,4Governed under its colonial charter of 1663, Rhode Island was the only state in 1841 that still limited the suffrage to freeholders. In that year, without legislative approval, radical reformers led by Thomas Wilson Dorr (1805-54), a Providence lawyer, called a People‘s Convention to write a new state constitution providing for universal manhood suffrage. Most blacks, who were barred from voting by an 1822 law, supported this movement, and a few actually participated in the election of convention delegates. Contrary to their hopes, however, the convention that met in October adopted a document restricting the suffrage to white males. Antislavery and black leaders, including Douglass, denounced the proposed constitution, which was overwhelmingly approved in an extralegal referendum in December. In the meantime, the legislature had convened its own constitutional convention, but that too denied the vote to blacks. Although this so-called Legal Constitution was narrowly defeated by the freehold electors in March 1842, its sponsors continued to control the machinery of state government. When a rival government, with Dorr as governor, was set up in April, the legal government enacted penalties against those accepting office under the People's Constitution, appealed to President John Tyler for assistance in case of disorders, and prepared for insurrection. After the Dorrites unsuccessfully attempted to capture the Providence Arsenal. Dorr ﬂed the state, but later returned, surrendered, and was imprisoned for treason, a sentence that was later voided. During the actual rebellion, the freeholders, known as the Law and Order party, received the support of the black community. As a result, they became more receptive to extending the franchise to blacks. A new constitution was drawn up in September 1842 and overwhelmingly accepted by the voters in November. The ballot included a separate referendum on black suffrage that was approved by a vote of 3,157 to 1,004. After enfranchisement, blacks tended to support the Whigs, the party of their benefactors. J. Stanley Lemons and Michael A. McKenna, “Re-enfranchisement of Rhode Island Negroes," Rhode Island History, 30 : 2-13 (February 1971); James Truslow Adams, "Disenfranchisement of Negroes in New England," AHR, 30: 546-47 (April 1925); Julian Rammelkamp, “The Providence Negro Community. 1820-1842," Rhode Island History, 7:20-33 (January 1948); Marvin E. Gettleman, The Dorr Rebellion: A Study in American Radicalism, 1833-1849 (New York, 1973), 12-18, 147-48. a colored minister, Israel Smith—a good, honest soul he is, and I know him well—was approached by one of those Whigs, a sleek, smooth, oily, decorous gentleman, as they always are.
Well, this gentleman gave Israel a barrel of mercer potatoes, with a hint that he should vote the Whig ticket. Sunday came around, and the preacher got up in his pulpit and said: “Honeys, ’lection is comin' on, and ye’ll hear a heap about it. Dere’s de Whigs and de Abolitionists, and de Free Sile, and de Dorrites. Day’ll all want you to vote for dem. But I’ll tell you what to do. Do as your old dominie does. Vote whar ye get yer ’taters.”
But the colored men are not alone in that. Men generally vote “whar they get their ’taters.” and I have sometimes thought that if the North has one besetting sin, it is the love of office. They have been led around here, and everywhere, by the South, on this office mania. They remind one of the boy and his dog. The boy took a cracker from his pocket and said to the dog, “Stand up." He stood up. Said he, “Lay down.” He laid down. Said he, “Roll over,” and he rolled over. The boy put his cracker in his pocket. Said some one, “Why do you not give the cracker to the dog?” “Want it for another time,” was the answer. That is what the South has done to the North. That is what they did to Douglas.5Senator Stephen A. Douglas. (I wish he had another name.) They held up the cracker of the Presidency, and said to him. “Stand up” and “Speak,” and he did both. And now it has said to him, “Go and lay down." When did we ever make such use of the elective franchise?
The colored men ask no favors of their fellow-citizens. They ask only their rights. They ask only what is due them under the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution ofthe United States. If you will not give us a chance to be as good as you are, give us a chance to be as bad as you are. The colored people are men, and they prove their claim to manhood by imitating the vices of the whites. We drink and get drunk, gamble, swear and indulge in all those other fashionable vices and frivolities so common among our pale-faced brethren. But pardon my lightsome mood, and allow me to give way to more sober and abler speakers.