The Political Response to Slavery’s Aggressions: Addresses Delivered in Syracuse, New York, on May 28 1856
THE POLITICAL RESPONSE TO SLAVERY’S AGGRESSIONS: ADDRESSES DELIVERED IN SYRACUSE, NEW YORK, ON 28 MAY 1856
New York Radical Abolitionist, July 1856. Another text in Foner, Life and Writings, 5: 385—90.
On 28—29 May 1856, political abolitionists dissatisfied with the weak
anti-slavery stand of the new Republican party met at City Hall in Syracuse, New York,
to nominate their own candidates for president and vice president.
Gerrit Smith and William Goodell, the primary promoters of this National
Convention of Abolitionists, were hoping to create a
“Radical Abolition Party” to replace the moribund Liberty party. A strong personal plea
from Smith persuaded Douglass to cancel a scheduled lecture tour of Ohio in order
to be present at the Syracuse convention. Northern indignation at the attacks
during the preceding week on Charles Sumner in the Senate and on the Free
State settlement of Lawrence, Kansas, bolstered attendance at the gathering.
Joseph Plumb of New York presided over two days of deliberations high-
lighted by the reading of an “Address” written by Smith that strongly re-
buked the Republicans and by the debate over an amendment offered by
Abram Pryne Othio sanctioning the use of force to make Kansas a free state.
Douglass frequently entered into the discussions. On the afternoon of 28 May
he rose to urge adoption of Smith’s “Address”; at the evening session he
joined William J. Watkins and Beriah Green in addressing a hall crowded
with delegates to the New York State Republican Convention, which was also
meeting in Syracuse. The next day the Radical Abolitionists unanimously
nominated Gerrit Smith for president and Pennsylvania lawyer Samuel
McFarland for vice president. The convention then adjourned, as Douglass
wrote, “to meet again at the ballot-box, November next.” Reporter A. C.
Hills recorded the speeches. New York Daily Times, 29 May 1856; New
York Daily Tribune, 29 May 1856; FDP, 6 June 1856; Washington (DC)
National Era, 26 June 1856; Douglass to Gerritt Smith, 22 March,12, 16
April, 23 May 1856, Gerrit Smith Papers, NSyU.
[Reading of the Business Committee’s Address by Gerrit Smith and
Lewis Tappan; Speech by Peter H. Clark1Peter Humphries Clark (c. 1829-1925) was born a free black in Cincinnati, Ohio, where his grandfather, William Clark, coleader of the Lewis and Clark expedition, settled his black family before embarking in his exploration of the continent. Peter Clark was educated in a school for black children started by the Reverend Hiram Gilmore. In I849 he became a teacher in the first black public school in Cincinnati, although it took a two-year court suit to force city officials to pay his salary. In addition to teaching. Clark helped edit two Free Soil party papers in the Cincinnati area, the Wilmington Herald of Freedom the Newport News. For a short time in I856 he worked for Frederick Douglas' Paper as an assistant editor and lecturing agent. He also attended several black conventions as well as many abolitionist meetings during the 1850s. At the Syracuse Radical Abolitionist convention Clark opposed Gerrit Smith's nomination and favored working with the Republican party. Clark returned to Cincinnati to teach and after the Civil War attempted to organize black teachers for the National Labor Union. Disappointment with the Republicans' failure to protect black civil rights led Clark to campaign for Cincinnati's socialist Workingmen's party in 1877. In later years. he joined the Democratic party and frequently was criticized by the black Republican press for unseemly office-seeking. FDP, 15 June 1855, 27 June, 15 August 1856; Cleveland Gazette, 29 March, 13 September 1884, 6 March 1885; New York Freeman, 3 January 1885; Wendell P. Dabney, Cincinnati’s Colored Citizens: Historical, Sociological and Biographical (Cincinnati, 1926), 45, 105—08, 114; Dovie King Clark, “Peter Humphries Clark," NHB, 5 : I76 (May I942); Philip S. Foner, “Peter H. Clark: Pioneer Black Socialist, " Journal of Ethnic Studies, 5: 17-36 (Fall I977); DANB, 114—16.]
Mr. Chairman:2A pioneer of westcm New York, Joseph Plumb (179l—1870) was a reformer active in the cause of the Indian as well as of the slave. After amassing a fortune in land speculation and other business enterprises, Plumb settled in Gowanda, New York, on the border of the Cattaraugus reservation of Senecas. His concern for that tribe led him to donate funds for the construction of the first schools and Christian church on the reservation. An early abolitionist, Plumb was the Liberty party‘s unsuccessful candidate for lieutenant governor of New York in 1844. In his later years Plumb gained notoriety for his efforts to prohibit the use of intoxicating liquor in the town of Cattaraugus that he had
helped develop. FDP, 6 June 1856; ACAB, 5: 41—42; NCAB, 12: 454. There are a great many people in this country, who have
special reasons—special causes—for liking the sentiments of that
Address.3Although reported by the convention's business committee, of which Douglass was a member, the “Address to the Abolitionists of the United States" was written entirely by Gerrit Smith. It argued the Radical Abolitionist position that the Constitution was an antislavery document, and it attacked the low moral character of the Republicans’ anti-extension program. After considerable discussion and debate the convention unanimously adopted the “Address” as the party’s campaign platform. New York Daily Tribune, 29 May 1856; FDP, 6 June 1856; New York Radical Abolitionist, 2 June (Extra), July 1856.
I think that we have seldom had a document submitted to this
country, or to any country from a political party, to be compared with the
one to which we have listened this afternoon. Political parties have con-
cerned themselves less, hitherto, with the principles of our common hu-
manity, essential to the preservation of our own humanity, than with
popular prejudices and cunning methods of securing power.
We have before us to-day, a document which begins with the truth so
beautifully expressed by Elihu Burritt—“the Fatherhood of God, and the
Brotherhood of man.”4The convention's “Address to the Abolitionists of the United States" opened by declaring: “ALL human beings belong to one and the same brotherhood." The phrase “the Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of men" appears in Elihu Burritt's essay “Brotherhood.” New York Radical Abolitionist, 2 June 1856 (Extra); Elihu Burritt, Thoughts and Things at Home and Abroad (Boston, 1856), 158.
Upon this truth we have a platform basis, as
comprehensive as our humanity, as high as the throne of God, and as
eternal as his immutable laws.
The Irishman listening to this Address, might feel that it sprung from
an Irish heart. The German listening to this Address, might feel that it
sprung from a German heart. The genuine American, born upon the soil,
might feel that it sprung from an American heart; and surely the negro with
his woolly head and black skin, might feel that it might be the offspring of a
negro heart. I love that address, because it takes in the negro.
l have had some temptation, as many have, to mingle in the immediate
strife of the Republican issue, and presume I should have acted with them,
could I have seen with them anything like a full recognition even of the
humanity of the negro. l have almost come to the conclusion that “no more
slave territory,” in the mouth of most of our Republican leaders, means
“no more negroes. anyhow.” (Laughter.) It certainly means no more
negroes in Kansas. Well, I don’t want you to abolish negroes just now!
(Laughter and applause.) l, for one, am not disposed to be abolished just
now. (Renewed laughter.) I want a place to stand in this world, and want to
be doing something, and to meet with men and brethren looking towards
the same end—the realization of the great idea of human truth and perfec-
tion, and the perfection of society. I think it would be quite easy to lose
sight of the negro, if it were not that some of us here have insisted upon
holding up the negro before the country.
The Anti—slavery movement—a movement undertaken for the aboli-
tion of slavery, for giving to four millions of human beings their free-
dom—is every hour liable to be entirely superceded by a movement to
uphold the political strength of the North—to promote freedom of white
men, without in any way promoting the freedom of black men. And this is
the danger of the Republican movement. Its design is—what‘? To put down
the slave oligarchy in Kansas; to limit slavery to the states in which it is,
and confine it there. When this is said, all is said. It does not even propose
to emancipate the slaves in the District of Columbia, or to abolish the
commerce in slaves between the different States. It does not aim at the
abolition of slavery in the arsenals and forts that are under the control of the
Federal Government. It aims simply to limit slavery, and drive it from one
point; and that is Kansas and Nebraska.
Now, I say, that in looking at that movement, it seems to be a move-
ment in open forgetfulness of the first great idea that inspired the anti-
slavery movement. Our movement might have contemplated the freedom
of white men collaterally; but the great end and aim of anti-slavery in this
country, is and must be the abolition of American slavery. To leave slavery
unfettered where it now exists, is to leave it with all the power which it has
ever had, to protect and reproduce itself.
This Republican party cuts off, as I think, all hope of the abolition of
slavery, by denying us the right to any of the powers of the General
Government for the abolition of slavery. I wish to be particularly under-
stood, here. That movement, by declaring that we are prohibited from
interfering with slavery in the States, surrounds slavery by a wall, as it
were of iron, and protects it from the shafts we hurl against it.
The slaves of this country can never be emancipated, unless emanci-
pated by forces extraneous to the southern States. Nothing short of the
judgments of God, or interference from the outside of the southern States
can ever put slavery down. Where are the forces to remove it from the slave
States? Is there a literature in those States to effect this? No; it is expunged
of everything tending to elevate and enlighten humanity.
Shall we look to their schools? No! These institutions are under the
control of the slave power, and are ready to do its bidding.
Shall we look to the church? No! The church, alas! is also bound hand
and foot, and cannot help us. Shall we look to the pulpit? The auction block
and the pulpit are in the same neighborhood, and the gold gained by the sale
of human flesh, goes to sustain the pulpit! The snaky head of slavery may
be seen in every pulpit in the land, telling the minister what he shall preach,
and what he shall not preach. If he comes to the passage:—"Woe unto him
that keepeth back his neighbor’s wages,"5Douglass paraphrases Jer. 22: 13: “Woe unto him that buildeth his house by un- righteousness. and his chambers by wrong; that useth his neighbor's service without wages, and giveth him not for his work." he is commanded to pass that
by, and he does pass it by. If he comes to the passage—‘“Remember those
that are in bonds as bound with them;”6Heb. 13: 3. he must keep that back, and he
does keep it back. Or, if he comes to that most glorious rule—“All things
whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, do you even so unto
them,”7Matt. 7: 12. he must pass that by. If he dares to quote it, and to say that because
you would be free yourselves, you must make others free, he will soon find
himself with a halter around his neck.
We cannot have freedom of speech in Congress, until slavery is abol-
ished in the District of Columbia. So long as it exists there, waiters will
continue to be shot down for insolence. And, by the way, men at the North
don’t generally know what insolence is, among slaveholders. But I happen
to know; and have been punished for it more frequently than for any other
crime. I was born insolent, and have always been insolent. Insolence, at
the South, means the presence of anything like manhood and consciousness
of one’s humanity. To look as though one thought himself a
man—to lift his arms or his leg as if one thought himself a man, is
insolence. I have been punished for insolence for answering, when asked
why I had done a thing thus or so, that I thought it the best way. “Who gave
you the right to think, you scoundrel!” was the reply. And when that Irish
waiter dared to tell Herbert that the breakfast hour had passed, he was
guilty of insolence, and punished with death for the act. And to this hour—
I want the Irish to remember it—Herbert sits in his seat at Washington,
lauded by Southerners for punishing that insolence.8Philemon Thomas Herbert (1825—64) was born in Pine Apple, Alabama, and educated at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa. In 1850 he moved to Mariposa City, California, He soon became active in politics and was elected to Congress as a Democrat in I854. ()n 8 May 1856 Herbert shot and killed Thomas Keating, the head waiter of the Willard Hotel in Washington, DC, when the latter informed him that he had arrived too late to be served breakfast. When Herbert was not immediately arrested, both abolitionists and Republicans denounced the lapse as an example of southern cavalier justice. A partisan vote in the House defeated a Republican-sponsored call for a congressional inquiry into the incident. Finally, in July I856, Herbert was tried and acquitted by a District of Columbia court. He declined to run for reelection and moved to El Paso, Texas, in the late 1850s. Herbert died of wounds received in the Battle of Mansfield while serving as a Confederate cavalry colonel. New York Daily Tribune, 9, 13, 14, 17 May, 12, 14, 16, 28, 29 July 1856: New York Daily Times, 9 May, 3, 10, 12, 26 July 1856; New York Radical Abolitionist, 2 June I856; FDP, 5 September 1856; BDAC. 104-05. We are apt to think
that the black servant is the only one that is looked down upon with
contempt. But this is not so. The poor laboring white man of the South is
looked down upon with as withering a contempt as a slave. And if you will
not fight them you are despised as much as a slave. If there is one who,
when smitten upon one cheek, will turn the other also to be smitten,
9An allusion to Luke 6: 29. these
men are the “boys that will do it.”
But as I was saying, the moral power that shall overthrow slavery,
must come from quarters unconteminated by that dark and withering curse.
The idea which slavery generates is favorable to its continuance. It makes
the slaveholder a helpless wretch, by placing him in possession of power
and luxury, without his efforts. and depriving him of the incentives to
industry. The condition upon which I have strong arms is that I use them. I
can only have strength in that right arm, by bringing it into exercise. And
slaveholders have no nece-sity for doing that. Night after night, the poor
creatures toss about, unable to sleep. The sleep of the meanest slave in the
South is more sweet than that of the slaveholder. His arms are weak—his
ﬁngers are depressed—his strength is gone; and he, of all the creatures
beneath the sky, appeals to us as being incapable of taking care of himself.
He is rendered so lazy that he cannot consider the question of emancipa-
tion. “I,” says he, “the slaves were to be emancipated, how could I get
along without them?” The poor neighbor of he slaveholder, who is unable
to own slaves himself, is kept in love of the system, by being allowed at
times, the luxury of whipping a slave. He is sometimes called in, to
administer a flogging to a slave; and as every one wants to be above
somebody else, they like the idea of slavery, and are opposed to emancipa-
tion, as it would place the slaves upon an equality with themselves. In this
state of affairs it is impossible to hope that a regernating power can be
found in the slaveholding States themselves. The deliverer from American
slavery, like the deliverer from spiritual slavery, must come from Heaven.
Within the dark prison-house of bondage, we cannot look for a moral
power sufficient to overthrow the system.
Now I believe it is our duty to hold up the great truth, that it is our right
and intention to abolish slavery in the States—to abolish it everywhere—
that it is our purpose to abolish in the States, because it exists in the States;
and to abolish it, if we can, through the judiciary—through Congress, if
we can—through moral means if we can; but to abolish it, any way.
(Applause) Slavery must come down; we have a right to abolish it. This is
no longer a mere Confederation of States. We are under a Constitution—a
Constitution which I am glad to see so ably vindicated in the Address. This
Constitution sets forth several propositions, which, if carried out, would
abolish Slavery. What are they? The Constitution declares its object to be
“to form a more perfect Union.” How can you form a more perfect Union
with Slavery? Only by abolishing the Free States, entirely. There is no such
thing as a perfect Union while we have both Liberty and Slavery! They are
as Opposite as light and darkness—as Heaven and Hell; and there can never
be a real Union formed between the two. The only union that can be formed
between them, is a union struggle between them, for the death ofone or the
other. Liberty must either cut the throat of Slavery, or have its own cut by
And then, too, the Constitution proposes “to provide for the general
welfare”—the welfare of the people. If the general welfare was cared for,
would four millions be doomed to Slavery? Would two million women be
left to the unbridled lust of three hundred and fifty thousand slaveholders?
Would the marriage institution be annulled in fifteen States of the Union?
Would the measureless wrongs of the Southern States be perpetrated, if the
general welfare was provided for?
Then, too, one of the avowed objects of our Federal Constitution, is,
“to establish Justice”—to render every man his due; for such is Justice.
There could be no slavery, if Justice were established; for slavery is a
“To secure the blessings of Liberty, to ourselves and our posterity.”
Some say this has a limited meaning, and does not apply to slaves. Some of
our Garrisonian friends take the position that Negroes were not contem-
plated in that or any liberty clause of the Constitution; and since they were
not, it is fraudulent and jesuitical for us to insist that the liberty clauses of
the Constitution apply to colored people!
How strangely do our friends act towards us! Where is the necessity of
making any such admission as this, in behalf of slavery? There is no
necessity for it. The Constitution is declared to be established for the
people. And who are the people? The men and women of the country. We
are a part of the people; and it is the most unkind—l was going to say it was
the most wicked—concession ever made to the slave power from any
quarter, to admit that the Constitution does not apply at all to colored
The Constitution partakes of the spirit of that Address. It does not
know anything of Irishmen, of Englishmen, of Germans, of white men or
black men; but of men. It knows nothing of a north, south, east or west; but
At the time of the adoption of the Constitution of the United States, as
every man who has made himself familiar with those times knows, there
was a strong anti-slavery feeling, which looked forward to an ingathering
of all the people of this country, into the enjoyment of their liberty.
Mr. Chairman, the friends of the slave are under a pressure just now;
and that pressure is, to meet those fellows in Kansas, where they wish to be
successful, and put them down there, even at the sacrifice of holding great
principles in abeyance for a time. But let us not take this position; but a
position by which every slave will be redeemed, and every slave set free.
(Applause) We have a right to interfere with slavery everywhere in this
country, because it interferes with us everywhere in this country. While the
pure air of America is disturbed by the crack of a driver’s lash, we are
involved in a common disgrace and a common crime; and it becomes us to
wipe out that disgrace by repenting of that crime—wash our hands in
innocency, and compass the altar of our God (Applause)
[Speeches made by Beriah Green and William J. Watkins]
FREDERICK DOUGLASS, having been loudly and repeatedly called for, came
forward and made a powerful speech, which was listened to with the most
profound attention. and frequently applauded. There were present many
delegates to the Republican State Convention, in session in Syracuse dur-
ing the day. He said to them:
You are called Black Republicans.10Democrats applied the contemptuous term Black Republican to the new political party organized to oppose the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Democrats characterized Republicans as enemies of southern institutions, as friends of black rights. and as sectional radicals threatening the Union. During Reconstmction, southerners similarly used the expression to denounce northerners who favored legislation aiding the freedmen. Thomas H. Johnson. The Oxford Companion to American History (New York, 1966), 85; Allan Nevins, The Emergence of Lincoln, 2 vols. (New York. 1950), 2 : 104—05. What right have you to that
name? Among all the Candidates you have selected, or talked of, l have not
seen or heard of a single black one. (Laughter.) Nor have I seen one
mentioned with any prospect ofsuccess, who is friendly to the black man in
his sympathies, or an advocate for the restoration of his rights. The men
mentioned in connection with your Presidential nomination, are Col. Fre-
mont,11John Charles Frémont (1813—90), the illegitimate son of a French émigré schoolteacher, was born in Savannah, Georgia, and educated at Charleston College. Commissioned a second lieutenant in the army in 1837, he began a career as an explorer and topographer, a career that was advanced greatly by his marriage to Jessie Benton, the daughter of Senator Thomas Hart Benton. In the 1840s he gained national fame for commanding several mapping expeditions of the Rocky Mountains. On one of these expeditions Frémont assumed a leading role in the Bear Flag revolt in California. When the Mexican War broke out. Frémont clashed with higher ranking military officers in California and was court-martialed. After leaving the army, Frémont continued his western explorations and briefly served as one of California's first U.S. senators (1850-51). Defeated for reelection as an antislavery candidate, he led another cross-continent expedition in 1853 and in 1855 moved to New York City. Opposed to both the extension of slavery and the Fugitive Slave Law, Frémont was the presidential nominee of the 1856 Republican convention but carried only eleven states in a contest against Democrat James Buchanan. With the outbreak of civil war. Lincoln appointed Frémont major general in command of the Department of the West. On 30 August 1861 Frémont issued a proclamation emancipating the slaves of rebel Missourians, which Lincoln quickly revoked. Replaced in his western command. Frémont unsuccessfully battled Thomas (“Stonewall”) Jackson in the latter's Shenandoah Valley campaign of 1862. A Cleveland convention of antislavery radicals seeking an alternative to Lincoln nominated Frémont for president in 1864, but the candidate withdrew when approached by the Lincoln administration. After the Civil War, Frémont lost his fortune in railroad promotion schemes and played only a minor role in Republican politics. Ferol Egan, Frémont: Explorer for a Restless Nation (Garden City, N.J., I977); Alice Eyre, The Famous Frémonts and Their America(Orange, Calif., 1948), 17-22, 41—49, 274—80, 295— 306; Allan Nevins, Frémont: Pathmarker of the West (New York, 1939); ACAB, 2: 545—48; DAB, 7: 19-23. Judge McLean,12Born of Scotch-Irish immigrant parents,. John McLean (1785- 1861) rose through the legal and political ranks to the US. Supreme Court. He received little formal education in his youth but nevertheless was permitted to read law in the offices of Arthur St. Clair of Cincinnati, Ohio. McLean practiced law and edited a weekly newspaper in Lebanon, Ohio, until 1812, when he was elected to Congress. Three years later he accepted an appointment to the Ohio Supreme Court. After six years as a judge, McLean served as postmaster general in the administrations of James Monroe and John Quincy Adams. As a reward for his support of Andrew Jackson in the election of 1828, McLean received an appointment to the Supreme Court, where his most famous opinion was the dissent in the Dred Scott decision of 1857. Over the years, McLean was seriously considered for a presidential nomination by the Anti-Masons, Free Soilers, Know-Nothings, Whigs. and Republicans. At the 1856 Republican convention he finished second in the balloting behind John C. Fremont. Francis P. Weisenburger, The Life of John McLean: A Politician on the United States Supreme Court (Columbus, Ohio, 1937); NCAB, 2: 469—70; ACAB, 4: 144; DAB, 12: 127—28. Francis Blair,13The son of a Kentucky lawyer and politician, Francis Preston Blair (1791—1876) was educated at Transylvania University. Although admitted to the bar, Blair instead entered Kentucky politics in the midst of the state's debtor-relief controversy. His political alliance with Amos Kendall in the prorelief party was rewarded when the latter convinced President Andrew Jackson to select Blair to edit an administration newspaper in Washington. Blair‘s Globe skillfully championed Jacksonian programs until I845, when Polk forced him to retire as punishment for opposing Texas annexation. In 1848 Blair followed Martin Van Buren into the Free Soil movement but returned to the Democrats four years later and campaigned for Pierce. Disillusioned by the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Blair became one of the founders of the Republican party. During the Civil War, Blair's son Montgomery served in Lincoln‘s cabinet, and both were criticized by abolitionists as conservative influences on the president. On his own initiative Blair entered into secret peace negotiations with Confederate leaders in 1864 that eventually led to the abortive Hampton Roads Conference. An advocate of a lenient Reconstruction policy, Blair again returned to the Democratic party after the war. As Douglass correctly charged, Blair was a slaveholder and advocate of the colonization of free blacks. Elbert B. Smith, Francis Preston Blair (New York, I980); William Ernest Smith, The Francis Preston Blair Family in Politics, 2 vols. (New York, 1933), 1: 14—15, 67—70, 172—77, 216, 223, 320-31, 443—48, 2: 137, 189, 304-21; ACAB, 1:280—81; DAB, 2 : 330—32. the latter of whom only owns
twenty slaves, (laughter), and T. H. Benton, who owns, I know not how
many.14A moderate on slavery-related issues, Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri remained a slaveholder until his death.I have heard your own great Senator Seward15William H. Seward. mentioned; but
nobody expects that he will receive the nomination. He, though acting with
the Whig party so long as there was a Whig party—and although he has
never identified himself with any Abolition Society, still has succeeded in
saying such words for freedom, and. at times, in evincing such a spirit of
liberty, that the Republicans shrink back from urging his nomination,
because of his radical anti-slavery sentiments. And then there is the man
who was struck down in the Senate; and he is the man you would be first to
elevate, if acting on the tactics of Napoleon. He laid down a rule never to
occupy a position which the enemy desired him to occupy.16A paraphrase of one of Napoleon's general observations on warfare. Lucien E. Henry, Napoleon's War Maxims (London, ), 22. That Charles
Sumner is at this time the special object of hatred in the South, no one
doubts. If you want to give us an example of your Black Republicanism—
of your determination to resist and defy the Slave power, take Charles
Sumner, and make him master at Washington.