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A Reform Absolutely Complete: an Address Delivered in New York, New York, on 9 April 1870


ON 9 APRIL 1870

National Anti-Slavery Standard, 16 April 1870.

A “moderately filled” Apollo Hall in New York City hosted the final meeting
of the American Anti-Slavery Society in an all-day ceremony on 9 April 1870.
The Society’s executive committee had previously concluded that the passage
of the Fifteenth Amendment made their organization obsolete and called the
meeting to ratify that decision. The atmosphere of the gathering became so
jovial that the New York Herald compared the proceedings to “the waking of
the great and glorious Finnegan.” The Society’s president, Wendell Phillips,
called the mainly female assemblage to order at 10:00 A.M. Silent prayer,
hymn singing, and the reading of letters from many prominent political and
reform figures followed his opening remarks. The executive committee then
presented resolutions declaring the Society’s work completed and the appro-
priate time for its dissolution arrived. The antislavery veterans on the plat-
form, including Lucretia Mott, Charles C. Burleigh, George W. Julian, Abby
Kelley Foster, Stephen S. Foster, and Henry H. Garnet, generally supported
the resolutions. When Douglass’s turn was announced, he was “greeted with
loud applause,” according to the New York Times. More speeches and songs
followed his remarks. The members then filed into an adjoining room, where
a nearly unanimous vote disbanded the organization. In the evening a “social


reunion” of antislavery advocates was held in Apollo Hall at which Douglass
and others spoke briefly. NASS, 2, 9 April 1870; New York Times, 7, 8, 10
April 1870; New York Tribune, 7, 8, 11 April 1870; New York Herald, 10
April 1870; NE, 28 April 1870; Quarles, FD, 249-50; McPherson, Struggle
for Equality
, 249.

I share the sentiments I have heard expressed here. I am less disposed,
however, to unite in eulogistic references to the labors of this Society, and
in regrets at its discontinuance, than in rejoicings over the accomplishment
of its work. I seem to myself to be living in a new world. The sun does not
shine as it used to. I am living in an entirely new atmosphere. One of the
wonderful things connected with this great revolution through which we
have passed, and are passing, is the completeness of the work. While the
reformers in other countries have been compelled to be content with half
measures, favoring the objects that they sought, here we have a reform
absolutely complete. Who could have imagined ten years ago, or even
seven years ago, what has occurred? Ten years ago I walked among men
with my head erect, ready to meet indignation with indignation, denuncia-
tion with denunciation, hard words with hard words. I went abroad at that
time1Douglass’s second visit to Great Britain extended from 24 November 1859 to mid-April 1860. for insult and for buffeting on every hand; and there was seldom an
occasion that I could not find it. Now I go abroad among men to find that
civility is the rule, and insult the exception. The people in the street look
different to me from what they used to. The old elements of malice and hate
and contempt that I once saw written in the faces of men, seem mostly to
have disappeared. It is a great change, a vast, a wonderful, an amazing
change to me.

I used to say, when called upon to speak on the subject of slavery, that I
felt the poverty of language. Words were insufficient, were weak, tame,
worthless, to describe the unutterable horror of that relation that doomed a
man to the condition of slavery. A slave to-day,—to-morrow—for all the
days of one’s life;—what words either of earth or hell could portray the
deep damnation of such a lot? But I am equally at a loss to-day for words to
express my sense of the great triumph of justice and liberty that this
association has been so largely instrumental in achieving. Not only the
slave emancipated, but a personal liberty bill, a civil rights bill,2The Civil Rights Act of 1866. admitted
to give testimony in courts of justice, given the right to sit on juries, the
right to vote, eligible not only to Congress but to the Presidential chair—all


for a class stigmatized but a little while ago as worthless goods and chattels
to all intents and purposes, but now regarded as men, and not only men but
men among men, equal to any, feeling like men, recognized as such before
the law, and beginning to be recognized as such even by the party that has
endeavored to crush us.

One of the dangers of this change is in the temptation that is to come to
the colored vote hereafter from the Democratic party. To secure the colored
vote of the South, how nicely they will argue! They will say to the negro,
“Before this great revolution took place, we were of course against your
enfranchisement, as were the Republicans also at heart; we were opposed
to any change; but now that it has come, and not from any love for you
entertained by the Republican party, but as your emancipation was a mili-
tary necessity, your enfranchisement was a political necessity; we accept it;
and we are as good friends of yours to-day as are the Republican party, and
a great deal better.” And as poor men are so unfortunate in their constitu-
tion that they are generally more grateful for favors to come than for favors
past, (applause) many of them will probably bow down by—and-by to the
Democratic leaders who will know how to tempt them.

But I rose merely to apologize for not speaking; for I am suffering from
hoarseness and am hardly able to speak. You may ask why I came here if I
did not mean to speak. In fact I could not very well keep away from here. I
know no place in the world where to-day I could be half as happy as here; to
see these faces; to hear these voices; and these faces bring up other faces to
memory dear but passed away. If I know any one name more than another
of modern times worthy to be reverently and affectionately mentioned here
to-day, it is the name of him who has recently passed away, and whose
widow has given us this morning such reminiscences of the past as to cause
our hearts to burn;—I refer to JAMES MOTT,3Lucretia Mott (1793-1880) had addressed the convention earlier that morning, detailing the labors of early opponents of slavery. Lucretia's husband, James Mott (1788-1868), who had died on 26 January 1868, was born to a Quaker family in North Hempstead, New York. As a young man he worked for the mercantile firm of Lucretia’s father in New York City. The Motts married in 1811 and settled permanently in the Philadelphia area. James was one of the founders of the American Anti-Slavery Society and had presided over the first women’s rights convention at Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848. Lucretia was a highly respected minister in the Hicksite wing of the Society of Friends. She also became a tireless abolitionist and made many lecturing tours on behalf of emancipation. Beginning with the Seneca Falls gathering, which she had organized with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia rarely missed a national women's rights convention. After the Civil War she was elected president of the American Equal Rights Association and tried in vain to heal the rift in the woman suffrage movement that occurred in 1869. Margaret Hope Bacon, Valiant Friend: The Life of Lucretia Mott (New York, 1980); James et al., Notable American Women, 2: 592-95; ACAB, 4: 441; DAB, 13: 288-89. (applause), one of the most


devoted friends of the cause that I ever knew; always happy, but I have
never seen him look more happy at any time than when I have seen him
standing in the great congregation under a tent in the West holding the
bonnet of his beloved wife while she plead[ed] the cause of the American
slave as none other could plead it at that time.4Douglass probably alludes to the Ohio Anti-Slavery Convention held on 4-5 September 1847 in Salem, Ohio, at which he, the Motts, William Lloyd Garrison, and others addressed large crowds under an oversized tent borrowed from Oberlin College. ASB, 10 September 1847.

The name of FRANCIS JACKSON5Deceased for nearly a decade, Boston merchant Francis Jackson (1789-1861) had been a leading figure in the Garrisonian wing of the abolitionist movement. Born in Newton, Massachusetts, Jackson moved to Boston as a young man. There he served as land commissioner in the city government before embarking on his antislavery career. He was president of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society from 1837 until his death and presided over many conventions and public meetings that Douglass addressed. Lib., 22 November I861; ACAB, 3: 386; NCAB, 2: 318. comes up, and that serene loving face
passes before me to-day. But I must not go into details. I thank you even for
the chance to sit upon this platform, to look in your faces, and to mingle my
joy and my thanksgiving with yours for the great deliverance that has been
wrought out.

The only thing that makes me solemn on this occasion is the fact that
the black man is now absolutely thrown on his own responsibility; that by
the acts of the government under which he lives, by his emancipation and
his perfect enfranchisement, he is stripped of every apology for any sort of
lack of manhood or of usefulness in society. I sometimes tremble when I
think what the future may reveal in our case. And I wish to say here to those
of my complexion, that if twenty-five years hence the colored man in the
United States shall not have greatly advanced from his present condition, it
will go hard with him. We must either go forward or fall back. All that l
have ever asked for the colored man of the United States is just what he now
has, absolute fair play. If he can stand up, well. If he falls down and
disappears, I have sometimes been tempted to say, Equally well. No man
has a right to live unless he can live by the powers which God in his wisdom
has given him. We must depend on ourselves, make our own record, make
our own future. I have no doubt that we will, or at least but few shadows of

We have already made vast progress. Two hundred years ago it was
thought to be necessary by a pious missionary in the British West Indies to
write a book of 200 pages to prove that it was right in the sight of God to
baptize a negro.6Douglass alludes to Godwyn’s Negro's and Indian’s Advocate. (Laughter) It was not a question entirely free from


difficulty. It was the theory that baptism was a rite only to be administered
to free moral agents, men who could decide for themselves their own
course of conduct; and a negro, it was said, was not a person in that sense,
but property; and it never could be acceptable in the sight of God to baptize
mere property. And Dr. GODWlN actually proved that although the negro
was property, he was also a person. Thank heaven, we have proved to the
world that we are entitled to baptism. (Applause)

My friend GARNETT alluded to the fact that thirty years ago I was a
Methodist preacher.7Henry Highland Garnet had made that remark to the meeting while reminiscing about the careers of various abolitionists in 1837, the year he joined the movement. Douglass discussed his affiliation with the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, including his license to preach, in a letter to Bishop James W. Hood in 1894. NASS, 16 April 1870; James W. Hood. One Hundred Years of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (New York, 1895), 541-42; William L. Andrews, “Frederick Douglass, Preacher," American Literature, 54: 592-97 (December 1982). I hope he did not intend this congregation to under-
stand that to be a Methodist preacher at that time was to be an enemy to
the Anti-Slavery cause, or that it was prima facie evidence of being
against the slave. Yet undoubtedly it was so at that time; for all over the
country the Methodist preachers were considered opposed to the Anti-
Slavery movement; although I meet a great many now who tell me that
this whole revolution has been wrought out by the prayers of the Meth-
odist church. (Laughter) But in my own case, I was as much of an Aboli-
tionist thirty years ago as at any time since; and when a Methodist preach-
er and local exhorter, l was as denunciatory of slavery as at any time
since. I have seen great improvement in American ministers, white as
well as colored; but I have never seen on our Anti-Slavery platform during
the last thirty years, a single Methodist bishop, white or black. I rejoice
that we have one here to-day.8The person to whom Douglass refers is not identified in press accounts of the meeting.

It is very difficult now to find pro-slavery ministers anywhere. Even
the old arguments drawn from the Bible of the divinity of slavery are no
longer referred to. That “Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he
be unto his brethren,”9Gen. 9: 25. which used to knock our black logic all into pi[t];
for you know we were never given to abstract reasoning, but were of a race
willing to work two hundred years and take our pay in religion alone, and
going to heaven when we died. The text was all sufficient to upset our
theory as to human rights; but it didn’t upset mine enough to keep me from
running away. (Laughter) I confess that such is the force of education that I
did feel a little mean in taking leave without bidding the old master “good


bye.” I remembered that servants were commanded to be obedient unto
their masters,10Variations of this theme can be found in Eph. 6: 5, Col. 3: 22, Titus 2: 9, and 1 Pet. 2: 18. and I had been taught that if I wanted to get to heaven when
I died, I must obey that command. It troubled me a little; but I kept on
running, (laughter), and after I got North I thought it was not worth while to
go back again.

One of the resolutions proposes to give thanks to God, and none
especially to men.11One of the convention's resolutions expressed gratitude to God for the speed with which the Fifteenth Amendment had been ratified. New York Times, 10 April 1870. I like to thank men. I like to thank the people I see.
Those people who give all their thanks to God I have a suspicion of. Not
that I suspect at all, JOHN G. WHITTIER;12Quaker poet and abolitionist John Greenleaf Whittier expressed such sentiments in a public letter read to the convention prior to Douglass's speech. NASS, 16 April 1870; John B. Pickard, ed. , The Letters of John Greenleaf Whittier, 3 vols. (Cambridge, Mass, 1975), 3: 225-26. but I have no sort of sympathy
with that kind of religion that expresses its devotion to God by neglect of
their fellows. All through the Anti-Slavery struggle, men have asked, “Do
you love the Lord?” who showed no love to their fellow men. I want to
express my love to God and gratitude to God, by thanking those faithful
men and women, who have devoted the great energies of their souls to the
welfare of mankind. It is only through such men and such women that I can
get any glimpses of God anywhere. (Applause) I want, not to fall down
and worship them, but to express my gratitude and my affection for them.

I don’t want to part from you at all; and I am glad to know that we are to
unite in other works, and that though the form of this association shall be
dissolved, the spirit which animates it, which has given it the power to rock
this country from end to end, and to rivet the attention of the American
people upon the wrongs of the slave for nearly forty years, at a time when it
is so hard to keep the mind fixed upon any great movement for any consid—
erable time,—that spirit is to continue its activity through new instrumen-
talities, first for the Indian, whose condition to-day is the saddest chapter of
our history.13U.S. Indian policy from the Grant administration until the first decades of the twentieth century emphasized assimilation of Indians into mainstream American life. Placement of tribes on reservations, education for Indian youth, Christian missionization, and the division of tribal lands into individual allotments were important aspects of this only partially successful program. Numerous public and private agencies participated in the effort to eliminate indigenous beliefs, practices, and organizations. A year before Douglass's speech, Congress created the Board of Indian Commissioners, an independent agency whose original purpose was to supervise the Indian Office‘s expenditure of funds, carry out inspections of agencies, and advise the Department of the Interior on changes in policy that would “promote” the "civilization" of the Indians. After regular Indian Office staff took over the inspection duties, the Board concentrated on promoting reforms originated by private organizations and channeling them through the appropriate departments. Paul Stuart, The Indian Office: Growth and Development of an American Institution, 1865—1900 (Ann Arbor, Mich, 1978). 55-71; Brian W. Dippie, The Vanishing American: White Attitudes and U.S. Indian Policy (Middletown, Conn., 1982), 141-76. The most terrible reproach that can be hurled at this moment
at the head of American Christianity and civilization, is the fact that there is


a general consent all over this country that the aboriginal inhabitants of this
country should die out in the presence of that Christianity and civilization.
Why is it to die out? It is because the American people at an early day took
the same attitude towards the Indian as towards the black man, excluding
“Indians not taxed” from representation by the Constitution of [1787].14Article 1, Section 2, of the U.S. Constitution.
That exclusion has kept the tomahawk and the scalping-knife busy upon
our borders, and the Western sky lurid with the glare of savage warfare. The
only thing that has saved the negro is first the interest of his master, and
now his being brought into the American body politic. And our energies are
not only to be devoted to this, but to the interests of suffering humanity
everywhere; and of woman too, for whose cause we can now labor upon a
common platform. (Applause)


Douglass, Frederick, 1818-1895


April 9, 1870


Yale University Press 1991



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