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Celebrating the Past, Anticipating the Future: an Address Delivered in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on April 14, 1875



Centennial Anniversary of the Pennsylvania Society, for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage: and for Improving the Condition of the African Race (Philadelphia, 1876), 21-26. Other texts in Philadelphia Inquirer, 15 April 1875; Speech File, reel 15, frames 7-12, 13-19, reel 20, frame 273, FD Papers, DLC.

On the afternoon of 14 April 1875, Douglass sat on the stage of Concert Hall in Philadelphia to take part in the centennial anniversary of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery. As the oldest abolition society in the country, the organization could claim affiliations with the most prominent participants in the antislavery struggle. Though such notables as William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, Samuel May, and John Greenleaf Whittier sent letters of apology for not attending, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, William Still, John M. Langston, Lucretia Mott, Dr. William Elder, and others were on hand for the occasion. Shortly after Vice President Henry Wilson, presiding officer, opened the proceedings, the Reverend William H. Furness offered a brief prayer. Wilson spoke briefly, calling for those previously successful in the antislavery struggle to meet “the counter revolution existing against the negro.” After a speech by Elder, Wilson introduced Douglass. The large crowd, which according to the Philadelphia Public Ledger had “a large representation of the colored element,” frequently applauded Douglass’s speech. Philadelphia Public Ledger, supplement, 14 April 1875; Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, 15 April 1875.


MY FRIENDS AND FELLOW-CITIZENS: I have very little to add to what has been already said, and well said, upon the various topics suggested by this occasion. In fact, I would gladly escape from saying anything, and leave the remaining time to be occupied by addresses from other speakers.

When called upon to speak, however, I have always found it easier to comply than to refuse; more easy to find words than to fit my words to the occasion; and such is the case to-day. Centennial celebrations are new things in American experience. I never attended one before. I am, however, encouraged by the thought that when new things are attempted, a certain degree of awkwardness is expected and excused. Thus far, I believe, centennial celebrations have been monopolized by a few of our oldest religious denominations. In their hands they have been found to be not only very pleasant occasions, but very useful. They quicken zeal, strengthen faith, and stimulate exertion. So deeply impressed with the good effects of centennial celebrations are some of our colored brethren that they think now of having one annually, and, it may be, quarterly.

Thus far, however, there is no formulated orthodox pattern for the speeches to be made on such occasions, and each man is therefore left to his own choice as to manner and matter.

One thing it will be in order to say here, at the outset: I am in favor of centennial celebrations generally, and this Abolition Centennial particularly. It is well to mark and observe the beginnings of great and important events in the history of society and civilization. All such occasions can be made serviceable to human progress, welfare, and happiness.

I am glad, too, that this great and growing city of yours, the pride of Pennsylvania, and perhaps the envy of some of its neighbors, is soon to be the scene of a grand and memorable Centennial Celebration; one that will not only be metropolitan but national, and reflect glory upon our country and upon the world.1In 1871 Congress authorized the establishment of a private Centennial Commission to oversee preparations for the celebration of the one hundredth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. This body selected the sixty-acre Fairmount Park along the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia for the exhibition site. Thirty-nine other nations accepted invitations to participate, transforming the affair into the sixth international exhibition in history and the first held in the United States. Thanks to a special appropriation of $1.5 million voted on 25 January 1876, the Centennial exhibition grounds were ready to be opened by President Ulysses S. Grant in a public ceremony on 10 May 1876, which Douglass attended. Although some southern newspaper editors had called for a boycott, approximately ten million visitors toured the industrial, artistic, and historical displays at the exhibition before it closed in November. AAC, 1876, 262-81; William Peirce Randel, Centennial: American Life in 1876 (Philadelphia, 1969), 283-306; John D. Bergamini, The Hundredth Year: The United States in 1876 (New York, 1976), 40-43, 122-25, 307-09. There is inspiration in the very thought of such an


assemblage. Here, on American soil, in this old city of the Declaration of Independence, will assemble the elite of all nations, kindreds, tongues, and peoples. No argument is needed to prove that such a coming together will tend to liberality, peace, and brotherhood. Here, in this place, therefore, it is in order to bespeak the success of the grand Centennial which is to come after the one we are now holding. Our centennial celebration has attracted but little attention in comparison to that of next year; and yet I venture to claim for ours a higher, broader, and more sacred character than that which is to come after it. The Centennial of Seventy-Six stands for patriotism; ours stands for philanthropy. One stands for nationality; the other stands for universal humanity. (Applause.) One stands for what is transient; the other stands for what is permanent. Kingdoms, nationalities, principalities, powers, and republics, rise and fall; appear and vanish; but the great principles of liberty, justice, and humanity are unchangeable and eternal. (Renewed applause.) To participate in the celebration of a century of these principles is a sublime privilege. It is something of which a man may proudly tell his children, for it honorably associates his name with the grandest names and the noblest cause of modern history.

I rejoice to see on this platform, Lucretia Mott (applause), Abby Kelly Foster (applause), and the men and women, some of whom reached out to me a friendly hand years ago when I made my escape from slavery and came here to Philadelphia, and then to New England.

In listening to the discourse of our friend, Dr. Elder,2Physician, lawyer, and economist William Elder (1806-85) was the son of a farmer from Somerset County, Pennsylvania. After studying at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, Elder practiced medicine in central Pennsylvania. Moving to Pittsburgh in 1838, he entered local politics and four years later was admitted to the bar as an attorney. In 1845 he relocated to Philadelphia, where he worked for Liberty and Free Soil party newspapers. After the 1840s and 1850s, when he published a biography of Arctic explorer Elisha Kane and short works on religion and literature, Elder concentrated his writing on economic subjects, particularly the advocacy of protective tariffs. From 1861 to 1866 and again from 1873 to 1885, he worked for the U.S. Department of the Treasury in Washington, D.C., as a statistician and clerk. Douglass and Elder had both addressed the same Republican rally in Philadelphia on 21 October 1872. ASB, 2 May 1857; ACAB, 2: 218-19; DAB, 6: 68. this afternoon, I felt, as you did, that we had been fortunate in the selection of our historical orator. So far as the history of this society is concerned, he has swept the century and left but little for others to say.

While I am a man of the present, and feel deeply interested in the works of to-day, I have no sympathy with those who despise and neglect the origin of the anti-slavery movement and other movements among men of a kindred character. All truth, whether moral, physical or historical, is important, and may claim inspiration.


We talk of the dead past; but no part of the past is dead or indifferent to me. I rejoice in the full-grown man of anti-slavery, but I do not forget the cradle, nor the terrible struggles which have intervened—the periods of weakness and strength, of infancy and maturity.

l have somewhere seen a doubt expressed that there is any such thing as human progress. Some go so far as to say that this world is growing worse. To this view—this disheartening view, I may say—there is no more impressive contradiction than in the history of the anti-slavery cause. I know of no one period of the world’s age for which I would be willing to exchange the present. There is no period in which the conditions of existence were more easy and happy than now. Who amongst us wants to go back to those great days of religious faith, when the Church tore men’s flesh from their bones with iron pincers, and roasted them alive in fire and flame, because they entertained religious views different from those proclaimed from its pulpit?3Douglass describes the sixteenth-century wars of religion.

There are those who would tear men to-day, if they could, for a difference in religion. They call hard names and endeavor to excite prejudice; but we must all rejoice that the day of old-fashioned religious persecution has now gone by. The day will come when persecution on account of color will go the same way. No one can well doubt this when he looks back over the history of the abolition movement, and observes and studies its gradual rise to power in the world. Doctrines of human liberty which were deemed by the wise and prudent, radical, grotesque, and fanatical one hundred years ago, have come to be accepted as entirely rational, wise, and beautiful in our day. As Lowell has it:

“Humanity sweeps onward: Where to-day the martyr stands, To-morrow crouches Judas, With the money in his hands.”4Douglass slightly misquotes a portion of the fourteenth stanza of “The Present Crisis" by American poet James Russell Lowell: “For Humanity sweeps onward: where to-day the martyr stands, On the morrow crouches Judas with the silver in his hands." The Writings of James Russell Lowell, 10 vols., Riverside ed. (Boston, 1892), 7: 183.

I now hold in my hand a quaint and curious old volume, I will not say of forgotten lore, for I think it is probably the only one of its kind now in the United States. I have summoned it from the dust of nearly two hundred years to assist in this centennial celebration.


This venerable book was published in London, in the year of grace 1680: and is therefore nearly two hundred years old.5Morgan Godwyn, Negro's and Indian’s Advocate. It was presented to me by Mr. John Gibson, in remembrance of my visit to White Haven, England, nearly thirty years ago. I thought it would be interesting on this occasion for three reasons: First, because of its antiquity; secondly, because it very strikingly illustrates the gradual dawn of anti-slavery truth upon the world, and thirdly, because it is perhaps among the earliest of those efforts of the human mind which have finally put an end to slavery in most of this Western world.

The history of the book itself is significant and instructive. It was written by a pious missionary of the Church of England, who had resided both in Virginia and in the West Indies, and of course, knew much about the practical workings of slavery, both upon the slave and the slave-master. In the production of this work of anti-slavery tendency he does not seem to have been moved altogether by a benevolent thought or purpose. His object was quite as much to shield the Church from opprobrium as to lift the down-trodden slave into manhood. In his introduction he gives this among other exciting causes of his writing. He says: “A petty reformer pamphlet was put into my hands by an officious Friend or Quaker, upon the perusal whereof I met with this malicious but crafty invection levelled against the ministers:

“Who made you ministers of the Gospel to the white people only, and not to the tawnys and blacks also?” and he adds: “With many other of the like insolent queries.”6Douglass badly misquotes yet preserves the meaning of lines from Godwyn's Negro’s and Indian's Advocate, 4. This proves that even at this early day the Quakers were in advance of their neighbors, and that they knew full well how to reprove the heartless injustice, partiality, and hypocrisy of the Church.

This book of the missionary, Morgan Godwin, designed to shield religion from the just reproaches of the friends of the slave, while it abounded in many excellent reflections, did not take very high ground. It was not a direct and conscious attack upon slavery. The idea that slavery in itself was wrong nowhere gets itself expressed in these pages. Mr. Godwin simply endeavored to prove that it was not a sin in the sight of God to baptize a negro and give him religious instruction; and to show that these were not prejudicial to the right of the masters. But low as was this ground it was quite radical doctrine two hundred years ago. He asked neither


freedom, citizenship, suffrage, nor equality for the negro. All he wanted was the right to put a little religious water upon him, and to save the poor fellow’s soul.

He disposed of the black man in a very simple manner. He gave his body to the white man and his soul to the Lord. The right of the earthly master was as good to his part of the property as the right of the heavenly to his. But the black man himself had no right. When he looked for his body, that belonged to his master, and when he looked for his soul, that belonged to the Church; and being unable to divide himself further, he did not have anything left for himself, and was, as we sometimes say in slang phrase, nowhere. From the elevated moral plane we now stand upon, it appears almost incredible that the negro’s right to baptism and religious instruction was ever denied and resisted; but such is the fact. We must remember that the gray light of morning is not the mid-day sun in its splendor, and that the age of Morgan Godwin was not the age of William L. Garrison, Gerrit Smith and Wendell Phillips.

Mr. Douglass gave some of the grounds of opposition to the baptism of the negro. It tended to increase his dignity and importance. It made him a Christian, and thus took him out of the category of heathenism from which the Bible permitted Christians to buy and hold slaves. It was alleged that a slave was not a fit subject for baptism. He was not a free moral agent—had no will of his own, and could not choose his own course in life. On any consistent theory of slavery the baptism of the negro was wrong and impolitic, and had a direct tendency to impair the value of the slave to his earthly master, and this was the view taken of the measure by the masters, and many and bloody have been the lashes laid on the backs of negroes for allowing themselves to be baptized.

But something more than a glance at the past is due from us on this occasion. It is a glorious fact that slavery is abolished and the negro is enfranchised. A hundred years of labor have been rewarded by vast and wonderful progress. But he is an unwise reformer and unwise patriot who now considers his whole duty done and his work for freedom and country completed. No man of anti-slavery instincts can now look out upon the moral and political situation of this country without seeing danger to the results obtained by the immense labor and suffering of long years of agitation and of war and bloodshed. Every effort should now be made to save the results of this stupendous moral and physical contest.

It is said by some: “We have done enough for the negro.” Yes, you have done a great deal for the negro, and, for one, I am deeply sensible of


it, and grateful for it. But after all, what have you done? We were slaves— and you have made us free—and given us the ballot. But the world has never seen any people turned loose to such destitution as were the four million slaves of the South. The old roof was pulled down over their heads before they could make for themselves a shelter. They were free! free to hunger; free to the winds and rains of heaven; free to the pitiless wrath of enraged masters, who, since they could no longer control them, were willing to see them starve. They were free, without roofs to cover them, or bread to eat, or land to cultivate, and as a consequence died in such numbers as to awaken the hope of their enemies that they would soon disappear. We gave them freedom and famine at the same time. The marvel is that they still live. What the negro wants is, first, protection to the rights already conceded by law, and, secondly, education. Talk of having done enough for these people after two hundred years of enforced ignorance and stripes is absurd, cruel, and heartless.

Great was the statesmanship that gave the black man the ballot, but greater still will be the statesmanship that shall give him ample protection in exercising that sacred right, and education, and the knowledge to use his suffrage in such a manner as to preserve his own liberty and the highest welfare of the Government of this Republic. To-day, in the South, the school-house is burned. To-day, in Tennessee, Lucy Haydon7Julia Hayden (c. 1856-74), a black teacher at a rural school near Hartsdale in Trousdale County, Tennessee, was murdered on the evening of 22 August 1874. Born a slave in Maury County, Hayden attended Tennessee Central College for two years before accepting a teaching post in Trousdale County. She had been working less than one week and boarding with a local black farmer when attacked. According to witnesses, the murderers were two white “midnight marauders" who rode up to the farmhouse in the middle of the night and demanded “that teacher." When refused admission they fired revolvers into the house, fatally wounding Hayden. This incident was one of a series of racially motivated killings in Tennessee during the late summer of 1874 that forced the governor to issue a proclamation calling on local officials to suppress the prevailing lawlessness. New York Herald, 1, 3, 5 September 1874, New York Times, 7, 12 September 1874; AAC, 1874, 788. is called from an inner room at midnight and shot down because she teaches colored children to read. To-day, in New Orleans and in Louisiana, and in parts of Alabama, the black man scarcely dares to deposit the votes which you gave him a right to deposit for fear of his life. We want your voices again; we want disinterested laborers as of old; we want Abby Kellys rising up in the wake of the Abby Kellys of other days; we want the Anna Dickinsons with a moral purpose to stir this country anew in behalf of humanity; we want to carry the standard, as the old Garrisonians carried it in 1840, outside of the


Republican party, and outside of the Democratic party; we want this society to celebrate its second centennial, if need be.

Some of my friends in England used to send me money to help me publish my paper, and when slavery was abolished l was glad to send them word: “I release you now, my friends, from sending me any more assistance, either for my paper or for the benefit of fugitive slaves.” They wrote back: “Douglass, we do not want to be released; we want you to go on; we want to help you.” I say that we want this same spirit to take the field now in behalf of this race. We need you, my friends, almost as much as ever

But I am here talking too long, and I will not detain you longer. I see here my friend and your friend—and you know he is here—Charles C. Burleigh (applause); my friend Robert Purvis (applause); and other friends upon whom you can call. I know you want to hear as many voices as you can during the hour, and I thank you for the attention with which you have listened to my remarks.


Douglass, Frederick, 1818-1895




Yale University Press 1991



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