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In What New Skin Will the Old Snake Come Forth?: An Address Delivered in New York, New York, on May 10, 1865


ON 10 MAY 1865

National Anti-Slavery Standard, 20 May 1865. Other texts in New York Times, 11 May
1865; New York Daily Tribune, 11 May 1865; Liberator, 26 May 1865; Speech File, reel
14, frames 471-74, FD Papers. DLC; Foner, Life and Writings, 4: 166-69, misdated 9
May 1865.

An unusually large audience, which had come to New York City’s Church of
the Puritans for the thirty-second anniversary meeting of the American Anti-


Slavery Society, witnessed the boiling over of a simmering feud inside that
organization. Two factions—one led by Garrison, Samuel May, Jr., Edmund
Quincy, and Oliver Johnson, and another featuring Wendell Phillips, Parker
Pillsbury, Stephen S. Foster, and Anna Dickinson—dominated the proceed-
ings. At issue was whether the Society’s work should continue despite the
formal abolition of slavery. Garrison acknowledged that abolitionists should
strive for black suffrage but nonetheless introduced a resolution to dissolve the
American Anti-Slavery Society, reasoning that to persist under the same name
would entail “an anomaly, a solecism, an absurdity to maintain an anti-
slavery society after slavery is dead.” Phillips countered with a resolution
urging continued effort by the organization until “the liberty of the negro”
was “beyond peril.” On the second morning of the convention, when
speeches were limited to ten minutes, Douglass argued that continuation of
the Society until black civil rights, especially suffrage, were secured was both
expedient and in line with abolitionist tradition. Douglass’s position carried
when delegates rejected Garrison’s resolution by a 118-48 vote. In an attempt
at conciliation, the convention then reelected Garrison as president. Garrison,
however, withdrew from the organization, leaving the presidency to Phillips.
Among the former’s parting shots was a jab at Douglass, whose support of
continued work by the American Anti-Slavery Society Garrison thought sur-
prising in light of Douglass’s longtime skepticism regarding the efficiency of
the organization. Douglass’s speech was reported by J. M. Yerrington. New
York Times, 10 May 1865; New York Herald, 11 May 1865; Boston Com-
, 13, 20 May 1865; Lib., 2 June 1865; McPherson, Struggle for
, 300-07.

FREDERICK DOUGLASS—Several gentlemen have been so kind as to refer to
me in the course of this discussion, and my friend, Mr. May, referred to me
as being opposed to the disbandment of this Society at any time during the
present year.1The speakers at the morning session who mentioned Douglass were the Reverends Willard Spaulding of Salem, Massachusetts, and Samuel May, Jr, of Leicester, Massachusetts. Spaulding cited Douglass's remarks of the night before at the anniversary of the American Freedmen‘s Aid Union as evidence that black Americans sought more protection for their civil rights than that afforded by the Thirteenth Amendment. May, referring to the same speech, specifically Douglass's initial questioning of the long-range goals and objectives of the American Freedmen’s Aid Union, concluded that Douglass had been “afraid” that “that Society would outlive its usefulness, yet he is not willing that this Society [American Anti-Slavery Society], which has lived two and thirty years, should contemplate disbandment in the course of the year to come, because there is this great measure of political enfranchisement and other measures to be accomplished." A summary of Douglass's remarks on 9 May appears in the New York Times, 10 May 1865; NASS, 20 May 1865. Having been thus referred to, I wish to put myself properly
before the meeting.


Almost the first work the American Anti-Slavery Society asked me to
do, after employing me as an agent more than twenty years ago, was to
accompany Stephen S. Foster and Abby Kelley (now Mrs. Foster)2Perhaps the best known female American abolitionist. Abigail Kelley Foster (1810-87) was born in Pelham, Massachusetts. She was educated at the Friends School, Providence, Rhode Island, and later taught at a similar establishment in Lynn, Massachusetts. In 1837 she joined the antislavery movement and two years later, following the path blazed by Angelina Grimké, embarked on a career as an abolitionist lecturer. Her talents led Garrisonian abolitionists to choose her as an officer of the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1840, provoking antifeminist abolitionists to bolt the organization. She continued to lecture and raise funds for the Garrisonians and in 1845 married Stephen S. Foster. another prominent abolitionist lecturer. In the 1850s both Fosters became outspoken advocates for women's rights in addition to abolition. Quarrels with Garrison over political action led Abby Foster and her husband to become inactive in the American Anti-Slavery Society in the late 1850s. Ill health forced her to be less active as a reformer after the Civil War, but in 1873 she attracted considerable publicity for woman suffrage by refusing to pay taxes on the family farm in protest against her disenfranchisement. The Fosters and Douglass had lectured together in Rhode Island in November and December 1841. Jane Hanna Pease, “The Freshness of Fanaticism: Abby Kelley Foster: An Essay in Reform" (PhD. diss., Univ. of Rochester, 1969); C. B. Galbreath, “Anti-Slavery Movement in Columbiana County," Ohio Archaeological and Historical Publications, 30: 391-92 (1921); DAB, 6: 542-43. into
the State of Rhode Island, to wage a most unrelenting war against what
was called the “Dorr Constitution,” because that Constitution contained
the odious word “white” in it. That was regarded as legitimate anti-slav-
ery work at that time; and that work was most effectively performed,
amid mobs and all sorts of violence. We succeeded in defeating that Dorr
Constitution, and secured the adoption of a Constitution in which the
word “white” did not appear. We thought that was a grand anti-slavery
triumph, and it was; it was good anti-slavery work. When I came North
and went to Massachusetts,3Douglass fled slavery in Maryland on 3 September 1838. After an anxiety-filled sojoum of two weeks in New York City, he proceeded to the relative security of New Bedford. Massachusetts. Frederick Douglass. “My Escape From Slavery." Century Magazine, 23: 125-31 (November 1881). I found that the leading work of the Aboli-
tionists was to put the State of Massachusetts in harmony with the plat-
form of the American Anti-Slavery Society. They said charity began at
home,4The earliest known appearance of this expression in print is in Thomas Browne, Religio Medici (1642; London, 1883), 153. and they looked over their statute-book, and whenever they found
the word “white,” there they recognized slavery, and they made war upon
it. The anti-slavery ladies made themselves of no reputation by going
about with petitions. asking the legislature to blot out that hated word
“white” from the marriage law. That was good anti-slavery work twenty
years ago; 1 do not see why it is not good anti-slavery work now. It was a
part of anti-slavery work then; it is a part now, I think.


I do not wish to appear here in any fault-finding spirit, or as an im-
pugner of the motives of those who believe that the time has come for this
Society to disband. I am conscious of no suspicion of the purity and
excellence of the motives that animate the President of this Society,5William Lloyd Garrison. and
the other gentlemen who are in favor of its disbandment. I take this ground:
whether this Constitutional Amendment6The Thirteenth Amendment. is law of not, whether it has been
ratified by a sufficient number of States to make it law or not, I hold that the
work of Abolitionists is not done (applause). Even if every State in the
Union had ratified that Amendment, while the black man is confronted in
the legislation of the South by the word “white,” our work as Abolitionists,
as I conceive it, is not done. I took the ground last night, that the South, by
unfriendly legislation, could make our liberty, under that provision, a
delusion, a mockery, and a snare, and I hold that ground now.7Douglass refers to his speech on the evening of 9 May 1865 in the Cooper Institute at the anniversary meeting of the American Freedmen's Aid Union. NASS, 6 May 1865; New York Times, 10 May 1865. What
advantage is a provision like this Amendment to the black man, if the
Legislature of any State can to-morrow declare that no black man’s testi-
mony shall be received in a court of law? Where are we then? Any wretch
may enter the house ofa black man, and commit any violence he pleases; if
he happens to do it only in the presence of black persons, he goes unwhipt
of justice (“hear, hear”). And don’t tell me that those people down there
have become so just and honest all at once that they will not pass laws
denying to black men the right to testify against white men in the courts of
law. Why, our Northern States have done it. Illinois, Indiana and Ohio have
done it.8Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio, as well as Iowa and California. had antebellum laws prohibiting the acceptance of testimony from blacks in court cases to which a white person was a party. Ohio, however, repealed its law in 1849. Leon F. Litwack, North of Slavery: The Negro in the Free States, 1790-1860 (Chicago, 1961), 93-94; V. Jacque Voegeli, Free but Not Equal: The Midwest and the Negro in the Civil War (Chicago, 1967), 1-2; Leonard P. Curry, The Free Black in Urban America, 1800-1850: The Shadow of a Dream (Chicago, 1981), 87. Here, in the midst of institutions that have gone forth from old
Plymouth Rock,9The Pilgrims landed at Plymouth, Massachusetts, on 21 December 1620. By the mideighteenth century, local inhabitants had identified a large rock on the beach as the spot where the Pilgrims first stepped ashore. In 1859 the Plymouth Pilgrim Society erected a “monumental canopy" over “the stepping stone of a nation." Helen T. Briggs and Rose T. Briggs, A Guide to Plymouth and Its History . . . (Plymouth, Mass, 1938), 16-17. the black man has been excluded from testifying in the
courts of law; and if the Legislatures of every Southern State to-morrow


pass a law declaring that no negro shall testify in any court of law, they will
not violate that provision of the Constitution. Such laws exist now at the
South. The next day, the Legislatures may pass a law that any black man
who shall lift his arm in self-defence, even, against a white man, shall have
that arm severed from his body, and may be hanged and quartered, and his
head and quarters set up in the most public parts of the district where the
crime shall have been committed. Such laws now exist at the South, and
they might exist under this provision of the Constitution, that there shall be
neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in any State of the Union.

Then another point. I have thought, for the last fifteen years, that we
had an anti-slavery Constitution—a Constitution intended “to secure the
blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”10Douglass quotes from the preamble to the U.S. Constitution. But we have had
slavery all along. We had a Constitution that declared that the citizens of
old Massachusetts should enjoy all the rights and immunities of citizens in
South Carolina—but what of it? Let Mr. Hoar11Samuel Hoar. go down to South Car-
olina, and point to that provision in the Constitution, and they would kick
him out of the State. There is something down in South Carolina higher
than Constitutional provisions.

Slavery is not abolished until the black man has the ballot. While the
Legislatures of the South retain the right to pass laws making any discrimi-
nation between black and white, slavery still lives there (applause). As
Edmund Quincy once said, “While the word ‘white’ is on the statute-book
of Massachusetts, Massachusetts is a slave State. While a black man can be
turned out of a car in Massachusetts, Massachusetts is a slave State. While
a slave can be taken from old Massachusetts, Massachusetts is a slave
State.” That is what I heard Edmund Quincy say twenty-three or twenty-
four years ago.12Douglass probably describes a portion of a speech given by Edmund Quincy at the tenth annual meeting of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society in Boston on 26-28 January 1842. Although Quincy's remarks were only briefly recorded in the press and in the Society’s annual report, in substance they were similar to those in the passage that Douglass remembers. Douglass was in the audience on all three days of the meeting. Lib., 4, 11 February 1842; Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, Tenth Annual Report (Boston, 1842), Appendix, 1-9. I never forget such a thing. Now, while the black man can
be denied a vote, while the Legislatures of the South can take from him the
right to keep and bear arms, as they can—they would not allow a negro to
walk with a cane where I came from,13Southerners regarded the cane as a symbol of white authority, and the ordinances of several cities forbade slaves and free blacks to carry them. Ira Berlin, Slaves without Masters: The Free Negro in the Antebellum South (New York, 1974), 320. they would not allow five of them to


assemble together—the work of the Abolitionists is not finished. Notwith-
standing the provision in the Constitution of the United States that the right
to keep and bear arms shall not be abridged, the black man has never had
the right either to keep or bear arms; and the Legislatures of the States will
still have the power to forbid it, under this Amendment. They can carry on
a system of unfriendly legislation, and will they not do it? Have they not got
the prejudice there to do it with? Think you, that because they are for the
moment in the talons and the beak of our glorious eagle, instead of the slave
being there, as formerly, that they are converted? I hear of the loyalty at
Wilmington,14A small but vocal Unionist movement emerged in Wilmington, North Carolina, and the entire Lower Cape Fear region, following occupation by Federal forces in February 1865. W. McKee Evans, Ballots and Fence Rails: Reconstruction on the Lower Cape Fear (Chapel Hill, 1966), 43-50. the loyalty at South Carolina—what is it worth?

MR. MAY15Samuel May, Jr.—Not a straw.

MR. DOUGLASS—Not a straw. I thank my friend for admitting it. They
are loyal while they see 200,000 sable soldiers, with glistening bayonets,
walking in their midst (applause).16Although discrepancies exist in official accounts, the generally accepted estimate of the total number of black Union soldiers serving in the war was approximately 180,000. Black units were among the last to be disbanded after the war. On 15 July 1865, approximately 123,000 black troops were still in the Union army, serving in 120 infantry, 22 artillery, and 7 cavalry regiments. Wilson, Black Phalanx, 143; Dudley T. Cornish, The Sable Arm: Negro Troops in the Union Army, 1861-1865 (New York, I965), 287-88. But let the civil power of the States be
restored, and the old prejudices and hostility to the negro will revive. Aye,
the very fact that the negro has been used to defeat this rebellion, and strike
down the standards of the Confederacy, will be a stimulus to all their
hatred, all their malice, and lead them to legislate with greater stringency
towards this class than ever before (applause). The American people are
bound—bound by their sense of honor (I hope by their sense of honor, at
least by a just sense of honor), to extend the franchise to the negro, and I
was going to say, that the Abolitionists of the American Anti-Slavery
Society were bound to “stand still and see the salvation of God,”17Douglass adapts either Exod. 14: 13 or 2 Chron. 20: 17. until
that work is done (applause). Where, where shall the black man look for
support, my friends, if the American Anti-Slavery Society fails him?
(“Hear, hear.”) From whence shall we expect a certain sound from the


trumpet of freedom, when the old pioneer, when this Society that has
survived mobs, and martyrdom and the combined efforts of priest-craft and
state-craft to suppress it, shall all at once subside, on the mere intimation
that the Constitution has been amended, so that neither slavery nor involun-
tary servitude shall hereafter be allowed in this land? What did the slave-
holders of Richmond say to those who objected to arming the negro, on the
ground that it would make him a freeman? Why, they said, “The argument
is absurd. We may make these negroes fight for us; but while we retain
political power of the South, we can keep them in their subordinate posi-
tions.”18An active public debate over the wisdom of accepting blacks into the Confederate army had been in progress since at least 1863. As Douglass correctly describes it, the opposition to such a measure by such leading Confederates as Howell Cobb, Robert M. T. Hunter, and Henry S. Foote was based on the fear that military service would make blacks unfit for slavery. Nevertheless, in March 1865 the Confederate Congress bowed to desperate military necessity and enacted legislation to raise 300,000 black soldiers. Although Robert E. Lee and Judah P. Benjamin had recommended that slaves who fought for the South should be promised their freedom at the conclusion of hostilities, the “Negro soldier law” declared that “nothing in this act shall be construed to authorize a change in the relation which the said slaves shall bear toward their owners, except by consent of the owners and of the States in which they may reside, and in pursuance of the laws thereof." A few companies composed of both free blacks and slaves were recruited at Richmond, but the war ended before they could be tried in combat. The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, 128 vols. (Washington, DC, 1880-1902), ser. 4, 3: 1161; Robert F. Durden, The Gray and the Black: The Confederate Debate on Emancipation (Baton Rouge, 1972), passim; Quarles, Negro in the Civil War, 276-81; Charles H. Wesley, The Collapse of the Confederacy (1937; New York, 1968), 134-35, 152-66. That was the argument; and they were right. They might have
employed the negro to fight for them, and while they retained in their hands
the power to exclude him from political rights, they could have reduced
him to a condition similar to slavery. They would not call it slavery, but
some other name. Slavery has been fruitful in giving itself names. It has
been called “the peculiar institution,” “the social system,” and the “im-
pediment,” as it was called by the General Conference of the Methodist
Episcopal Church.19The Methodist Episcopal Church's General Conference of 1844 used the latter euphemism for slaveholding in its resolution suspending Bishop James O. Andrew from his episcopal office for “as long as this impediment remains." “Journal of the General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, Held in the City of New York, 1844," Journals of the General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, 2: 75, 82-84. It has been called a great many names, and it will call
itself by yet another name; and you and I and all of us had better wait and
see what new form this old monster will assume, in what new skin this old
snake will come forth next (loud applause).


Douglass, Frederick, 1818-1895


May 10, 1865


Yale University Press 1991



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