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An Inspiration to High and Virtuous Endeavor: An Address Delivered in Syracuse, New York, on October 1, 1884



Syracuse (N.Y.) , 2 October 1884. Other text in Speech File, reel 15, frames 670-
78, reel 20, frames 667-73, FD Papers, DLC.

During the 1850s the citizens of Syracuse, New York, had annually celebrated
the rescue of a fugitive slave, Jerry McHenry, from a local jail in October
1851. Syracuse blacks revived the custom with a reunion of abolitionists in
1884. James W. Anderson, a Syracuse barber, presided over the festivities


along with several vice presidents from surrounding towns. Led by a band,
black Civil War veterans, members of Syracuse’s town council, and residents
who had been present during the rescue of Jerry, a procession marched from
the city hall to the Regimental Armory. At the armory, the Reverend Nicholas
E. Collins of the Zion Methodist Episcopal Church offered a prayer and Anna
Anderson recited the poem, “The Black Regiment.” After Anderson’s recita-
tion, Douglass spoke. In its report of the address, the Syracuse
gently chided Douglass for his impatience, arguing that twenty years was not
enough time for blacks to “rise within that brief period to that level of
citizenship which Mr. Douglass expects for the colored race.” Local prohibi-
tionists, meeting on 3 October, had more pointed criticism of Douglass’s
enthusiastic defense of the Republican party. In general, the press devoted
more space to the dance concluding the Jerry Rescue celebration at the Opera
Hall than to Douglass’s speech. For most of the evening Douglass was a
spectator, according to the , “Mr. Douglass danced only once, his
partner being Miss Anna Anderson, of this city. He went through the varied
figures of the quadrille with a smiling face, occasionally looking to his partner
for advice as if he did not consider dancing his strongest point.” Syracuse
, 1, 4 October 1884; Cleveland , 16 August, 4 October 1884.

In coming before you to-day for the purposes of the celebration, I am first
of all deeply and gratefully impressed with a sense of the vast and wonder-
ful changes wrought in the thoughts and feelings of the American people on
the subject of human rights since the memorable rescue of Jerry in this city
three and thirty years ago. It is hard to believe that hungry and blood-thirsty
slave hunters, eager to clutch their trembling prey, were ever permitted to
prowl in safety about the streets of this beautiful city in broad daylight. It is
hard to believe that this infernal slave hunting business ever had the counte-
nance and support of our National Government. It is hard to think that in
face of these peaceful and beautiful homes—the centers of parental love
and brotherly affection; in the presence of the numerous costly and elegant
school houses, the capacious and splendid churches, the multitudinous
charitable institutions, and the general enlightenment of this Central city of
the great state of New York, I say, it is hard to think that here, in broad
daylight, a human being, guilty of no crime but the crime of loving and
seeking his liberty, could be arrested, chained and fettered, and given up to
slavery. It is harder still to think that the men who did this damning deed
were ever accounted honorable and law-abiding citizens. On the other
hand, too, it is hard to think that the men and women who, in the name of
pity and humanity, opposed this outrage were ever accounted bad citizens,


lawbreakers, disorganizers and criminals, deserving fine, imprisonment
and popular execration.

No doubt some will regret a revival of this Jerry Rescue celebration. It
will be thought to call up unpleasant memories and keep alive sectional
animosities. I do not assent to these gloomy apprehensions. I hold that we
are far more likely to forget too soon, than to remember too long the history
of the great American conflict with slavery, one of the mightiest that ever
shook a country. On general principles we should remember and study it. If
we forget the errors and evils of the past, we must also forget the high
intelligence, the noble courage and the true moral heroism with which
these evils were met, combatted and overthrown, and thus lose to after-
coming generations a vast motive power and inspiration to high and vir-
tuous endeavor.

To appreciate the quality and conduct of the men who rescued Jerry, we
must know something of the state of the law and the state of public opinion
at the time of its occurrence. It was no trifling matter to do what these Jerry
rescuers did. We then lived under a law as infamous as ever stained a statute
book, a law which imposed a punishment by fine and imprisonment for an
act of mercy by man to a suffering fellow-man. One feature of this law is
almost too monstrous for belief. It created a judge under the name of a
commissioner to sit in judgment on the liberty of a fellow-man, and to sit
under a bribe. He was to have $10 for every man he should consign to
slavery, and only five for any he might adjudge free. You must know, too,
that there were strong political and commercial motives for the successful
enforcement of this law in all the free states, and that there were peculiar
reasons for seeking its enforcement here in Syracuse. The President of the
United States and the Secretary of State at that time, did not think it beneath
their dignity to constitute themselves missionaries and go around the coun-
try preaching the new Gospel of slave-catching.1After the passage of the Compromise of 1850 in September 1850, Secretary of State Daniel Webster toured New England and New York in an effort to rally support for the various provisions of the pact. Especially concerned with the reaction of the North to the new Fugitive Slave Law, he emphasized in his addresses the need for all to respect and enforce this law. Speaking in Syracuse on 26 May 1851, Webster proclaimed that “the Fugitive Slave Law will be executed, even in Syracuse, at the next Abolition convention if need be." President Millard Fillmore, who did not make such extensive tours as Webster, nonetheless appeared in Syracuse on 21 May 1851 along with his attorney general, John J. Crittenden, and his secretary of the navy, John A. Graham, to make clear his full support for the Fugitive Slave Law. Earl E. Sperry, (Syracuse, N.Y., 1924), 21- 22, 35-36; Jayme A. Sokolow, “The Jerry McHenry Rescue and the Growth of Northern Antislavery Sentiment during the 1850s," , 16: 427-45 (December 1982). The object of their travels


and the burden of their speeches was the enforcement of the fugitive slave
bill. Earnest and eloquent divines followed in the same line, caught up the
popular theme and showed how Paul sent back a runaway slave to his
master.2Douglass alludes to St. Paul’s admonition to the runaway slave Onesimus to return to his master, found in Philem. 10-19. The press, too, that palladium of liberty, forgot its mission, and
joined priest and politician in the shameful pursuit of the fugitive slave.

There were two pet places in the Northern states in which the slave
power and the federal government deemed it most desirable to have this bill
enforced, and where they were most determined to enforce it. These were
Boston and Syracuse. The recapture of slaves in these two places would, it
was thought, do two very necessary things. It would humiliate the anti-
slavery people and placate the slaveholders, who were already plotting
treason and rebellion. It would show them that slaves could and would be
successfully captured in any and all of the Northern states.

Syracuse was the home of Samuel J. May. Boston was the home of
William Lloyd Garrison. Syracuse was a centre of the influence of Gerrit
Smith, and Boston that of Wendell Phillips. Daniel Webster had assured the
slaveholders that the fugitive slave law should be enforced in both places. It
was enforced in Boston—with chains around the temple of justice to keep
back the populace3The rescue of the fugitive slave Shadrach from custody in February 1851 had embarrassed Boston authorities. When they apprehended another escaped slave, Thomas M. Sims, the following April, the police erected barriers around the Boston courthouse to frustrate attempts to free him. Stanley W. Campbell, (Chapel Hill, 1970), 117-21.—but never in Syracuse. The rescue of Jerry settled that
question at once and forever. Aside from the resistance made to slave
catching in Christiana, Pennsylvania, where the fugitives took their de-
fense in their own hands and shot down the slave hunters, the rescue of
Jerry did most to bring the fugitive slave bill into contempt and to defeat its
execution everywhere. As I stand here on the soil of Syracuse, where they
wrought, I seem to see some of these brave men who took their stand for
justice and humanity as they appeared thirty and forty years ago. In the
front rank of these devoted men I see the manly form of Gerrit Smith, erect,
grand and majestic, and, hear his deep and eloquent voice, a voice to be
forgotten by none who ever heard it, denouncing slavery as an unmitigated
piracy—and declaring that there can be no law for slavery. I see the sweet,
melancholy face of Samuel J. May overflowing with kindness and hear him
pleading the golden rule,4An allusion to Matt. 7: 12 and Luke 6: 31. in silvery accents, against the fugitive slave bill.


I see the rugged features and hear the torrent-like eloquence of Beriah
Green, denouncing our slaveholding government as a foul, haggard and
damning conspiracy against the government of God. I see before me the
form and features of William Goodell, Abram Pryne,5Abram Pryne (c. 1822-62), a theologically liberal clergyman, entered New York abolitionist circles in the 1850s. Originally a supporter of Gerrit Smith and the Liberty Party, he served a term in the state legislature as a Republican representative from Wayne County (1860-62). In September 1858 Pryne and Tennessee minister, William G. Brownlow, participated in a public debate over slavery, which was stenographically reported and published as a book. Along with his clerical responsibilities, Pryne also edited a newspaper, the , in the mid-1850s and later assisted Douglass with editorial tasks on the and the . (Philadelphia, 1858); , 3: 724 (October 1862); , 30 October 1862. Asa Wing, J. W.
Loguen, Sam. R. Ward, John Thomas,6A member of Gerrit Smith’s small faction of political abolitionists, John Thomas edited the in Syracuse from 1849 to 1851 to advocate the group's position that slavery was unconstitutional. When Douglass converted to that ideology, Smith persuaded Thomas to merge his paper with the . While remaining in Syracuse, Thomas became a corresponding editor for Douglass's newly renamed in June 1851 and contributed occasional editorials signed “J. T." during its first year. While attending a convention of the Radical Abolitionist party in Syracuse in October 1851, Thomas aided the rescue of the fugitive slave Jerry McHenry. He also participated in temperance reform and edited a weekly newspaper entitled in Syracuse and then Albany during the mid-1850s. By 1857, Thomas had relocated to Cazenovia in Madison County, New York, and engaged in the harness business. He remained active in the abolition movement as one of the principal organizers of the annual celebration in Syracuse of the Jerry Rescue. , 26 June, 30 October, 20 November 1851, 5 February 1852, 29 September, 13 October 1854, 25 December 1857; 14 October 1859; , 14 October 1854; Dwight H. Bruce, , 2 vols. (n.p., 1896), 1: 239, 460-61, 574; Sokolow, “Jerry McHenry Rescue," 444. William L. Chaplin and Charles
B. Sedgwick,7Charles Baldwin Sedgwick (1815-83) was born in Pompey, Onondaga County, New York. After graduating from Hamilton College and studying law, Sedgwick won admission to the bar and began practicing law in 1848. Along with many other citizens of Syracuse, New York, he condemned passage of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 and joined the city's ad hoc vigilance committee that vowed to guarantee that enforcement of the law did not deprive anyone of their right to due process. On 1 October 1851, Sedgwick joined the party that rescued Jerry McHenry from captivity and he later assisted the legal defense of those arrested for their participation. After two terms as a Republican member of the U.S. Congress (1859-63), he worked two years for the Navy Department codifying maritime laws. Sedgwick passed his remaining years practicing law in Syracuse. Sperry, , 19-20, 28; Sokolow, “Jerry McHenry Rescue," 19-20, 28; , 1578. the great-hearted lawyer, who with learning, skill and
uncommon eloquence defended, before Judge Hall8Nathan Kelsey Hall (1810-74), federal judge of the northern district of New York from 1852 until his death, presided at several trials in 1853 of those indicted for their part in the Jerry Rescue. A partner in Millard Fillmore’s Buffalo law firm since his admission to the bar in 1832, Hall was also very active in the government of Buffalo and Erie County throughout the 1830s and 1840s. In 1845 he won election to the state assembly and, before the end of this term, entered Congress as a Whig. When the local Whigs denied Hall renomination to Congress, President Fillmore appointed him postmaster general in 1850. Hall held that cabinet post until Fillmore chose him for the federal district court on 31 August 1852. Sperry, Jerry Rescue, 28, 53; David McAdam et al., , 2 vols. (New York, 1897), 1: 341; Robert Sobel, ed., (Westport. Conn., 1977), 148-49; , 3: 43; , 6: 183; , 8: 140-41. at Albany, the men
who rescued Jerry.


As the war for the Union has receded from our view; as the dust and
shadows of the past fall upon it, and the North and the South drop their
quarrel and become friends; as the service of the negro in assaulting rebel
forts and stopping rebel bullets shall be forgotten or only dimly remem-
bered, it is plain that the negro will naturally become less important in the
eyes of the nation unless he shall find some other ways of making himself
important. There is no denying that there has been a decided reaction
against the negro since the war. It has been marked rapid and violent. It has
swept him from nearly all the high places of the nation. He has almost
entirely disappeared from the legislative halls of the South, as well as from
the halls of the national Congress.9At the time Douglass spoke, only two blacks held seats in the U.S. House of Representatives: Robert Smalls of South Carolina and James E. O'Hara of North Carolina. Christopher, , 309-10. It has driven him from the ballot-box. It
has denied him civil rights, arrayed the supreme court against him, and
swollen the tide of popular prejudice against him to the danger point. The
negro is not judged impartially. He does not enjoy the same equality before
the law that the white man does. The press, too, that mighty engine, all
powerful for good and equally powerful for evil, eagerly takes up the case,
tries the suspected criminal in advance of courts or juries, influences the
populace, demands stern, swift and certain punishment of the alleged
culprit, and then the work of blood begins.

The public has made up its mind about the negro. Its mind was made up
long ago, and it does not like to have its opinion contradicted. He is a
generous and noble man who will accept evidence whatever it may prove.
The generality of men want no facts which contradict their settled opin-
ions. Now the negro has been taken, described and stamped as an indolent,
careless, stupid, degraded, helpless, hopeless and God-forsaken being,
and society has framed its conduct towards him in accordance with the hard
character it has given him. If he comes in rags and wretchedness, whether
drunk or sober, he answers the popular description of his race.

One very strong ground of hope I have for the negro. It is this: the
discussion of his claims to consideration still goes on. Happily for him, we


live in a country governed by ideas as well as laws, and these ideas are
constantly changed and modified by the light of discussion. The negro has
a cause. He may be subject to prejudice, to the violence of mobs, to be
riddled with bullets and driven from the ballot-box, but his cause, like the
ghost of the murdered Banquo,10In Shakespeare’s play, , the ghost of the Scottish general Banquo appeared several times to haunt Macbeth who had ordered his murder. , act 3, sc. 4, and act 4, sc. 1. will appear and reappear. While there is
one voice heard in behalf of justice and fair play, the negro need not

The latter part of Mr. Douglass’ address was devoted to the political
issues of the day, and with his characteristic eloquence he showed that
James G. Blaine is the greatest statesman of the Republican party and
worthy in all respects of the support of all loyal American citizens without
regard to color. Referring to the circular which Undertaker McCarthy11Probably John McCarthy who operated an undertaking business on Market Street in Syracuse. (n.p., 1886), 331. had
been assiduously distributing to the colored citizens, and which alluded to
Logan’s12John Alexander Logan (1826-86) began a legal and political career soon after returning to Illinois from service in the Mexican War. He served as a state representative (1852-53, 1856-57) and as prosecuting attorney for the state's third judiciary district (1853-57). An enthusiastic supporter of Stephen A. Douglas's faction of the Democratic party, Logan won election to a congressional seat in 1858. Although reelected in 1860, he resigned from Congress the following August to join the Union army. Distinguished service in several battles won Logan steady promotion until he commanded the Army of the Tennessee in 1864. After the war, Illinois Republicans elected him to Congress in 1866, 1868, and 1870. In 1871 the state legislature appointed him to the U.S. Senate, a post he lost in 1877 but regained in 1879 and held until his death. During his years in Congress, Logan especially concerned himself with veteran affairs and had come to support civil service reform by 1885. He was James G. Blaine's vice presidential candidate in the Republican party's unsuccessful 1884 campaign. James Pickett Jones, (Tallahassee, Fla., 1967); idem, (Tallahassee, Fla., 1982); , 4: 4-5; , 27: 280-81; , 11: 363-65. affiliation with the slave party in Illinois before the war, he said
he would admit, Logan was a bad boy then, for then he was a Democrat. He
was born again, and now he is a Republican. He criticised the Democratic
party and its candidates as not fit to have control of the government. He
regarded Thomas A. Hendricks as more dangerous than Cleveland,13Grover Cleveland (1837-1908), president of the U.S. from 1885 to 1889 and again from 1893 to 1897. and,
in fact, called Hendricks the worst man in the Democratic party to-day. He
said, in conclusion:

Go home, colored men, and learn this political catechism. You are
under the American flag to-day. Who put you there? The Republican party.


You are in the United States Constitution to-day. Who put you there? The
Republican party. You are American citizens to-day. Who made you such?
The Republican party. You are eligible to any office of honor or profit in the
gift of the nation. Who made you so? The Republican party. You have the
constitutional right to vote to-day. Who gave you that right? The Re-
publican party. You have to-day the right under the law to carry the mail.
Who gave you that right? The Republican party. Millions of colored people
have been emancipated and set free. By what party was this done? By the
Republican party.


Douglass, Frederick, 1818-1895


October 1, 1884


Yale University Press 1992



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