Freedom Has Brought Duties: An Address Delivered in Washington, D.C, on January 1, 1883
FREEDOM HAS BROUGHT DUTIES: AN ADDRESS DELIVERED
IN WASHINGTON, D.C, ON 1 JANUARY 1883
Washington , 6 January 1883. Other texts in Washington , 2 January
1883; Philadelphia , 11 January 1883; Miscellany File, reel 34, frames
645-46, FD Papers, DLC.
On the twentieth anniversary of the issuance of the Emancipation Proclama-
tion, between forty and fifty black leaders gathered for a banquet to honor
Douglass. Held at Freund’s restaurant, the banquet was, the New York reported, “a spontaneous tribute of love, respect, honor, and venera-
tion.” The Washington observed that the hall was crowded and the
“tables were elaborately decorated and the menu very tempting." Ex-senator
Blanche K. Bruce presided. The after-dinner ceremonies began at 10 P.M.
with a prayer and Bruce’s reading of letters of regret from persons unable to
attend. Then Bruce delivered a lengthy toast honoring Douglass for his long
service to the cause of abolition. A “great outburst of applause” occurred at
the conclusion of Douglass’s remarks, according to the Philadelphia Christian
Recorder. Thirty-seven toasts followed Douglass. Among the topics ad-
dressed were Africa, Liberia, the Freedmen’s Bank, William Lloyd Garrison,
and John Brown. Those making responses to the toasts included Martin R.
Delany, John R. Lynch, John Patterson Green, George Washington Williams,
Richard T. Greener, T. Thomas Fortune, James M. Gregory, Robert Smalls,
Benjamin T. Tanner, and Edward W. Blyden. “As might be expected,” noted
the , “the banquet lasted until the small hours of the
morning.” Washington , 2 January 1883; Washington , 2
January 1883; New York , 6 January 1883.
Mr. President1Blanche K. Bruce. and Gentlemen—I am happy to respond to the toast just
read.2Douglass responded to the toast, “The Day," made by presiding ofﬁcer Blanche K. Bruce. It is small to the eye and ear, but large to the understanding and heart.
It comprehends far more than can be discerned at this hour.
But before I advance a single step in the line suggested by it, or say
anything of the great events which have made this day memorable and
glorious, I shall, as this is in some respects a personal occasion, ask you to
allow me a word or two of a purely personal character.
I know that in taking this liberty, I may seem to invite the reproach of
egotism. But there are times, sir, when a man may speak of himself, if only
to prove himself worthy to speak of anybody else.
I wish in the first place to correct an error into which, perhaps, you
have fallen, and to prepare you for what is coming, or for what is not
coming, I will tell you at once, with all frankness and humility that I never
had at any time, and have not now, and never expect to have any talent,
whatever, for making what are popularly known as after-dinner speeches.
I have again and again with unfeigned embarrassment, my eyes fixed
upon the ground, unable to look up, been compelled to hear myself de-
scribed as a natural orator, a sort of spiritual medium, who could rise in any
audience, no matter how grand or critical, and without the least thought or
preparation, reel off on demand a discourse of any dimensions and of any
quality, befitting any occasion.
I am not here to accuse nature of unkindness, for that would be a very
ungrateful return for her many favors, but she has done nothing for me in
the line of making after-dinner speeches. Besides I am persuaded that such
speeches, worthy of the name, come by practice rather than by nature, and
in this respect I am singularly deficient.
Nevertheless, anticipating the demand now made upon me, I will tell
you what I did by way of preparation, for I was anxious to appear to some
advantage on an occasion intended to be honorable to myself. I was, in
fact, a good deal perplexed to know what I should say, and more especially
to know what I should leave unsaid, and like a wise man in trouble I
naturally called for help, I sought out an old friend of mine, a man of many
meals, one who had large experience in making and hearing after-dinner
speeches, and resolved to take his advice. He had eaten all sorts of dinners
in his time, Thanksgiving dinners, Christmas dinners, New Year’s dinners,
ordinary dinners and extraordinary dinners, and despite their forty horse
killing power, he has survived them all, and is to-day, fit, fair and flourish-
ing, ready to respond to any call to dinner which anybody may be kind
enough to give him.
Well! from this man of experience I obtained a few hints, as to the
matter and manner of respectable after-dinner speeches. l was happy in
finding him in good humor. He is not always so, especially when hungry.
After hearing my request he kindly said, my dear young friend, an after-
dinner speech is a very fine thing, it should be very lively, perfectly free
from everything about which there is a difference of opinion, destitute of
art, science, ethics, politics or religion, brimful of wit, humor and wisdom
delivered in a quiet, graceful, conversational and gentlemanly way, and in
addition to all and above all, it should be short. I was much encouraged and
told him, perhaps it was my vanity, that I thought I could comply with every
one of the conditions specified but the last. I could easily exclude art,
science, literature, ethics, politics and religion, but the trouble with me was
about brevity. I never could be brief, I never made a short speech in my life
with which I was satisfied, nor a long speech with which anybody else was
entirely satisfied. Now gentlemen, you can easily see the dilemma in
which your kindness has placed me this evening.
I beg you, however, not to regard me as making any complaint. The
situation is novel, but I am bound to say it is not altogether disagreeable.
With a moderate allowance of time and a little vigorous exercise in the
bracing air of winter, I could stand a repetition of it.
Now, Mr. president and gentlemen, I have done with these playful
remarks, and ask your forgiveness for their continuance so long. I do not
ask you to remember them, and shall not regret if you have already dis-
missed them from your minds.
Mr. president, I trust you will believe me when I tell you I am very
happy to see you in that chair this evening. I have seen you in many
honorable positions during your public career. I have seen you in public and
in private, at your desk in the treasury, and your desk in the Senate, and can
bear testimony before all Israel and the sun, that you have borne yourself
with dignity, intelligence, ability, and have in your whole bearing reflected
credit upon yourself and upon your countrymen.
Mr. President, I am opposed to gush on occasions like this, and upon
all other occasions. While I would pay honor to whom honor is due,3A paraphrase of Rom. 13: 7. I hold
it right to beget a temperance in the use of superlatives. I would not give to
an inch the importance of a mile, magnify a mole hill into a mountain,4Douglass adapts a saying ﬁrst recorded in John Foxe, , 2 vols. (London, 1570), 2: 1361. or
paint the picture more beautiful than the subject. “To gild reﬁned gold, to
paint the lily, to throw a perfume upon the violet, to seek the beauteous eye
of Heaven to adorn with taper light were wasteful and ridiculous excess.”5Douglass misquotes , act 4, sc. 2, lines 11-16.
Yet sir, I shall neither undervalue the grace or the signiﬁcance of the
present graceful demonstration.
Sir, he would be a prouder man than I am, a cooler man than I am, a
man incomparably more indifferent to the good opinion of his fellow men
than I am, a man far less alive to the sentiment of gratitude than I am, who
could listen to the kind and complimentary allusions which have resounded
to-night through this banqueting hall, and be the recipient of the dis-
tinguished honor you have conferred upon me, without emotions of pro-
found and inexpressible gratitude.
Mr. President, gentlemen, one and all: The best return I can make to
you for this ovation is to say with all my heart, I thank you for this mark of
your appreciation of myself and of the little work I have been able, in the
order of Providence, to do in the world. You have given me to-night every
reason to be proud of my career and my company. You have shown that for
an honest day’s work you are in favor of an honest day’s pay.6Douglass possibly paraphrases Alexander Smith's essay, “On the Importance of a Man to Himself." Alexander Smith, (London, 1863), 170.
Of course, Mr. President, as I am neither wood nor stone, I understand
the meaning of this complimentary demonstration. It covers a great deal
but it does not cover everything, nor is it desirable that it should cover
I have not the vanity to suppose that the gentlemen who have invited
me here, meant by this entertainment to approve everything which I have
said and done, written and spoken, during more than forty years of my
public life. In fact, I know the contrary. There are gentlemen now within
this hall, for whose character, intelligence, experience and judgment I
entertain the highest esteem and respect; gentlemen whose friendship and
support I most highly prize, and yet, gentlemen, from whom I have been
compelled by irresistible conviction to differ widely, and to state that
difference in a manner as pronounced and striking as I could possibly
command. In saying this, I must do myself the justice however, to affirm
that I have always endeavored to act upon the principle laid down by our
martyred President: “Charity towards all; malice towards none,"7A paraphrase of Lincoln's second inaugural address of 4 March 1865. Basler, , 8: 333. and I
can say with truth to-night, that it will be the aim of what remains of life to
me, to promote the growth of this sentiment, so highly creditable to the
head and heart of its great author, among all classes of my friends and
And let me say just here, gentlemen, that when men can differ widely
in science, or religion, or politics, or in respect of anything else, without
disrupting the bonds of society or the ties of friendship, they have reached a
degree of intelligence and civilization that places them high above the level
of the crowd and among the elite of mankind.
Since you have taken me into your confidence, my life, as most of you
know, was begun under a great shadow. Before I [was] made part of this
breathing world the chains were forged for my limbs, and the whip of a
slave-master was plaited for my back, and while I have labored and suf-
fered in the cause of justice and liberty, l have no doleful words to utter here
to-night. It was said by a great Irish orator, speaking of Irish liberty, that he
had rocked it in its cradle and had followed it to its grave. I can say of the
colored man’s liberty, I have rocked it in its cradle, and witnessed its
manhood, for I stand to-night in the presence of emancipated millions. He
would be a gloomy man indeed, who could live to see the desire of his soul
accomplished, and yet spend his life in grief. I am happy to say now and
here, that while my life has been more of cloud than sunshine, more of
storm than calm, it has, nevertheless, been a cheerful life, with many
compensations on every hand, and not the least among those compensa-
tions I reckon the good word and will which have come to me on the present
occasion. This high festival of ours is coupled with a day which we do well
to hold in sacred and everlasting honor; a day memorable alike in the
history of the nation, and in the life of an emancipated people. This is the
twentieth anniversary of the Proclamation of Emancipation by Abraham
Lincoln; a proclamation which made the name of its author immortal and
glorious throughout the civilized world. That great act of his marked an
epoch in the life of the whole American nation. Reflection upon it opens to
us a vast wilderness of thought and feeling. Man is said to be an animal
looking before and after.8Douglass adapts , act 4, sc. 4, line 37. To him alone is given the prophetic vision
enabling him to discern the outline of his future through the mists and
shadows of his past. The day we celebrate affords us an eminence from
which we may in a measure survey both the past and the future. It is one of
those days which may well count for a thousand years. Until this day,
twenty years ago, there was a vast incubus on the breast of the American
people, which baffled all the wisdom of American statesmanship. Slavery,
the sum of all villanies,9John Wesley used this phrase to describe the slave trade not slavery itself. , 14 vols., 3d ed. (London, 1829-31), 3: 453. like a vulture was gnawing at the heart of the
Republic; until this day there stretched away behind us an awful chasm of
darkness and despair of more than two centuries; until this day the Ameri-
can slave, bound in chains, tossed his fettered arms on high and groaned for
freedom’s gift in vain; until this day the colored people of the United States
lived in the shadow of death, hell, and the grave, and had no visible future.
Agonized heart-throbs convulsed them while sleeping. And the wind whis-
pered death, while over them sweeping. Until this day we knew not when
or how the war for the Union would end; until this day it was doubtful
whether liberty and union would triumph, or slavery and barbarism. Until
this day victory had largely followed the arms of the Confederate army.
Until this day the mighty conﬂict between the North and the South ap-
peared to the eye of the civilized world as destitute of moral qualities. Until
this day the sympathies of the world were largely in favor of the Southern
rebellion. Until this day the man of sable hue had no country and no glory;
until this day he was not permitted to lift a sword, to carry a gun, or wear
the United States uniform; until this day the armies of the Republic fought
the rebels in fetters, for they fought for slavery as well as for the Union.
Until this day we presented the spectacle of that weakness, indecision and
blindness which builds up with one hand while it tears down with the other.
Until this day we fought the rebels with only one hand, while we chained
and pinioned the other behind us. On this day, twenty years ago, thanks to
Abraham Lincoln and the great statesmen by whom he was supported, this
spell of blasted hopes and despair; this spell of inconsistency and weak-
ness, was broken, and our Government became consistent, logical and
strong, for from this hour slavery was doomed, liberty made certain and the
Union established. We do well to commemorate this day. It was the first
gray streak of morning after a long and troubled night of all abounding
The future as well as the past claims consideration on this day. Freedom
has brought duties, responsibilities and created expectations which must be
fulfilled. There is no disguising the fact that the price of liberty is eternal
vigilance,10A close paraphrase of a line from John Philpot Curran, (London, 1819), 188-89. and if we maintain our high estate in this republic, we must be
something more than driftwood in a stream. We must keep pace with the
nation in all that goes to make a nation great, glorious and free. Natural
equality we have long pleaded and righteously, but now that the fetters are
off we must be able to plead. Practical equality might be complied with and
the proclamation withheld. I attended a grand meeting in Tremont Temple
that night.11Douglass refers to the assembly held at Tremont Temple in Boston, Massachusetts, to await news of the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation. , 16 January 1863. The depth and intensity of the anxiety felt at that meeting
cannot well be described. It had convened to receive the news, the glad
tidings, but as hour after hour passed on from seven to nearly eleven
o’clock at night, and no word of the proclamation came, all hope seemed
blasted. As usual, however, here as elsewhere, the darkest hour was just
before daylight.12Douglass quotes Thomas Fuller, (London, 1650), Book II, chap. 11, stanza 5. The message of deliverance came at the point of despair,
and from the lowest depths of depression a whole people was lifted to the
height of unspeakable joy. A shout of triumph as of a people redeemed,
shook the walls of the great temple, for here was a new departure, the
equality of industry, equality of morality, equality of education, equality of
wealth, equality of general attainments. I hardly need say here that to all
this there are formidable obstacles and discouragements; that we have
entered the race of civilization at an immense disadvantage is manifest to
the candid judgment of all men. No people ever entered the portals of
freedom under circumstances more unpropitious than the American free-
dmen. They were thrown overboard in an unknown sea, in the midst of a
storm without planks, ropes, oars or life preservers and told they must
swim or perish. They were without money, without friends, without shelter
and without bread.
The land which they had watered with their tears, enriched with their
blood, tilled with their hard hands, was owned by their enemies. They were
told to leave their old quarters and seek food and shelter elsewhere. In view
of this condition of things the marvel is not so much that they have made
little progress, but that they are not exterminated. I regret to observe that
even colored men are heard to deny that any improvement has taken place
in their condition during the last twenty years. How they can do this I am
utterly unable to see. Twenty years ago there was, perhaps, not a single
school house for colored children in the Southern States. Now there are two
hundred thousand colored children regularly attending school in those
states. That fact, which does not stand alone is sufficient to refute all the
gloomy stories of croakers as to the progress of the colored freedmen of the
south. The trouble with these croakers is that they do not consider the point
of the freedmen’s departure. They know the heights which they have still to
reach, but do not measure the depths from which they have come.
Twenty years, though a long time in the life of an individual, is but a
moment in the life of a nation, and no ﬁnal judgment can be predicated on
facts transpiring within that limited period.
For one, I can say in conclusion that nothing has occurred within these
twenty years which has dimmed my hopes or caused me to doubt that the
emancipated people of this country will avail themselves of their oppor-
tunities, and by enterprise, industry, invention, discovery and manly char-
acter vindicate the confidence of their friends and put to silence and to
shame the gloomy predictions of all their enemies.