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Great Britain’s Example is High, Noble, and Grand: An Address Delivered in Rochester, New York, on August 6, 1885


ON 6 AUGUST 1885

Rochester , 7 August 1885. Other texts in Rochester , 7
August 1885; New York , 22 August 1885; Speech File, reel 15, frames 582-615,
reel 16, frames 502-16, reel 20, frames 138-53, FD Papers, DLC; , 1:
110-12 (August 1885).

On 6 August 1885 the blacks of Rochester and surrounding towns celebrated
the anniversaries of West Indian and American emancipation with a morning
parade, an afternoon of speeches, and an evening dance. The oratorical
exercises began at the City Hall with prayer by Reverend C. N. Smith,
followed by a short address by John W. Thompson of the Rochester African
Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, and Mayor Cornelius R. Parsons. After
Henry A. Spencer read Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, Douglass
spoke. A. E. Young then recited the poem, “Charge on Fort Wagner,” and the
Rochester City Band gave a musical selection. The celebration ended with a
dance at the Genesee Park hall. Rochester , 5, 6
August 1885.

FRIENDS AND FELLOW-CITIZENS: We have met here to-day to take fitting
and grateful notice of two of the most remarkable and striking events of this


wonderful nineteenth century; a century which has no equal in the annals of
time for its vast and wonderful contribution to the moral and material
progress of mankind. The first of these two great events is the abolition of
slavery in her West India possessions by England fifty years ago; and the
second is the abolition of slavery in our southern states by the United States
government, in the exercise of its war powers under the constitution,
twenty years later.

No incidents connected with the progress of modern civilization are
more significant of the upward tendency of human nature; no two events
give more promise of a brighter and better future for the race; no two will
receive more grateful approval from the generations to come after us; no
two acts will make the names of England and America more illustrious
among the nations of the earth than those two grand concessions of theirs to
justice and liberty. They will stand out for ages along the rocky coast of
human life, as luminous beacons, defying storms, diminishing danger,
increasing safety, brightening hope, strengthening courage in the hearts of
all good men who shall aspire to leave the world better than they found it.
They will speak words of cheer and comfort to the oppressed and enslaved
in all lands and nations and bid them lift up their sorrow-stricken and
dejected heads in hope of a final deliverance.

They will also speak words of rebuke and terror to all who oppress and
enslave their fellow men, and tell them that their reign will soon be ended.
For never was bondage more galling, never was degradation more shock-
ing, never was misery more distressing, and never was tyranny more deep-
rooted and proudly defiant of all opposition than that whose downfall and
destruction we celebrate to-day. In view of the grand significance of this
triumph of liberty and justice, I congratulate you and give you joy that you
have assembled in such numbers and in such spirit and heartiness to show
your appreciation of the great blessings thus brought to you, to your coun-
try and to the world.

The selection of the time and season for this celebration, may seem to
some infelicitous and incongruent, but a little reflection will, I trust, suffice
to remove this erroneous impression. The fancied incongruity is seeming,
rather than real. Something must be pardoned to the spirit of liberty and this
among the rest. The months of August and September are connecting links
in point of time and events, by which colored people in all countries have
been happily affected, both for the present and future. It was the sunny
month of August that brought emancipation to the toil-worn, whip-scarred,
and imbruted slaves of the West Indies, and it was the month of September


that brought to the same class of sufferers in the United States the first
joyous note or intimation of President Lincoln’s famous emancipation

Though the months are separate, and the two nations in question are
thousands of miles apart and widely differ from each other in their funda-
mental institutions, the one a monarchy and the other a republic, the great
cause they have promoted and now stand for, is one and the same, in all
times and places, and so also is the gratitude that should be excited by its
triumph. It is a glorious attribute of the principle of human liberty, that it is
thus broad, immeasurable, and universal. It rises superior to time and
space, it overleaps and overlaps all geographical lines, and delimits all
national boundaries. It is confined neither to country, clime, race, nor
color, but in the common right of all nations, kindred, tongues and peoples.
In its broad, beneficient spirit, prejudice, narrowness, race-hate and slav-
ery skulk away abashed into their congenial regions of darkness, where
they belong, and a man’s country becomes the world, and his countrymen,
all mankind. Therefore, whether among the snows of Russia, or the blaz-
ing heat of the sunny tropics; whether in one country or another, no matter
in what latitude, longitude or altitude; the blood stained lash has been
snatched from the hand of the cruel taskmaster; no matter where or when
the fetters of the slave have been broken; and the appeals of oppressed and
suffering men for justice have been heard and heeded, joy and gladness
may properly break forth from the quivering lips of all mankind.

First of all, let me say a word in praise of England for her part in this
matter. It is fashionable in some quarters to berate and underrate her, I have
no sympathy with this spirit of detraction. I have in my time visited that
country. I have there tasted the sweets of liberty which were denied me in
this, my native land; yet am I an American in all “except these bonds.” I
know how great America has been and I know how great she is; but. much
as I love and honor her, I have no difficulty in honoring and applauding Old
England for her noble part in the work whose commemoration brings us
here to-day, and no generous American will grudge her any encomium I
pray here bestow.

Naturally enough we all felt some resentment at her conduct toward us
during our war for the maintenance of the Union. But we should not forget
that there were two Englands at that time, as there were two Americas, one
friendly and the other not. We may even feel a little shocked at the pride and
seeming vanity which prefixes the epithet “great” to her name, and might
like her better if she simply and modestly called herself “Britain.” But


whatever we may think of this, or of anything else about her, Great Britain
is great in fact as well as in name. She is great in her knowledge, great in
her industry, great in her civil and social order, great in her wealth, her
power, her progress and her prestige. She is great in her great men, than
whom no nation has raised up greater. In respect to territory she is simply
magnificent. According to her well deserved tribute by Daniel Webster, the
sun never sets on her dominions, and her drum beat is heard all round the
world.1Daniel Webster made a statement similar to Douglass's description in a speech on the powers of the presidency, delivered in the U.S. Senate on 7 May 1834. , 7: 110. But in all her history she has given no evidence of her greatness
more impressive and commanding, none more convincing and glorious
than that found in her act of emancipation. By this she gave freedom to
eight hundred thousand long neglected and long enslaved people, and
placed herself in the front rank of the greatest nations of the earth.

Other nations of Europe may exceed her in the arts of diplomacy, as
Russia may now do,2For much of the late nineteenth century, Great Britain chose to remain aloof from alliances with other European powers. The intemational position of Imperial Russia, in contrast, seemed strengthened by its membership, along with Germany and Austria, in the revived Three Emperors’ League. In 1881 these three nations concluded a secret treaty by which each promised to remain neutral if one of them entered a war with any fourth power other than Turkey. The treaty was renewed for three more years in 1884 but eventually broke down on account of Russian-Austrian rivalry in the Balkans. Hugh Seton-Watson, (New York, 1956), 172-75; Carlton J. H. Hayes, (New York, 1941), 38-39. and they may excel her in the magnitude of their
armies, in their ability to fight and conquer and in the quality of mere brute
force; but none stand in advance of her, in mental, moral and human
civilization. We may not approve her rule in Asia, or Ireland; we may not
approve her haughty self-assertion, or her grasping ambition, encompass-
ing sea and land; we may deplore and detest her wars in Africa and Egypt,3In deploring Great Britain's presence in Asia, Douglass probany refers to that nation's conquest of India in 1818; the expansion of her territories in the far east during the conflict with China between 1839 and 1842; and her invasion of Afghanistan between 1878 and 1880. In regards to British military campaigns in Africa, Douglass probably refers not only to efforts to subdue and colonize portions of West Africa and to the Zulu Wars of 1879, but more particularly to the conquest of Egypt in I882. D[avid] K[enneth] Fieldhouse, (New York, 1966), 183-84, 195-98.
and declare she has no business in either, and yet, we can never forget or
cease to applaud her rich contribution to the cause of justice and phi-
lanthropy wherever she has established her dominion. In this, her example
is high, noble and grand. In view of it, we may well exclaim with her late
eloquent George Thompson, whose voice was alike raised for the West


Indian and American slave, “England, with all thy faults, I love thee
still.”4Although Douglass attributes this sentiment to George Thompson, its earliest appearance is in William Cowper’s poem . Bailey, , 271.

By the abolition of slavery in her West Indian possessions, England set
in motion a great moral tidal wave, destined to sweep down slavery in every
quarter of the globe. If she was first in the crime and guilt of prosecuting the
slave trade, and reducing the negro to slavery, it should be remembered that
she was first also in the act of repentance. If the accursed slave trade, with
all its horrors, is no longer carried on along the east and west coast of
Africa; if slave pirates are now hanged from the yard arm, like other pirates
and driven from the proud dashing billows of the Atlantic, the facts are
mainly due to the English navy and to English policy and power. But I leave
England. She is in deep waters, just now. Yet tempest tossed5Douglass adapts , act 1, sc. 3, line 25 and , act 3, sc. 5, line 138. though she
has been, and still is, surrounded by manifold difficulties and dangers at
home and abroad—difficulties such as few nations could hope to survive, I
believe she has vast recuperative power, and l have faith that she will yet
vindicate her wisdom, her virtue and statesmanship, and show in the future
as in the past, that in every national trial, she is abundantly able to take care
of herself.

The abolition of slavery in the British dominions, was, as I have said, a
great act, and added greatly to the world’s estimate of England’s greatness;
but the abolition of slavery in the United States, was an incomparably
greater act, as is evident when we consider and contrast the difference of
circumstances under which both acts were accomplished. The obstacles
encountered by British emancipation were less formidable than those met
by the anti-slavery movement in this country. The one involved the eman-
cipation of thousands, the other involved the emancipation of millions. In
the one case the slave interest was small; in the other it was immense. The
one was the unfettered act of a power comparatively free from the trammels
of a race prejudice arising from immediate contact with slavery degraded
people, the other was confronted, retarded, and entangled by such preju-
dice, stimulated to the greatest activity and bitterness by every conceivable
appeal to passion. The one was born of peaceful and orderly discussion, the
other came to us in the fierce tempest and whirlwind of a great war. The one
was bought with money, the other with blood.

I would not underrate the difficulties of West India emancipation, nor
unduly magnify those of our own. Both had much to overcome, and the


great feature that constitutes the dignity and grandeur of these victories and
which should be ever kept in mind, and the one which I would make here
and now conspicuous and emphatic, respects the manner and cause by
which these victories were brought about. The cause is ever greater than the
occasion. The thing explained is greater than the explanation. It is the cause
and the thing caused which make this occasion of any worth to us and to the
world. It should be remembered that acts of congress and acts of parliament
are but signs, and are less than the things they signify. They move only as
they are moved upon by superior force. The power behind the throne is ever
greater than the throne itself. Take the obedient hands of the watch. They
tell us the time of day, but they tell us nothing of the moving power behind
them. The action of the English government and that of our own, in respect
to the abolition of slavery, was due to the creation of a purer moral senti-
ment in both countries than had before prevailed.

England had to be put through a long and laborious course of prepara-
tion. The early abolitionists of that country, notwithstanding their many
advantages over us in the battle with slavery, had their full share of hard-
ships. The slaveholder, if not the slave, resided in England, and controlled
a thousand ways for poisoning the moral sentiment of that country. He had
money; the slave had none. He could speak and write; the slave could do
neither. The slaveholder’s gold could buy newspapers, seduce statesmen,
and corrupt pulpits in the interest of slavery. The slave had only his scars,
his toils and his tears to plead for him, and for even these he had to depend
upon others; for he himself was speechless as the grave.

The early abolitionists of England, like those of the United States,
pursued their work of moral regeneration through floods of obloquy,
flames of scorn and social ostracism. Strange as it may seem now, in view
of the pronounced anti-slavery sentiment of England, the life of the great
Thomas Clarkson, who was to English abolitionism what Garrison6William Lloyd Garrison. was to
American abolitionism, was not always safe on English soil. He narrowly
escaped being thrown overboard and drowned, in Bristol Harbor, for his
opposition to slavery and the slave trade. The flinty heart of England had to
be made tender by love, the steel-plated and gold-plated conscience of
England had to be convinced by reason, and its justice invoked. There was
a mass of selfishness and conservatism to contend against there as here,
and this work had to be done though the lion growled and threatened, and
sometimes gnashed his teeth in rage. Without this preliminary and preparatory


work, no British statesman, could or would have spoken, no
Parliament would have acted; hence. no slave would have been emanci-
pated, and you and I would not have been here to-day. Indeed, it may be
fairly doubted if the slaves in the United States could have been emanci-
pated but for emancipation in the West Indies. The cause there helped on
the cause here.

All honor therefore to the British abolitionists! All honor to Granville
Sharpe, Thomas Clarkson, William Wilberforce, Thomas Powell Buxton,
George Thompson, Joseph Sturge, William Knibb, and all honor to the
noble army of men and women, associated with them, far in front of their
day and generation, who dared to be true to the cause of human liberty and
the golden rule7Matt. 7: 12 and Luke 6: 31. in the face of untold hardships. They took upon themselves
the martyr spirit of prophets and apostles, and bravely endured the perils
and persecutions incident to their work. A happy circumstance is the fact
that most of these noble men and women were permitted to live to see the
glorious reward of their labors in the fulfillment of their fondest hopes.
They saw the English heart melted in pity, the British conscience roused
from its slumber of centuries, the British will made firm and determined in
the rights and the country, with one voice, proclaiming liberty throughout
the English dominions and to all the inhabitants thereof.8Douglass paraphrases the biblical description of the Hebrew year of jubilee, found in Lev. 25: 10. The voice of the
people was in this case at least the voice of God.

Though the fact is often overlooked, the case of abolitionism in the
United States was essentially the same as that in England. The superficial
and thoughtless talkers of the day, whose knowledge of anti-slavery goes
back only to the late war, tell us that slavery was abolished in the United
States by military necessity. In other words, that the abolition of slavery
was due to the war only. They forget or ignore entirely the grand moral
conflict described by William H. Seward as the irrepressible conflict9An allusion to the title of William H. Seward's speech delivered in Rochester. New York, on 25 October 1858. Seward, . by
which the war itself was preceded and made possible. They put the effect
before the cause, and make that which was last, first.10Douglass adapts Matt. 19: 30, 20: 16; Mark 10: 31; and Luke 13: 30. The war for the
Union came only to execute the moral and humane judgment of the nation.
It was the instrument of a higher power than itself and was not the original
power. It was the agent of a sovereign principle which had gotten itself
inwrought and established in the public mind and heart.


This act of the war was the flower and fruit, but the soil, root and sap,
out of which it sprang, were the faithful, earnest, long suffering, self
sacrificing and persistent labors of the earlier abolition men and women,
who, with voice and pen, unmasked the hell-black horrors of slavery,
shocked the sensibilities and so roused the slumbering conscience of the
North, till it could no longer consent to be a party to the extension of
slavery, and this act, at last, as we all know, brought to the nation the
alternative of abolition or dismemberment. This movement, then, was the
power behind the throne.

As one of the early abolition workers, and receiving my full share of
abuse and reproach for helping thus to stir up the North to effective re-
sistance to slavery, in the day of its power. you will not think it strange that I
am unwilling that the subject shall now be disposed of by simply ascribing
the abolition of slavery to the war for the Union, and that no mention shall
be made of the real and original power that abolished it; and all the more
because the same, to-day, is the rock and foundation which gives that
measure its vitality, stability and prominence. Had emancipation been
unsupported by the moral convictions implanted in the national mind and
heart by abolition speakers and writers; had slavery been abolished simply
by the sword, it would have revived as soon as the sword was returned to its

The liberty of the freedman would have been delusive, transient and
worthless. The cast out devil of slavery would have returned to the old
house of bondage, and have brought more than seven other devils with him,
and the last state of that house would have been worse than the first. You
will remember that this demon did frantically endeavor to come back and
repossess itself of its former place and power; that the freedmen were
persecuted, cheated and starved by the old master class which combined
against him to prevent his buying land and acquiring property; that for him
they organized poverty, the parent of crime; that when he worked, they
fixed the lowest price and then defrauded him of his wages; that if he
refused to work under such circumstances, vagabond laws11Douglass refers to the vagrancy laws passed by most southern legislatures in 1865-67. were framed,
enacted and executed for the purpose of reducing him to semi-slavery; that
Regulators and Ku-klux-klans were organized, and midnight marauders
and murderers were turned loose upon him to make him feel that his liberty
was a sham and that he was still under the iron heel of slavery.

What has thus far defeated these desperate efforts of the devil of slavery
to return, re-enter and repossess his old abode! I will tell you. It is not the


war, for the war is over. It is not the sword, for the sword is happily
sheathed in peace. It is not this political party, nor that; but it is because the
liberty of the negro is affirmed and decreed by the settled moral judgment
of the nation. It is because emancipation was a great moral victory, a
victory of truth over error, of enlightenment over a deep-rooted supersti-
tion; of reason over a malignant prejudice of race; a victory of the moral
and religious nature of man over his perverted and depraved instincts. It is
this, that to-day, makes the future of the colored race an interesting problem
to the thoughtful men of all races, sects and parties, and is at the bottom of
the effort now being made by many of our most influential religious de-
nominations to send among the freedmen the influence of the Christian
religion, and the blessings of education.

It is worthy of remark and remembrance, too, that until the abolition
movement, neither the church nor the clergy were in any wise concerned
about the soul of the negro. They were deeply concerned about the salva-
tion of the master, but the slave was not permitted to share their pious
solicitude. Tracts, missionaries and translations of the Bible were sent to
the heathen abroad, but the heathen at home, like the man who fell among
thieves, was passed by on the other side.12Douglass paraphrascs Luke 10 : 30-31. The church had millions for the
Indian and African beyond the sea, but nothing for the African crouching in
chains and misery at its own door. Yet in remembering this long indif-
ference to the negro’s moral and religious welfare in the past, and bringing
the fact home to the Christians of to-day as we have a right to do, we should
not be the less thankful that the church is now awaking to long neglected
duty, and manifesting a lively and practical interest in the welfare of the
soul of the negro. We remind the church of her neglect in the past that she
may be more faithful in the future.

The dignity of the anti-slavery movement does not become manifest
when it is viewed merely apart and distinctly by itself as an isolated
movement. It must be looked at as a part of that eternal and universal
conflict everywhere in progress between human justice, enlightenment and
goodness on the one hand, and human pride, selfishness, injustice and
tyrannical power on the other; a conflict which has gone on from the
beginning and which must go on forever until, by truth and love, the baser
nature of man shall be subdued and refined and become subject to his
higher and better nature.

You will have already perceived that I am not of that school of thinkers
which teaches us to let by-gones be by-gones; to let the dead past bury its


dead.13Douglass quotes a line from the sixth stanza of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's “A Psalm of Life." , 10 vols. (New York, 1909), 4: 66. In my view, there are no by-gones in the world, and the past is not
dead, and cannot die. The evil, as well as the good that men do, lives after
them.14Douglass paraphrases , act 3, sc. 2, line 83. We are walking, to-day, by the light of lamps trimmed and fur-
nished us by those who have gone before us, and should stumble worse
than we do now, but for those lamps. The poet and the seer to whom all
avenues of truth are open, tell us that the past and the time to be are one, and
that both are Now. Our duty to those who are to come after us, should be
measured by the ten thousand benefits we have received from those who
have gone before us.

Moreover, the duty of keeping in memory the great deeds of the past,
and of transmitting the same from generation to generation, is implied in
the mental and moral constitution of man. According to the great poet, he
who knew more of the human soul than any one who went before him, or
any who have come after him: “Man is an animal looking before and
after.”15Douglass adapts , act 4, sc. 4, lines 33-37. He alone, in this respect, is capable of giving and receiving. The
bear of to-day is no wiser than the bear of a thousand years ago, or than
bears will be a thousand years hence. The ability to make future genera-
tions debtors for our knowledge and experience, and their ability to appre-
ciate and improve upon it, as the result of the same, is one of the grandest
perfections of mankind.

But outside of these and other general considerations, there are es-
pecial reasons on this commemorative occasion that make extensive refer-
ence to the past eminently proper. It is a duty imposed by the relation of the
living to the dead. We are walking amid sacred graves. Garrison, Phillips,
Sumner, Wilson, Stevens, Wade and Lincoln,16Wendell Phillips, Charles Sumner, Henry Wilson, Thaddeus Stevens, Benjamin Wade, and Abraham Lincoln. with other friends of liber-
ty, have passed on to the silent continent of the dead and to-day we stand in
the valley and shadow of the death17A close paraphrase of Ps. 23: 4. of Ulysses S. Grant,18Ex-president Ulysses S. Grant died on 23 July 1885. The cause of death was epitheloma, a cancerous condition which caused him considerable pain and discomfort during the last months of his life, but one which he endured as he wrote and completed his memoirs. Grant died in Mount McGregor, New York, a summer resort community. He seemed to relish and encourage the visits of the thousands of well-wishers who traveled to Mount McGregor in hopes of catching one last glimpse of the general propped on the rambling porch of his summer cottage. William S. McFeely, (New York, 1981), 495-517; , 7: 492-501. the most
illustrious warrior and statesman of modern times, the captain whose invincible


sword saved the republic from dismemberment, made liberty the
law of the land; a man too broad for prejudice, too humane to despise the
humblest, too great to be small at any point. In him the negro found a
protector, the Indian a friend, a vanquished foe a brother, an imperilled
nation a savior. His heart was as tender as the heart of a woman, unsuspect-
ing as childhood itself, calm and brave as the blue overhanging sky. He was
accessible to all men. The black soldier was welcome in his tent, and the
freedman in his house. To those who forbade them he said, “Where I am,
they can come.” He was among the first of our generals to see that slavery
must perish that the Union might live, and to protect colored soldiers from
insult by a military order. To him more than to any other man the negro
owes his enfranchisement and the Indian a humane policy. In the matter of
the protection of the freedman from violence his moral courage surpassed
that of his party; hence his place at its head was given to timid men, and the
country was allowed to drift, instead of stemming the current with stalwart

The nation mourns him to-day, as well it may, for great is its loss. His
name was a tower of strength, and a guarantee of peace at home and
abroad. Among all the American pe0ple no class will feel the loss by his
death more than we, and by none will his name be more hallowed and his
memory held more precious forever.

“He was a man; take him for all in all. I shall not look upon his like
again.”19, act 1, sc. 2, lines 187-88. Few of the noble men and women who saw the beginning of the
anti-slavery movement, and its day of small things; who rocked it in its
lowly cradle, and shared its odium, its hardships and perils, are alive to-
day. Who shall tell of the noble deeds and heroic qualities of those who
have gone? Who shall invoke for them the ennobling sentiment of grati-
tude, if those who remain shall hold their peace? Besides, how small would
be the faith, how feeble would be the hope, how weak would be the
courage, of the reformer of to-day wrestling with giant evils, but for the
great cloud of witnesses for liberty and truth who have left us their splendid
example of faith, hope, courage, devotion and success? We fight and
conquer to-day partly in the strength of those who fought and conquered

A glance at the history of the anti-slavery movement in the United
States will show that there never was a reformatory movement started
among men where the prospect of speedy success was less hopeful. Those


who engaged in it did so from a sacred regard for principle and for the sake
of humanity, and not from any vain glory or hope of reward. They endured
as seeing him who is invisible.20Heb. 11 :27. They went out at the call of duty and in the
light of eternity, neither knowing nor caring what dangers or difficulties
they would have to encounter. They simply knew they were right and had
the faith of their souls that the right would finally prevail.

They soon found that, both in the master and in the slave, there were
grounds of discouragement. The one was loved, admired and honored by
the nation, and the other was despised, loathed and shunned by the nation.
The one possessed all the rights, powers and immunities of American
citizenship, and the other had no rights under the law which white men
were bound to respect. Detestable as a legal rule of action as was this
statement of Judge Taney,21Douglass alludes to the decision of Chief Justice Roger B. Taney in the Dred Scott case. Dred Scott v. John F. A. Sandford, 19 Howard 393 (1857), 407-10. it was literally and historically true. Having no
rights, of course the negro could have no wrongs. To enslave, beat and
imbrute him were not recognized as wrongs. To whip his wife, to sell his
children, to reduce his daughter to concubinage, to brand him with hot
irons, were acts having the full approval of popular indifference and si-
lence. The Bible, the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, had
no voice for him. He was scourged beyond the beneficient range of the
great truths and principles of all three documents, and to him they had no

Now that slavery is no more, and the multitude are claiming the credit
of its abolition, though but a score of years have passed since the same
multitude were claiming an exactly opposite credit, it is difficult to realize
that an abolitionist was ever an object of popular scorn and reproach in this
country. Yet such was the case. By common consent, he was regarded and
treated, even in the North, as a pestilent fellow, a bad citizen, a disturber of
the peace of the church and a dangerous man to the state. To stand against
the tide of this popular sentiment, required a faith that never doubted, a
courage that never quailed, and a strength of purpose that could not fail.
The approval of our fellow men is not an unworthy motive though not the
highest, it is eminently gratifying to the human heart. It is a moral support
which no prudent man will lightly throw aside, and it was only the strength
of a deep moral conviction that enabled the friends of the slave to stand
erect when this moral support was not only withdrawn, but was supplanted
by popular scorn and hate.


An abolitionist not only lost his standing in the church and in society,
made himself a reproach to his neighbors,22A paraphrase of Pss. 44: 13, 79: 4, 89: 41. and subjected himself and his
children to insult in the street, but he suffered in his business, his basket,
and his store. He heard himself called abolitionist, nigger worshiper, and
other opprobrious names. If he essayed to speak a word for the down
trodden, he was in many instances, furiously assailed with brick-bats,
unsaleable eggs, and other questionable missiles. Men whose memory is
now honored, and whose names are now mentioned with reverence, were
in their day thus assailed and persecuted from town to town and from city to

At this distance of time from the early anti-slavery days with the slaves
now free, and the freedmen made citizens, it is hard to realize that such a
man as Elijah P. Lovejoy was shot down, and shot to death for defending
the freedom of the press; that in Boston, anti-slavery prayer meetings were
broken up by the howling mobs; that William Lloyd Garrison, whose name
is now honored and reverenced as one of the grandest men that ever graced
the soil of Massachusetts was dragged through the mob-crowded streets of
Boston, saluted on all sides with the furious cry of “Hang him, hang him.”
that Charles T. Torrey, on a charge that he had assisted a fellow man in his
flight from slavery, languished and died in a Baltimore jail; that Charles
Sumner, the peerless orator, philanthropist, and statesman, was struck with
a bludgeon and felled to the floor of the American senate by a slave-holder;
that the right of petition and the right of speech were, for a time, completely
under the heel of the slave-power; that anti-slavery printing offices were
entered, broken up, and their printing presses flung into the Ohio river;23Douglass probably alludes to the mob attack on the printing press of James G. Birney's in Cincinnati on the evening of 30 July 1836. Dwight Lowell Dumond, (Ann Arbor, 1961).
that anti-slavery papers were refused passage through the mails; that the
Bible and the constitution were alike pressed into the service of slavery;
that slave hunting was carried on in every state of the union; that public
halls in which the subject of slavery was discussed were, for that reason,
burned to ashes and that the whole power of the federal government was
employed and exerted in the support of slavery. All those facts, and more,
which seem strange and impossible now, were neither strange nor impossi-
ble forty years ago.

Slavery then seemed impregnable. The efforts against it were like an
attempt to storm a granite fort with egg shells, to turn back a flood with a


feather. The slaveholder, as well as the slave system, was a power. Born,
educated, and accustomed to the exercise of unlimited power over men, the
slaveholder carried his habit of domination wherever he went. He was
everywhere a sea captain among common sailors, a giant among pigmies.

Whether in the caucus, in congress, or in the cabinet, he was at the
head of the table and rose to the position of leader and dictator. If his lash
cowed the slave, his frown awed the doughface. Ordinary northern men
with far more learning and ability than he, were no match for him. In
debate he could lash himself into such a foaming, furious tempest of wrath,
scorn, and defiance, as to affright the souls of common men. He could
employ smiles as well as frowns to accomplish his purposes, and suc-
ceeded by the one device about as well as by the other. He was the chosen
umpire in all matters affecting personal honor, and, in manner and morals,
he set the fashion at the national capital as well as in the states. Conscious
of his high estate, and tracing the source of his superior position to the fact
of his being a slaveholder, he was quick to perceive and ever ready to repel,
even by violence of act, as well as speech, if need be, any measure likely to
invade and impair his high pretension.

All this, as I have said, looks strange and unreal at this distance of time;
but still more strange, unreal, and absolutely amazing, seems the docility,
forbearance, and servility of northern men under the rule of the slave
oligarchy. The humiliation and vassalage of northern representatives to the
domination of these lords of the lash was as disgraceful and shocking as it
was complete. Only a few dared to stand erect in its presence. Such men as
John Quincy Adams, John P. Hale, Joshua R. Giddings, Salmon P. Chase,
B. F. Wade and Charles Sumner, were equal to the occasion, and received
the full measure of slave-holding hate, and they were but feebly supported
at the North.

Hence, outside the mere act of emancipation, outside of its transcen-
dent blessings to the lately enslaved, outside its restoring the element of
possible harmony between the sections, and making the union between the
North and the South an assured fact; outside of making the nation’s life
consistent with the nation’s creed; outside of its glorious illustration of the
power of truth, and the certainty of progress, the abolition of slavery is an
immeasurable benefit in freeing our legislative hall from the malign and
humiliating power of the slave master, and introducing milder methods and
more courteous manners among the chosen representatives of the nation.

But my friends, colored people have other things to think of, on this
occasion, than those upon which I have thus far spoken. We may well


enough reap satisfaction from retrospective. We may well enough express
our exceeding great joy over what has been accomplished in our behalf,
over the opportunities and possibilities opened before us. But this is only a
part of our mission here to-day. Do we meet only to march at the sound of
music by day, and to dance to the sound of music by night, and to reap red-
eyed weariness in the morning, we may well enough wish that we had taken
no part in this celebration. I certainly have no business here, if this is the be
all and end all of the business of this occasion. I am not so old as to forget
the value of high days and holidays either, but I am too old to give much of
my time to reveling, and I hope the same is the case with those assembled
here. Our business here is not mainly with pleasure, nor with the past, but
with the present and the future and their duties.

It may seem to you a humiliating confession, but it is nevertheless true
that notwithstanding the fact that the colored man is emancipated and
enfranchised, that he is made eligible to office, admitted to schools, that he
sits upon juries and in some cases holds civil office, he is still on trial, both
as a man and a citizen. His twenty years of freedom have not taken him out
of this court of inquiry, and secured an unqualified judgment in his favor.
There are questions asked concerning him which he cannot wholly answer
by pointing to his two hundred years of slavery or to his present environ-
ment. Something must come after freedom. Ignorance and moral degrada-
tion made us the easy victim of slavery in the first place, and the same may
work our ruin in our new relations as men and as citizens of the republic.
What the world wants to know concerning us is, the use to which we are
putting our new opportunities; whether, as a class, when left to ourselves,
we have within ourselves the ability and disposition to improve. Whether
we swim or only drift.

Those who take an interest in us and most profoundly wish us well. tell
us, and tell us truly, that our emancipation was important and that our
enfranchisement was more important still, but that the thing of all com-
manding and transcendent importance, is the character we form and devel-
op as a component part of the American people. Now, let us be candid with
ourselves and with the public, and tell the truth, though the truth should
condemn us. We should neither deceive ourselves, nor deceive others. Are
we as a class, advancing, or are we retrograding? That we know more of
books than formerly, is admitted. That we have more newspapers and
literary societies than formerly, is true. That we have more educated men,
editors, doctors, lawyers and office holders and preachers than formerly, is
true, and vastly to our credit; but are we, the colored people, as a class,


improving equally in the more solid matters of life; are we more indus-
trious, more self-denying, prosperous and progressive than ten years ago?
Are we accumulating property and providing wisely for the future? Are we
more thoughtful, more sober, more attentive to business, and more suc-
cessful than formerly? Are we less inclined to seek pleasure and more
responsive to the calls of duty? Are we more disposed to sacrifice present
enjoyment to the future happiness of ourselves and of our children?

In a word, are we growing in all the relations of civilization and good
citizenship? Have we fewer criminals among us than formerly? Are the
former slaves better masters to themselves than their old masters were to
them? These are some of the questions that the world is putting to us, and
they must be answered in the affirmative or we shall forfeit the respect of
the people among whom we live. This thing called American civilization is
an unrelenting force. It must and will go on in spite of all opposition and the
colored man must go on with it, make himself a part of it, or go under it and
be crushed by it. This rule may seem harsh, but it is impartial and imper-
ative and applies to one race as well as to another. If the Indian puts himself
in its way and is destroyed we may expect a fate no better. The conditions
upon which men succeed are, in the main, the same for all men. If a man
insists upon spending more than he earns, during the summer, he will be
tempted to assume the role of a beggar or thief in winter.

The truth with us as a class is, that while we work hard and make small
wages, we spend what we make too hastily and freely and lay up but little
for a rainy day. In summer we seem to forget that there will be winter; in
youth we forget that we shall be old; in health we forget that we shall be
sick, and we act as though it were a sin to lay up anything for the future.
This is all wrong, and till we reform in this respect we shall be a despised
and degraded people. Men may pity us, but they cannot respect us, neither
can we respect ourselves. We should never forget that a people who do not
care for themselves give the best reason in this world why other people
should not care for them. It is hard to make an empty sack stand upright,24Douglass adapts an aphorism that Benjamin Franklin published in . Labaree, , 2: 248, 3: 446, 7: 348.
or to make an empty barrel as weighty and valuable as a full barrel of
wheat, though it will make more noise in rolling.

We have so long heard in our pulpits and elsewhere, of the sin of laying
up treasures on earth and the difficulty of getting into heaven with riches,25Douglass paraphrases Matt. 6: 19, 19: 23; Mark 10: 25; and Luke 18: 25.


that we make virtue of living on earth without riches. That is clearly a case
where the letter killeth.26An allusion to 2 Cor. 3: 6. For the destruction of the poor is their poverty.

So far from being a sin to accumulate property, it is the plain duty of
every man to lay up something for the future with which to meet the
accidents of life. Not to do this is the real sin. I am for making the best of
both worlds and making the best of this world first, because it comes first.
And the man who does not make use of the opportunities afforded him for
making himself comfortable and happy in this world, gives us no reason to
believe that he will make use of favorable conditions for making himself
happy in any other world. The ant provides for winter and is wise, the birds
build their nest and collect food for their young. Even the dog will bury his
bone to provide for a future meal, and why may not man do the same? If a
man has a dollar a day for his labor, every dollar that he saves places him a
day in advance of his immediate wants. If he has ten dollars he has ten days
ahead, and if a hundred dollars in advance of his wants he has a hundred
days and should accident or illness overtake him, he has something to
support him till he is able to resume work. In the matter of the improvi-
dence of the colored people I am speaking of the general rule. That to this
general rule there are noble exceptions I am happy to admit, but they are not
so numerous as they ought to be, nor as they must be if we expect to rise in
the esteem of our fellow men and to be a free and happy people.

I admit that these remarks do not sound much like a celebration ad-
dress, which is usually laudatory of our merits as a class rather than a
criticism of our defects. My apology is that my life-long heart’s desire and
labor has been to build up our long oppressed and poverty-stricken people,
and I know full well that we can not be built up as a people till we learn the
lessons of prudence which I have been endeavoring to enforce. To colored
people and white people I present two views and both are just. To colored
people I say, Consider your opportunities and the immense distance you are
in the rear of your white fellow citizens, and strive to decrease that distance
and to diminish that disparity so terribly unfavorable to you. You have done
well, but you can do better. To the white people I say, Measure not the
colored man from the heights you have attained, but rather from the depths
from which he has come—those depths into which you plunged him and
held him for two centuries. Consider not what he has yet to do, but rather
what he has already done and what he is still doing in the way of improvement,


and the terrible odds against which he has to contend in the battle of

Viewed thus, I am not ashamed of my cause nor of my countrymen. I
affirm that the colored people, upon a fair consideration of all the circum-
stances, have made and are making commendable progress in all the ele-
ments of civilization. Take the emancipated class at the south. Consider
well their former condition, and the manner of their emancipation! In all
history, and under the whole heavens, there was never a class of people
emancipated under conditions so unfavorable to success as was this class.
The whole current of their surroundings, was, and is, against them. In view
of the circumstances, the marvel is, not that they have not lived well, but
that they have lived at all. So unpropitious were the conditions under which
the negro was emancipated, that predictions were confidently made, at the
time, both inside and outside of the American senate, that the negro would
soon die out; and I confess that there were facts connected with the situa-
tion, which made this prediction appear reasonable. In many who indulged
in this gloomy prophecy, the wish may have been father to the thought.27Douglass paraphrases *Henry IV, Part II, act 4, sc. 5, line 91.
But whatever may have been the feeling in the matter, the prediction has
been wonderfully and overwhelmingly contradicted by the facts. Instead of
dying out, the census returns show that the negro of the south is increasing
ten per cent, more rapidly than is the old master class.

I am sometimes charged with attaching too much importance to mon-
ey, as an agent in the elevation of the colored people, and with having also
acquired considerable property myself. I am not ashamed of this charge,
even were the latter part of it true. It is a compliment, not a disgrace, and I
wish it were better deserved, both by myself and others. I can better charge
those who bring it, with caring too little for money than myself for caring
too much. It requires industry, economy, and good sense, to acquire prop-
erty. Any fool can spend it. A fortune which it may have required forty
years of patient, persistent, and sober industry to accumulate, may be
squandered in a single year by an indolent, self-indulgent, and reckless
person. An edifice which it took thousands of treasure and years of labor to
erect, may be burned down in an hour. It is said that a man who cannot build
a hovel, can tear down a palace.

While there will be poor people among all races of men, and while for
individuals, it is no crime to be poor, it is different with a race or class. A race


that is uniformly poor, which can point to no prosperous members of it, and is
content to live from generation to generation in poverty will be condemned
as a comparatively worthless race, and as tending to barbarism, rather than to
civilization. Without property, men can have no leisure; without leisure,
there can be no thought; without thought, there can be no discovery, no
invention, and no progress. Until colored people can point to successful and
prosperous men among them, and a good many of them, it will be idle to talk
much of their equality with the white race. While all other varieties of the
human family, whether Caucasian, Mongolian, East Indian, or Malay, can
come here and make themselves good citizens and acquire comfortable
homes and even make themselves rich, if we move on from year to year
without improving our physical condition, we shall dwindle and go down
under the weight of the popular judgment concerning us.

I know this would not be the case if a fair and just consideration of the
past and present surroundings of the negro were duly considered, but the
negro must not expect such just consideration of his circumstances. All
presumptions are against him. There are Pharaohs here as there were in
Egypt. The negro is commanded to make bricks without straw.28Rameses II, angered by the entreaties of Moses and Aaron, informed the Israelites that he would no longer supply straw for making bricks, but that they would have to provide their own. Exod. 5: 7. He is, to-
day, excluded, by his color, from nearly all profitable employments, and
forced to pursue only such labors as those by which he gets barely enough
to supply his bodily wants. This is true, in some measure, even in the
northern states, and it is overwhelmingly true in the southern states.

A recent illustration of the force of this prejudice is that of the young
man refused admission to the U.S. Signal Service corps until admitted by
command of Robert Lincoln, then secretary of war, and but a few days
since again refused by the officer at Pensacola, after having been detailed
for service from Fort Myer, and having arrived at Pensacola for the purpose
of entering upon his duties.29Douglass alludes to the discrimination experienced by W. Hallett Greene as a black soldier in the U.S. Army Signal Service. A graduate of the City College of New York, Greene had applied to the signal service in 1884 but its director, Brigadier General William B. Hazen, rejected him. Secretary of War Robert Lincoln intervened and overruled Hazen's contention that blacks could only enlist in the four all-black regiments created by Congress in the late 1860s. When a sergeant attempted to refuse Greene as his assistant at a signal service office at Pensacola, Florida, in 1885, he was demoted and Greene temporarily commanded the office. New York , 28, 30 September 1884, 9 October 1885; Goff, , 138.

Men sometimes ask me how the freedmen are getting along in the


south. A more important and pertinent question would be, how are the
former slave holders getting along? Are they becoming more exemplary,
humane and industrious than formerly? The two questions and the two
classes should be viewed together, for they constitute equal parts of the
same problem and one is dependent upon the other. The freedmen are in
large measure at the mercy of the former slave-holders. They hold the land
and the learning. They can withhold bread and shut the gates of knowledge.
They can defraud ignorance and cause the peek of hunger to bow the yoke.

Fortunately, however, both the Freedmen and the old master class have
made and are making commendable progress. My hope for the colored
people of the south is largely increased by the growing enlightenment and
liberality of the white people of that section. The signs of the times in this
respect are full of promise. Mr. Cable’s able articles in the 30Born in New Orleans, Louisiana, George Washington Cable (1844-1925) ended his formal schooling at age fifteen to find work as a clerk. After serving in the Confederate Fourth Mississippi Cavalry, Cable briefly held jobs as a surveyor and a journalist before finding an accountant‘s position with a New Orleans cotton factor. During his ten years with that firm (1869-79), he began writing stories, featuring Louisiana‘s creole culture for such northern magazines as and . In the 1880s Cable shifted to full-time literary activity. While continuing to write fiction, he also produced articles advocating prison reforms, abolition of the contract labor system, and protection of the civil and political rights of blacks. The latter work provoked such a hostile reaction from white Southerners that Cable moved his residence to Northampton, Massachusetts, in 1885. While continuing his fiction and political writing, he also became a professional lecturer, popular with audiences for singing creole and black folk tunes. Cable wrote many articles, letters to the editor, and fictional pieces for in the mid-1880s. Douglass perhaps refers to “The Freedmen’s Case in Equity," 29: 418-29 (January 1885) and “The Silent South,” 30: 674-91 (August 1885); Louis D. Rubin, Jr., (New York, 1969); Arlin Turner, (Durham, NC, 1956); , 1: 490-91; , 45: 298; , 3: 392-93. and
that of Bishop Dudley in the same magazine,31The son of a Richmond, Virginia, merchant, Thomas Underwood Dudley (1837-1904) graduated from the University of Virginia in 1858 and served in the Confederate army as a commissary officer. After the war he studied at the Virginia Theological Seminary at Alexandria and was ordained a minister in the Protestant Episcopal Church. In 1875 Dudley became assistant bishop for Kentucky and succeeded to the head of that diocese in 1884. Although Dudley wrote numerous works on religious topics, the article that Douglass refers to probably is “How Shall We Help the Negro?" in , 30: 273-80 (June 1885); , 3: 467. with such writers as the
author of “Our Brother in Black,”32An allusion to Atticus Green Haygood who published in 1881. indicate progress. Thoughtful men all
over the south are beginning to see that it is not safe to put the new wine of
liberty into the old bottles of slavery;33Douglass paraphrases Matt. 9: 17. that the ignorance which shielded


society in slavery is dangerous to society in freedom, that the kindness of
liberty is better than the club of slavery.

It has become clear to intelligent men in that section that the negro is a
permanent element of the population of the south. That no other can be
found to fill his place; that the nation in its wisdom has seen fit to make him
a part of the American body politic; that it has made him a citizen, a voter
and eligible to office in the government; that neither fraud nor violence
ought to be permitted to defeat the beneficent intention of the supreme law
of the land in this or any other respect; that all efforts for that purpose are
dangerous; that they lead to deterioration, and are destructive to the whites
as well as to the blacks; that the North that would not see without resistance
the augmentation of the slave power will not allow such violation of the
constitution to go on forever unopposed. Hence it is seen that the wisest and
best policy for the South is a just and humane policy; that kindness must
take the place of the club; that fair play must take the place of fraud; that
education must take the place of ignorance; that if the negro cannot now be
made a good slave, they must try to make him a good citizen.


Douglass, Frederick, 1818-1895


August 6, 1885


Yale University Press 1992



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