Skip to main content

In Law Free; in Fact, a Slave: An Address Delivered in Washington, D.C., on April 16, 1888



Washington , 17 April 1888. Other texts in Washington , 17 April
1888; Washington , 17 April 1888; Speech File, reel 16, frames 257-68, 269-
80, 281-96, reel 20, frames 724-32, FD Papers, DLC.

Rival factions developed early in the planning stages of the 1888 celebration
of emancipation in the District of Columbia. Douglass was at the center of the
dispute and his 1886 denunciation of parades to mark the day came back to
haunt him. When the planning committee for the 1888 event selected Doug-
lass as the orator of the day, one of its members, William Calvin Chase,
objected. In his newspaper, the Washington , Chase reprinted Douglass’s
1886 comments and announced that John Mercer Langston would be the
Emancipation Day orator. The original planning committee, headed by
Charles Marshall, persisted in making arrangements for a parade and an ad-
dress by Douglass. On 16 April 1888, Douglass rode in a carriage near the
head of a procession of military units, floats, bands, and marching societies
which President Grover Cleveland reviewed. The Washington
noted that the parade, “while quite a large one, evidently suffered in numbers
by the controversy that was raised over the advisability of a parade on account
of the expense.” In the evening, Langston spoke at the Asbury Methodist
Episcopal Church while Douglass spoke at the Fourth Baptist Church. The
Washington reported that the latter site “was crowded
almost to suffocation with auditors.” Henry Johnson presided over the meet-
ing and Wiley H. Jordan, an undertaker, served as secretary. The Reverend S.
Geriah Lamkins opened the exercises with a prayer, followed by an introduc-
tory address from Johnson and the reading by Jordan of letters of regret from
individuals unable to attend the meeting and the text of Abraham Lincoln’s
emancipation edict. Marshall then introduced Douglass who received ap-
plause as he stepped to the podium. Musical selections and brief orations by
William H. H. Hart, George W. Cook, C. H. Phillips, George W. Lee, and
William B. Johnson followed Douglass’s speech. The meeting ended with a
benediction by the Reverend Walter H. Brooks. Douglass received a mixed
reaction to his speech. The Washington chided him for waving the
“bloody shirt” to “the great satisfaction of his audience.” The Washington


compared Douglass’s speech unfavorany to Langston’s. Douglass, the
claimed, had presented “a scarecrow which all sensible people know will
never come to pass, if the democratic party were successful in getting entire
control of the country.” Douglass received many letters disagreeing with these
journalistic evaluations of his speech. The Reverend Mr. Brooks wrote that
the address was “able and eloquent in all its parts—its arraignment of the
South just and manly; in its charge to the Republican party wise and cou-
rageous, timely; and in its plea for justice to the negro sublimely heroic.”
Charles H. Marshall and W[iley] H. Jordan to Douglass, 22 March 1888,
Walter H. Brooks to Douglass, 17 April 1888, George B. Edmonds to Doug-
lass, 17 April 1888, Robert Reyburn to Douglass, 17 April 1888, Hamilton S.
Smith to Douglass, 17 April 1888, J[ames] B. White to Douglass, 17 April
1888, J[ames] W. Curtis to Douglass, 18 April 1888, General Correspon-
dence File, reel 4, frames 765-66, 767-68, 771-72, 773, 775, 778-80, FD
Papers, DLC; Washington , 23, 27, 29 March, 16 April
1888; Washington , 24 March, 14, 21, 28 April 1888; Washington, 16 April 1888.

FRIENDS AND FELLOW-CITIZENS: It has been my privilege to assist in
several anniversary celebrations of the abolition of slavery in the District of
Columbia, but I remember no occasion of this kind when I felt a deeper
solicitude for the future welfare of our emancipated people than now.

The chief cause of anxiety is not in the condition of the colored people
of the District of Columbia, though there is much that is wrong and un-
satisfactory here, but the deplorable condition of the negro in the southem
states. At no time since the abolition of slavery has there been more cause
for alarm on this account than at this juncture in our history.

I have recently been in two of the southern states—South Carolina and
Georgia,1Douglass visited Augusta, Georgia, and Charleston, South Carolina, on a southern tour in March 1888. In both cities, he attended banquets in his honor and, in Charleston, he delivered lectures on “Self-Made Men" and “My Travels Abroad." Charleston (S.C.) , 3, 5, 8, 9 March 1888; Washington , 4, 5 March 1888. and my impression from what I saw, heard, and learned there is
not favorable to my hopes for the race. I know this is a sad message to bring
you on this twenty-sixth anniversary of freedom in the District of Colum-
bia, but I know, too, that l have a duty to perform, and that duty is to tell the
truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, and I should be unworthy
to stand here, unworthy of the confidence of the colored people of this
country, if I should from any considerations of policy withhold any fact or
feature of the condition of the freedmen which the people of this country
ought to know.


The temptation on anniversary occasions like this is to prophesy
smooth things, to be joyful and glad, to indulge in the illusions of hope—to
bring glad tidings on our tongues, and words of peace reveal. But while I
know it is always easier to be the bearer of glad tidings than sad ones, while
I know that hope is a powerful motive to exertion and high endeavor, while
I know that people generally would rather look upon the bright side of their
condition than to know the worst. there comes a time when it is best that the
worst should be made known, and in my judgment that time, in respect to
the condition of the colored people of the south, is now. There are times
when neither hope nor fear should be allowed to control our speech. Cry
aloud and spare not, is the word of wisdom as well as of Scripture.2A slight modification of Isa. 58: 1. “Ye
shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free,"3John 8: 32. applies to the
body not less than the soul, to this world not less than the world to come.
Outside the truth there is no solid foundation for any of us, and I assume
that you who have invited me to speak, and you who have come to hear me
speak, expect me to speak the truth as I understand the truth.

The truth at which we should get on this occasion respects the precise
relation subsisting between the white and colored people of the south, or, in
other words, between the colored people and the old master class of the
south. We have need to know this and to take it to heart.

It is well said that “a people may lose its liberty in a day and not miss it
in half a century,” and that “the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.”4Although variously attributed to Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, the source for Douglass's quotation is John Philpot Curran. Curran, , 188-89. In my
judgment, with my knowledge of what has already taken place in the south,
these wise and wide-awake sentiments were never more apt and timely than

I have assisted in fighting one battle for the abolition of slavery, and the
American people have shed their blood in defense of the Union and the
constitution, and neither I nor they should wish to fight this battle over
again; and in order that we may not, we should look the facts in the face to-
day and, if possible, nip the evil in the bud.

I have no taste for the role of an alarmist. If my wishes could be allowed
to dictate my speech I would tell you something quite the reverse of what I
now intend. I would tell you that everything is lovely with the negro in the
south; I would tell you that the rights of the negro are respected, and that he
has no wrongs to redress; I would tell you that he is honestly paid for his
labor; that he is secure in his liberty; that he is tried by a jury of his peers


when accused of crime; that he is no longer subject to lynch law; that he has
freedom of speech; that the gates of knowledge are open to him; that he
goes to the ballot box unmolested; that his vote is duly counted and given its
proper weight in determining result; I would tell you that he is making
splendid progress in the acquisition of knowledge, wealth, and influence; I
would tell you that his bitterest enemies have become his warmest friends;
that the desire to make him a slave, no longer exists anywhere in the south;
that the Democratic party is a better friend to him than the Republican
party, and that each party is competing with the other to see which can do
the most to make his liberty a blessing to himself, and to the country, and
the world. But in telling you all this I should be telling you what is
absolutely false, and what you know to be false, and the only thing which
would save such a story from being a lie would be its utter inability to

What is the condition of the negro at the south at this moment? Let us
look at it both in the light of facts, and in the light of reason. To understand
it we must consult nature as well as circumstances, the past as well as the
present. No fact is more obvious than the fact that there is a perpetual
tendency of power to encroach upon weakness, and of the crafty to take
advantage of the simple. This is as natural as for smoke to ascend or water
to run down. The love of power is one of the strongest traits in the Anglo-
Saxon race. This love of power common to the white race, has been nursed
and strengthened at the south by slavery: accustomed during two hundred
years to the unlimited possession and exercise of irresponsible power, the
love of it has become inordinate and chronic—strong by nature it has
become stronger by habit. To assume that this feeling of pride and power
has died out and disappeared from the south is to assume a miracle. Any
man who tells you that it has died out or has ceased to be exercised and
made effective, tells you that which is untrue, and in the nature of things
could not be true. Not only is the love of power there, but a talent for its
exercise has been fully developed. This talent makes the old master class of
the south not only the masters of the negro, but the masters of Congress,
and, if not checked, will make them the masters of the nation.

It was something more than an empty boast in the old times, when it
was said that one slave-master was equal to three northern men. Though
this did not turn out to be true on the battle field, it does seem to be true in
the councils of the nation. In sight of all the nation these ambitious men of
the south have dared to take possession of the government, which they,
with broad blades and bloody hands, sought to destroy; in sight of all the


nation they have disregarded and trampled upon the constitution, and
organized parties on sectional lines. From the ramparts of the solid south,
with their 153 electoral votes in the electoral college, they have dared to
defy the nation to put a Republican in the presidential chair for the next four
years, as they once threatened the nation with civil war if it elected Abra-
ham Lincoln. With this grip on the presidential chair, with the House of
Representatives in their hands, with the Supreme Court deciding every
question in favor of the states, as against the powers of the federal govern-
ment, denying to the government the right to protect the elective franchise
of its own citizens, they may well feel themselves masters, not only of their
former slaves, but of the whole situation. With these facts before us, tell me
not that the negro is safe in the possession of his liberty. Tell me not that
power will not assert itself. Tell me not that they who despise the constitu-
tion they have sworn to support. will respect the rights of the negro, whom
they already despise. Tell me not that men who thus break faith with God
will be scrupulous in keeping faith with the poor negro laborer of the south.
Tell me not that a people who have lived by the sweat of other men’s faces,
and thought themselves Christian gentlemen while doing it, will feel them-
selves bound by principles of justice to their former victims in their weak-
ness. Such a pretense in face of the facts is shameful, shocking, and
sickening. Yet there are men at the north who believe all this.

Well may it be said that Americans have no memories. We look over
the House of Representatives and see the solid south enthroned there.5The Democratic party had majorities in the House of Representatives during the 48th, 49th, and 50th Congresses (1883-89) and elected John Griffin Carlisle of Kentucky as Speaker during these six years. , 662. We
listen with calmness to eulogies of the south and of traitors, and forget
Andersonville. We look over the Senate and see the senator from South
Carolina,6The two South Carolina U.S. senators in 1888 were Wade Hampton and Matthew Calbraith Butler, , 639-40, 1000-01. and we forget Hamburg. We see Robert Smalls cheated out of
his seat in Congress, and forget the Planter,7Robert Smalls unsuccessfully contested the election of his Democratic opponent William Elliott to the U.S. House of Representatives from the Beaufort district of South Carolina in 1887. , 239, 856, 1611. and the service rendered by
the colored troops in the late war for the Union.

Well, the nation may forget; it may shut its eyes to the past, and frown
upon any who may do otherwise, but the colored people of this country are
bound to keep fresh a memory of the past till justice shall be done them in


the present. When this shall be done we shall as readily as any other part of
our respected fellow-citizens plead for an act of oblivion.

We are often confronted of late in the press and on the platform with the
discouraging statement that the problem of the negro as a freeman and a
citizen is not yet solved; that since his emancipation he has disappointed
the best hopes of his friends and fulfilled the worst predictions of his
enemies, and that he has shown himself unfit for the position assigned him
by the mistaken statesmanship of the nation. It is said that physically,
morally, socially, and religiously he is in a condition vastly more deplora-
ble than was his condition as a slave; that he has not proved himself so good
a master to himself as his old master was to him; that he is gradually, but
surely, sinking below the point of industry, good manners, and civilization
to which he attained in a state of slavery; that his industry is fitful; that his
economy is wasteful; that his honesty is deceitful; that his morals are
impure; that his domestic life is beastly; that his religion is fetichism, and
his worship is simply emotional, and that, in a word, he is falling into a
state of barbarism.

Such is the distressing description of the emancipated negro as drawn
by his enemies and as it is found reported in the journals of the south.
Unhappily, however, it is a description not confined to the south. It has
gone forth to the north. It has crossed the ocean; I met with it in Europe.
And it has gone as far as the wings of the press and the power of speech can
carry it. There is no measuring the injury inflicted upon the negro by it. It
cools our friends, heats our enemies, and turns away from us much of the
sympathy and aid which we need and deserve to receive at the hands of our

But now comes the question, Is this description of the emancipated
negro true? In answer to this question I must say, Yes and no. It is not true in
all its lines and specifications and to the full extent of the ground it covers,
but it certainly is true in many of its important features, and there is no race
under heaven of which the same would not be equally true with the same
antecedents and the same treatment which the negro is receiving at the
hands of this nation and the old master class, to which the negro is still a

I admit that the negro, and especially the plantation negro, the tiller of
the soil, has made little progress from barbarism to civilization, and that he
is in a deplorable condition since his emancipation. That he is worse off, in
many respects, than when he was a slave, I am compelled to admit, but I
contend that the fault is not his, but that of his heartless accusers. He is the


victim of a cunningly devised swindle, one which paralyzes his energies,
suppresses his ambition, and blasts all his hopes; and though he is nomi-
nally free he is actually a slave. I here and now denounce his so-called
emancipation as a stupendous fraud—a fraud upon him, a fraud upon the
world. It was not so meant by Abraham Lincoln; it was not so meant by the
Republican party; but whether so meant or not, it is practically a lie,
keeping the word of promise to the ear and breaking it to the heart.8A rough paraphrase of , act 5, sc. 7, lines 50-51.

Do you ask me why the negro of the plantation has made so little
progress, why his cupboard is empty, why he flutters in rags, why his
children run naked, and why his wife hides herself behind the hut when a
stranger is passing? I will tell you. It is because he is systematically and
universally cheated out of his hard earnings. The same class that once
extorted his labor under the lash now gets his labor by a mean, sneaking,
and fraudulent device. That device is a trucking system which never per-
mits him to see or to save a dollar of his hard earnings. He struggles and
struggles, but, like a man in a morass, the more he struggles the deeper he
sinks. The highest wages paid him is $8 a month, and this he receives only
in orders on the store, which, in many cases, is owned by his employer.
The scrip has purchasing power on that one store, and that one only. A blind
man can see that the laborer is by this arrangement bound hand and foot,
and is completely in the power of his employer. He can charge the poor
fellow what he pleases and give what kind of goods he pleases, and he does
both. His victim cannot go to another store and buy, and this the store-
keeper knows. The only security the wretched negro has under this ar-
rangement is the conscience of the storekeeper—a conscience educated in
the school of slavery, where the idea prevailed in theory and practice that
the negro had no rights which white men were bound to respect,9Douglass paraphrases the language of Chief Justice Roger B. Taney in the Dred Scott decision of 1857. Dred Scott v. John F. A. Sandford, 19 Howard 393 (1857), 407. an
arrangement in which everything in the way of food or clothing, whether
tainted meat or damaged cloth, is deemed good enough for the negro. For
these he is often made to pay a double price.

But this is not all, or the worst result of the system. It puts it out of the
power of the negro to save anything of what he earns. If a man gets an
honest dollar for his day’s work, he has a motive for laying it by and saving
it for future emergency. It will be as good for use in the future and perhaps,
better a year hence than now, but this miserable scrip has in no sense the


quality of a dollar. It is only good at one store and for a limited period. Thus
the man who has it is tempted to get rid of it as soon as possible. It may be
out of date before he knows it, or the storekeeper may move away and it
may be left worthless on his hands.

But this is not the only evil involved in this satanic arrangement. It
promotes dishonesty. The negro sees himself paid but limited wages—far
too limited to support himself and family, and that in worthless scrip—and
he is tempted to fight the devil with fire. Finding himself systematically
robbed he goes to stealing and, as a result finds his liberty—such as it is—
taken from him, and himself put to work for a master in a chain gang, and
he comes out, if he ever gets out, a ruined man.

Every northern man who visits the old master class, the land owners
and landlords of the south, is told by the old slaveholders with a great show
of virtue that they are glad that they are rid of slavery and would not have
the slave system back if they could; that they are better off than they ever
were before, and much more of the same tenor. Thus northern men come
home duped and go on a mission of duping others by telling the same
pleasing story.

There are very good reasons why these people would not have slavery
back if they could—reasons far more creditable to their cunning than to
their conscience. With slavery they had some care and responsibility for
the physical well being of their slaves. Now they have as firm a grip on the
freedman’s labor as when he was a slave and without any burden of caring
for his children or himself. The whole arrangement is stamped with fraud
and is supported by hypocrisy, and I here and now, on this Emancipation
Day, denounce it as a villainous swindle, and invoke the press, the pulpit,
and the law maker to assist in exposing it and blotting it out forever.

We denounce the imposition upon the working classes of England, and
we do well, but in England this trucking system is abolished by law.10The system of truck, or payment of wages in goods or in scrip redeemable only at stores associated with the employer, was quite common in eighteenthand early-nineteenth-century Britain. In such industries as coal mining and pottery making, it became the rule rather than the exception as the method of compensation. A growing chorus of worker protests against the abuses of this system prompted sympathetic middle-class reformers in Parliament to pass the Truck Act of 1831 that outlawed payment-in-kind in a majority of the trades. Enforcement of this law, however, remained lax especially in the countryside until well past mid-century. E[dward] P[almer] Thompson, (1963; New York, 1964), 203, 244, 518, 532, 551; Friedrich Engels, , trans. W[illiam] O[tis] Henderson and W[illiam] H[enry] Chaloner (1845; Stanford, Calif, 1968), 204-07, 289. It is a
penal offense there, and it should be made so here. It should be made a


crime to pay any man for his honest labor in any other than honest money.
Until this is done in the southern states the laborer of the south will be
ground to the earth, and progress with him will be impossible. It is the duty
of the negro press to take up the subject. The negro, where he may have a
vote, should vote for no man who is not in favor of making this scrip and
truck system unlawful.

I come now to another feature of southern policy which bears hard and
heavily on the negro laborer and land renter. It is found in the landlord and
tenant laws. I will read an extract to you from these laws that you may see
how completely and rigidly the rights of the landlord are guarded and how
entirely the tenant is in the clutches of the landlord:


SEC. 1301. Every lessor of land shall have a lien on all the agricultural
products of the leased premises, however and by whomever produced, to
secure the payment of the rent and the market value of all advances made by
him to his tenant for supplies for the tenant and others for whom he may

SEC. 1304. When any landlord or lessor shall have just cause to suspect
and shall verily believe that his tenant will remove his effects from the
leased premises to any other place within or without the country before the
expiration of his term, or before the rent or claims for supplies will fall due,
so that no distress can be made, such landlord or lessor, on making oath
thereof, and of the amount the tenant is to pay, and at what time the same
will fall due, and giving a bond as required in the preceding section, may,
in like manner, obtain an attachment against the goods and chattels of such
tenant, and the officers making the distress shall give notice thereof and
advertise the property distrained for sale, in the manner directed in the last
preceding section, and if such tenant shall not, before the time appointed
for such sale, give bond with sufficient security in double the amount of the
rent, or other demand payable to the plaintiff, conditioned for the payment
of said rent or other thing at the time it shall be due, with all cost, the goods
distrained, or so much thereof as shall be necessary, shall be sold by the
said officer at public sale to the highest bidder for cash, and out of the
proceeds of the sale he shall pay to the plaintiff the amount due him,
deducting interest for the time until the same shall become payable.

SEC. 1361. Said lien shall exist by virtue of the relation of the parties as
employer and employee, and without any writing or recording.

SEC. 1362. Provides that any person who aids or assists in removing


anything subject to these liens; without the consent of the landlord, shall,
upon conviction, be punished by a fine of not more than $500, and be
imprisoned in the county jail not more than six months, or by either such
fine and imprisonment.11Douglass excerpts J. A. P. Campbell, (Jackson, Miss., 1880), 373-75, 389.


SEC. 2165. Article 287 shall be so amended that a lessor may obtain a
writ of provisional seizure even before the rent is due, and it shall be
sufficient to entitle the lessor to the writ to swear to the amount which he
claims, whether due or not due, and that he has good reasons to believe that
the lessor will remove the furniture or property upon which he has a lien or
privilege out of the premises, and that he may be, therefore, deprived of his
lien.12An excerpt from Albert Voorhies, , 2d ed. (New Orleans. 1884), 331-32.


SEC. 1, chapter 137. All claims for rent shall be a lien on agricultural
products raised on the land rented, and shall be superior to all other liens
and claims, though of older date, and also a superior lien on all other
property or the lessee of his sublessee, or assigns usually kept on the
premises, over any lien acquired subsequently to such property having
been brought on the premises leased.13James F. McClellan, comp., (Tallahassee, Fla., 1881), 701.


SEC. 3055, chapter 6. Lien continues and attaches to crop of succeeding
years. When the tenant fails to pay any part of such rent or advances, and
continues his tenancy under the same landlord on the same or other lands,
the balance therefrom shall be held and treated as advances to him by the
landlord for the next succeeding year for which the original lien for ad-
vances, if any remain unpaid. shall continue on the articles advanced, or
property purchased with money advanced, or obtained by barter in ex-
change for articles advanced, and for which a lien shall also attach to the
crop of such succeeding year.14Douglass actually quotes section 3058 of Chapter 6. Robert C. Brickell, Peter Hamilton, and John P. Tillman, , 2 vols. (Nashville, 1887), 1: 671.


You have thus seen a specimen, and a fair specimen, of the landlord
and tenant laws of several of the old slave states; you have thus seen how
scrupulously and rigidly the rights of the landlords are guarded and pro-
tected by these laws; you have thus seen how completely the tenant is put at
the mercy of the landlord; you have thus seen the bias, the motive, and
intention of the legislators by whom these laws have been enacted, and by
whom they have been administered; and now you are only to remember the
sentiment in regard to the negro, peculiar to the people of the south, and the
character of the people against whom these laws are to be enforced, and the
fact that no people are better than their laws, to have a perfectly just view of
the whole situation.

To my mind these landlord and tenant laws are a disgrace and a scandal
to American civilization. A more skillfully contrived device than these
laws to crush out all aspirations, all hope of progress in the landless negro
could not well be devised. They sound to me like the grating hinges of a
slave prison. They read like the inhuman bond of Shylock, stipulating for
his pound of flesh.15Douglass alludes to the bond struck between Antonio and Shylock, to be paid with a pound of Antonio's flesh in , act 4, sc. 1. They environ the helpless negro like the devil fish of
Victor Hugo, and draw the blood from every pore.16A squid, nicknamed the “devil-fish," figured in Victor Hugo’s novel . , 10: 132-47. He may writhe and
twist. and strain every muscle, but he is held and firmly bound in a strong,
remorseless, and deadly grasp, a grasp from which only death can free him.
Floods may rise, droughts may scorch, the elements may destroy his crops,
famine may come, but whatever else may happen, the greedy landlord
must have from his tenant the uttermost farthing. Like the den of the lion,
all toes in its path turn inward.

The case is aggravated when you think of the illiteracy and ignorance
of the people who sign land leases. They are ignorant of the terms of the
contract, ignorant of the requirements of the law, and are thus absolutely in
the power of the landholder.

You have heard much, read much, and thought much of the flagrant
injustice, the monstrous cruelty and oppression inflicted on the tenant class
in Ireland. I have no disposition to underrate the hardships of that class. On
the contrary, I deplore them. But knowing them as I do and deploring them
as I do, I declare to you that the condition of the Irish tenant is merciful,
tender, and just as compared to the American freedman. There are thou-
sands in Ireland to-day who fix the price of their own rent, and thousands


more for whom the government itself measures the amount of rent to be
paid, not by the greed of the landlord, but by the actual value of the land
and its productions, and by the ability of the tenant to pay.17The Land Act that passed the British parliament during William E. Gladstone's second administration made numerous concessions to the Irish tenant class who had organized the Land League to demand greater protection of their interests. The new law legalized a system of double ownership that recognized the tenants' tenure rights over their holdings. The law also set up land courts empowered to fix rents on a holding for a fifteen-year period upon the application of either the landlord or the tenant. The Conservative party government of Lord Salisbury in 1885 passed a Land Purchase Act to assist Irish tenants in buying their holdings from the landlords by extending them low-interest long-term government loans. Eric Strauss, (New York, 1951), 164-69, 197-99; Beckett, , 389-94.

But how is it with us? The tenant is left in the clutches of the landlord.
No third party intervenes between the greed and power of one and the
helplessness of the other. The landholder imposes his price, exacts his
conditions, and the landless negro must comply or starve. It is impossible
to conceive of conditions more unfavorable to the welfare and prosperity of
the laborer. It is often said that the law is merciful, but there is no mercy in
this law.18Douglass possibly alludes to the address of Portia to the court of Venice in , act 4, sc. 1.

Now let us sum up some of the points in the situation of the freedmen.
You will have seen how he is paid for his labor, how a full-grown man gets
only $8 a month for his labor. out of which he has to feed, clothe, and
educate his children. You have seen how even this sum is reduced by the
infamous truck system of payment. You have seen how easily he may be
charged with one third more than the value of the goods that he buys. You
have seen how easily he may be compelled to receive the poorest com-
modities at the highest prices. You have seen how he is never allowed to see
or handle a dollar. You have seen how impossible it is for him to accumu-
late money or property. You have seen how completely he is chained to the
locality in which he lives. You have seen, therefore, that, having no money,
he cannot travel or go anywhere to better his condition. You have seen by
these laws that even on the premises which he rents he can own nothing,
possess nothing. You have seen that he can not sell a sheep, or a pig, or even
a chicken without the consent of the landlord, whose claim to all he has is
superior and paramount to all other claims whatsoever. You have seen all
this and more, and I ask, in view of it all, how, in the name of human
reason, could the negro be expected to rise higher in the scale of morals,
manners, religion, and civilization than he has done during the twenty


years of his freedom. Shame, eternal shame, on those writers and speakers
who taunt, denounce, and disparage the negro because he is to-day found
in poverty, rags, and wretchedness.

But again, let us see what are the relations subsisting between the negro
and the state and national governments. What support, what assistance he
has received from either of them. Take his relation to the national govern-
ment and we shall find him a deserted, a defrauded, a swindled, and an
outcast man. In law, free; in fact, a slave. ln law, a citizen; in fact, an alien;
in law, a voter; in fact, a disfranchised man. In law his color is no crime; in
fact, his color exposes him to be treated as a criminal. Toward him every
attribute of a just government is contradicted. For him, it is not a govern-
ment of the people, by the people, and for the people. Toward him, it
abandons the beneficent character of a government, and all that gives a
government the right to exist. The true object for which governments are
ordained among men is to protect the weak against the encroachments of
the strong, to hold its strong arm of justice over all the civil relations of its
citizens and to see that all have an equal chance in the race of life. Now, in
the case of the negro citizen, our national government does precisely the
reverse of all this. Instead of protecting the weak against the encroach-
ments of the strong, it tacitly protects the strong in its encroachments upon
the weak. When the colored citizens of the south point to the fourteenth and
fifteenth amendments of the constitution for the protection of their civil and
political rights, the Supreme Court of the United States turns them out of
court and tells them they must look for justice at the hands of the states,
well knowing that those states are, in effect, the very parties that deny them
justice. Thus is the negro citizen swindled. The government professes to
give him citizenship and silently permits him to be divested of every
attribute of citizenship. It demands allegiance, but denies protection. It
taxes him as a citizen in peace, and compels him to bear arms and meet
bullets in war. It imposes upon him all the burdens of citizenship and
withholds from him all its benefits.

I know it is said that the general government is a government of limited
powers. It was also once said that the national government could not coerce
a state, and it is generally said that this and that public measure is uncon-
stitutional. But whenever an administration has had the will to do anything,
it has generally found constitutional power to do it. If the general govern-
ment had the power to make black men citizens, it has the power to protect
them in that citizenship. If it had the right to make them voters it has the
right to protect them in the exercise of the elective franchise. If it has this


right, and refuses to exercise it, it is a traitor to the citizen. If it has not
this right, it is destitute of the fundamental quality of a government, and
ought to be hissed and hurried out of the sisterhood of governments, for it is
then only a pretended government, a usurper, a sham, a delusion, and a

On the other hand, if the fault is not in the structure of the government,
but in the treachery and indifference of those who administer it, the Ameri-
can people owe it to themselves, owe it to the world, and to the negro, to
sweep from place and power those who are thus derelict in the discharge of
their duty, and to see that no men shall take their places in the government
who will not enforce the constitutional right of every class of American

I am a Republican. I believe in the Republican party. My political
hopes for the future of the colored people are centered in the character and
composition, in the wisdom and justice, in the courage and fidelity of the
Republican party. I am unable to see how any honest and intelligent colored
man can be a Democrat, or play fast and loose between the two parties. But
while I am a Republican and believe in the party, I dare to tell that party the
truth. In my judgment it can no longer repose on the history of its grand and
magnificent achievements. It must not only stand abreast with the times,
but must create the times. Its power and greatness consisted in this at the
beginning. It was in advance of the times and made the times when it
abolished the slave trade between the states,19Abraham Lincoln signed a law outlawing the coastal slave trade on 4 July 1864. Donald, , 161. when it emancipated the
slaves of the District of Columbia, when it stemmed the bloody tide of
disunion, when it abolished slavery in all the states, when it made the negro
a soldier and a citizen, when it conceded to him the elective franchise, and
now in my judgment, the strength, success, and glory of the Republican
party will be found in its holding this advanced position. It must not stand
still or take any step backward. Its mission is to lead, not to follow; to make
circumstances, not to be made by them. It is held and firmly bound by
every sentiment of justice and honor to make a living fact out of the dead
letter of the constitutional amendments. It must make the path of the black
citizen to the ballot box as safe and smooth as that of the white citizen. It
must make it impossible for a man like James Russell Lowell to say he sees
no difference between the Democratic party and the Republican party.20Douglass summarizes the sentiments of James Russell Lowell's address, “The Place of the Independent in Politics," delivered to the Reform Club of New York on 13 April 1888. , 6: 190-221. If


it fails to do all this, I for one shall welcome the bolt which shall scatter it
into a thousand fragments.

The supreme moment in the life of the Republican party is at hand.
The question, to be or not to be,21, act 3, so. 1, line 56. will be decided at Chicago, and I
reverently trust in God that it may be decided rightly.22The Republican National Convention met at the Auditorium Building at Chicago, Illinois, on 19-25 June 1888 and nominated Benjamin Harrison for president and Levi P. Morton for vice president. , 774-77. If the platform it
shall adopt shall be in accordance with its earlier antecedents; if the party
shall have the courage in its maturity which it possessed and displayed in its
infancy; if it shall express its determination to vindicate the honor and
integrity of the republic by stamping out the fraud, injustice, and violence
which make elections in the south a disgrace and scandal to the republic,
and place a man on that platform with a clear head, a clean hand, and a
heroic heart, the country will triumphantly elect him. If it, however, should
fail to elect him we shall have done our duty, and shall still have under us a
grand party of the future, certain of success.

I do not forget that there are other great interests beside the negro to be
thought of. The civil service is a great interest, protection to American
industry is a great interest, the proper management of our finances so as to
promote the business and prosperity of the country is a great interest; but
the national honor—the redemption of our national pledge to the freed-
men, the supremacy of the constitution in the fulness of its spirit and in the
completeness of its letter over all the states of the Union alike—is an
incomparably greater interest than all others. It touches the soul of the
nation, which against all things else should be preserved. Should all be lost
but this the nation would be like Chicago after the fire—more prosperous
and beautiful than ever. But what I ask of the Republican party requires no
sacrifice or postponement of the material interests of the country. I simply
say to the Republican party: These things ye ought to have done and not to
have left the others undone, and the present is the time to enforce this
lesson.23A paraphrase of Matt. 23: 23.

The time has come for a new departure as to the kind of man who is to
be the standard bearer of the Republican party. Events are our instructors.
We have had enough of names, we now want things. We have had enough
of good feeling,24The term “era of good feeling" originated during the presidency of James Monroe to characterize his efforts to reduce sectional and partisan tensions exacerbated by the war of 1812. The expression was revived during and after the Civil War to describe policies of reconciliation with the defeated Confederate states. Hans Sperber and Travis Trittschuh, (Detroit, Mich., 1962), 143-44. enough of shaking hands over the bloody chasm, enough


of conciliation, enough of laudation of the bravery of our southern
brethren. We tried all that with President Hayes,25Rutherford B. Hayes. of the purity of whose
motives l have no shadow of doubt. His mistake was that he confided in the
honor of the confederates, who were without honor. He supposed that if
left to themselves and thrown upon their honor they would obey the con-
stitution they had sworn to support and treat the colored citizens with
justice and fairness at the ballot box. Time has proved the reverse of all
this, and this fact should cure the Republican party of adopting in its
platform any such soft policy or any such candidate. Let us have a candi-
date this time of pronounced opinions and above all a backbone.

There was some apology for the policy of Mr. Hayes. The circum-
stances were against him. Perhaps it was best in the long run that he should
try the experiment of conciliation, but the experiment has now been fully
and fairly tried. The South has been thrown upon its honor. It has had a full
measure of what is called local self-government. There has been no show
of federal power within its borders for a dozen years. Its people have been
left to themselves. Northern men have even refrained from going among
them in election times to discuss the claims of public men or the wisdom of
public measures. They have had the field all to themselves, and we all now
know just what has come of it, and the eyes of the leaders of the Republican
party are, I trust, wide open. Mr. James G. Blaine, after as well as before he
failed of his election, pointed out the evil which now besets us as a party
and a nation. Senator John Sherman knows full well that the solid south
must be broken, that the colored citizen must not be cheated out of his vote
any longer, and that the constitution must be obeyed in all parts of the
country alike; that individual states are great, but that the United States are
greater. He has said the right word, and said it calmly, but firmly, in the face
of the south itself, and I thank him and honor him for it. I am naming no
candidate for the presidency. Any one of the dozen statesmen whose names
are in the air, and many whose names are not, would suit me and gain my
best word and vote. There is one who has not been named and not likely to
be named, one who does not wish to be named, who would suit me and who
would fulfill the supreme demand of the hour; and that man is a southern
man. I refer to Hon. John M. Harlan, justice of the Supreme Court of the
United States, who true to his convictions, stood by the plain intention of


the fourteenth amendment of the constitution of the United States in op-
position to all his brothers on the bench. The man who could do that in the
circumstances in which he was placed, if made President of the United
States, could be depended upon in any emergency to do the right thing.

But as I have said, I am not naming candidates. The candidate of the
Republican party will, in all likelihoods of the case, be my candidate. I am
no partisan. l have no ambition to be first to name any man or make any
man obliged to me for naming him for the high office of President. Other
men may do this. and l have no disposition to find fault with them for doing
it. If, however, John A. Logan26John Alexander Logan died on 26 December 1886. were living I might name him. I am sure
he would not allow himself to be trifled with. or allow the constitution to be
defied or trampled in the dust. I have faith, also, in Roscoe Conkling,27Roscoe Conkling died on 18 April 1888 after an illness of several weeks believed caused by exposure to the severe cold during a blizzard that hit New York City in March 1888. Jordan, , 426-29.
whose dangerous illness we all deplore and whose recovery we profoundly
and anxiously desire. With such a man in the presidential chair the red shirt
and rifle horseback and tissue ballot plan of South Carolina and the Mis-
sissippi bulldozing plan would receive no encouragement.28South Carolina Democrats organized intensively for the climactic electoral contest in 1876. To intimidate black voters, the Democrats founded “rifle clubs" and mounted “sabre clubs" that appeared bearing firearms at massive campaign rallies. The members of these groups generally wore uniforms of red shirts, giving the nickname, the “Red Shirt" campaign, to that year's election. In October, South Carolina Governor Daniel H. Chamberlain and President Ulysses S. Grant issued proclamations branding the clubs “unlawful combinations” and ordering their dissolution. The red shirts, however, frequently reorganized into bodies with more innocuous names and played a major role in discouraging black voter turnout. , 719-21; Francis Butler Simkins and Robert Hilliard Woody, (1932; Gloucester, Mass, 1966), 498-509; Joel Williamson, (Chapel Hill, 1965), 410-12.

I am, however, not here to name men. My mission now, as all along
during nearly fifty years, is to plead the cause of the dumb millions of our
countrymen against injustice, oppression, meanness, and cruelty, and to
hasten the day when the principles of liberty and humanity expressed in the
Declaration of Independence and the constitution of the United States shall
be the law and the practice of every section, and of all the people of this
great country without regard to race, sex, color, or religion.


Douglass, Frederick, 1818-1895


April 16, 1888


Yale University Press 1992



Publication Status