America's Compromise with Slavery and the Abolitionists' Work: An Address Delivered in Paisley, Scotland, on April 6, 1846
AMERICA'S COMPROMISE WITH SLAVERY AND THE ABOLITIONISTS' WORK: AN ADDRESS DELIVERED IN PAISLEY, SCOTLAND, ON 6 APRIL 1846
Renfrewshire Advertiser, 11 April 1846.
On Monday evening, 6 April 1846, Douglass again protested Free Church policies before an overflowing audience at the Secession Church, Abbey
Close, in Paisley. After a short anecdotal address by James Buffum on racial prejudice in the United States, Douglass brought the apparently successful meeting to a close.
Mr. Douglass on rising said—one of the greatest evils of slavery is the degrading influence which it exerts upon the moral and religious feelings of those communities in which it exists. Before this, its physical evils dwindle into nothing, and there probably never was a better illustration of it than in the past history of the United States.
Where will you find people with higher aspirations than the Americans? They have set forth a declaration—one of the most precious expositions of human rights which the world has ever witnessed. Early they proclaimed man's capacity to enjoy the greatest freedom, and in defence of this, declared they had bared their bosoms to the storms of British artillery. They started from a high, a noble position—their constitution based upon human equality. With equal rights emblazoned on their fronts, they were determined to establish freedom; but they committed a fatal mistake, they allowed a compromise with slavery. They attempted to secure their own freedom while neglecting that of others. They thought they could bind the chain round the feet of others without binding the other end round their own necks.
Slavery in the United States was but a small thing seventy years ago, but going onward it has gained strength, till now it threatens wholesale destruction to everything connected with it. It may be seen corroding their vitals, their morals, and their politics, and linking itself with the very best institutions of America. It destroys all the finer feelings of our nature—it renders the people less humane—leads them to regard cruelty with indifference, as the boy born and bred within the sound of the thundering roar of Niagara, feels nothing strange because he is used to the noise; while a stranger trembles with awe, and feels he is in the presence of God—in the midst of his mighty works. People reared in the midst of slavery become indifferent to human wrongs, indifferent to the entreaties, the tears, the agonies of the slave under the lash; all of which appear to be music to the ears of slaveholders. Slavery has weakened the love of freedom in the United States—they have lost much of that regard for liberty which once characterised them. It has eaten out the vitals from the hearts of the Americans.
The Northern States are but the tools of slaveholders; a man belonging to the Free States cannot go into the Southern or Slaveholding
States, although the law says he shall enjoy equal rights in all states, he cannot go into these states with the Declaration in the one hand and the word of God in the other to declare the rights of all men, but he makes himself liable to be hung at the first lamp post. People talk here of the political rights enjoyed by the Americans, the suffrage, &c. I admit that they enjoy suffrage to a considerable extent. Who are the voters of America? The slaves of slaves. Our history shows the entire power of government to have been under the domination of slavery. It has elected our President, our senators, &c., and one of the first duties of our minister was to negotiate with Britain for the return to bondage of Maddison Washington,1In the 1842 negotiations between Daniel Webster and Alexander Baring, Lord Ashburton, American diplomats sought reparations for the liberated slaves and an extradition agreement to prevent similar difficulties in the future. Jones, "Case of the Creole Slave Revolt," 37–44; Jones, "Webster-Ashburton Negotiations," 48–58 who braved the dangers of the deep; who, with one mighty effort, burst asunder the chains of one hundred and thirty-five fellow-men, and after much fatigue and many severe struggles, steered them into a British port, and there found shelter under the British lion. Our whole country was thrown into confusion by the fact of him liberating himself and so many of his brethren, and Britain thus aiding them in their emancipation. I can well remember the speeches of Messrs. Clay, Calhoun, Webster, and others, on that occasion.2Of Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, and Daniel Webster, only Calhoun appears to have discussed the Creole incident at length. Between December 1841 and February 1842 Calhoun spoke on the subject three times in the Senate. In each instance he condemned Great Britain for violating American rights and demanded some form of redress. So far as can be determined, Henry Clay discussed the Creole case only once in the Senate on 11 January 1842. Stressing the potential threat to America's coasting trade, he concluded that the actions of Nassau authorities in the Creole affair "added greatly to our difficulties with the British Government." Clay confessed to having read the narrative of the revolt "with the most chilling and appalling sensations." No speech by Daniel Webster on the Creole affair has been located, but Douglass possibly refers to Webster's official dispatch to the U.S. minister at London, Edward Everett, dated 29 January 1842 and transmitted to the Senate on 21 February 1842. Describing the slave revolt as "one of the highest offences known to human law," Webster stressed the "Creole" incident's "dangerous importance to the peace" of Britain and America. Abolitionists accused Webster of risking war to protect the domestic slave trade and reprinted his letter in pamphlet form together with critical articles from the New York American. Congressional Globe, 27th Cong., 2d sess., 46–47, 115–16, 203–04; [William Jay?], ed., The Creole Case, and Mr. Webster's Dispatch; with the Comments of the N.Y. American (New York, 1842); Daniel Webster to Lord Ashburton, 1 August 1842, in NASS, 22 September 1842. Mr. Clay called attention to a most appalling occurrence on the high seas, and a breach of that law between nation and nation, &c.; but now Maddison Washington and his compeers are treading upon British soil, they have fled from a republican government and have chosen a monarchical, and are bask-
ing under the free sun amid the free hills and valleys of a free monarchical country.
I think I may boldly tell you that I am a republican, but not an American republican. I am here as a reviler of American republicanism. Aside from slavery I regard America as a brilliant example to the world; only wash from her escutcheon the bloody stain of slavery, and she will stand forth as a noble example for others to follow. But as long as the tears of my sisters and brother continue to run down her streams unheeded into the vast ocean of human misery, my tongue shall cleave to the roof of my mouth ere I speak well of such a nation.
It is often asked, what have the abolitionists done? We find that the slaveholder is as cruel and rapacious as he was ten years ago—we find that slaves are as numerous as they were ten years ago. But people forget what we had to do. We had other things to do than merely to abolish slavery. It had so woven and interwoven itself with the religion and the politics of America, that the abolitionists had an arduous and difficult path to pursue. The first man who started up to denounce slavery as a heinous crime, felt his task no easy one, for the whole nation sprung up into an organised mob to crush the cry for freedom.
The right of speech was then called into question. The members of society in general said—this shall not be discussed. The abolitionists then fell back on the Constitution—that Constitution which declares that all have equal rights—that every citizen has a right to speak. They then commenced their glorious warfare, not with carnal weapons, but with weapons too sharp and pointed for them to resist. In 1835, a few ladies convened in Washington, for the purpose of offering up their prayers in behalf of their oppressed sisters, and to listen to that mighty advocate of liberty, George Thompson.3George Thompson (1804–78), born in Liverpool, was a clerk with little formal education when he helped found the emancipation societies of Edinburgh and Glasgow in 1833. In 1834 he departed for America to begin what was to be a controversial fifteen-month speaking tour. Conservative foes of abolition from the outset pronounced the talented and effective orator a dangerous radical. Rumors circulated that Thompson was marked for assassination and that slaveowners had offered rewards for the delivery of his person. Mob violence so frequently interrupted his lectures that Thompson finally limited his speeches to the Boston area, where Garrisonians could at least offer protection. The incident Douglass describes actually took place in Boston's Congress Hall on Washington Street in October 1835. An announcement that Thompson would address the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society provoked a mob of some two to five thousand men to invade the hall. They attempted to lynch William Lloyd Garrison, who had gone to speak in Thompson's stead. Finding Boston unsafe, friends smuggled Thompson out of the city to Halifax in November 1835. After returning to England, Thompson campaigned to focus the attention of British abolitionists on the work of their American colleagues. He visited the United States twice more during his career, once in 1850–51 and again during the Civil War. Thompson also actively supported the Anti-Corn Law League, the British India Association, and served in Parliament (1847–52). C. Duncan Rice, "The Anti-Slavery Mission of George Thompson to the United States , 1834–1835," Journal of American Studies. 2 : 13–31 (April 1968); Temperley, British Antislavery, 23–29; Garrison and Garrison, Garrison Life, 1 : 434–522, 2 : 1–72; DNB, 19 : 691. These ladies were broken in upon. Five
thousand gentlemen stood on the outside, while the rest drove out the ladies from the hall, and this merely for praying for freedom to their own sisters. In 1835, there was scarcely one of the press who dared to advocate our cause—now we have upwards of one hundred of them teeming with anti-slavery doctrines—now we can hold meetings with men standing round to protect us. In 1835, we could not get a hall, no one would hazard his property so far, except the old cradle of liberty, the Faneuil Hall4In the early 1830s the New England (later Massachusetts) Anti-Slavery Society found it hard to secure meeting places for its annual conventions. In 1835 the Society was shut out of seven Boston churches, the Masonic Temple, and all but two of the city's public halls, including Faneuil Hall. The situation worsened the following year when delegates were forced to gather in a small meeting room above the antislavery office at 46 Washington Street in Boston. By 1837 the Society was reduced to assembling in a barn loft near the Marlboro Hotel, placing the group, as Garrison quipped, "upon a stable foundation." That same year, however, the Society first received permission to hold an evening session in the hall of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, commonly designated the State House. Garrison and Garrison, Garrison Life, 1 : 481, 2 : 125; Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, The Fourth Annual Report of the Board of Managers . . . (Boston, 1836), 44; Garrison to Anna Benson, 4 February 1837, in Merrill and Ruchames, "Garrison Letters, 2 : 207; Quarles, FD, 23.. But now we can go into the very state-house itself, and there advocate our anti-slavery doctrines.
What have the abolitionists done? Why, they have done a great preparatory work for emancipation. We must now utter the true word and then slavery will die—it cannot exist amid light. W e must expose [it] in all its horrid colours, its unjust and inhuman oppressions, so as to make the whole world see the villainy of such a system. There is not a single church in the United States but is tainted with it. The reason that slavery exists is, because it is popular. There is something respectable in holding a number of slaves, and until it becomes more unpopular, it will not be easily knocked down.
Whatever tends to make slavery respectable, tends to perpetuate it. Well, what have we found making slavery respectable? It is the Free Church of Scotland. The Free Church has attempted to make slaveholders be deemed respectable, and whatever makes the slaveholder respectable, makes the system respectable also. And where is the Free Churchman who will dare to deny that the Free Church Assembly made
them, respectable? Where is the Free Churchman who dares deny this? He'll not do it while I am in town I'll warrant you. (Laughter.) They bar their doors against me—they say don't let that fellow Douglass in—he is rather a dangerous character. The Free Church minister in Duntocher5Douglass refers to Reverend William Alexander (1808–90), a Free Church minister educated at the University of St. Andrews and licensed to preach by the Presbytery of Dundee in 1831. Alexander came to Duntocher in 1838 after assisting the Reverend John MacNaughtan in Paisley while both were still ministers of the Church of Scotland. He joined the Free Church in 1843. For many years Alexander served as Clerk of the Presbytery of Dumbarton where he ultimately became senior minister. On 21 April 1846 in a speech at Glasgow, James Buffum stressed that Free Church spokesmen had declined to debate him and Douglass, even though the abolitionists had sought public debate at almost every stop on their Scottish speaking tour. In Duntocher they were told that Alexander was willing to defend the Free Church's position. After being invited to come to the abolitionist meeting, however, Alexander "told those of his congregation who called upon him that he had now decided not to go . . . but if they . . . went they were carefully to notice what was said, and come back to him and he would explain it." Free Church Alliance With Manstealers. . . (Glasgow, 1846), 25; Statement Showing the Ordinary Collections and Seat-Rents, Minister's Supplements, &c, of the Congregations of the Free Church of Scotland, For the Year from March 31, 1845 to March 31, 1846 (Edinburgh, 1846), 7; Smith, Our Scottish Clergy, 3 : 91–97. had a class on the evening previous to that on which I was there. He advised them not to go and hear me. But, says he, "if any of you do go, listen attentively to what he says, and come and tell me, and I will explain it to you." (Laughter.) The coward, could he not come himself? (Cheers.) This reminds me of the story of an American colonel who addressed his soldiers before going to the field:—"Soldiers," says he, "fight nobly, fight for your country, fight bravely, fight gloriously; but if the enemy come and appear too many for you, I advise you by all means to retreat; and as for myself, as I am rather lame, I had better be going just now."6James Buffum claims to have told Douglass this anecdote the morning after their Duntocher meeting. In Buffum's version the soldier is "a little Connecticut Colonel" of the Revolutionary War. Free Church Alliance, 25. Mr. Douglass resumed his seat amid much applause.
[James N. Buffum then briefly addressed the meeting, detailing discrimination faced by Douglass and other American blacks, and urging the Free Church to send back the money. After Buffum's remarks, Douglass spoke again.]
Mr. Douglass said, that as this was probably the last opportunity he would have of addressing them, he had been requested to direct their attention to the unjust and ungodly distinction observed in the British steamers plying between America and England. Before leaving America, Mr. Buffum had gone to the agent of the Cambria steamer in New York, and asked if I could be allowed to go in the cabin to England. His answer was, that I could not be allowed to go in the cabin in
case it would give offence to some of the American passengers. I thought (said Mr. D.) the British would not bow to the bloody dictum of American prejudice. Mr. Buffum told the agent, that if I could not go in the cabin he would not go either, so that we both took a steerage passage. If Britain would only speak out, if she would only let her voice be heard, she would soon shake those prejudices and send them tottering to the dust. Why not sweep away such distinctions from the decks of British vessels, as well as from British soil? Petition those companies to abolish this horrid practice, and if they will not give in, you may soon see rivals start up proclaiming equal privileges to all. Mr. Douglass concluded by giving a graphic description of his voyage across the Atlantic in the Cambria, which drew from his audience the most rapturous applause.