The Dred Scott Decision: An Address Delivered, in Part, in New York, New York, in May 1857
THE DRED SCOTT DECISION: AN ADDRESS DELIVERED, IN PART, IN NEW YORK, NEW YORK, IN MAY 1857
Two Speeches, By Frederick Douglass; One on West India Emancipation, Delivered at Canandaigua, Aug. 4th, and the Other on the Dred Scott Decision, Delivered in New York, on the Occasion of the Anniversary of the American Abolition Society, May, 1857 (Rochester, 1857), 27-46. Other texts in Frederick Douglass' Paper, 12 June 1857; Speech File, reel 14, frames 181-92, reel 32, frames 486-97, 510-21, FD Papers, DLC; Foner, Life and Writings, 2:407-24, misdated 11 May 1857.
Readers of Frederick Douglass’ Paper frequently found texts of Douglass’s speeches reprinted in its pages. Often these texts were identical to reports found in other journals, but sometimes they were noticeably different. In the issue of 12 June 1857, during the "absence” of its editor, the newspaper published a text of Douglass’s remarks on the Dred Scott decision that an editorial announcement in the same issue called “a full report of the speech of Mr. Douglass, delivered at the recent Anniversary of the American Abolition Society, held in the city of New York." The heading above the text, which explained that Douglass had delivered the speech only “in part” on that occasion, was more accurate, however, for the text that followed differed significantly from previously published accounts of the 14 May 1857 meeting. At that time, Douglass presumably was unable to complete the speech he had prepared for delivery. The text reprinted here is longer, with more fully developed arguments, than that published under the earlier date. Specific references to the American Abolition Society’s meeting are omitted, an indication that Douglass did not mean this to be a verbatim record of his speech but rather a report of what he had intended to say and wanted recorded regarding his reaction to the momentous decision of the Taney Court. Sometime after mid-August 1857 Douglass reprinted the text from his newspaper in a pamphlet that also contained his address at Canandaigua, New York, on 3 August 1857. Douglass to Gerrit Smith, 18 August, 13 October 1857, Gerrit Smith Papers, NSyU.
Mr. CHAIRMAN, FRIENDS, and FELLOW CITIZENS: While four millions of our fellow countrymen are in chains—while men, women, and children are bought and sold on the auction-block with horses, sheep, and swine—while the remorseless slave-whip draws the warm blood of our common humanity—it is meet that we assemble as we have done to-day, and lift up our hearts and voices in earnest denunciation of the vile and shocking abomination. It is not for us to be governed by our hopes or our fears in this great work; yet it is natural on occasions like this, to survey the position of the great struggle which is going on between slavery and freedom, and to
dwell upon such signs of encouragement as may have been lately developed, and the state of feeling these signs or events have occasioned in us and among the people generally. It is a fitting time to take an observation to ascertain where we are, and what our prospects are.
To many, the prospects of the struggle against slavery seem far from cheering. Eminent men, North and South, in Church and State, tell us that the omens are all against us. Emancipation, they tell us, is a wild, delusive idea; the price of human flesh was never higher than now; slavery was never more closely entwined about the hearts and affections of the southern people than now; that whatever of conscientious scruple, religious conviction, or public policy, which opposed the system of slavery forty or fifty years ago, has subsided; and that slavery never reposed upon a firmer basis than now. Completing this picture of the happy and prosperous condition of this system of wickedness, they tell us that this state of things is to be set to our account. Abolition agitation has done it all. How deep is the misfortune of my poor, bleeding people, if this be so! How lost their condition, if even the efforts of their friends but sink them deeper in ruin!
Without assenting to this strong representation of the increasing strength and stability of slavery, without denouncing what of untruth pervades it, I own myself not insensible to the many difficulties and discouragements that beset us on every hand. They fling their broad and gloomy shadows across the pathway of every thoughtful colored man in this country. For one, I see them clearly, and feel them sadly. With an earnest, aching heart I have long looked for the realization of the hope of my people. Standing, as it were, barefoot, and treading upon the sharp and ﬂinty rocks of the present, and looking out upon the boundless sea of the future, I have sought, in my humble way, to penetrate the intervening mists and clouds, and, perchance, to descry, in the dim and shadowy distance, the white flag of freedom, the precise speck of time at which the cruel bondage of my people should end, and the long entombed millions rise from the foul grave of slavery and death. But of that time I can know nothing, and you can know nothing. All is uncertain at that point. One thing, however, is certain; slaveholders are in earnest, and mean to cling to their slaves as long as they can, and to the bitter end. They show no sign of a wish to quit their iron grasp upon the sable throats of their victims. Their motto is, “a firmer hold and a tighter grip” for every new effort that is made to break their cruel power. The case is one of life or death with them, and they will give up only when they must do that or do worse.
In one view slaveholders have a decided advantage over all opposition.
It is well to notice this advantage—the advantage of complete organization. They are organized; and yet were not at the pains of creating their organizations. The State governments, where the system of slavery exists, are complete slavery organizations. The church organizations in those States are equally at the service of slavery; while the Federal Government, with its army and navy, from the chief magistracy in Washington, to the Supreme Court, and thence to the chief marshalship at New York, is pledged to support, defend, and propagate the crying curse of human bondage. The pen, the purse, and the sword, are united against the simple truth, preached by humble men in obscure places.
This is one view. It is, thank God, only one view; there is another, and a brighter view. David, you know, looked small and insignificant when going to meet Goliath, but looked larger when he had slain his foe.1The biblical account of the combat between David and Goliath appears in 1 Sam. 17: 4-51. The Malakoff was, to the eye of the world, impregnable, till the hour it fell before the shot and shell of the allied army. Thus hath it ever been. Oppression, organized as ours is, will appear invincible up to the very hour of its fall. Sir, let us look at the other side, and see if there are not some things to cheer our heart and nerve us up anew in the good work of emancipation.
Take this fact—for it is a fact—the anti-slavery movement has, from first to last, suffered no abatement. It has gone forth in all directions, and is now felt in the remotest extremities of the Republic.
It started small, and was without capital either in men or money. The odds were all against it. It literally had nothing to lose, and every thing to gain. There was ignorance to be enlightened, error to be combatted, conscience to be awakened, prejudice to be overcome, apathy to be aroused, the right of speech to be secured, mob violence to be subdued, and a deep, radical change to be inwrought in the mind and heart of the whole nation. This great work, under God, has gone on, and gone on gloriously.
Amid all changes, fluctuations, assaults, and adverses of every kind, it has remained firm in its purpose, steady in its aim, onward and upward, defying all opposition, and never losing a single battle. Our strength is in the growth of anti-slavery conviction, and this has never halted.
There is a significant vitality about this abolition movement. It has taken a deeper, broader, and more lasting hold upon the national heart than ordinary reform movements. Other subjects of much interest come and go, expand and contract, blaze and vanish, but the huge question of American
Slavery, comprehending, as it does, not merely the weal or the woe of four millions, and their countless posterity, but the weal or the woe of this entire nation, must increase in magnitude and in majesty with every hour of its history. From a cloud not bigger than a man’s hand, it has overspread the heavens. It has risen from a grain not bigger than a mustard seed. Yet see the fowls of the air, how they crowd its branches.2An allusion to Matt. 13: 31, Mark 4: 31, or Luke 13: 19.
Politicians who cursed it, now defend it; ministers, once dumb, now speak in its praise; and presses, which once flamed with hot denunciations against it, now surround the sacred cause as by a wall of living fire. Politicians go with it as a pillar of cloud by day, and the press as a pillar of fire by night.3Douglass's allusion is to Exod. 13: 21. With these ancient tokens of success, I, for one, will not despair of our cause.
Those who have undertaken to suppress and crush out this agitation for Liberty and humanity, have been most woefully disappointed. Many who have engaged to put it down, have found themselves put down. The agitation has pursued them in all their meanderings, broken in upon their seclusion, and, at the very moment of fancied security, it has settled down upon them like a mantle of unquenchable fire. Clay, Calhoun, and Webster each tried his hand at suppressing the agitation; and they went to their graves disappointed and defeated.
Loud and exultingly have we been told that the slavery question is settled, and settled forever. You remember it was settled thirty-seven years ago, when Missouri was admitted into the Union with a slaveholding constitution, and slavery prohibited in all territory north of thirty-six degrees of north latitude. Just fifteen years afterwards, it was settled again by voting down the right of petition, and gagging down free discussion in Congress. Ten years after this it was settled again by the annexation of Texas, and with it the war with Mexico. In 1850 it was again settled. This was called a final settlement. By it slavery was virtually declared to be the equal of Liberty, and should come into the Union on the same terms. By it the right and the power to hunt down men, women, and children, in every part of this country, was conceded to our southern brethren, in order to keep them in the Union. Four years after this settlement, the whole question was once more settled, and settled by a settlement which unsettled all the former settlements.4Douglass refers to the Compromise of 1850, particularly the Fugitive Slave Law, and to the Kansas-Nebraska Act.
The fact is, the more the question has been settled, the more it has needed settling. The space between the different settlements has been strikingly on the decrease. The first stood longer than any of its successors.
There is a lesson in these decreasing spaces. The first stood fifteen years—the second, ten years—the third, five years—the fourth stood four years—and the fifth has stood the brief space of two years.
This last settlement must be called the Taney settlement. We are now told, in tones of lofty exultation, that the day is lost—all lost—and that we might as well give up the struggle. The highest authority has spoken. The voice of the Supreme Court has gone out over the troubled waves of the National Conscience, saying peace, be still.
This infamous decision of the Slaveholding wing of the Supreme Court5The seven Supreme Court justices who ruled against Dred Scott's suit for freedom were Roger B. Taney, John A. Campbell, John Catron, Peter V. Daniel, Robert Grier, Samuel Nelson, and James M. Wayne. maintains that slaves are, within the contemplation of the Constitution of the United States, property; that slaves are property in the same sense that horses, sheep, and swine are property; that the old doctrine that slavery is a creature of local law is false; that the right of the slaveholder to his slave does not depend upon the local law, but is secured wherever the Constitution of the United States extends; that Congress has no right to prohibit slavery anywhere; that slavery may go in safety anywhere under the star-spangled banner; that colored persons of African descent have no rights that white men are bound to respect; that colored men of African descent are not and cannot be citizens of the United States.
You will readily ask me how I am affected by this devilish decision—this judicial incarnation of wolfishness! My answer is, and no thanks to the slaveholding wing of the Supreme Court, my hopes were never brighter than now.
I have no fear that the National Conscience will be put to sleep by such an open, glaring, and scandalous tissue of lies as that decision is, and has been, over and over, shown to be.
The Supreme Court of the United States is not the only power in this world. It is very great, but the Supreme Court of the Almighty is greater. Judge Taney can do many things, but he cannot perform impossibilities. He cannot bale out the ocean, annihilate this firm old earth, or pluck the silvery star of liberty from our Northern sky. He may decide, and decide again; but he cannot reverse the decision of the Most High. He cannot change the essential nature of things—making evil good, and good, evil.
Happily for the whole human family, their rights have been defined, declared, and decided in a court higher than the Supreme Court. “There is a law,” says Brougham, “above all the enactments of human codes, and by that law, unchangeable and eternal, man cannot hold property in man.”6Douglass probably paraphrases Lord Brougham's parliamentary speech of 13 July 1830: “[B]y a law above and prior to all the laws of human lawgivers, for it is the law of God—there are some things which cannot be holden in property, and above everything else, that man can have no property in his fellow-creature." [Henry Peter Brougham], Works of Lord Brougham, 11 vols. (Edinburgh, 1872-73), 10:198.
Your fathers have said that man’s right to liberty is self-evident.7A paraphrase of a passage from the Declaration of Independence. There is no need of argument to make it clear. The voices of nature, of conscience, of reason, and of revelation, proclaim it as the right of all rights, the foundation of all trust, and of all responsibility. Man was born with it. It was his before he comprehended it. The deed conveying it to him is written in the centre of his soul, and is recorded in Heaven. The sun in the sky is not more palpable to the sight than man’s right to liberty is to the moral vision. To decide against this right in the person of Dred Scott, or the humblest and most whip-scarred bondman in the land, is to decide against God. It is an open rebellion against God’s government. It is an attempt to undo what God [has] done, to blot out the broad distinction instituted by the Allwise between men and things, and to change the image and superscription of the everliving God into a speechless piece of merchandise.
Such a decision cannot stand. God will be true though every man be a liar. We can appeal from this hell-black judgment of the Supreme Court, to the court of common sense and common humanity. We can appeal from man to God. If there is no justice on earth, there is yet justice in heaven. You may close your Supreme Court against the black man’s cry for justice, but you cannot, thank God, close against him the ear of a sympathising world, nor shut up the Court of Heaven. All that is merciful and just, on earth and in Heaven, will execrate and despise this edict of Taney.
If it were at all likely that the people of these free States would tamely submit to this demonical judgment, I might feel gloomy and sad over it, and possibly it might be necessary for my people to look for a home in some other country. But as the case stands, we have nothing to fear.
In one point of view, we, the abolitionists and colored people, should meet this decision, unlooked for and monstrous as it appears, in a cheerful spirit. This very attempt to blot out forever the hopes of an enslaved people
may be one necessary link in the chain of events preparatory to the down- fall and complete overthrow of the whole slave system.
The whole history of the anti-slavery movement is studded with proof that all measures devised and executed with a view to allay and diminish the anti-slavery agitation, have only served to increase, intensify, and embolden that agitation. This wisdom of the crafty has been confounded, and the counsels of the ungodly brought to nought. It was so with the Fugitive Slave Bill. It was so with the Kansas-Nebraska Bill; and it will be so with this last and most shocking of all pro-slavery devices, this Taney decision.
When great transactions are involved, where the fate of millions is concerned, where a long enslaved and suffering people are to be delivered, I am superstitious enough to believe that the finger of the Almighty may be seen bringing good out ofevil, and making the wrath of man redound to his honor, hastening the triumph of righteousness.
The American people have been called upon, in a most striking manner, to abolish and put away forever the system of slavery. The subject has been pressed upon their attention in all earnestness and sincerity. The cries of the slave have gone forth to the world, and up to the throne of God. This decision, in my view, is a means of keeping the nation awake on the subject. It is another proof that God does not mean that we shall go to sleep, and forget that we are a slaveholding nation.
Step by step we have seen the slave power advancing; poisoning, corrupting, and perverting the institutions of the country; growing more and more haughty, imperious, and exacting. The white man’s liberty has been marked out for the same grave with the black man’s.
The ballot box is desecrated, God’s law set at nought, armed legislators stalk the halls of Congress, freedom of speech is beaten down in the Senate. The rivers and highways are infested by border ruffians, and white men are made to feel the iron heel of slavery. This ought to arouse us to kill off the hateful thing. They are solemn warnings to which the white people, as well as the black people, should take heed.
If these shall fail, judgment, more fierce or terrible, may come. The lightning, whirlwind, and earthquake may come. Jefferson said that he trembled for his country when he reﬂected that God is just, and his justice cannot sleep forever.8Douglass paraphrases a statement from Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, ed. William Peden (1787; Chapel Hill, 1955), 163. The time may come when even the crushed worm
may turn under the tyrant’s feet. Goaded by cruelty, stung by a burning sense of wrong, in an awful moment of depression and desperation, the bondman and bondwoman at the south may rush to one wild and deadly struggle for freedom. Already slaveholders go to bed with bowie knives, and apprehend death at their dinners. Those who enslave, rob, and torment their cooks, may well expect to find death in their dinner-pots.
The world is full of violence and fraud, and it would be strange if the slave, the constant victim of both fraud and violence, should escape the contagion. He, too, may learn to fight the devil with fire, and for one, I am in no frame of mind to pray that this may be long deferred.
Two remarkable occurrences have followed the presidential election, one was the unaccountable sickness traced to the National Hotel at Washington, and the other was the discovery of a plan among the slaves, in different localities, to slay their oppressors. Twenty or thirty of the suspected were put to death. Some were shot, some hanged, some burned, and some died under the lash. One brave man owned himself well acquainted with the conspiracy, but said he would rather die than disclose the facts. He received seven hundred and fifty lashes, and his noble spirit went away to the God who gave it. The name of this hero has been by the meanness of tyrants suppressed. Such a man redeems his race. He is worthy to be mentioned with the Hoffers and Tells,9Andreas Hofer and William Tell. the noblest heroes of history. These insurrectionary movements have been put down, but they may break out at any time, under the guidance of higher intelligence, and with a more invincible spirit.
The fire thus kindled, may be revived again;
The flames are extinguished, but the embers remain;
One terrible blast may produce an ignition,
Which shall wrap the whole South in wild conflagration.
The pathway of tyrants lies over volcanoes;
The very air they breathe is heavy with sorrows;
Agonizing heart-throbs convulse them while sleeping,
And the wind whispers Death as over them sweeping.10Douglass quotes the last two verses of “The Tyrants’ Jubilee!" a twenty-nine stanza poem that he himself composed as “an Address supposed to have been delivered on the occasion celebrating the Suppression of the recent apprehended Insurrections at the South." The complete poem appears in FDP, 16 January 1857.
By all the laws of nature. civilization, and of progress, slavery is a doomed system. Not all the skill of politicians, North and South, not all the sophistries of Judges, not all the fulminations of a corrupt press, not all the hypocritical prayers, or the hypocritical refusals to pray of a hollow- hearted priesthood, not all the devices of sin and Satan, can save the vile thing from extermination.
Already a gleam of hope breaks upon us from the south-west. One Southern city has grieved and astonished the whole South by a preference for freedom. The wedge has entered. Dred Scott, of Missouri, goes into slavery, but St. Louis declares for freedom.11Douglass probably alludes to the election of John M. Wimer as mayor and other avowed gradual emancipationists as aldermen in St. Louis in April 1857. NASS, 11, 25 April I857; St. Louis Daily Missouri Democrat, 15 April 1857; Raymond D. Thomas. “A Study in Missouri Politics, 1840-1870,” Missouri Historical Review, 21: 168—69 (January 1927). The judgment of Taney is not the judgment of St. Louis.
It may be said that this demonstration in St. Louis is not to be taken as an evidence of sympathy with the slave; that it is purely a white man’s victory. I admit it. Yet I am glad that white men, bad as they generally are, should gain a victory over slavery. I am willing to accept a judgment against slavery, whether supported by white or black reasons—though I would much rather have it supported by both. He that is not against us, is on our part.
Come what will, I hold it to be morally certain that, sooner or later, by fair means or foul means, in quiet or in tumult, in peace or in blood, in judgment or in mercy, slavery is doomed to cease out of this otherwise goodly land, and liberty is destined to become the settled law of this Republic.
I base my sense of the certain overthrow of slavery, in part, upon the nature of the American Government, the Constitution, the tendencies of the age, and the character of the American people; and this, notwithstanding the important decision of Judge Taney.
I know of no soil better adapted to the growth of reform than American soil. I know of no country where the conditions for affecting great changes in the settled order of things, for the development of right ideas of liberty and humanity, are more favorable than here in these United States.
The very groundwork of this government is a good repository of Christian civilization. The Constitution, as well as the Declaration of Independence, and the sentiments of the founders of the Republic, give us a
platform broad enough, and strong enough, to support the most comprehensive plans for the freedom and elevation of all the people of this country, without regard to color, class, or clime.
There is nothing in the present aspect of the anti-slavery question which should drive us into the extravagance and nonsense of advocating a dissolution of the American Union as a means of overthrowing slavery, or freeing the North from the malign inﬂuence of slavery upon the morals of the Northern people. While the press is at liberty, and speech is free, and the ballot-box is Open to the people of the sixteen free States; while the slaveholders are but four hundred thousand in number, and we are fourteen millions; while the mental and moral power of the nation is with us; while we are really the strong and they are the weak, it would look worse than cowardly to retreat from the Union.
If the people of the North have not the power to cope with these four hundred thousand slaveholders inside the Union, I see not how they could do so outside the Union; indeed, I see not how they could get out of the Union. The strength necessary to move the Union must ever be less than is required to break it up. If we have got to conquer the slave power to get out of the Union, I for one would much rather conquer, and stay in the Union. The latter, it strikes me, is the far more rational mode of action.
I make these remarks in no servile spirit, nor in any superstitious reverence for a mere human arrangement. If I felt the Union to be a curse, I should not be far behind the very chiefest of the disunion Abolitionists in denouncing it. But the evil to be met and abolished is not in the Union. The power arrayed against us is not a parchment.
It is not in changing the dead form of the Union, that slavery is to be abolished in this country. We have to do not with the dead, but the living; not with the past, but the living present.
Those who seek slavery in the Union, and who are everlastingly dealing blows upon the Union, in the belief that they are killing slavery, are most woefully mistaken. They are fighting a dead form instead of a living and powerful reality. It is clearly not because of the peculiar character of our Constitution that we have slavery, but the wicked pride, love of power, and selfish perverseness of the American people. Slavery lives in this country not because of any paper Constitution, but in the moral blindness of the American people, who persuade themselves that they are safe, though the rights of others may be struck down.
Besides, I think it would be difficult to hit upon any plan less likely to abolish slavery than the dissolution of the Union. The most devoted advocates
of slavery, those who make the interests of slavery their constant study, seek a dissolution of the Union as their final plan for preserving slavery from Abolition, and their ground is well taken. Slavery lives and ﬂourishes best in the absence of civilization; a dissolution of the Union would shut up the system in its own congenial barbarism.
The dissolution of the Union would not give the North one single additional advantage over slavery to the people of the North, but would manifestly take from them many which they now certainly possess.
Within the Union we have a firm basis of anti-slavery operation. National welfare, national prosperity, national reputation and honor, and national scrutiny; common rights, common duties, and common country, are so many bridges over which we can march to the destruction of slavery. To fling away these advantages because James Buchanan is President, or Judge Taney gives a lying decision in favor of slavery, does not enter into my notion of common sense.
Mr. Garrison and his friends have been telling us that, while in the Union, we are responsible for slavery; and in so telling us, he and they have told us the truth. But in telling us that we shall cease to be responsible for slavery by dissolving the Union, he and they have not told us the truth.
There now, clearly, is no freedom from responsibility for slavery, but in the Abolition of slavery. We have gone too far in this business now to sum up our whole duty in the cant phrase of “no Union with slaveholders.”
To desert the family hearth may place the recreant husband out of the sight of his hungry children, but it cannot free him from responsibility. Though he should roll the waters of three oceans, between him and them, he could not roll from his soul the burden of his responsibility to them; and, as with the private family, so in this instance with the national family. To leave the slave in his chains, in the hands of cruel masters, who are too strong for him, is not to free ourselves from responsibility. Again: If I were on board of a pirate ship, with a company of men and women whose lives and liberties I had put in jeopardy, I would not clear my soul of their blood by jumping in the long boat, and singing out no union with pirates. My business would be to remain on board, and while I never would perform a single act of piracy again, 1 should exhaust every means given me by my position, to save the lives and liberties of those against whom I had committed piracy. In like manner, 1 hold it is our duty to remain inside this Union, and use all the power to restore [to the] enslaved millions their precious and God-given rights. The more we have done by our voice and
our votes, in times past, to rivet their galling fetters, the more clearly and solemnly comes the sense of duty to remain, to undo what we have done. Where, I ask, could the slave look for release from slavery if the Union were dissolved? l have an abiding conviction founded upon long and careful study of the certain effects of slavery upon the moral sense of slaveholding communities, that if the slaves are ever delivered from bondage, the power will emanate from the free States. All hope that the slaveholders will be self-moved to this great act of justice, is groundless and delusive. Now, as of old, the Redeemer must come from above, not from beneath. To dissolve the Union would be to withdraw the emancipating power from the field.
But I am told this is the argument of expediency. l admit it, and am prepared to show that what is expedient in this instance is right. “Do justice, though the heavens fall.”12This maxim first appeared in an English-language book in William Watson, A Decacordon of Ten Quodlibetical Questions Concerning Religion and State ([London], 1602), 196. Yes, that is a good motto, but I deny that it would be doing justice to the slave to dissolve the Union and leave the slave in his chains to get out by the clemency of his master, or the strength of his arms. Justice to the slave is to break his chains, and going out of the union is to leave him in his chains, and without any probable chance of getting out of them.
But I come now to the great question as to the constitutionality of slavery. The recent slaveholding decision, as well as the teachings of anti-slavery men, make this a fit time to discuss the constitutional pretensions of slavery.
The people of the North are a law abiding people. They love order and respect the means to that end. This sentiment has sometimes led them to the folly and wickedness of trampling upon the very life of law, to uphold its dead form. This was so in the execution of that thrice accursed Fugitive Slave Bill. Burns13Anthony Burns. and Simms,14On 3 April 1851 an escaped slave named Thomas M. Sims was apprehended in Boston. Because another fugitive slave, Shadrach, had been rescued from custody in that city the previous February, special precautions were taken by authorities to prevent a recurrence. Barriers were erected around the Boston courthouse to control crowds, and Sims was constantly kept under armed guard. Legal efforts by Robert Rantoul, Jr., Charles Greely Loring, and Samuel E. Sewall failed to prevent Fugitive Slave Commissioner George Ticknor Curtis from ordering Sims's rendition to his master, James Potter of Chatham County, Georgia. Three hundred armed men escorted the fugitive to the Boston docks, whence he was transported to Georgia aboard the U.S. brig Acorn. Sims was later sold to a new master in Vicksburg, Mississippi. After the war he moved to Washington, D.C. Campbell, Slave Catchers, 31, 99—100, 106, 117—21; McDougall, Fugitive Slaves, 44—45. were sent back to the hell of slavery after
they had looked upon Bunker Hill, and heard liberty thunder in Faneuil Hall. The people permitted this outrage in obedience to the popular sentiment of reverence for law. While men thus respect law, it becomes a serious matter so to interpret the law as to make it operate against liberty. I have a quarrel with those who ﬂing the Supreme Law of this land between the slave and freedom. It is a serious matter to fling the weight of the Constitution against the cause of human liberty, and those who do it, take upon them a heavy responsibility. Nothing but absolute necessity, shall, or ought to drive me to such a concession to slavery.
When I admit that slavery is constitutional, I must see slavery recognized in the Constitution. I must see that it is there plainly stated that one man of a certain description has a right of property in the body and soul of another man of a certain description. There must be no room for a doubt. In a matter so important as the loss of liberty, everything must be proved beyond all reasonable doubt.
The well known rules of legal interpretation bear me out in this stubborn refusal to see slavery where slavery is not, and only to see slavery where it is.
The Supreme Court has, in its day, done something better than make slaveholding decisions. It has laid down rules of interpretation which are in harmony with the true idea and object of law and liberty.
It has told us that the intention of legal instruments must prevail; and that this must be collected from its words.15Douglass probably has in mind two of John Marshall‘s decisions. In United States v. Fisher (1805), the chief justice affirmed: “It is undoubtedly a well established principle in the exposition of statutes, that every part is to be considered, and the intention of the legislature to be extracted from the whole. It is also true. that where great inconvenience will result from a particular construction, that construction is to be avoided, unless the meaning of the legislature be plain; in which case it must be obeyed." In another decision frequently cited by abolitionists. Marshall declared: “Before discussing this argument, it may not be improper to premise that, although the spirit of an instrument, especially of a constitution. is to be respected not less than its letter, yet the spirit is to be collected chiefly from its words. It would be dangerous in the extreme to infer from extrinsic circumstances. that a case for which the words of an instrument expressly provide. shall be exempted from its operation. Where words conflict with each other, where the different clauses of an instrument bear upon each other, and would be inconsistent unless the natural and common import of words be varied. construction becomes necessary, and a departure from the obvious meaning of words is justifiable." 2 Cranch (1806) 386; 4 Wheaton, 202; Lysander Spooner, The Unconstitutionality of Slavery (Boston, 1860), 213, 229; William Goodell, Our National Charters: For the Millions (New York, 1861). 6—9. It has told us that language must be construed strictly in favor of liberty and justice.
It has told us where rights are infringed, where fundamental principles are overthrown, [and] where the general system of the law is departed
from, the Legislative intention must be expressed with irresistible clearness, to induce a court of justice to suppose a design to effect such objects.
These rules are as old as law. They rise out of the very elements of law. It is to protect human rights, and promote human welfare. Law is in its nature opposed to wrong, and must everywhere be presumed to be in favor of the right. The pound of ﬂesh, but not one drop of blood, is a sound rule of legal interpretation.
Besides there is another rule of law as well [as] of common sense, which requires us to look to the ends for which a law is made, and to construe its details in harmony with the ends sought.
Now let us approach the Constitution from the stand-point thus indicated, and instead of finding in it a warrant for the stupendous system of robbery, comprehended in the term slavery, we shall find it strongly against that system.
“We, the people of the United States. in order to form a more perfect Union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this constitution for the United States of America.”
Such are the objects announced by the instrument itself. and they are in harmony with the Declaration of Independence, and the principles of human well-being.
Six objects are here declared, “Union, “tranquility,” and “justice,” and “liberty.”
Neither in the preamble nor in the body of the Constitution is there a single mention of the term slave or slave holder, slave master or slave state, neither is there any reference to the color, or the physical peculiarities of any part of the people of the United States. Neither is there anything in the Constitution standing alone, which would imply the existence of slavery in this country.
“We, the people”——not we, the white people—not we, the citizens, or the legal voters—not we, the privileged class, and excluding all other classes but we, the people; not we, the horses and cattle, but we the people—the men and women, the human inhabitants of the United States, do ordain and establish this Constitution, &c.
I ask, then, any man to read the Constitution, and tell me where if he can, in what particular that instrument affords the slightest sanction of slavery?
Where will he find a guarantee for slavery? Will he find it in the
declaration that no person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law? Will he find it in the declaration that the Constitution was established to secure the blessings of liberty? Will he find it in the right of the people to be secure in their persons and papers, and houses, and effects? Will he find it in the clause prohibiting the enactment by any State of a bill of attainder?
These all strike at the root of slavery. and any one of them, but faithfully carried out, would put an end to slavery in every State in the American Union.
Take, for example, the prohibition of a bill of attainder. That is a law entailing on the child the misfortunes of the parent. This principle would destroy slavery in every State of the Union.
The law of slavery is a law of attainder. The child is property because its parent was property, and suffers as a slave because its parent suffered as a slave.
Thus the very essence of the whole slave code is in open violation of a fundamental provision of the Constitution, and is in open and ﬂagrant violation of all the objects set forth in the Constitution.
While this and much more can be said, and has been said, and much better said, by Lysander Spooner, William Goodell, Beriah Green, and Gerrit Smith, in favor of the entire unconstitutionality of slavery, what have we on the other side?
How is the constitutionality of slavery made out, or attempted to be made out?
First, by discrediting and casting away as worthless the most beneficent rules of legal interpretation; by disregarding the plain and common sense reading of the instrument itself; by showing that the Constitution does not mean what it says, and says what it does not mean, by assuming that the WRITTEN Constitution is to be interpreted in the light of a SECRET and UNWRITTEN understanding of its framers, which understanding is declared to be in favor of slavery. It is in this mean, contemptible, underhand method that the Constitution is pressed into the service of slavery.
They do not point us to the Constitution itself, for the reason that there is nothing sufficiently explicit for their purpose; but they delight in supposed intentions—intentions no where expressed in the Constitution, and every where contradicted in the Constitution.
Judge Taney lays down this system of interpreting in this wise:
“The general words above quoted would seem to embrace the whole human family, and, if they were used in a similar instrument at this day,
would be so understood. But it is too clear for dispute that the enslaved African race were not intended to be included, and formed no part of the people who framed and adopted this declaration; for if the language, as understood in that day, would embrace them, the conduct of the distinguished men who framed the Declaration of Independence would have been utterly and flagrantly inconsistent with the principles they asserted; and instead of the sympathy of mankind, to which they appealed, they would have deserved and received universal rebuke and reprobation.
“It is difficult, at this day, to realize the state of public opinion respecting that unfortunate class with the civilized and enlightened portion of the world at the time of the Declaration of Independence and the adoption of the Constitution; but history shows they had. for more than a century, been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and unfit associates for the white race, either socially or politically, and had no rights which white men are bound to respect; and the black man might be reduced to slavery, bought and sold, and treated as an ordinary article of merchandise. This opinion, at that time, was ﬁxed and universal with the civilized portion of the white race. It was regarded as an axiom of morals, which no one thought of disputing, and every one habitually acted upon it, without doubting, for a moment, the correctness of the opinion. And in no nation was this opinion more ﬁxed, and generally acted upon, than in England; the subjects of which government not only seized them on the coast of Africa, but took them, as ordinary merchandise, to where they could make a profit on them. The opinion, thus entertained, was universally maintained on the colonies this side of the Atlantic; accordingly, negroes of the African race were regarded by them as property, and held and bought and sold as such in every one of the thirteen colonies which united in the Declaration of Independence, and afterwards formed the Constitution.”16Douglass quotes and paraphrases Chief Justice Roger B. Taney's opinion in Dred Scott v. John F. A. Sandford, 19 Howard 393 (1857), 407—10.
The argument here is, that the Constitution comes down to us from a slaveholding period and a slaveholding people; and that, therefore, we are bound to suppose that the Constitution recognizes colored persons of African descent, the victims of slavery at that time, as debarred forever from all participation in the benefit of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, although the plain reading of both includes them in their beneficent range.
As a man, an American, a citizen, a colored man of both Anglo-Saxon
and African descent, I denounce this representation as a most scandalous and devilish perversion of the Constitution, and a brazen misstatement of the facts of history.
But I will not content myself with mere denunciation; I invite attention to the facts.
It is a fact, a great historic fact, that at the time of the adoption of the Constitution, the leading religious denominations in this land were anti-slavery, and were laboring for the emancipation of the colored people of African descent.
The church of a country is often a better index of the state of opinion and feeling than is even the government itself.
The Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, and the denomination of Friends, were actively opposing slavery, denouncing the system of bondage, with language as burning and sweeping as we employ at this day.
Take the Methodists. In 1780, that denomination said: “The Conference acknowledges that slavery is contrary to the laws of God, man, and nature, and hurtful to society—contrary to the dictates of conscience and true religion, and doing to others that we would not do unto us."17Douglass quotes with minor errors the text of the 1780 Annual Conference minutes. Methodist Episcopal Church, Annual Conference Minutes, 1780, 12. In 1784, the same church declared, “that those who buy, sell, or give slaves away, except for the purpose to free them, shall be expelled immediately.”18Douglass paraphrases the answer to Question 12 in the minutes of the 1784 Annual Conference. Methodist Episcopal Church, Annual Conference Minutes, 1784, 20. In 1785, it spoke even more stringently on the subject. It then said: “We hold in the deepest abhorrence the practice of slavery, and shall not cease to seek
its destruction by all wise and proper means."19Douglass substitutes “proper” for “prudent” in quoting from the minutes of the 1785 Annual Conference. Methodist Episcopal Church, Annual Conference Minutes, 1785, 24.
So much for the position of the Methodist Church in the early history of the Republic, in those days of darkness to which Judge Taney refers.
Let us now see how slavery was regarded by the Presbyterian Church at that early date.
In 1794, the General Assembly of that body pronounced the following judgment in respect to slavery, slaveholders, and slaveholding.
“1st Timothy, 1st chapter, 10th verse: ‘The law was made for man-stealers.’ 'This crime among the Jews exposed the perpetrators of it to capital punishment.' Exodus, xxi, 13.—And the apostle here classes them with sinners of the first rank. The word he uses in its original import,
comprehends all who are concerned in bringing any of the human race into slavery, or in retaining them in it. Stealers of men are all those who bring off slaves or freemen, and keep. sell, or buy them. 'To steal a freeman,’ says Grotius, ‘is the highest kind of theft.' In other instances, we only steal human property, but when we steal or retain men in slavery, we seize those who, in common with ourselves, are constituted, by the original grant, lords of the earth.”20The quoted passages constitute a note appended to Question 142 of the Larger Catechism of the Presbyterian Church that was removed in 1816.
I might quote, at length, from the sayings of the Baptist Church and the sayings of eminent divines at this early period, showing that Judge Taney has grossly falsified history, but will not detain you with these quotations.
The testimony of the church, and the testimony of the founders of this Republic, from the declaration downward, prove Judge Taney false: as false to history as he is to law.
Washington and Jefferson, and Adams,21John Adams. and Jay,22John Jay. and Franklin, and Rush,23Benjamin Rush (1745-1813) was born in Byberry, near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and graduated from the College of New Jersey (Princeton) in 1760. Settling in Philadelphia, he practiced medicine and later taught that subject at the University of Pennsylvania. Rush supported the patriot cause in the Revolution and was a signer of the Declaration of Independence. He was active in most of the Revolutionary era's reform and philanthropic movements, including antislavery. From 1797 to 1813 he was treasurer of the Mint. ACAB, 5 : 349-50; NCAB, 16: 227—31. and Hamilton,24Alexander Hamilton (1755-1804), Revolutionary statesman and first secretary of the treasury, was born in the Leeward Islands, emigrated to New York in 1772, and attended King's College (Columbia). As secretary and aide-de-camp to General George Washington during the war, Hamilton advocated a plan to staff southern militia units with slaves, arguing that their “natural faculties are as good as ours" and that their “habit of subordination" would prepare them to be obedient soldiers. “The contempt we have been taught to entertain for blacks," he maintained, “makes us fancy many things that are founded neither in reason or experience." Hamilton proposed offering blacks their freedom in exchange for military service, and at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 his proposals for a strong central government were seen by some southerners as a threat to slavery. Secretary and, briefly, president of the Society for Promoting the Manumission of Slaves, Hamilton supported a bill in the New York Assembly that provided for the gradual emancipation of slaves. Despite these views, Hamilton held slaves throughout his life, occasionally buying and selling them for his friends. Goodell, Slavery and Anti-Slavery, 95, 97; John C. Miller, Alexander Hamilton: Portrait in Paradox (New York, 1959); Broadus Mitchell, Alexander Hamilton: The Revolutionary Years (New York, 1970); James Thomas Flexner, The Young Hamilton: A Biography (Boston, 1978); DAB, 8: 171-79. and a host of others, held no such degrading views on the subject as are imputed by Judge Taney to the Fathers of the Republic.
All, at that time, looked for the gradual but certain abolition of slavery, and shaped the constitution with a view to this grand result.
George Washington can never be claimed as a fanatic, or as the representative of fanatics. The slaveholders impudently use his name for the base purpose of giving respectability to slavery. Yet, in a letter to Robert Morris,25Robert Morris (1734-1806), Revolutionary financier, emigrated as a child to Maryland from Liverpool, England. He briefly attended school in Philadelphia, where he later became a wealthy shipping merchant. Using his business skills and influence. he played a key role in the ﬁnancing and supplying of the Continental forces during the Revolution. ultimately serving as Congress‘s superintendent of finance (1781-84). A signer of the Declaration of Independence and a delegate to the Constitutional Convention. Morris also served in the Pennsylvania General Assembly (1785-86) and the Senate (1789-95). During the 1700s the failure of his large-scale land speculations led to financial ruin. He was arrested for debt in February 1798 and spent over three years in a Philadelphia debtors‘ prison. He emerged from this experience in poor health and spent his remaining days in relative obscurity. Ellis Paxson Oberholtzer, Robert Morris, Patriot and Financier (New York, 1903); Clarence L. Ver Steeg, Robert Morris: Revolutionary Financier (Philadelphia, 1954); ACAB, 4: 416— 17; DAB, 13 : 219-23. Washington uses this language—language which, at this day, would make him a terror of the slaveholders, and the natural representative of the Republican party.
“There is not a man living, who wishes more sincerely than I do, to see some plan adopted for the abolition of slavery; but there is only one proper and effectual mode by which it can be accomplished, and that is by Legislative authority; and this, as far as my suffrage will go, shall not be wanting.”26Douglass makes minor errors in quoting from George Washington's letter of 12 April 1786 to Robert Morris: “I can only say that there is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a plan adopted for the abolition of it [slavery]; but there is only one proper and effectual mode by which it can be accomplished, and that is by Legislative authority; and this, as far as my suffrage will go, shall never be wanting." John C. Fitzpatrick. ed., The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745—1799, 37 vols. (Washington. DC. 1931—40), 28: 407—08.
Washington only spoke the sentiment of his times. There were, at that time, Abolition societies in the slave States—Abolition societies in Virginia, in North Carolina, in Maryland, in Pennsylvania, and in Georgia—all slaveholding States. Slavery was so weak, and liberty so strong, that free speech could attack the monster to its teeth. Men were not mobbed and driven out of the presence of slavery, merely because they condemned the slave system. The system was then on its knees imploring to be spared, until it could get itself decently out of the world.
In the light of these facts. the Constitution was framed, and framed in conformity to it.
It may, however, be asked, if the Constitution were so framed that the rights of all the people were naturally protected by it, how happens it that a large part of the people have been held in slavery ever since its adoption? Have the people mistaken the requirements of their own Constitution?
The answer is ready. The Constitution is one thing, its administration is another, and, in this instance, a very different and opposite thing. I am here to vindicate the law, not the administration of the law. It is the written Constitution, not the unwritten Constitution, that is now before us. If, in the whole range of the Constitution, you can find no warrant for slavery, then we may properly claim it for liberty.
Good and wholesome laws are often found dead on the statute book. We may condemn the practice under them and against them, but never the law itself. To condemn the good law with the wicked practice, is to weaken, not to strengthen our testimony.
It is no evidence that the Bible is a bad book, because those who profess to believe the Bible are bad. The slaveholders of the South, and many of their wicked allies at the North, claim the Bible for slavery; shall we, therefore, ﬂing the Bible away as a pro-slavery book? It would be as reasonable to do so as it would be to fling away the Constitution.
We are not the only people who have illustrated the truth, that a people may have excellent law, and detestable practices. Our Savior denounces the Jews, because they made void the law by their traditions.27Douglass paraphrases Jesus' criticism of the Pharisees in Mark 7: 9: “Full well ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your own tradition"; and Mark 7: 13: “Making the word of God of none effect through your tradition. which ye have delivered: and many such like things do ye." We have been guilty of the same sin.
The American people have made void our Constitution by just such traditions as Judge Taney and Mr. Garrison have been giving to the world of late, as the true light in which to view the Constitution of the United States. I shall follow neither. It is not what Moses allowed for the hardness of heart, but what God requires, [which] ought to be the rule.
It may be said that it is quite true that the Constitution was designed to secure the blessings of liberty and justice to the people who made it, and to the posterity of the people who made it, but was never designed to do any such thing for the colored people of African descent.
This is Judge Taney’s argument, and it is Mr. Garrison’s argument, but it is not the argument of the Constitution. The Constitution imposes no such mean and satanic limitations upon its own beneficent operation. And, if the Constitution makes none, I beg to know what right has any body, outside of the Constitution, for the special accommodation of slaveholding villainy, to impose such a construction upon the Constitution?
The Constitution knows all the human inhabitants of this country as “the people.” It makes, as l have said before, no discrimination in favor
of, or against, any class of the people, but is fitted to protect and preserve the rights of all, without reference to color, size, or any physical peculiarities. Besides, it has been shown by William Goodell and others, that in eleven out of the old thirteen States, colored men were legal voters at the time of the adoption of the Constitution.28On the basis of his examination of state constitutions drawn up during the Confederation period or soon after the adoption of the Constitution, William Goodell concluded that free blacks had the right of suffrage in eleven states. Blacks were debarred from voting in South Carolina by constitutional provision and in Delaware by state law. Goodell, Our National Charters, 15, 133—34.
In conclusion, let me say, all I ask of the American people is, that they live up to the Constitution, adopt its principles, imbibe its spirit and enforce its provisions.
When this is done, the wounds of my bleeding people will be healed, the chain will no longer rust on their ankles, their backs will no longer be torn by the bloody lash, and liberty, the glorious birthright of our common humanity, will become the inheritance of all the inhabitants of this highly favored country.