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Colored Men’s Rights in This Republic: An Address Delivered in New York, New York, on May 14, 1857


New York Herald, 15 May 1857. Other texts in New York Daily Times, 15 May 1857; New York Evening Express, 15 May 1857; New York Daily Tribune, 15 May 1857; Albany Atlas and Argus, 16 May 1857; New York Independent, 21 May 1857; Frederick Douglass' Paper, 22 May 1857; New York Radical Abolitianist, June 1857.
Despite Gerrit Smith’s poor showing in the previous fall’s presidential election, his supporters gathered in New York City in May 1857 for the anniversary of their American Abolition Society. For two months the Society had been advertising Douglass as the meeting's principal speaker and, anticipating a crowded gathering, it engaged the spacious dancing saloon of the City Assembly Rooms. Unfortunately, a heavy shower fell on the morning of the convention. Press estimates of the attendance ranged from “good” to “slim.” Almost all observers, however, agreed that the proceedings were “dull even to tediousness.” The New York Herald reported that, except for Douglass, only “solemn looking old fogey personages” occupied the platform. Lewis Tappan presided over the meeting and, at one point, suggested a song to enliven the proceedings, but no one in the audience volunteered to lead one. The low point of the convention occurred when William Goodell delivered a lengthy address, during which, the New York Evening Express noted, “the speaker was frequently interrupted by the colored portion of the audience stamping &c.” Goodell finally finished and Tappan introduced Douglass to “loud and continued applause.” Douglass spoke on the distinctive principles of the American Abolition Society and on the recent Dred Scott decision, sprinkling his remarks with numerous humorous allusions. The Herald pronounced the speech “brilliant.” Douglass later expanded the comments he made on Dred Scott at this meeting and published them as a pamphlet. That text, entitled, “The Dred Scott Decision,” is reprinted on pages 163—83. New York Radical Abolitionist, April 1857; Lib., 29 May 1857.
He said he had travelled over 400 miles to attend this abolition meeting. He esteemed it a high privilege to be there. This, he believed, was the first public meeting held in the city of New York by the Radical Abolition Society.1Douglass is correct that this Anniversary Week convention was the first public meeting of the American Abolition Society in New York City. However. in March 1855 the radical political abolitionist faction had formed the “Abolition Society of New York City and Vicinity" as its first step toward creating a national organization. The American Abolition Society' executive committee met monthly in New York City. but in private meetings. New York American Jubilee, April 1855; American Abolition Society Records, OO. While slavery existed it would be always necessary for such


meetings to be held, to protest against the black and hideous deformity of slavery. Some of the outsiders might want to know why there were two abolition societies holding their anniversaries here.*The American Abolition Society actually was the third antislavery group to hold meetings in the City Assembly Hall during Anniversary Week of 1857. The Garrisonians' American Anti-Slavery Society met there on 10—12 May, and its local auxiliary, the New York City Anti-Slavery Society, followed on 13 May. New York Herald, 15 May 1857; Lib., 29 May 1857. But if they had attended to the proceedings of the other societies they might hardly make the inquiry.
He, for one, went for the abolition of slavery, whether with the constitution or against the constitution—whether in peace or in war, whether in justice or mercy. He esteemed it a matter of importance to know whether they were living under a government which could abolish slavery and live, or under a government which must be destroyed in the abolition of slavery? It was necessary for them to survey the prospects of that great struggle in which they were engaged. To many engaged in the cause the prospect of the abolition of slavery was gloomy. They were told that there was no hope for the slave; that the price of human flesh is at this moment higher than it ever was before, and that now, as never before, slavery reposes on a firm basis. And they were told, too, that this state of things was owing mainly to the labors of the abolitionists.
He, himself, must own that the prospects were not such as greatly to cheer his heart. He was plainly sensible that their cause was beset with dangers and difficulties on every hand. The slave power was tremendous. It was never more organized or more determined than at the present time. The motto of the slaveholders was a tighter hold and a firmer grip on the throat of their sable victims, with every new effort made on their behalf. Besides, the State governments in the States where slavery exists become slavery organizations. So did the churches. The federal government itself was a slavery organization and was pledged to uphold and sustain this slave system.
On the other hand, liberty had hardly an organization. It had nothing to withstand the slave power but the simple truth. It therefore did seem, on first blush, that they were attempting a great work, and that their power was insignificant. He was consoled, however, by the reflection that all great enterprises have had just such difficulties to surmount. The Malakoff was defended with desperate energy on the part of the Russians, and up to the hour at which it fell the world regarded it as impregnable. So slavery would appear strong up to the very hour of its death, but it would eventually fall;


and therefore he was not at all discouraged by the present aspect of the struggle.
There was one source of satisfaction in the history of the anti-slavery movement. That history showed that the cause had suffered no abatement but that its course was upward and onward. There had never been a real victory over the anti-slavery movement. It had never had its wheels clogged one hour. Every effort made to crush it out had only helped to carry it forward, and to make it, as he believed, in the end triumphant. There had been various settlements of the question. They had had a settlement of the question in 1820 by the compromise measures (they call laws compromises in America); it was settled again in 1845 by the annexation of Texas; it was settled again, finally, everlastingly settled in 1850, and in addition to this last settlement was flung in the Fugitive slave law. In four years afterward, this final settlement was settled again. That settlement must be called the Douglas settlement.3Douglass alludes to the Kansas-Nebraska Act, introduced in Congress by Stephen A. Douglas. The scamp! I wish he had another name. (Laughter and applause.) That last settlement unsettled all the other settlements. (Laughter.) And now they had another final settlement, which must be called the Taney settlement.4Dred Scott (c. 1795—1858), a Missouri slave, was taken by his master in the 1830s into Illinois and Wisconsin, where slavery had been prohibited by either the Northwest Ordinance or the Missouri Compromise. In 1846 Scott sued for his liberty, arguing that his four-year stay on free soil had given him freedom. When the Missouri Supreme Court overturned a lower court ruling in favor of Scott, the case was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. After much bargaining among the justices and controversial outside intermcddling by President-elect James Buchanan, the Court handed down a complicated decision on 6 March 1857. The majority opinion held that: (1) as a black. Scott was not a citizen and therefore not entitled to sue in a federal court; (2) Scott's previous residence in free territory had not made him free upon his return to Missouri since his status was determined by the laws of the state in which he resided when the case was raised; and (3) the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional since it violated the Fifth Amendment's prohibition against Congress's depriving persons of their property without the due process of law. The majority opinion commonly was credited to Roger B. Taney (1777—1864), Maryland slaveholder and ex-Federalist, who served as Andrew Jackson's attomey general and secretary of the treasury before being appointed chiefjustice of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1835. Don E. Fehrenbacher, The Dred Scott Case: Its Significance in American Law and Politics (New York, 1978), 242—47, 252—53, 261—65, 279—80, 305—24; Carl B. Swisher, Roger B. Taney (Hamden, Conn., 1961), 35, 121—26, 139— 40, 158—59, 234, 317; ACAB, 6 : 28—31; DANB, 548—49; DAB, 18 : 289—94.
He had no idea, however, that the Taney settlement would lull the nation to sleep on the subject of slavery. This settled first—that there is no such thing as justice and mercy in the United States for persons of the colored race. The temple of justice is barred against them. No wrong or outrage to be inflicted upon them can ever bring them within the range of


the temple of American justice. They are kicked out of the Supreme Court of the United States, and, of course they are kicked out of the courts of all the States.
They would readily ask him how he stood affected by this decision— whether he did not feel like pulling up stakes. (Laughter.) This was a question of colored men’s rights in this republic; and there was no use in attempting to make it out other than a colored question. While his hair stood up curled, and while his nose was flattened, and his skin darker in color than theirs, it must continue to be a colored man’s question. (Laughter.) There was some pleasure in that. The colored men had now a question of their own. They were “up.” (Laughter.)
He hoped to see the time when men of African descent would be proved to have belonged to the race that had been wronged and oppressed. The Anglo Saxons themselves had once been slaves. Twelve centuries ago this proud Anglo Saxon race was brought over from England to Ireland and sold in the market of Wexford.5The Irish raided Britain for slaves as early as Roman times. This trade increased when it came under the control of Viking entrepreneurs in the ninth century. Mostly prisoners of war, British slaves were used by the Irish to perform the heavier tasks of farm labor. Slavery went into a rapid decline in Ireland following the Norman invasion, which the Irish clergy preached was divine retribution for their nation's widespread slaveholding. Donncha O. Corrain, Ireland Before the Normans (London, 1972), 44—47; Maire de Paor and Liam de Paor, Early Christian Ireland (New York, 1958), 27, 108—09; William Robert Brownlow, Lectures on Slavery and Seifdom in Europe (1892; New York, 1969), 114—16, 128. Thomas Francis Meagher6Thomas Francis Meagher (1823—67), Irish nationalist and brigadier general in the Union army during the Civil War, was the son of a prosperous merchant of Waterford, Ireland. Meagher was a leader of the Young Ireland movement that advocated the use of violence to regain Irish independence. In July 1848 he participated in an abortive uprising led by William Smith O'Brien. Meagher was captured by the British and deported for life to the penal settlement of Tasmania. In 1852 he escaped from the colony and fled to the United States, where he became a popular lecturer and later a lawyer in New York. When the Civil War began, Meagher wrote public letters to the Dublin Nation in support of the Union cause and raised a company of Irish Zouaves. After the Battle of Bull Run, he formed and commanded the Army of the Potomac's famed Irish Brigade. He later commanded a division in Tennessee. After the war Meagher served as the acting govemor of Montana Territory. Robert G. Atheam, Thomas Francis Meagher: An Irish Revolutionary in America (Boulder, Colo., 1949); Alfred Webb, A Compendium of Irish Biography (Dublin, 1878), 338—39; John S. Crone, A Concise Dictionary of Irish Biography (London, 1928), 154. talked of his ancestors having owned fairhaired, blue-eyed Saxon slaves. Well, I am glad of it. You have risen since that time. Come along! Come along! We will come up, too, by-and-by. (Laughter.)
He would tell them how he felt about this decision of the SupremeCourt. He felt it was a decision too monstrous, too base to stand. It was one


of those decisions, which overleaped itself. It was not true to nature. It was a huge judicial lie attempted to be passed off upon the nation. The people could not look upon colored men and women as bales of merchandise, and even if they should attempt to treat the African race in harmony with that decision, nature would express itself and brand this infernal decision as a lie before God. (Applause)
Happily for them, human rights were decided in a higher court than the Supreme Court of the United States. The Supreme Court of the United States is high, but the Supreme Court of God is higher. It cannot undo what God Almighty has done. And it so happened that among the good things which God Almighty has done, he had made all men free, and had made their freedom self-evident. Some of the good people of this country laughed at Seward7William H. Seward. when he spoke of the higher law; but Seward was not the first to speak of that higher law—Lord Brougham had spoken of it long before.8[Henry Peter Brougham], Works of Lord Brougham, 11 vols. (Edinburgh, 1872—73), 10 : 98. The very moment that God said “let us make a man in our own image,”9Gen. 1:26. that moment freedom became inherent in man. (Applause)
He was not afraid of this decision. All measures however skillfully planned [to] silence agitation have only intensified agitation. [Th]is attempt to smother the question would, like all others, prove unavailing. Webster, and Clay and Calhoun, and all the great living and the great dead of our pro-slavery nation who have attempted to put down agitation. have been themselves put down and silenced by agitation; and so it would be with this decision of the Supreme Court.
Mr. Goodell10William Goodell. had spoken of the afflictions which God would bring on this country for its wrongs on the African race. He (Mr. Douglass) believed that God would raise up the crushed worms at the South, and cause them to spread alarm and devastation throughout the whole land. The recent election11The presidential election held 4 November 1856. had been followed by two remarkable events—one, the plots of insurrection at the South,12In the fall of 1856 rumors quickly spread across the South of a massive slave uprising scheduled to commence Christmas Day. Newspapers reported the uncovering and thwarting of insurrectionary plots in Texas in September, in Kentucky and Tennessee in November, and then in scattered locations across the entire region in December. Frequently, renegade whites or free blacks were accused of attempting to instigate such revolts. Confessions of knowledge or of involvement in the plots were extracted from slaves and a few whites through the use of torture; several deaths occurred in these interrogations as panic grew among slaveholders. Evidence ofgenuine plots remains scant except in the case of western Tennessee. where weapons and gunpowder were discovered in the possession of slaves working in the region's iron foundries. Yet, even there, stories of plans for a mass armed exodus of slaves north to the Ohio River and freedom did not appear believable. Nevertheless, northern abolitionists credited these reports of slave outbreaks as another sign of the intolerable conditions existing under the South's peculiar institution. Lib., 28 November, 12, 19 December 1856, 16 January 1857; New York Daily Tribune, 9, 10, 11, 18, 22 December 1856; New York Daily Times, 10, 11, 12, 15, 19 December 1856; FDP, 19 December 1856; NASS, 20, 27 December 1856, 3, 10 January 1857; Harvey Wish, “The Slave Insurrection Panic of 1856," JSH, 5 : 206—22 (May 1939); Herbert Aptheker, Negro Slave Revolts in the United States (New York, 1939), 54—59; Joseph C. Carroll, Slave Insurrections in the United States, 1800—1865 (Boston, 1938), 188—93. the other, the poisonings at Washington.13An outbreak of dysentery in February and March 1857 at Washington‘s National Hotel gained national attention when President-elect James Buchanan and several members of his entourage became ill while staying there as guests. Rumors soon spread that abolitionists had attempted to assassinate the Democratic party‘s leadership. Although contemporary medical experts could not agree on the cause of the “National Hotel disease,” the best available evidence points to the contamination of the hotel's kitchen and pantry by sewage backed up in a frozen plumbing system. New York Daily Tribune, 18, 20, 21, 23 March 1857; New York Daily Times, 23 March, 9, 10 May 1857; Elbert B. Smith, The Presidency of James Buchanan (Lawrence, Kans., 1975), 23—24; Philip S. Klein, President James Buchanan: A Biography (University Park, Pa., 1962), 268—69; Roy F. Nichols, The Disruption of American Democracy (1948; New York, 1962), 75—83. He


could not say how this latter thing was, but he knew that those who were accustomed to whip their cooks and sell them at the block may well expect to find poison in the pot. (Applause.) Why did they hear slaveholders say. “You want our niggers to cut our throats?” Because they know they ought to have their throats cut. (Applause.) He would tell them one thing: if they want to save their souls alive, let them not enslave him to cook for them. (Laughter.)
No sign of encouragement was to him so hopeful as the signs of uprising at the South. He was satisfied that the colored people of this country must do something like what the white people did. He knew they (the blacks) were regarded as quiet, inoffensive people, a nation of Uncle Toms, who could shout “glory” and sing hymns; but that they were not a fighting people.14 An allusion to the humble, pious, long-suffering attitude of the title character of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s antislavery novel Uncle Tom's Cabin (Boston, 1852). Mathews, ed., Dictionary of Americanisms, 2 : 1794. These recent evidences of insurrection, however, gave a lie to that theory. He wished to see much more of such evidences. He himself knew what they knew and something more. He knew what was in them (the whites), and he also knew what was in the blacks; he compared to the Tells,15William Tell was the legendary hero of the Swiss struggle against Austrian domination during the early part of the fourteenth century. According to tradition. Tell organized resistance to the Austrian occupation of the canton of Uri and fought with conspicuous gallantry in the great Swiss victory over the Hapsburg duke Leopold I at the Battle of Morgarten in 1315. Literary accounts of Tell date back to fifteenth-century Swiss ballads. Friedrich Schiller's play, Wilhelm Tell (1804), and Gioacchino Rossini's opera, Guillaume Tell (1829), portrayed Tell as a romantic symbol of love of liberty and country. Modern historians' attempts to substantiate the existence of a real William Tell have proved inconclusive. William Martin, Switzerland from Roman Times to the Present (London, 1971), 27—35; James Bunting, Switzerland Including Liechtenstein (New York, 1973), 20—23. the Hofers,16Douglass probably refers to the Tyrolean popular hero Andreas Hofer (1767—1810). Al- though an inkeeper by profession, Hofer organized and led an uprising to restore Austrian rule when the Tyrol was ceded to Napoleon I’s Bavarian allies by the Treaty of Pressburg (1805). With little help from the Austrians, Hofer's peasant army drove a Franco-Bavarian occupation force from Tyrol and defeated its attempts to return. Napoleon's main army, however, crushed the Austrians at the Battle of Wagram (1809) and again forced them to abandon all claims to Tyrol. Hofer accepted an amnesty but resumed his struggle after receiving false reports of renewed hostilities between the French and Austrians. Hofer was betrayed to the French by traitors and executed at Mantua. C. A. Macartney, The Hapsburg Empire, 1790—1918 (New York, 1969), 155 —57, 186—89; Robert A. Kann, A History of the Hamburg Empire, 1526—1918 (Berkeley, Calif., 1974), 219—24: Clive Holland, Tyrol and Its People (London, 1909), 38—49. and Washingtons,17George Washington. that slave who, while under


the lash in one of the Southern States during the recent insurrectionary movement, said, “Yes, I know all about this plan to rise; but I’d rather die than expose the scheme.”18Douglass repeats northem newspaper accounts of a possibly fictitious incident during the slave insurrection panic of December 1856. These reports, based on second- and thirdhand evidence, told of the arrest of several slaves suspected of plotting an uprising at an ironworks near Dover, Tennessee. One of these slaves claimed knowledge of an insurrection plan but refused to reveal it. A whipping by his interrogators failed to coerce any more information from the slave, who died after receiving a reported 750 lashes. NASS, 27 December 1856; Lib., 2 January 1857; Wish, “Slave Insurrection Panic," 214. And he did die, a noble martyr, retaining to the last his secret, and refusing to betray his noble compeers. Such an act is enough to redeem a whole race.
It was said that this Union ought to be dissolved. Now he was not going out of this Union to abolish slavery. It was said the other day on this platform that no honest black man could believe that the constitution of the United States was susceptible of a construction in favor of freedom. He held with brother Goodell that they had no right to go out of this nation till they had put down slavery. (Applause.) Mr. Garrison and his friends had told them that while they were in the Union they were responsible for slavery. That was the truth—the naked truth. But when they told them that when they left the Union they would not be responsible for slavery, they told them what was not the truth.
A great deal had been said in laudation of Massachusetts. He had lived in Massachusetts once, and acknowledged that it is a great and glorious State. But, said he, there are other States besides Massachusetts. There are


other cities besides Boston. And there is abolitionism elsewhere than there. There is an abolitionism in Western New York which will not allow a fugitive slave to be carried away.19Douglass alludes to New Yorkers' resistance to enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law. especially the famous “Jerry Rescue" at Syracuse on 1 October 1851. William Henry, commonly known as Jerry, a runaway from Missouri residing in Syracuse, was arrested and brought before the local fugitive slave commissioner. However, abolitionists attending a state Liberty party convention rescued Jerry from his captors and spirited him off to Canada. Although several of the rescuers, including Gerrit Smith, Samuel J. May, and Charles A. Wheaton, were indicted, only one was found guilty and the rest of the cases were dropped. Abolitionists considered the Jerry Rescue a great victory and commemorated its anniversary with public speeches and festivals until the Civil War. Campbell, Slave Catchers, 101, 154—57; Larry Gara, The Liberty Line: The Legend of the Underground Railroad (Lexington, Ky., 1961), 42, 111—12, 128, 132; Earl E. Sperry, The Jerry Rescue: October 1, 1851 . . . (Syracuse, N.Y., 1924). (Applause.)
What (apparently forgetting the thread of his discourse) was I going to say? That Massachusetts has led many a man astray. (Laughter.) The only way for the people to free themselves from responsibility for slavery was to abolish slavery, and never short of its abolition would their responsibility end. (Applause.) They were bound to use every means within their reach within the Union to abolish slavery. There was something absurd and cowardly in the idea of disunion to bring about abolition. If the slaveholders were their superiors in wealth, strength or intellect, it might be necessary for them to "‘slope” to avoid being catawampously chawed up. (Laughter.) He thought it best to stay and to take these fellows (the slaveholders) by the collar and teach them to do justice, and if they proved hard customers they would have to give them another Christian lesson—to walk humbly. (Laughter.) You hear these men come up and say, “The Union is a covenant with death and an agreement with hell.” If you ask them to prove it, they say, “We don’t care whether it is or not; it’s trifling.”
Mr. REMOND20Charles Lenox Remond. (a colored rival of Fred.)——l wish to inquire of the gentleman on the stand if he will be a party to an agreement for obtaining a hall? If he will I will meet him, as he says he cannot find persons to meet him on the character of the constitution touching slavery.
FRED. DOUGLASS—lt will give me infinite pleasure to meet Mr. Remond in debate on the question. Coffee and pistols for two!21Remond and Douglass debated the constitutionality of slavery on 20—21 May 1857 at Shiloh Presbyterian Church in New York City.


Douglass, Frederick, 1818-1895


May 14, 1857


Yale University Press 1985



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