John Brown and the Slaveholders’ Insurrection: An Address Delivered in Edinburgh, Scotland, January 30, 1860
JOHN BROWN AND THE SLAVEHOLDERS’ INSURRECTION: AN ADDRESS DELIVERED IN EDINBURGH, SCOTLAND, ON 30 JANUARY 1860
Edinburgh Witness, 1 February 1860. Other texts in Edinburgh Caledonian Mercury, 31 January 1860; Edinburgh Scotsman, 31 January 1860.
On 30 January 1860 the Edinburgh Ladies’ and Young Men’s Anti-Slavery Society sponsored a meeting at which Douglass spoke on two familiar themes: the institution of slavery and John Brown. A “highly respectable and enthusiastic
audience” crowded Queen Street Hall to hear Douglass. who shared the platform with a number of other antislavery advocates. After the Reverend Mr. Swan opened the meeting with a prayer. the presiding officer. Duncan McLaren, introduced Douglass as an example “in his own person, of the cruelty and evils of slavery, and of the untruthfulness of the statement that the negro race was intellectually inferior to others.” McLaren also praised Douglass at length for the “inestimable benefits he had been instrumental in conferring upon his brethren in America. " The audience received Douglass’s speech warmly, interrupting it with applause and cheers over thirty times. Before adjourning, the Reverend G. D. Cullen made a motion, which was enthusiastically carried, that the meeting accord Douglass a vote of thanks for his “eloquent and stirring address.” See Appendix A, text 4, for précis of alternate texts.
Mr. F[REDERICK] DOUGLASS on rising was received with loud and renewed cheering. He said, it was with unaffected sincerity that he expressed his feelings of pleasure in meeting again with an audience in Edinburgh,1On Douglass's previous visit to Scotland in I846 he spoke in Edinburgh at least sixteen times. assembled for the purpose of hearing the subject of American slavery discussed. He did not appear before them, however, with the intention of presenting them with any new truths on the subject, but with the intention simply of stirring up their minds by way of remembrance of things already known and already felt, and of deepening the detestation which British men and women feel towards slavery and slaveholders. (Applause)
The love of liberty was implanted in the breast of every man, and entered into every idea of man’s creation. It was the right of every man, and was so before he comprehended it. The admission of this right was found in the Declaration of American Independence; it was asserted in the Constitution of the United States; yet, strange to say, what inconsistency,—horrible, shocking, startling,—there was at this moment in the United States|:] four millions of the human family in chains,—four millions robbed of their right, stripped of their privileges, bought and sold like horses, sheep, or swine, in the market.
After brieﬂy glancing at the horrors of slavery, and stating that it was founded on the principle of highway robbery, the slaveholder acting on the principle “your liberty or your life,” he pointed out how the evils of the system were carefully concealed from travellers from the north and also from British visitors.
He then stated that the slavery question in America had now reached a most interesting crisis. The question which was at present agitating all classes was slavery or freedom—freedom or slavery? It was not capital and labour—it was not commercial against agricultural, or financial against some other interest,—the question, the sole question which now divided the American people, and which now rocked that land from end to end, was the question—“Shall the United States be under the government, sway, and control of slavery, or shall they be under the control or direction of liberty?” The question was now progressing, and it was not unlikely that before the end of the present year they should have an anti-slavery President. (Applause)
He did not mean to say that they would have a President who would regard it as within the power of the Federal Government to interfere with the slavery of slave States; but if they should get a Republican President elected, he would regard it as of the utmost importance to the anti-slavery cause.2William Henry Seward, whom Douglass supported for the 1860 Republican presidential nomination, had assumed an antislavery stance as early as 1850, the year in which he delivered his famous “higher law" speech (11 March) and proposed a Senate amendment that called for the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia (11 September). At the time of Douglass's Edinburgh speech, Seward was still the leading contender for his party's nomination, although the opposition to his candidacy was growing. At the Chicago national convention in May 1860, Seward led on the first two ballots but lost to Abraham Lincoln on the third. Congressional Globe, 31st Cong,. 1st sess., 1794—95; George Baker, ed., The Works of William Henry Seward, 3 vols. (New York, 1853). 1: 51—93, 111— 18; Glyndon G. Van Deusen, William Henry Seward (New York, 1967), 121—24, 134, 213—25. Such an election would give the dignity of the American Government to the cause of liberty; it would lead to the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia, over which Congress had an exclusive jurisdiction; it would lead to the abolition of slavery in the arsenals; it would cause to be sent to the Court of St. James’s some other than the contemptible creature who now represented the United States3George Mifflin Dallas, minister to Great Britain from 1856 to 1861.—(applause)—it would lead to the abolition of the system of Post Office espionage4After the 1856 Fremont presidential campaign and again after the Harpers Ferry raid, the de facto censorship of southern mail that had been practiced since the 1830s became especially intense. Even moderate antislavery periodicals, like the New York Daily Tribune and the Dayton (Ohio) Religious Telescope, were banned, as was Hinton Rowan Helper's Impending Crisis, a work clearly directed to poor whites rather than slaves. Clement Eaton, “Censorship of the Southern Mails," AHR, 48: 266—80 (January 1943).—and it would lead to the weakening of the pro-slavery party, which for sixty years had had uninterrupted power in the Government, insomuch that sixteen or seventeen years
ago it was almost impossible to speak even in the free States against slavery.
So controlling was its power that it raised mobs in Boston, in New York, and in the country towns of all the Northem States, and made it almost impossible for a man to speak. write, or preach, or pray against slavery. Now, however, there was a change; and in the Northern States the right of speech was established; and they wanted to establish that right in the District of Columbia, and if they succeeded in that it would be a long step towards establishing it in the slave States. (Cheers.)
The thing that had brought on the present crisis on the slavery question in America above everything else was the recent outbreak at Harper’s Ferry—(applause)—headed by that brave, heroic, and Christian man, John Brown. (Cheers) That event had stirred a fever in America such as never before existed there, and it had led to the taking of sides on this question in a manner the most extraordinary.
When it was first known that John Brown, with a company of twenty-one men, had entered Harper’s Ferry, taken possession of the town of 25,000 inhabitants, held it for thirty-six hours, captured the arsenal with 36,000 stand of arms, emancipated some 300 slaves, and captured some twenty or thirty slave-masters, and when it was heard that he himself at last was captured, and two of his sons killed—a thrill of horror ran through all the country, and the feeling was that he had committed a very rash, and in the opinion of some, a wicked deed; but when John Brown had had a few days in which to explain his plans and purposes, and to make known to the American people the spirit by which he was animated, a reaction occurred at once. It was found that John Brown was not mad—that he was not even wicked—but that he was a noble, heroic, and Christian martyr, animated by a desire to do unto others as he should himself be done unto.5A paraphrase of Matt. 7: 12. (Applause.) This becoming known changed the whole face of the controversy, and men began to take sides in the North and South till the feeling became so intense that it was doubtful whether North and South would not be inﬂamed by this little spark, or lashed into one general or civil war. (Applause)
But the question came up—and he had met it since he came to this country—as to the rightfulness of John Brown’s cause. In some quarters he had been given the cold-shoulder to by even abolitionists, because of his supposed complicity with John Brown and his friends—he said supposed
complicity, for he believed it had not yet been proved that he had any hand in that deed which had made the name of John Brown glorious not only at home but abroad.6Douglass had departed for England under the threat of prosecution for “murder, robbery, and inciting to servile insurrection in the State of Virginia" in connection with John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry. Douglass was lecturing in Philadelphia when the news reached him of Brown's first attack on 16 October 1859. Fearing that letters found on Brown might be used to incriminate him, Douglass ﬂed from Pennsylvania, making a circuitous and unobtrusive trip back to Rochester. If not for the action of John W. Hum, an admiring telegraph operator who delayed transmission of the order for Douglass's arrest by three crucial hours. Douglass might not have evaded the sheriff in Philadelphia. In early November, Govemor Henry A. Wise of Virginia requested federal help in apprehending Douglass, and federal ofﬁcials did indeed visit Rochester, reportedly to seize Douglass. By that time, however, Douglass had fled to Canada and was making final preparations to sail to Great Britain. Although criticized by some blacks for displaying cowardice, Douglass replied that he could expect no justice from a slaveholding judge and jury and that “there is no more dishonor in trying to keep out of the way of such a court, than there would be in keeping out of the way of a company of hungry wolves." DM, 2: 162—63 (November 1859); Douglass to Amy Post, 27 [October] 1859, Amy Post Papers, NRU; Douglass to John W. Hum, 12 June 1882, Frederick Douglass Mss., LNArc; Douglass, Life and Times, 339—45; Benjamin Quarles, Allies for Freedom: Blacks and John Brown (New York,1 974), 114—15; idem, FD, 178—85. (Cheers) It was not for him to say whether he was justly implicated in the matter or not just there—(laughter and cheers)—as they might in that event, perhaps, look upon him in the light of a man exculpating himself from a grievous charge in what he was about to say. There was one thing, however, which all would agree in, and that was, that when a man had been reduced to slavery he had a right to get his freedom—(applause)—peaceably if he could, forcibly if he must. (Prolonged applause.)
He thought that running away was a good plan of getting freedom—(laughter)—if a man ran away on his own legs, and left everybody in possession of their legs, that was a very right and proper thing. (Laughter and cheers.) But if he could not run away, if he could not even speak for his freedom,—for slavery did not allow the slave to ask if he might go free,—it did not allow the slave to use what was called moral suasion—(laughter and cheers)—if he could do none of these things for his freedom, what was he to do? He has a right to his freedom, and if he has a right to gain his freedom by force, they had a right to help him to gain his freedom. (Cheers)
But it might be said, that while men deprived of their liberty had a right to get their freedom, it became a very different thing for free people to go and assist people to get their freedom. There was one way to answer that argument which would of itself be satisfactory to every man, and it was, “Just make the case your own.” (Hear, hear, and loud cheers.) If they
were themselves captured by an Algerine pirate, carried to Algiers, put in chains, and forced to work from morning to night, they would thank any John Brown with twenty—one men who came there to release them. (Cheers.) He had only to say, “All things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them.” (Applause)
He did not mean to say that a man should go foolishly to work about such an enterprise, and throw away his life, and accomplish no good by it. He was not for fighting at any time unless there was a reasonable probability of whipping somebody. (Laughter) He was a peace man—(laughter)—but his peace principles only led him to be peaceable towards those to whom peace was a blessing, and was really appropriate. He was not for “casting pearls before swine.7Douglass adapts Matt. 7: 6. (Laughter) He was for the peace of which God himself was in favour—peace for well-doing; but he was not for a peace—as God had no such peace—to the wicked.8An adaptation of Isa. 48: 22 or 57: 21. There could be no peace where there was oppression, injustice, or outrage upon the right,— none but the most hollow and deceitful peace could ever exist between the man who was on his back on the ground, and the man that stood on his neck with his heel. (Applause) The Divine arrangement was this, be first “pure and then peaceable.”9Douglass may be alluding to the beatitudes included in the Sermon on the Mount. in which Jesus said. “Blessed are the pure in heart" before he declared. “Blessed are the peacemakers. " Matt. 5: 8—9.
But it was said that John Brown invaded a peaceable community, and had with others raised the standard of civil war; and this was an act of gross treason. He had to say, in answer to this, that John Brown did not invade a peaceful neighbourhood or community. What was slavery? A standing insurrection from beginning to end—(applause)—a perpetual chronic insurrection. Every slaveholder in America was an insurrectionist; the 350,000 slaveholders, with the American Government so-called at their back, were but an armed band of insurgents against the just rights and liberties of their fellow-men. (Loud and prolonged cheering.) John Brown merely stepped in to interrupt and arrest this insurrection against the rights and liberties of mankind; and he did right. (Cheers)
But it was said he did not accomplish anything by it. He was not so sure of that. (Cheers) He was not sure that this John Brown insurrection would not yet prove the brick knocked down at the end of the row by which all the rest were laid prostrate. There was an idea connected with John Brown’s
plan, and that idea had dropped down among the slaves of the South, and it might be acted upon hereafter. (Cheers) John Brown’s original plan was not so crazy a thing as upon the first sight it appeared. His mistake was, that he remained a few hours too long in the arsenal. Had he succeeded in reaching the mountains, where there were 10,000 Sebastopols, he might have been there until that hour, and defied all the power of the United States’ army to have dislodged him. (Applause)
That idea had gone abroad among the slaves; it was planted there by John Brown, watered by his blood. and it would grow. Let once the slaves of the South find that, by running up from the plains they could lodge in the mountains, and descend upon the plains as opportunity might offer, and it would be the beginning of the end,—more than the beginning of the end. (Applause)
Mr. Douglass then passed a high eulogium upon the character of the deceased. John Brown had lived under his roof in Rochester for seven weeks when he had many opportunities of conversing with him,10In his autobiography Life and Times, Douglass recalled that John Brown “[i]n his repeated visits to the East to obtain necessary arms and supplies . . . often did me the honor of spending hours and days with me at Rochester." These visits occurred on at least four occasions. While visiting Rochester in December 1856, Brown was invited to dine at Douglass's home. Brown actually resided at Douglass's house for three weeks beginning on 27 January 1858 and returned for one evening the following April. Brown's last visit with Douglass at Rochester in April 1859 lasted only a few hours and took place at Douglass's newspaper office. Douglass to [John] Brown, 7 December 1856, Dreer Manuscripts, PHi; Douglass to [John Brown], 22 June 1858, Miscellaneous Manuscripts, NjP; Douglass, Life and Times, 334; Villard, John Brown,317; Sanborn, Life and Letters of John Brown, 433—35, 440—41; Oates, To Purge This Land, 224—25; Quarles, Allies for Freedom, 38—44; idem, FD, 172—73; Horace McGuire. “Two Episodes of Anti-Slavery Days," Rochester Historical Society Publications, 4: 218—20 (1925). and he had at all times found him, what indeed he had amply shown at his last moments,—an honest, truthful, earnest, God-fearing man,-—a man who felt conscious of having discharged his duty towards his God and his duty towards his fellow-men. (Cheers) A true Christian spirit was never more vividly expressed than in the walk and conversation of that truly heroic old man.
Referring to the present contest as to the election of a Speaker of the House of Representatives, Mr. Douglass said,—ln this country the Speaker of the House of Commons had very little to do with the legislation of the country,—his business was to keep order,—a business which they did not know anything about in America. (Laughter) The Speaker of the American House of Representatives, however, had the appointment of all the important Committees within which legislative proceedings were initiated;
and hence each party struggled for the mastery, in order that these Committees should have a programme favourable to its principle.
The Democratic party had been the representative of slavery in America; and what an inconsistency! The Republican party was the anti-slavery party; but it was not an abolition party. It had sprung into existence in consequence of the attitude assumed by the Democratic party. The Democratic party had for its objects to nationalize slavery, so as to make it as much respected in the free States as in the slave ones; to make it possible for the slaveholder of Virginia to hold his slaves as readily in the free States as in the slave ones; to extend slavery to all the States; to revive the foreign slave trade, with all its ten thousand horrors; to expatriate the entire free colored population from the United States; and to put a stop to the discussion and agitation of slavery in the country. Now. the objects of the Republican party are entirely opposed to all this; and these are the positions of the two parties.
The last accounts from America state that the plan of the Republican party was to vote in solid column in support of Mr. Sherman of Ohio; and that the Democratic party was divided between the ultra slaveholders, who were for an ultra slaveholding man, Mr. Douglas—he wished the scamp had another name—(loud laughter and cheers)—and the moderate pro-slavery men, who were in favour of another candidate.11In the extended contest for Speaker of the House in the Thirty-sixth Congress , proslavery Democrats initially supported Thomas Stanhope Bocock of Virginia in opposition to John Sherman, the Republican candidate. However, since neither party controlled a majority of the votes, each sought to win over Know-Nothing (American) and Whig votes to its side. During this stalemate, the Democrats became increasingly interested in bringing together pro- and anti-Lecompton Democrats with third- party members who also opposed Sherman. John A. McClernand of Illinois, the leading anti-Lecompton, pro—Stephen Douglas Democrat in the House, was advanced as a candidate in this coalition attempt, but a lack of support from the most prosouthem representatives helped insure his defeat by William Pennington, a former Whig from New Jersey who eventually replaced Sherman as the Republican candidate. Although Douglass here seems to imply that Stephen A. Douglas himself was a candidate for the speakership, Douglas was, of course, a senator, not a representative, at this time. Nevins, Emergence of Lincoln, 2: 112-22; Nichols, Disruption of American Democracy, 271-76; Ollinger Crenshaw, “The Speakership Contest of 1859—1860," MVHR, 29: 323—38 (December 1942); Victor Hicken, “John A. McClernand and the House Speakership Struggle of 1859," Illinois State Historical Society Journal, 53: 163—78 (Summer 1960). This contest would not last much longer, however, for the members of Congress, who were paid for their attendance eight dollars a day, could not draw one farthing of their allowance until they elected a Speaker.12Between 1818 and 1856 U.S. congressmen received a per diem salary of $8. However,. on 16 August 1856 Congress passed a law that changed both the schedule and rate of their salaries to $3,000 per annum. Members of Congress were to receive their salary on “the ﬁrst day of each month thereafter.” At the end of each regular session. a congressman received “the residue of his salary still unpaid," and when Congress terminated on the fourth of March, "any balance. . . not theretofore paid in said monthly installments as above directed." The act did not stipulate that receipt of salary was contingent upon the election of the House Speaker. Congressional Globe,34th Cong., 1st sess., 2153—56, 2160—61, 2206, Appendix, 33; Alvin M. Josephy, Jr., On the Hill: A History of the American Congress (New York, 1979), 206. (Laughter) If the
Republican party succeeded in electing their Speaker—and the last accounts showed that they had 109 votes, or within three of the requisite number—that would be, he thought, the certain precursor of the election of an anti-slavery President in the autumn of I860.13Sherman's strength in the contest for Speaker peaked at 110 votes—three short of the number necessary for election. On the same day that Douglass delivered this speech, Sherman withdrew his candidacy in favor of New Jersey's William Pennington, a conservative Whig who had recently converted to Republicanism. Two days later, Pennington was elected Speaker. Nevins, Emergence of Lincoln, 2: 112 —22; Nichols, Disruption of Amerian Democracy, 271—76; Potter, Impending Crisis, 386—88; Crenshaw, “Speakership Contest," 323—38. (Applause)
Referring next to the progress of the anti-slavery cause since his last visit to Scotland in 1845—46, Mr. Douglass said they had then only two men in the National Legislature, and one man in the Senate who dared call themselves anti-slavery men, while now they had 109 men voting in an anti-slavery direction in the Legislature, and twenty-five men in the Senate who dared tell the slaveholder that they regarded slavery as a crime. (Loud applause.)
After mentioning some other statistics to show the progress of anti-slavery views, Mr. Douglass contended that it was the right and duty of the people of this country to take up the question of American slavery, and pronounce their opinions upon it; for a blow struck against any of the liberties of any portion of the human family, was a blow struck against the liberty of the whole human family. He also stated that slavery exercised such a corrupting and debasing influence on all brought in contact with it, that they were incapable of grappling with it; and that as the dram shop must be dealt with by the sober, and houses of ill-fame by the virtuous, so those who were not contaminated by the presence of slavery were best able to judge as to the evil.
He rejoiced that in England they had washed their hands of the evil, and had thereby demonstrated their fitness to look at this question, and to form a correct and unbiased judgment in regard to it. He, however, wished it were more disreputable even here. He was, however, glad to know that slavery had not increased in reputation since he was here fourteen years ago. He had been lately reading the Edinburgh Witness, and he was happy
to observe that his poor little anti-slavery speeches dwindled into utter insignificance when compared with the tremendous outbursts of eloquence from the Rev. Dr. Candlish and the Rev. Dr. Guthrie.14Douglass refers to the lengthy report in the Edinburgh Witness of a public meeting in that city to raise funds for the antislavery activities of the American minister George B. Cheever. Among the speeches reported from the 22 December 1859 meeting were addresses by the Reverends Robert Smith Candlish and Thomas Guthrie. The son of a Brechin, Scotland, merchant, Guthrie (1803—73) studied for the Presbyterian ministry at the University of Edinburgh and from 1830 to 1837 was a minister at Arbirlot, where he developed a stirring evangelical preaching style. In 1837 Guthrie moved to Edinburgh to become minister at St. John's Church. Six years later he and his congregation joined the secession to the Free Church of Scotland, Guthrie was a strong advocate of total abstinence and of education for the children of the urban working class. Edinburgh Witness, 24 December 1859, 25 January 1860; Brian Harrison, Dictionary of British Temperance Biography (Oxford, 1973), 56—57 DNB, 8: 823—25. (Cheers) Why, it almost atoned for a great many other things. (Laughter and cheers.)
Another reason why it was necessary that a high moral tone should be kept up on this question amongst Britons was, that he had seen something on board the Cunard line of steamers, which plied from Liverpool to New York, which required looking after; for the coloured passenger was driven away from his fellow-men.15Douglass alludes to the incident involving Mrs. Caroline E. Putnam of Salem. Massachusetts, the sister of black abolitionists Charles Lenox and Sarah Parker Remond. In October 1859, a white friend had booked passage from Boston to Liverpool for Mrs. Putnam and her party on board the Cunard liner Europa. Upon the discovery that Mrs. Putnam was black, Cunard officials insisted that she and her party dine in their cabin rather than risk offending the sensibilities of white American passengers. Unable to delay her journey. Mrs. Putnam sailed to England on the Europa and endured the segregation. Once in England, she directed an angry complaint to Sir Samuel Cunard, the principal owner of the line. When Cunard refused to respond, British abolitionists joined in the protest. This public pressure apparently had the desired effect, for Mrs. Putnam experienced no discrimination on her return trip to the United States the following summer aboard another Cunard ship, the Arabia. DM,4: 326 (September 1860); NASS, 1 September 1860; Lib., 14 September 1860. (Hear, and applause.) This was done in deference to the pro-slavery party of America.
He then said that the religion of America was the great support of slavery, the pages of inspired wisdom being tortured to sanction and sanctify the crime. Talk of infidels casting an odium upon Christianity! All the infidels in the world combined, with all their writings, had it not in their power to cast one tithe of the odium upon Christianity that the American doctors of divinity had done. (Applause) They were making Christianity a hissing and a bye word in the mouths of infidels. In America men were, in point of fact, sold to build churches, women sold to support missionaries, and babes sold to buy Bibles. Revivals of religion and revivals of the slave trade went hand-in-hand. All along the Mississippi River they might see the slave trade going on where it was said that God was pouring out his
Spirit. In Richmond, Vicksburg, and New Orleans, the clank of the fetter might be heard along with the chime of the bell that called to prayer. Men might be seen going to prayer on one side of the street, and chain gangs on the other side, driven on the lash to the marketplace to be sold. (Hear.)
There was the great scandal brought upon the name of Christianity, and the Christians of Scotland were bound to hold up a purer and higher standard, and say that, whatever Christianity in America might be, the Christianity of Scotland had no sanction for chains or slavery. (Prolonged applause.) There were, however, numerous ministers in America lifting up their voices against the system, and foremost among these was Dr. George B. Cheever. (Loud cheers.) He rejoiced from the depth of his heart that the Free Church of Scotland was taking the lead in staying up the hands of that noble man—(cheers)—and he believed that other Churches would follow in line in this country. (Applause) He did not mean to say that Dr. George Cheever would long need any assistance from this country in a pecuniary point of view; but he greatly needed their sympathy.16The intense abolitionist preachings of the Reverend George B. Cheever alienated most wealthy members of his Manhattan Church of the Puritans by 1859. In an attempt to raise funds for his church, Cheever authorized Elizabeth Johnstone to tour Britain to solicit funds. Although Johnstone's “begging mission" received a cool greeting in most of Britain, Scotland was the exception. Public meetings there raised both enthusiasm and funds, owing in large part to efforts by the ministry of the Free Church of Scotland, especially Robert Candlish, Robert Buchanan, and Henry Batchelor. Cheever enjoyed similar support when he toured Scotland himself later in 1860. American Slavery: Demonstrations in Favor of Dr. Cheever, in Scotland (New York, 1860), 9—69; York, George B. Cheever, 160—79. Temporary help was all he needed; for he had no doubt that in the struggle he was now making he would be gloriously triumphant if only sustained for a year or two longer in his noble post. (Cheers)
Mr. Douglass concluded amidst loud cheering with an eloquent appeal for increased expressions of public feeling in this free country against the slavery of the United States.