British Racial Attitudes and Slavery: An Address Delivered in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, England, on February 23, 1860
BRITISH RACIAL ATTITUDES AND SLAVERY: AN ADDRESS DELIVERED IN NEWCASTLE-UPON-TYNE, ENGLAND, ON 23 FEBRUARY 1860
Newcastle-upon-Tyne Northern Daily Express, 24 February 1860. Other texts in Frederick Douglass’ Paper, 23 March 1860; Douglass' Monthly, 2: 246-47 (April 1860); British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Reporter, ser. 3, 8: 124-27 (1 June 1860).
Although listeners needed an admission ticket to hear Douglass’s speech at the Nelson Street Lecture Room in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England, on 23 February 1860, “every inch, both of sitting and standing room, including the platform, was fully occupied, while large numbers were unable to gain admission.” The Reverend James Pringle introduced Douglass, who spoke for two hours. Before adjourning, the meeting voted its thanks to Douglass and Pringle and passed a pair of antislavery resolutions. When the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Reporter sought a text illustrating the many differences between the positions of Douglass and those of George Thompson, the British Garrisonian, it reprinted this speech.
Mr. DOUGLASS, on rising, was received with loud cheers. After some introductory remarks, he went on to say—He had proposed to answer certain questions which had been put to him in his peregrinations through this country by different classes of persons. He had met with two classes in this country. One class came to him with beaming eyes and benignant expression of countenance, and said, What can we do towards the abolition of slavery in America? There was another class of persons, who came and said, We have had the question before us in Great Britain. We had 800,000 in the British West Indies. We have expended £20,000,000 for their liberation. That was one question; the slavery in America is quite another thing, and our question to you is, What have we to do with American slavery?
These questions seemed alike, but they implied a very different state of mind on the part of the parties who put them. One felt an earnest and burning desire to do something to liberate the slave, and the other was looking around for an apology for giving the whole question the go-by. A reply to the last inquiry would comprehend an answer to the first.
The argument was, that slavery was an American question, not a British one. But why was it an American question? The slave was a man, a member of the human family, a part of that blood of which God made all nations of men to dwell on all the face of the earth. The human family, he took it, could not afford to adopt the non-intervention doctrine so far as to shut themselves out from forming and expressing an opinion—and a very
strong opinion too—against whatever form of injustice might be practised in any part of the globe against any part of the human family. But he had special reasons for bringing the question of American slavery before the British public.
There was a reciprocal inﬂuence exerted by nations situated as the American people were towards the British nation—related as they were to the British nation. Steam, wind, lightning, were rapidly drawing the ends of the earth together. The Atlantic, which was once said to be an ocean to divide them, was rapidly becoming a bridge to connect them. The two nations were brought almost alongside of each other—they were certainly within speaking distance of each other—and no argument was needed to show that the opinion of the one country could never be a matter of indifference to the people of the other. (Cheers)
But, besides that, our proximity to and intercourse with the United States, corrupted as the United States was by the existence of slavery, endangered the high moral purity of England on the question of slavery. Great Britain was visited every year by not fewer than 40,000 Americans. They came from under the institutions of America, and were received here into society, admitted into our social circles, dined at our tables, slept in our beds, sat in our pews, sometimes ascended our pulpits; and these men, many of them religious men professedly—some of them doctors of divinity—travelled over the length and breadth of our land, and wherever they went they poured the “leprous distilment” of their pro-slavery poison into the ears and hearts of the British people. And, because of that malign influence, it became very proper that we should be very vigilant; that our attention should be directed to the subject, and that right views and solid facts, in respect to the character of slavery, be kept constantly before the British public.
He saw the evidence on the right hand and on the left, of the possible deterioration of British sentiment on that subject. He read it in the London Times; he read it, too, in our streets. A change had taken place since he was here—fourteen years ago1Douglass last spoke in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England, on 3 August 1846.—in that respect. At that time he travelled over the United Kingdom, on highways and byeways—by railways, steamboats, stage coaches, and omnibusses—he went into the House of Commons and House of Lords, he was in the Colosseum and British Museum— he was elbowing our citizens on the right and left—he was at the tables of many of our most respectable people, enjoying their hospitality—and he
never heard a word, he never saw a look, never a single expression, that indicated the slightest dislike to him on account of the colour with which God had clothed him. (Cheers)
It was a proud boast, when he went back to America, that he could say to Americans—However you may be disposed, in the light or in the darkness ofyour malignant prejudices, to treat me, on the other side of the Atlantic, among people as refined and as intelligent and as white as yours, I discovered not the slightest ill feeling towards me because of my complexion.
That was a proud boast to make, but he could not make that boast now. American prejudice might be found in the streets of Liverpool and in nearly all our commercial towns. What with pro-slavery ministers who had visited us, and with that pestiferous nuisance, Ethiopian minstrels,2Thomas D. Rice, originator of the “Jim Crow" dance, may have been the ﬁrst blackface entertainer to visit England. After Rice's 1836 tour, both black minstrels and whites in blackface commonly performed before British audiences. Most of these groups expanded upon the simplified caricatures of which Douglass complains, but a few black groups, such as Frank Johnson's troupe, portrayed slave life more accurately in their overseas performances. Toll, Blacking Up, 27, 30, 196-97. they had brought here the slang phrases, the contemptuous sneers all originating in the spirit of slavery; and it was necessary, when we had seen the negro represented in all manner of extravagances, contented and happy as a slave, thoughtless of any life higher than a merely physical one—it was meet and right that some slave should break away from his chains and rise up and assert his manhood and the manhood of his race in the presence of those prejudices. (Cheers)
But there was another reason why they called upon Englishmen to look into that question of American slavery and give the aid of their sympathy, their countenance, and co-operation in its abolition. Slavery was a system of such mighty power in the United States—a system so well calculated to blind and darken the moral sense of those who were brought immediately in contact with it—so paralysing to the arm uplifted to strike it down—so corrupting to all the institutions in its vicinity, that the power to overthrow it did not exist in its more immediate locality. The Redeemer must come from Heaven. The power that reformed the dram-shop must come from the regions of sobriety—the power that reformed the house of ill-fame must come from the regions of purity—the Redeemer was from above, and the power that was to overturn slavery must come from beyond the corrupted limits of the slave system itself—(cheers)—must come from a country uncontaminated by slavery.
As we had washed our hands of that sin ourselves, in the light of our purer morality, our higher, broader, purer character, we must hurl the denunciations of Almighty God against the crime, and from our vantage ground, from our pulpits, we had the power of dealing a mighty blow against the system of slavery. If we should leave the matter to America, at the bidding of non-intervention, we might go a step further and leave it, not to America, but only to those portions of America in which slavery existed, and that theory, if carried out, would result in calling home all our missionaries, and Bible Society agents,3British and Foreign Bible Society. and dissolving all our machinery for the civilisation and evangelisation of the world. It was unsound, it was the doctrine of Cain, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”4Gen. 4: 9.
Mr. Douglass went on to warn his hearers against supposing that there were powers in the church of America to put down slavery. What, he asked, was the fact in regard to the Christians in the slave States? Were they able to grapple with slavery? The damning fact stood out to the world that, for 200 years, in the midst of all their piety—in the midst of all their religious show and gospel institutions—the slave had rattled his chain, and groaned for freedom’s gift in vain, and the church had not uplifted its hand in earnest to put down the system.
Should the Christians of England leave such churches unrebuked? Should they shut their eyes to that foul and disgraceful neglect? Why was the church unable to grapple with slavery in America? One reason was, slavery was rich and powerful, and the church being made up of men and women was capable of being tempted—nay bribed—into silence on the subject. Leave the question to such a church! Why, such a church was the bulwark of American slavery, it was there slavery gained its mightiest support. Why had they slavery in the United States? Because it was reputable in the United States. And why was it reputable? Because it was not so disreputable out of the United States as it ought to be. They had slavery in the church of the United States, because we did not object to hold fellowship with the men who held fellowship with the men who enslaved and embruted their fellow men.
What he asked of us was, to apply Christianity to the system of slavery in America. How happened it that when a cry came to send Bibles to Turkey we could listen to it, but when the same cry came to send Bibles to the United States we were silent? How happened it? Why make a discrimination in favour of the one and against the other? Why favour sending the
Bible eastward and not be equally in favour of sending it westward? Ah! there was a lion in the way; there was something in America—something in slavery, more terrible to meet—something in that Christian country, where there were revivals upon revivals—an obstacle in the way of the circulation of the Bible in the midst of all those revivals more dreadful to meet than anything we met in the land of the false prophet.
The lecturer here proceeded to make some remarks similar in tenor to those he offered on Sunday afternoon in regard to American revivals.5Douglass spoke at the Lecture Room on Nelson Street in Newcastle-upon-Tyne on Sunday, 19 February 1860. Newcastle-upon-Tyne Daily Chronicle and Northern Counties Advertiser, 20 February 1860; Newcastle-upon-Tyne Northern Daily Express, 24 February 1860. They had, he said, in the United States a strange mixture of apparent piety with cruelty and outrage. They had men sold to build churches—women sold to support missionaries—babes sold to buy Bibles. Revivals of religion and revivals of the slave trade went on together—the church and the slave prison stood on the same street side—the groans and cries of the heart-broken slave were drowned in the religious shouts of their professedly-pious masters—the church going bell and the auctioneer’s bell chimed in with each other—the pulpit and the auctioneer’s block stood in the same neighbourhood—the bloodstained gold, resulting from the sale of human ﬂesh, went to support the pulpit, and the pulpit in return covered the infernal business with the garb of Christianity.
He thought they had been making too much of American revivals. We should begin to demand that those revivals should bring forth fruits meet for repentance. Among those fruits would be the abolition of slavery, and till we saw a disposition on the part of the American people to put away that crime of crimes, that curse of curses, that foul, haggard, withering, blasting, damning, hell-black iniquity, we were not in a condition to give our unqualified approbation to the religious show, the pious demonstrations that were going on in the United States.
Passing from this part of the subject, Mr. Douglass quoted, with warm approbation, the sentiments of Daniel O’Connell and Lord Brougham as to the iniquity of claiming property in slaves, and went on to make some remarks on the recent affair of John Brown. He would say, to begin with, Brown’s plan was hardly understood in this country. John Brown was not quite so fool hardy, not quite so wild and fanatical, as a great many men on this side [of] the Atlantic seemed to suppose. His original plan was far more feasible and rational than at first sight it would seem. By looking at
the map of the United States, we would see that, stretching out from Pennsylvania, in a southwesterly direction, through all the slave states, there were vast ranges of mountains grouped together, extending, in width, from 100 to 150 miles, in length, reaching 2,000 miles, into the far south. These mountains ran through the very heart of the slave country. On the plains on either side were slave plantations. John Brown conceived the idea that these mountain ranges, so broken, so wild, afforded an excellent pathway for a grand stampede from the slave states—a grand exodus into the free states, and, through the latter, into Canada. These mountains were full of natural hiding places. There were glens, deep ravines, precipitous rocks piled on each other—ten thousand Sebastopols piled, as it were, by the hand of nature—for just such a purpose as that to which Brown proposed to put them, where the negroes, in thousands from the plains might run, and bless the Lord for having reached a place of security from the clutch of the tyrant.
Brown had the idea that, by sending a few men into the plains, and conversing with a number of slaves, he could induce a large number to come into these mountains where it would be difficult to find them, and difficult to overpower them if found. And there he would cultivate a brave and chivalrous band of sable freemen, who should finally lead their brethren out of captivity into a land of liberty. His mistake was the taking of Harper’s Ferry, undertaking with so small a number as 21 men besides himself to take possession of a town of 2,500 persons. He succeeded in taking the town, but lingered too long in the arsenal—lingered till he was surprised and all relief cut off from him, and was thus overpowered. He did just as many other generals have done, made a mistake, that was all.
But did not Brown do very wrong to go into that peaceable neighbourhood, while all were at rest in their beds, sleeping with their wives and children in an unsuspecting community, and there lift the standard of revolt, there let loose the most ferocious of all wars—an insurrectionary war? Well, at first blush it did seem to be a very criminal act; but he (Mr. Douglass) denied, to begin with, the justice of the statement, that Brown interrupted a peaceable neighbourhood. The slaveholders of America did not, and could not, constitute a peaceable neighbourhood.
Who were the slaveholders? An armed band of insurgents against the rights of their fellow-men. (Cheers) That was the way he looked at it. There was not a day in any year, not a minute in any hour at which the blood of his people did not leap forth at the call of the scourge. Brown did not enter a peaceable community, he entered a community already at war—a
war of oppression on the one part and of rebellion on the other—a war in which bowie-knives, revolvers, and cat-o-nine-tails were brought into play; and he merely entered there to put a stop to those atrocities.
Mr. Douglass went on to contend, in answer to certain representations, that so far from slavery being guaranteed in the American constitution, the system might be put an end to by honestly carrying out the provisions of that constitution, and concluded by expressing a hope that as he had more to say on the subject, he would have another opportunity of addressing the people of Newcastle. He resumed his seat, after having spoken about two hours, amid enthusiastic applause.