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Hope and Despair in These Cowardly Times: An Address Delivered in Rochester, New York, on April 28 1861


Rochester Evening Express, 1 May 1861. Another text in Douglass' Monthly, 4: 473 (June 1861).
During the secession crisis and the early months of the Civil War, the Spring Street A.M.E. Zion Church in Rochester sponsored a weekly series of antislavery lectures. Douglass, who had helped organize the Sunday meetings, was the most frequent speaker, but other local and visiting abolitionists, including Lucy Colman, Susan B. Anthony, Parker Pillsbury, and Jermain W. Loguen, also addressed the meetings. Since mobs frequently attacked antislavery meetings in early 1861, Douglass praised the trustees of the black church for providing “in these cowardly and compromising times, the only public building in Rochester where an abolition lecture can be delivered.” In January 1861 the church had opened its doors to abolitionists whose convention at Corinthian Hall had been disrupted by an unruly crowd and closed by the police. The Confederate attack on Fort Sumter on 12 April 1861 increased toleration, if not support, for abolitionist sentiments. When Douglass spoke on 28 April 1861, the Rochester Evening Express reported that he “received hearty and frequent applause.” Rochester Union and Advertiser, 30 March, 1, 20 April 1861; DM, 3:437, 463 (April, May 1861), 4: 469, 483, 500-02 (June, July, August 1861); Blake McKelvey, Rochester: The Flower City, 1855-1890 (Cambridge, Mass., 1949), 62-64.
We meet here again after another week of deep, intense, heartfelt, wide- spread and thrilling excitement. I have never spent days so restless and anxious. Our mornings and evenings have continually oscillated between the dim light of hope, and the gloomy shadow of despair. We have opened our papers, new and damp from the press, tremblingly, lest the first line of the lightning should tell us that our National Capital has fallen into the hands of the traitors and murderers who have bound themselves as with an oath to break up our National Government.


The thing you and I want, most of all, to know, concerning this mighty strife, is yet far from us. We cannot see the end from the beginning. Our profoundest calculations may prove erroneous, our best hopes disappointed, and our worst fears confirmed. We live but to-day, and the measureless shores of the future are wisely hid from us. And yet we read the face of the sky, and may discern the signs of the times. We know that clouds and darkness, and the sounds of distant thunder mean rain. So, too, may we observe the fleecy drapery of the moral sky, and draw conclusions as to what may come upon us. There is a general feeling amongst us, that the control of events has been taken out of our hands, that we have fallen into the mighty current of eternal principles—invisible forces, which are shaping and fashioning events as they wish, using us only as instruments to work out their own results in our National destiny.
I cannot claim to speak on this great movement of the great North, as one of the privileged class of the American people. I take my place cheerfully, with the enslaved and proscribed in the land, and from their humble and lowly position, I wish to view the events now transpiring, and rightly interpret their significance as affecting the oppressed and enslaved.
Nevertheless, I am not indifferent, but profoundly solicitous for the character, growth and destiny of this American Republic, which but for slavery, would be the best governed country in the world. While, therefore, I may speak as a man, and view the great subject which now comes before us, as one of the oppressed, I can also speak as an American. All that l have and am, are bound up with the destiny of this country. When she is successful, I rejoice; when she is prosperous, I am happy; and when she is afflicted, I mourn with her as sincerely as any other citizen, for though not yet taken into full communion with her, I still feel that she is my country, and that I must fall or flourish with her. But what of this war? What does it mean? And what results will it finally arrive at?
We all know what the rebels and traitors mean. They mean the perpetuity, and supremacy of slavery. They mean that the slave power shall control and administer the American government now and forever, or else that that government shall be destroyed, and that another shall be put in its place, of which slaveholders shall have absolute control; they mean in a word to have Washington, and to drive the present government away.
Once in possession of the machinery of the Federal Government they would place their iron yoke upon the necks of freemen, and make the system of Slavery the great and all commanding interest of the whole country. With their success the historian may record the decline and fall of American Liberty and Civilization, the banishment and proscription of free


speech and a free press, and the domination of a proud, selfish, cruel and semi-barbarous oligarchy—whose arguments are bowie-knives, slungshot and revolvers.
It is this purpose that animates all their movements. The war on their part is for a government in which Slavery shall be National, and freedom no where, in which the capitalist shall own the Laborer. And the white nonslaveholder a degraded man—to be classed, as such men are now classed all over the South, as “poor white trash.”
But what does the war mean to the North? This inquiry is far more important than any concerning the South, for the South can do nothing without the great North shall see fit to let her. I look upon the war as in the hands of the North. It shall be made short or long, important or insignificant, as they shall and will determine.
There are many conflicting theories of the end had in view of this war. To some it means the complete dissolution of the American Union, the absolute and final separation of the slaveholding States from the non-slaveholding States; a division of the national property, and an acknowledgment of the independence of the governments of the respective sections. To others it means simply the suppression of rebellion, and the establishment of things precisely as they were before the election of Mr. Lincoln, without any alteration of a single principle or inference of the old Union. To still another class, it means a national convention which shall reconstruct the Union upon a basis which shall remove the objections which the slaveholders have raised against the present one. While others see, or think they see, in it the complete humiliation of the slaveholders, and the abolition of slavery, and a strong federal government which will make successful resistance to its authority and power, useless if not improbable.
The complete dissolution of the Union will depend upon the will and ability of the government, and of the North that sustains it against the traitors and rebels of the South, who have attempted its destruction. I would be a most lame and impotent conclusion, after expending millions of treasure and rivers of blood, for the North to consent to a dissolution of the Union. Such a conclusion would be giving up the point contended for in the war, and would be a triumph of the South. It would brand the war as a useless and worthless war, and draw after it all the evils that the war was intended to avert and prevent. There are great natural as well as moral objections to such a termination of the conflict, which make it quite improbable.


All natural relations conspire to make the United States one country, under one government, and one general code of laws. Nature seems to have frowned upon separation, and welded the sections together so strongly as to defy permanent separation to the people who inhabit it. To the mighty rivers and fertile fields that bind it together, civilization, commerce and science have flung over it a net-work of iron, making the sections one and indivisible. The great Mississippi river, father of waters, would look ill indeed in the possession of two rival nations. Dissolution is not a solution of our present troubles.
The speaker proceeded to show that the only settlement that can be made will be by the destruction of the cause which has produced the difficulty—Slavery. True, the Government seems not to be doing anything to bring about this result directly; but things are working. If the Government is not yet on the side of the oppressed, events mightier than the Government are bringing about that result.
He had been asked, “What are you colored men going to do?” He answered, let a few colored regiments go down South, and assist in setting their brothers free, and they could and would do this work effectively for our government. He was ready to go; but this did not imply much courage, for he knew he would not be accepted. The South are wiser in their generation than the North. Black people are being made soldiers of at Montgomery.1Early in the war, significant numbers of free blacks volunteered for service in the Confederacy, the first capital of which was Montgomery, Alabama. By late April 1861 black laborers had been employed by the South in erecting military fortifications at Charleston, New Orleans, and other locales. Although several free black military units were raised at the same time, Confederate officials continued to debate whether to send armed black soldiers into battle until 1865. As a result, no black troops experienced combat. Benjamin Quarles, The Negro in the Civil War (Boston, 1953), 35-41; Bell I. Wiley, Southern Negroes, 1861-1865 (New Haven, 1938), 113, 160-61; Robert F. Durden, The Gray and the Black: The Confederate Debate on Emancipation (Baton Rouge, 1972), 225-90. They piled the sand-bags and raised the batteries which drove Major Anderson from Sumter;2Robert Anderson (1805-71) was born near Louisville, Kentucky, and graduated from West Point in 1825. He participated in several campaigns against the Indians and was wounded severely at the Battle of Molino del Rey during the Mexican War. On 20 November 1860 Anderson assumed command of the federal troops in Charleston, concentrating them at Fort Sumter in the center of the city's harbor after South Carolina's secession. Anderson surrendered the fort to the Confederates on 14 April 1861 after withstanding thirty-four hours of artillery bombardment. He was treated as a hero by the North, and Lincoln promoted him from major to brigadier general. Failing health forced Anderson's retirement from active service in 1863. Mark M. Boatner III, The Civil War Dictionary (New York, 1959), 15, 299-300; ACAB, 1:70-71; NCAB, 4: 179. but you Northerners are too aristocratic to march by the side of a “nigger.” But the time may yet come when the President shall proclaim liberty through all the land. The speaker


argued that the Constitution granted this power to Congress. That great statesman, John Quincy Adams, once told the Chivalry to their faces that the power to set the slaves at liberty was clearly implied in the war-making power.3During a speech in the House of Representatives on 15 April 1842, John Quincy Adamsasserted that not only the Congress and the president but also “the commander of the army could order the universal emancipation of the slaves" in a theater of war. Congressional Globe, 27th Cong. 2d sess., 429; Wiecek, Sources of Antislavery Constitutionalism, 271. There can be no peace or unity in this country while slavery exists. Slavery is an enemy to free speech. It struck down Charles Sumner, and stained the floor of the Senate Chamber with his blood. The language of slavery is and always must be, “put out the light.” The slaveholders know their vile institution will not bear discussion. All nature is opposed to slavery. The broad sunlight, the free roving winds, the blue o’erarching sky, and ocean’s bounding billows, were all eloquent against the enslavement of man by his fellow man.
Mr. Douglass closed by referring to the sterling patriotism shown by the volunteers in rushing to arms at their country’s call. He received hearty and frequent applause.


Douglass, Frederick, 1818-1895


April 28, 1861


Yale University Press 1985



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