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Revolutions Never Go Backward: An Address Delivered In Rochester, New York, on May 5, 1861


Rochester Evening Express, 8 May 1861. Another text in Douglass' Monthly, 4 : 473—75 (June 1861).
On Sunday afternoon, 5 May 1861, Douglass was again the featured speakerof the antislavery lecture series at the Spring Street A. M. E. Zion Church in Rochester. The audience at the weekly gatherings in the small black church “has so largely increased,” Douglass" Monthly reported, “that the house will not hold the crowds who flock to hear, and if the meetings are continued, as it is intended they shall be, the City Hall, or some other large building, will be secured for the purpose.” DM, 4:469 (June 1861).
I propose again to throw out a few thoughts on the great crisis through which the country is now passing. On many accounts it would be pleasant to me to vary the character of these Sunday afternoon lectures; but I find it impossible to do so at present. Like the rod of Moses which swallowed up


all the petty creations of the Eastern magicians,1Douglass alludes to the incident described in Exod. 7: 10—12. the awful and sublime crisis in our national affairs, swallows up all other subjects. I must either speak of that which engages all minds and fills all hearts at this moment, or speak as one who beateth the air. The solemn departure of the troops from this city only a few days ago, composed of the sons, brothers, husbands and fathers of some, perhaps, of those who hear me, is fitted to bring this subject before us more impressively than anything else. That departure was a thrilling spectacle.2Eight companies of infantry were raised in Rochester within two weeks of Lincoln‘s call for volunteers. These units paraded through the city on 3 May 1861 before twenty thousand cheering spectators and were presented with an American flag by the “ladies of Monroe County.“ The Rochester troops then boarded trains to Elmira, where they were mustered into federal service as the Thirteenth New York Volunteer Regiment. McKelvey, Rochester: The Flower City, 64—65; Jane M. Parker, Rochester: A Story Historical (Rochester, 1884), 400. I witnessed it with feelings that I cannot describe. And as I saw the tears, and heard the mournful sobs of mothers, as they parted from their sons; wives, as they parted from their husbands; sisters, as they parted from their brothers, my very soul said in the depths of its bitterness, let Slavery. the guilty cause of all this sorrow and sighing, be accursed and destroyed forever—and so I say to-day.
For all the woes of this terrible civil war, we have to thank the foul slave system. Treason, rebellion, and every abomination, spring out of its pestilential atmosphere, like weeds from a dunghill, and but for the existence of slavery, this country would to-day be enjoying all the blessings of peace and security, and the hearts of your wives and daughters would not be tossed with the bitter anguish which now rends them. I wish the cause of your national troubles, which has thus snatched your own flesh and blood from you to be exposed to all the dangers, horrors and hardships of civil war, to be constantly borne in mind.
It is not the sturdy farmer of the west, who tills his broad acres with his own hard but honest hands, who eats his bread in the sweat of his own honest brow, that has plotted and conspired for the overthrow of this Government. It is not the skilful mechanic of New England, who by his daily toil supports his wife and children by his skill and industry, that has risen against the peace and safety of the Republic. It is not the hardy laborer of the North, nor of the South, who has treacherously conceived this hell-black conspiracy to destroy the Government and the Liberties of the American people. No! Oh, no! We owe our present calamity to the existence


among us of a privileged class, who are permitted to live by stealing. We owe it to the existence of a set of respectable robbers and murderers, who work their fellow men like beasts of burden, and keep back their wages by fraud.
It was once a favorite maxim of Daniel O’Connell, “that England’s extremity was Ireland’s opportunity.” Another proverb, somewhat trite, is, that when “rogues fall out, honest men get their rights.”3Many variations of this proverb exist. Perhaps the oldest English version was recorded by John Ray: “When knaves fall out, true men come by their goods." John Ray, A Collection of English Proverbs (Cambridge, 1670), l l l. To both sayings there have been many exceptions, and there will be many more.
The Irish people could never be brought to adopt or to act upon O’Connell’s maxim, and there have been many quarrels among dishonest men, which have only ended in further compacts and combinations of dishonesty. One thing, however, I think we may all venture to assert, the present war between slaveholding traitors and the legitimate American Government, affords much rational ground for the hope ofthe abolition of slavery.
A favorite maxim among the slaveholders a few years ago, was that revolutions never go backward.4This expression originated in William H. Seward‘s “Irrepressible Conflict” speech delivered in Rochester, New York, on 25 October 1858. Seward described the rapid growth of the Republican party in the North and declared: “I know all the world knows, that revolutions never go backward." William H. Seward, The Irrepressible Conflict: A Speech by William H. Seward, Delivered at Rochester, Monday, Oct. 25, 1858 (New York, [1860]), 7. They quote this saying with enthusiastic exultation. No doubt while doing so, the stately halls of Washington flit before them, and they see in the not distant future. Jeff. Davis5Jefferson Davis (1808—89), president of the Confederate States of America (1861-65), was bom in Christian (Todd) County, Kentucky. raised on a plantation in Mississippi. and educated at Transylvania University and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. After serving at various frontier military posts, he returned to Mississippi and devoted himself to the life of a planter. A Democrat, Davis briefly served in the U.S. House of Representatives (1845-46) before resigning to participate in the Mexican War. He later sat in the U.S. Senate (1847—51, 1857—61) and, as secretary of war, in the cabinet of President Franklin Pierce (1853—57). Resigning his Senate seat on 21 January 1861 , when he announced Mississippi‘s secession. Davis was inaugurated provisional president of the Confederacy on 18 February 1861 at Montgomery, Alabama. He was formally elected president in October 1861. Although never tried for treason, he was a federal prisoner at Fortress Monroe for two years following the Civil War. After his release, Davis wrote an account of his career, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, 2 vols. (New York, 1881). Clement Eaton, Jefferson Davis (New York, 1977); ACAB, 2 :98—102; DAB, 5: 123—31. and his brother traitors, the masters of the great American government, and enjoying all the luxury, grandeur and magnificence of the national capital.
This weapon is two-edged. It cuts both ways. It is as good for one section, as for the other. If revolutions never go backward, they are of


course as likely to go forward in one section as the other—in the north, as in the South. The slaveholders have resolved to battle for slavery, and the people of the Free States will yet come forth to battle for freedom. The end is clearly foreshadowed.
Freedom’s battle once begun,
Bequeathed from bleeding sire to son,
Tho’ baffled oft is ever won.6Douglass slightly misquotcs Lord Byron's The Giaour, lines 123—25. Ernest Hartley Coleridge, ed., The Works of Lord Byron, 13 vols. (London, 1899-1904), 3: 92.
At present, as all know, the North only strikes for government, as against anarchy. She strikes only for loyalty, as against treason and rebellion. The slaveholders strike for absolute independence, and total separation. The North strikes for the absolute supremacy of the Constitution, the Union, and the laws. Her loyal sons have buckled on their armor, with the full determination that not one ofthe thirty-four stars shall fall from the blue ground of our national flag.
But this is, after all. but the surface of this war. It will, and must, if continued. take on a broader margin. The law of its life is growth. The rallying cry of the North now is: “Down with treason, down with secession, down with rebellion.” And until this trio of social monsters are completely crushed out, the war is not to cease. Herein is my hope for the slave. The war cannot cease; the battle must go on. The Government must die in the first century of its existence, or it must now strike a blow which shall set it in safety for centuries to come. For let this rebellion be subdued, let the chief conspirators and traitors be hanged. or made to flee the country, let the Government in this instance fully assert its power, and the lesson will last for ages.
It was said that the first gun fired at Bunker Hill, was heard round the world.7Douglass confuses the Battle of Bunker Hill with the battle at North Bridge in Concord, Massachusetts on 19 April 1775. Ralph Waldo Emerson's 1837 poem “Concord Hymn" described how the “embattled farmers stood,/ And fired the shot heard round the world." Brooks Atkinson. ed., The Complete Essays and Other Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson (New York, 1940), 783. The first gun which was fired upon Sumter, will be heard ringing through the dome of a thousand years, as a warning to rebels and traitors.
It is not more true, that this irrepressible conflict must go on, until one of the parties to it is ground to powder, than it is. that the elements that enter into it, will widen and deepen the longer it lasts.
What would have been gladly accepted by the Government at Washington, one little month ago, would be rejected with scorn to-day; and what


might possibly be accepted to—day, will a few weeks hence, be looked upon as a mockery and insult.
Already, there is a visible change in the bearing of the Government at Washington. Two weeks ago, they asked Baltimore to graciously grant permission to American soldiers to pass through her streets to defend and protect the American capital. Now they take possession, not only of Baltimore, and subject her to a rigorous blockade, but take possession of any and every part of the State, they have any use for.8On 19 April 1861 the first regiment to respond to Lincoln's call for volunteers, the Sixth Massachusetts, had to change trains in Baltimore while en route to Washington. When a mob of pro-Confederate sympathizers attempted to block the troops' movement, a riot erupted. Four soldiers and at least nine civilians were killed before the soldiers were able to move on to Washington. Other northern regiments heading to the capital were temporarily redirected through Annapolis, Maryland. On 27 April Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus along the Philadelphia-to-Washington line of communication. By late April, Fort McHenry was heavily garrisoned, and soon after, Union troops under Brigadier General Benjamin F. Butler restored railroad traffic through Baltimore. E. B. Long, The Civil War Day by Day: An Almanac, 1861-1865 (Garden City, N.Y., 1971), 61-67; Boatner, Civil War Dictionary, 42; Allan Nevins, The War for the Union, 4 vols. (New York, 1959-71), 1: 80—87. Two weeks ago, the President was concerned for the safety of his soldiers. It will not be long before he will be concerned for the safety of the now persecuted loyal men and women in the State of Maryland. The President will, by and by, see that the United States Congress gives him the right, and makes it his duty to take care that none are deprived of life or liberty, without due process of law; and that the citizens of each State shall enjoy all the rights and immunities of citizens of the several States. The first Proclamation of Mr. Lincoln was received with derision at the South. It is said that the cabinet of Jeff. Davis read it amid roars of laughter.9The day after the fomial surrender of Fort Sumter, Lincoln issued a proclamation declaring that an insurrection existed and calling out 75,000 militia to suppress it. Both northern and southern newspapers reported that Lincoln's proclamation was read at a Confederate cabinet meeting on 10 April 1861 “amid bursts of laughter. " New York Times, 17 April 1861; New York Daily Tribune, 17 April 1861; Richmond (Va) Daily Enquirer, 25 April 1861; Edward A. Pollard, Southern History of the War, 4 vols. (Richmond, 1862), 1: 59. They were intoxicated with their victory at Charleston. “Whom the Gods would destroy, they first make mad.”10Douglass quotes an ancient Greek proverb dating back to Euripides, if not earlier. James Boswell described it as a saying that everyone repeats, but nobody knows where to find. James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson L.L.D., 2 vols. (1791; London, 1906), 2: 442—43.
Nero fiddled while Rome was on fire,11When a large portion of Rome was destroyed by a great fire in A.D. 64, public opinion accused Emperor Nero (A.D. 37—68) of setting the conflagration in order to clear ground for a new and enlarged palace. Rumor also held that Nero watched the fire from the Tower of Maecenas while playing the lyre and singing his own composition, “The Sack of Troy. " Despite the persistence of this legend, no evidence has been found to uphold it. The Cambridge Ancient History, 12 vols. (Cambridge. 1923—39), 10: 722-23; Michael Grant, The Twelve Caesars (New York, 1975), 169. and men have danced over the


jaws of an earthquake. But those who have been merry in the morning have wept and howled in the evening.
This conflict can never be reduced to narrower limits than now by either party. It can be extended, and probably will be extended, but it cannot be limited. Neither party can limit the issues involved in it. They would not if they could, and they could not if they would.
The only thing that could have prevented or postponed this mighty conflict was compromise. But now this has entirely vanished from the field of possibilities, and the work must go on. The leaders of secession first asked the right of States to secede—to go out in peace; next it seized and appropriated arsenals; next it sent traitorous emissaries to corrupt the loyal States, and to organize treason within their borders; next it fired on the American Flag; next it rained balls and bombshells upon Sumter; next it collected an army to capture all the national defences within one section of the Confederacy; and next it marched its army for the destruction of the National Capital.
It will go on. It cannot stop. It has at last got on the much coveted seven mile boots.12Douglass alludes to the boots in the fairy tale of “Hop o' My Thumb" that enabled the wearer to cover seven leagues at each stride. The expression “seven-leagued boots" was popularized in Sir Walter Scott‘s novel Rob Roy (1818). It is in the nature of the thing to go on. One success begets another. Once on the outer circle of the whirlpool, you are sure of being drawn in due time to the centre. The slaveholding rebels can stop their war upon the Government only when their men and money have gone. They must be starved out, broken down, overpowered and totally exhausted, before they can consent, after their high sounding threat, to sue for peace.
I am quite free to say, aside from any direct influence this war is to have towards liberating my enslaved fellow countrymen, I should regret the sudden and peaceful termination of this conflict.
The mission of the revolution would be a failure were it to stop now. It would, in that case, only have lived long enough to do harm, and not long enough to do any good.
One most important element of this war on the part of the North is to teach the South a lesson which it has been slow to learn.
The people of the North have long borne a bad reputation at the South. They have borne the reputation of being mean spirited and cowardly. All


the bravery and manliness has been monopolized by the South. This is one of the many evils arising out of our connection with slavery. In all our wars the North has furnished the men and the money, and the South has fur nished the officers, and [has], therefore, received the largest measure of the glory.
Now, I take it that no people are safe from attack who bear such a reputation as we have borne in the Southern States. No people can be long respected who bear any such reputation. A reputation for cowardice is a constant invitation to abuse and insult. He is always whipt oftenest who is whipt easiest. The coward may be pitied and protected by the magnanimous and brave, but there will always be mean men, and even cowards themselves, who will abuse and insult those whom they can abuse and insult with impunity.
We of the North may have learning, industry and wealth without end— with every other advantage, but so long as we are considered as destitute of manly courage, as too limited to defend ourselves, [our] freedom and our country, we shall be the victims of insult and outrage, whenever we ven ture among the rapacious and ferocious Slave-drivers of the South.
Now instead of looking upon the present war as an unmitigated evil, you and I, and all of us, ought to welcome it as a glorious opportunity for imparting wholesome lessons to the southern soul-drivers.
The first of these lessons, is to demonstrate before all, and especially before the people of the South, that they have been entirely, and most dangerously deceived.
We have got to show them that they have mistaken our forbearance for cowardice, and our love of peace, only for a selfish love of ease, and unwillingness to suffer for an idea, or a principle.
The only condition upon which we can reasonably hope to live with them in peace, and goodfellowship hereafter, is that we entirely undeceive them at this very important point.
They have need of the lesson as well as ourselves. We need it that we may have our rights respected and secure.
They need it to make them respectful of the rights of northern men.
The case is a plain one. The slave-holding rebels tell us to our teeth, that they do not love us. They acknowledge a feeling of infernal animosity towards all men who hate Slavery. All our past efforts to make them love us have proved abortive, and all such are likely to prove so in the future.
Now, the next best thing, if we cannot make them love us, is to make them fear us.


The opportunity for doing this is providential, and we should embrace it with a determination to make the best of it.
The doctrine of submission to injustice, has its limits, and those limits have been fully reached.
What I have been now saying applies with even more force to the man of sable hue. We have been everywhere despised as cowards, as wanting in manly spirit, as tamely submitting to the condition of Slavery. A time is at hand, I trust, when this reproach will be wiped out.
If this conflict shall expand to the grand dimensions which events seem to indicate, the iron arm of the black man may be called into service.


Douglass, Frederick, 1818-1895


May 5, 1861


Yale University Press 1985



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