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Emancipation and the Dawn of Light: An Address Delivered in Boston, Massachusetts, on January 1, 1863


Liberator, 16 January 1863. Another text in Speech File, reel 13, frames 748, 746, 744, FD Papers, DLC.
Meeting under the auspices of the Union Progressive Association, “an immense assembly” of black and white abolitionists crowded Boston’s Tremont Temple on 1 January 1863 to await the formal issuance of President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. The occasion, as Douglass recollected, was one of “both hope and fear,” for many in the audience suspected that Lincoln might ultimately balk at issuing the document. William Cooper Nell presided over the day-long vigil, which began at 10:30 A.M. Douglass, who spoke in both the afternoon and the evening, joined such notables as James Freeman Clarke, William Wells Brown, and Anna E. Dickinson on the podium. The aftemoon session opened at 2:30 P.M. with a prayer by the Reverend Leonard A. Grimes and a brief speech by Dr. J. B. Smith. Douglass then delivered the remarks reprinted here, and the session closed with an address by Clarke. When the meeting reconvened at 7:30 P.M., a number of messengers positioned themselves between the telegraph office and Tremont Temple to relay the official news of the signing of the proclamation as expeditiously as possible. Several speakers, including Douglass, addressed the gathering, but as the evening wore on with still no word, “a visible shadow seemed falling on the expecting throng,” recalled Douglass, “which the confident utterances of the speakers sought in vain to dispel.” Finally, as “suspense was becoming agony,” Judge Thomas Russell burst into the hall with the news. When Charles W. Slack, a white abolitionist, read the proclamation, an ecstatic audience responded with applause and shouts, “tossing up their hats, rapping on the floor with their canes, and singing ‘Blow ye the trumpet, blow.’” The crowd vacated Tremont Temple at midnight as previously agreed, but they accepted Grimes’s invitation to continue the celebration at his Twelfth Baptist Church, where Douglass spoke for a third time. That meeting lasted until


almost dawn. Lib., 2 January 1863; DM, 4: 796-97 (February 1863); Douglass, Life and Times, 387-89; John Daniels, In Freedom’s Birthplace: A Study of the Boston Negroes (Boston, 1914), 69-71; Frederic May Holland, Frederick Douglass: The Colored Orator, rev. ed. (1891; New York, 1969), 294-95; McPherson, Struggle for Equality, 120-21; Quarles, FD, 199-201; idem, Negro in the Civil War, 171-74.
[Frederick Douglass] expressed his pleasure at the near prospect of the abolition of slavery, and said that some twenty-five years ago he thought slavery was near its end, and that it was only necessary for some man to fairly and truly set forth the horrors of slavery to cause the world to abhor it, and thus to abolish it, and he took the task on himself; but he found he was mistaken in his ideas. Yet he thanked God that to-day he saw a bright light, and if he did not see the abolition of the curse, he thought he saw the beginning of the end. We were now suffering, and had been for the past two years, from the opposition to the freedom of speech and the press, so as to enable the truth to prevail against error, and when error has taken up the sword to cut down truth, then it becomes necessary for truth to fight for the right. We have had a period of darkness, but are now having the dawn of light, and are met to-day to celebrate it. We have all meant well, but we have made mistakes. and are now assembled to put ourselves right.
He believed both slaves and masters would have to suffer, and he could not take his seat without calling attention to the wisdom shown by the slaves in not having taken up arms in rebellion against their masters; but they knew the folly of this, as at any time during the war, this would have been disastrous. It was beginning to be found that the slaves could fight, and it was even suggested that they could garrison forts,1In April 1862 a flurry of editorial comment occurred in the Northern press following a report that Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton had suggested the employment of black troops to garrison forts in occupied portions of the South. Typical of the favorable response was the New York Times's declaration that “experience proves the blacks to have rare merit in the handling of artillery. Both in the British and American service has this excellence been noted. They are proof to the heat and smoke of the casemate, unendurable by whites in a warm climate, while the ardor of their labor and courage throws the utmost energy into their gunnery." New York Times, 9 April 1862; Dudley Taylor Cornish, The Sable Arm: Negro Troops in the Union Army, 1861-1865 (New York, 1956), 31-32; Benjamin P. Thomas and Harold M. Hyman, Stanton: The Life and Times of Lincoln's Secretary of War (New York, 1962), 290-91. and Mr. Douglass said he knew they could do both. Although the colored men were not to be considered prisoners of war when taken by the Confederates,2On 23 December 1862 Confederate president Jefferson Davis issued a proclamation which ordered that all black Union troops “captured in arms be at once delivered over to the executive authorities of the respective States to which they belong to be dealt with according to the laws of said States.” On 1 May 1863 the Confederate Congress passed legislation to authorize this practice. Such action was the equivalent of a death sentence, because state laws would have treated the prisoners as armed insurrectionists. To discourage the Confederates from carrying out this policy, Lincoln publicly threatened to execute or to put at hard labor one captured rebel for every Union soldier murdered or enslaved while in Confederate custody. Although isolated instances of mistreatment of black prisoners occurred, Lincoln's threat of retaliation deterred Confederates from any systematic persecution. New York Daily Tribune, 29 December 1862; Lib., 2 January 1862; OR, ser. 2, 6: 163; Cornish, Sable Arm, 160-61, 168-69; Benjamin Quarles, Lincoln and the Negro (New York, 1962), 173-78. yet he was


sure the colored men were as ready to give their services to the country now as they were at the commencement of the war. The speaker wished that the colored man should have the same advantages as the white man, when he could assure his hearers that they would find he would prove a worthy competitor of his lighter complexioned brother.
The speaker then alluded to the change that had taken place in the anti- slavery sentiment in Boston in two years, when men appeared with knives and pistols to prevent the discussion of slavery in Tremont Temple.3Douglass alludes to the disorders in Tremont Temple and outside Joy Street Baptist Church on 3 December 1860. His firm opinion was, that if free discussion had been allowed in the Union thirty years ago, slavery would have been quietly ended long ago, as quietly as it is being done in Russia, and as it was done in the West Indies; but the South has all the time used the gag law, and never dared allow an honest man to look slavery in the face. The speaker asserted that the pulpit, the press, and the people had been bought by the South, and that the people of the North had helped to plunge the South into the hell in which she is now writhing. But he would say, that the Abolitionists were the only ones who could wash their hands of the responsibility, as they had warned the people of it, and their warning was not heeded. He closed his remarks by asserting that slavery must go down, but he was fearful much blood would be spilt before this was perfected.


Douglass, Frederick, 1818-1895


January 1, 1863


Yale University Press 1985



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