Frederick Douglass

1818 to 1895


A self-taught escaped slave, statesman, and leader of the American Abolitionist Movement, Frederick Douglass is best known for his speeches and auto-biographies, in which he stressed the universal equality of all humans.

Frederick Douglass made himself the most compelling witness to the evils of slavery and prejudice.

He suffered as his master broke up his family.  He endured whippings and beatings.  Down South, it was illegal to teach slaves how to read and write, but Douglass learned anyway, and he secretly educated other slaves.  After he escaped to freedom, he tirelessly addressed anti-slavery meetings throughout the North and the British Isles for more than two decades.  When it became clear that the Civil War was only a bloody benchmark in the struggle, he spearheaded the protest against Northern prejudice and Southern states which subverted the newly-won civil liberties of blacks.

Douglass embraced the ideal of equal freedom.  He supported women’s suffrage, saying “we hold woman to be justly entitled to all we claim for man.”  He urged toleration for persecuted Chinese immigrants — “I know of no rights of race superior to the rights of humanity.”  Overseas, he joined the great Daniel O’Connell in demanding Irish freedom, and he shared lecture platforms with Richard Cobden and John Bright, speaking out for free trade.

Douglass believed that private property, competitive enterprise and self-help are essential for human progress. “Property,” he wrote, “will produce for us the only condition upon which any people can rise to the dignity of genuine manhood…Knowledge, wisdom, culture, refinement, manners, are all founded on work and the wealth which work brings…Without money, there’s no leisure, without leisure no thought, without thought no progress.”

Critics considered Douglass stubborn, arrogant and overly sensitive to slights, but he earned respect from friends of freedom.  For years he appeared on lecture platforms with William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips, leading lights of the antislavery movement.  Uncle Tom’s Cabin author Harriet Beecher Stowe praised Douglass.  He impressed essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson who declared: “Here is Man; and if you have man, black or white is an insignificance.”  Mark Twain was proud to count Douglass as a friend.  John Bright contributed money to help buy his freedom.  “He saw it all, lived it all, and overcame it all,” exulted black self-help pioneer Booker T. Washington.

The personal costs of Douglass’ anti-slavery campaign were high.  He spent hardly any time at home.  He missed seeing his five children growing up.  His wife Anna resented being left alone to tend the children and earn extra money.

Ottilia Assing, a German friend, described Douglass as a “rather light mulatto of unusually large, slender and powerful build.  His features were marked by a distinctly vaulted forehead and with a singularly deep indentation at the base of the nose.  The nose itself is arched, the lips are small and nicely formed, revealing more the influence of the white man than of his black origins.  His thick hair is mixed here and there with grey and is curly though not woolly.”

An American observer recalled Douglass’ presence as a speaker:  “He was more than six feet in height, and his majestic form, as he rose to speak, straight as an arrow, muscular, yet lithe and graceful, his flashing eye, and more than all, his voice, that rivaled Webster’s in its richness, and in the depth and sonorousness of its cadences, made up such an ideal of an orator as the listeners never forgot.”

Individualist feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton saw how, at a Boston anti-slavery meeting, “with wit, satire, and indignation [Douglass] graphically described the bitterness of slavery and the humiliation of subjection to those who, in all human virtues and powers, were inferior to himself…Around him sat the great anti-slavery orators of the day, earnestly watching the effect of his eloquence on that immense audience, that laughed and wept by turns, completely carried away by the wondrous gifts of his pathos and humor…all the other speakers seemed tame after Frederick Douglass…[he] stood there like an African prince, majestic in his wrath.”

Frederick Douglass was born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey sometime in February 1818 — slave births weren’t recorded — on a plantation along Maryland’s Eastern Shore, near Easton.  He didn’t know who his father was. His mother Harriet Bailey was a slave, and consequently all her children were condemned to be slaves. “I never saw my mother, to know her as such, more than four or five times in my life,” he recalled, “and each of these times was very short in duration, and at night.”  She died when he was seven.

Bailey was brought to the mansion of Edward Lloyd who was former Maryland governor and U.S. senator and among the richest men in the South.  Lloyd owned a number of farms, and   Bailey remembered how one overseer, Austin Gore, was whipping a slave named Denby.  When Denby tried to escape into a stream, Gore shot him dead — and got away with it.  “Killing a slave, or any colored person, in Talbot County, Maryland,” Bailey explained, “is not treated as a crime.”

In November 1826, Bailey was assigned to Thomas Auld who sent him to his brother Hugh in Baltimore.  Hugh’s wife Sophia read to him from the Bible, and he noticed the connection between marks on the page and the words she spoke.  She began teaching him the alphabet.  Bailey recalled, Hugh Auld snarled that “If you learn him how to read, he’ll want to know how to write; and this accomplished, he’ll be running away with himself.”

Bailey learned more on the streets of Baltimore: “when I met with any boy who I knew could write, I would tell him I could write as well as he.  The next word would be, ‘I don’t believe you.  Let me see you try it.’  I would then make the letters which I had been so fortunate as to learn, and ask him to beat that.  In this way I got a good many lessons in writing, which it is quite possible I should never have gotten in any other way.”

When Bailey was 12, he heard his friends read from a collection of great speeches, assigned in school.  He took 50 cents that he had hoarded, went to Knight’s Bookstore and bought his own copy of The Columbian Orator.  Compiled by Caleb Bingham, it first appeared in 1797 and went through many editions.  “Alone, behind the shipyard wall,” reported biographer William McFeely, “Frederick Bailey read aloud.  Laboriously, studiously, at first, then fluently, melodically, he recited great speeches.  With The Columbian Orator in his hand, with the words of great speakers coming from his mouth, he was rehearsing.  He was readying the sounds—and meanings—of words of his own that he would one day write.  He had the whole world before him.  He was Cato before the Roman senate, [William] Pitt [the Elder] before Parliament defending American liberty, [Richard Brinsley] Sheridan arguing for Catholic emancipation, Washington bidding his officers farewell.”  The book included a “Dialogue between Master and Slave” in which the Slave tells the Master he wants not kindness but liberty.  There was also a short play, “Slave in Barbary,” where the ruler Hamet declares: “Let it be remembered, there is no luxury so exquisite as the exercise of humanity, and no post so honourable as his, who defends THE RIGHTS OF MAN.”

Bailey recalled, “The silver trump of freedom had roused my soul to eternal wakefulness.  Freedom now appeared, to disappear no more…It was heard in every sound, and seen in every thing.  It was ever present to torment me with a sense of my wretched condition.  I saw nothing without seeing it, I heard nothing without hearing it, and felt nothing without feeling it.  It looked from every star, it smiled in every calm, breathed in every wind, and moved in every storm.”

In March 1832, Thomas Auld decided he needed Bailey, and he returned to Auld’s place in St. Michaels, Maryland.  Auld discovered that the taste of freedom in Baltimore had a pernicious effect on Bailey and that harsh discipline was called for.  Accordingly, in January 1833, he was hired out as a field hand to Edward Covey, a small tenant farmer known as a “nigger-breaker.”  Bailey was brutally whipped once, but when Covey tried again, Bailey successfully defended himself with his powerful arms and indomitable spirit.  “I was nothing before,” Bailey wrote later.  “I WAS A MAN NOW.”

He resolved to be free, and he did what he could to nourish the spirit of freedom in others.  At the house of a free black man, he educated some 40 slaves with his Columbian Orator and a copy of Webster’s Spelling Book which he apparently had acquired from a friend.  “These dear souls came not to Sabbath school because it was popular to do so, nor did I teach them because it was reputable to be thus engaged,” he wrote.  “Every moment they spent in that school, they were liable to be taken up, and given thirty-nine lashes.  They came because they wished to learn.  Their minds had been starved by their cruel masters…The work of instructing my dear fellow-slaves was the sweetest engagement with which I was ever blessed.”

In April 1836, Bailey and four other slaves plotted their escape, but they were betrayed.  They were dragged behind horses some 15 miles to the Easton jail.  Bailey was considered a dangerous influence on a plantation, and Thomas Auld decided that he should be returned to his brother Hugh in Baltimore.  Bailey got a job in Gardiner’s shipyard as an apprentice caulker.  In the spring of 1838, Bailey proposed a deal to Hugh Auld: let him be free to hire himself out, he would buy his own tools, he would pay his own room and board, and he would remit $3 per week.  Auld figured that if he said no, Bailey would probably run away.  During his spare time, Bailey joined the East Baltimore Mental Improvement Society, an association of free black caulkers who gathered to debate issues and learn more living on one’s own.

Meanwhile, he met Anna Murray, a free black woman whose parents reportedly had been freed before her birth.  She was about five years older than he and worked as a domestic servant in Baltimore.  Although she was illiterate, she was probably the one who encouraged him to play the violin.  This became a favorite pastime, and he especially loved Handel, Haydn, and Mozart.

Anna reportedly raised money for Bailey’s escape by selling her featherbed.  Since he had worked around the Baltimore docks, he could talk like a sailor, and he decided to escape dressed like a sailor — a red shirt, a flat-topped sailor’s hat and a handkerchief around his neck.  On September 3, 1838, he boarded a crowded northbound train, and when the conductor asked for his “free papers,” certifying that he wasn’t a slave, he presented seaman’s papers (used by American sailors when traveling overseas), borrowed from a retired free black sailor.  The conductor didn’t notice that the papers described somebody else.  He eluded several people who recognized him and made his way to New York where he joined Anna and got married.  Then they headed for New Bedford, Massachusetts, a shipbuilding boom town where they could be safer from slave hunters and probably find a job as a caulker.  New Bedford had some 12,000 people, a black community and a significant contingent of antislavery Quakers.

Bailey marveled at the prosperity in New Bedford.  “I had very strangely supposed, while in slavery, that few of the comforts, and scarcely any of the luxuries, of life were enjoyed at the north, compared with what were enjoyed by slaveholders of the south.  I probably came to this conclusion from the fact that northern people owned no slaves.  I supposed that they were about upon a level with the non-slaveholding population of the south.  I knew they were exceedingly poor, and I had been accustomed to regard their poverty as the necessary consequence of their being non-slaveholders.  I had somehow imbibed the opinion that, in the absence of slaves, there could be no wealth, and very little refinement…

“Here I found myself surrounded with the strongest proofs of wealth.  Lying at the wharves, and riding in the stream, I saw many ships of the finest model, in the best order, and of the largest size.  Upon the right and left, I was walled in by granite warehouses of the widest dimensions, stowed to their utmost capacity with the necessaries and comforts of life.  Added to this, almost every body seemed to be at work, but noiselessly so, compared with what I had been accustomed to in Baltimore…I heard no deep oaths or horrid curses on the laborer.  I saw no whipping of men; but all seemed to go smoothly on.  Every man appeared to understand his work, and went at it with a sober yet cheerful earnestness, which betokened the deep interest which he felt in what he was doing, as well as a sense of his own dignity as a man.  To me this looked exceedingly strange.  From the wharves I strolled around and over the town, gazing with wonder and admiration at the splendid churches, beautiful dwellings, and finely-cultivated gardens; evincing an amount of wealth, comfort, taste, and refinement, such as I had never seen in any part of slave-holding Maryland.”

Until the couple found their own lodgings, they stayed with black caterers Mary and Nathan Johnson.  Bailey reported that Nathan read “more newspapers, better understood the moral, religious, and political character of the nation—than nine tenths of the slaveholders in Talbot county, Maryland.  Yet, Mr. Johnson was a working man.  His hands were hardened by toil, and not his alone, but those also of Mrs. Johnson.  I found the colored people much more spirited than I had supposed they would be.  I found among them a determination to protect each other from the blood-thirsty kidnapper, at all hazards.”  Nathan suggested that Bailey adopt a distinctive free name—like Douglas, the name of a Scottish lord in Walter Scott’s poem The Lady of the Lake.  He did, adding an extra “s” for more individuality.

He landed a steady job at a Quaker-owned whale oil refinery, and he and Anna attended the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church.  The minister, Thomas James, was active in the antislavery movement and editor of a twice-monthly publication called The Rights of Man.  On March 12, 1839, Douglass rose at a church meeting and delivered a speech denouncing proposals that blacks be shipped back to Africa.  He wanted to stay in America.  His remarks were stirring enough to be mentioned in The Liberator, the radical anti-slavery newspaper which William Lloyd Garrison had published weekly since January 1831.  He was invited to speak at an August 10th Nantucket gathering of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society.  Garrison and his compatriot Wendell Phillips would be there.

In Nantucket, Garrison recalled, Douglass “came forward to the platform with a hesitancy and embarrassment.  After apologizing for his ignorance, and reminding the audience that slavery was a poor school for the human intellect and heart, he proceeded to narrate some of the facts in his own history as a slave, and in the course of his speech gave utterance to many noble thoughts and thrilling reflections.  As soon as he had taken his seat, filled with hope and admiration, I rose, and declared that PATRICK HENRY, of revolutionary fame, never made a speech more eloquent in the cause of liberty…”

Douglass was asked to become a salaried speaker for the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. He joined Garrison, Phillips, Stephen S. Foster and Charles Lenox Remond, speaking wherever a couple dozen people could be gathered.  Douglass delivered over a hundred speeches a year in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Rhode Island, and he became a valued contributor to the Liberator.  He was heckled and beaten a number of times.

His first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (June 1845) helped secure his fame.  It was written as an antislavery tract, with details of his escape left out to protect others.  Published by the Anti-Slavery Office, Boston, the book included a letter by Phillips and a preface by Garrison.  There were three European editions, and total sales reportedly reached 30,000 within five years.

Douglass seemed like a natural to help turn Europeans against the South and isolate it in the international community.  In the fall of 1845, he and Garrison addressed audiences in Scotland, England and Wales.  They dramatized the evils of American slavery, attacked clergymen who supported slavery, called on people to cut off ties with the slave-holding South and asked for contributions.  In Ireland, Douglass was horrified to see worse poverty than anything he had experienced.  At a gathering of some 20,000 people, he shared the lecture platform with six foot, red-haired Daniel O’Connell.  He was moved when the Irishman dubbed him the “Black O’Connell of the United States.”  After the failure of the potato crop and the resulting famine devastated Ireland, Douglass joined the lean, dark-haired, cool-headed free trade agitator Richard Cobden and his stockier compatriot John Bright, a passionate orator.  The threesome traveled from town to town, urging immediate repeal of the corn laws (grain tariffs), so hungry people could buy cheap food.  Douglass was welcomed at London’s Free-Trade Club, and he cherished his times as “a welcome guest at the house of Mr. Bright in Rochdale…treated as a friend and brother among his brothers and sisters.”

Meanwhile, he learned that Hugh Auld was determined to have him captured when he returned to the United States.  Since he had become a key player in the abolitionist movement, Douglass’ friends thought it best to purchase his freedom.  The agreed-on price was L150.  John Bright kicked off the fund-raising with a L50 check.  Hugh Auld received $711.60, and Douglass was legally free on December 12, 1845.  He sailed for the United States on April 4, 1847.

Douglass played a role in the Underground Railroad.  Reportedly a slave could travel from a border state to Canada within 48 hours.  Many a runaway slave showed up at Douglass’ three-story Rochester, New York home, and his family took care of them until they could go the seven miles to Charlotte and catch a steamer across Lake Ontario to Canada.  Most escapes occurred during the winter when there was less supervision on plantations, and Douglass tirelessly raised money to provide the destitute runaway slaves with warm clothing and food.

Douglass cherished his independence.  He believed in pursuing all peaceful methods against slavery, including political action, while Garrison opposed political action.  Douglass started his own anti-slavery newspaper, an idea opposed by Garrison’s people who noted that the Liberator lost money.  On December 3, 1847, with $4,000 raised from a speaking tour, Douglass published the first issue of *North Star.  He was to keep it going for 17 years.

On July 19 and 20, 1848, he spoke at the Seneca Falls convention which the five-foot, three-inch housewife Elizabeth Cady Stanton had organized to promote women’s rights.  Douglass was the only man who supported Stanton’s proposal for woman suffrage.  He agreed that wives should be able to earn their own money; that widows, like widowers, should be able to serve as legal guardians of their children; that women, like men, should be able to own property, inherit property and administer estates.

Then came the notorious Dred Scott decision, March 6, 1857, in which Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger B. Taney ruled that neither a slave, nor a former slave or nor a descendent of slaves could become a U.S. citizen.  Outraged, Douglass was willing to hear any ideas that might help the fight against slavery.  In 1858, abolitionist John Brown was at Douglass’ Rochester home, working on his idea for stirring a slave insurrection and forming a black state in the Appalachian mountains.  Police sought Douglass after Brown’s October 16, 1859 raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, and he fled to England for several months.

After the April 1861 firing on Fort Sumter which marked the beginning of the Civil War, Lincoln made clear this was a struggle to preserve the Union, not abolish slavery.  Lincoln’s policy was that runaway slaves must be returned to their masters.  Douglass demanded “the unrestricted and complete Emancipation of every slave in the United States whether claimed by loyal or disloyal masters.”  On January 1, 1863, Lincoln issued an Emancipation Proclamation saying that slaves were liberated in rebellious states — which he obviously didn’t control.  The Proclamation didn’t free slaves in the North, but it did make the abolition of slavery a war aim.

While Douglass certainly admired Lincoln, he was mindful of all the ways Lincoln was willing to compromise with slavery.

After slavery was abolished, Douglass set his sights on getting blacks the vote, so they could establish a political presence—blacks were denied the vote in Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and several Western states.  But it became politically impossible to push for giving both blacks and women the vote at the same time.  Immediately after the March 30, 1870 adoption of the Fifteenth Amendment, granting blacks the right to vote, Douglass supported the campaign for woman suffrage.

Douglass hitched himself to the Republican Party during the long sunset of his career, but his political connections did little good.  Terrorist groups like the Pale Faces, Knights of the White Camelia and, of course, the Ku Klux Klan murdered blacks and burned black homes, schools and churches, and neither state nor federal governments did much.

Douglass encouraged self-help.  He encouraged black parents: “Educate your sons and daughters, send them to school…Wherever a man may be thrown by misfortune, if he have in his hands a useful trade, he is useful to his fellow-men, and will be esteemed accordingly…”

In 1881, he published The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. He provided more details about his experience as a slave, revealed (for the first time) how he escaped and discussed subsequent struggles.  An expanded edition came eleven years later.

Douglass’ wife Anna died on August 4, 1882.  When he married a white abolitionist, Helen Pitts, both blacks and whites were horrified.  Arsonists torched his beloved Rochester home, and the couple moved to a 20-room white frame house on 23 acres across the Anacostia River from Washington, D.C.  The place had once been owned by Robert E. Lee.  Called Cedar Hill, it included a library and a music room where Douglass could play his violin.

On February 20, 1895, he attended a Washington, D.C. rally for women’s rights.  When he finished dinner that night, he rose from his chair, then collapsed and died.  There was a private funeral service at his home, and the casket was moved to the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church where tremendous crowds paid their respects.  After another service at Rochester’s Central Church, he was buried in Mount Hope Cemetary near his wife and daughter.

More than anyone else, Douglass put a human face on the horrors of American slavery.  He helped convince millions that it must be abolished.  He courageously spoke out against the subversion of civil rights.  He expressed generous sympathy for all who were oppressed.  He urged people to help themselves and fulfill their destiny.  He longed for the day when men and women, blacks, whites and everyone else could live in peace.

Essay from 1848

You Are a Man And So Am I

Frederick Douglass, escaped slave and major abolitionist leader, wrote the three short essays collected here. He argues that slavery “destroys the central principle of human responsibility” and violates the Constitution.

ir— The long and intimate, though by no means friendly, relation which unhappily subsisted between you and myself, leads me to home that you will easily account for the great liberty which I now take in addressing you in this open and public manner. The same fact may possibly remove any disagreeable surprise which you may experience on again finding your name coupled with mine, in any other way than in an advertisement, accurately describing my person, and offering a large sum for my arrest. In thus dragging you again before the public, I am aware that I shall subject myself to no inconsiderable amount of censure. I shall probably be charged with an unwarrantable, if not wanton and reckless disregard of the rights and properties of private life. There are those north as well as south who entertain a much higher respect for rights which are merely conventional, than they do for rights which are personal and essential. Not a few there are in our country, who, while they have no scruples against robbing the laborer of the hard earned results of his patient industry, will be shocked by the extremely indelicate manner of bringing your name before the public. Believing this to be the case, and wishing to met every reasonable or plausible objection to my conduct, I will frankly state the ground upon which I justify myself in this instance, as well as on former occasions when I have thought proper to mention your name in public. All will agree that a man guilty of theft, robbery, or murder, has forfeited the right to concealment and private life; that the community have a right to subject such persons to the most complete exposure. However much they may desire retirement, and aim to conceal themselves and their movements from the popular gaze, the public have a right to ferret them out, and bring their conduct before the proper tribunals of the country for investigation. Sir, you will undoubtedly make the proper application of these generally admitted principles, and will easily see the light in which you are regarded by me; I will not therefore manifest ill temper, by calling you hard names …

From that time, I resolved that I would some day run away. The morality of the act I dispose of as follows: I am myself; you are yourself; we are two distinct persons, equal persons. What you are, I am. You are a man, and so am I. God created both, and made us separate beings. I am not by nature bond to you, or you to me. Nature does not make your existence depend upon me, or mine to depend upon yours. I cannot walk upon your legs, or you upon mine. I cannot breathe for you, or you for me; I must breathe for myself, and you for yourself. We are distinct persons, and are each equally provided with faculties necessary to our individual existence. I leaving you, I took nothing but what belonged to me, and in no way lessened your means for obtaining an honest living. Your faculties remained yours, and mine became useful to their rightful owner. I therefore see no wrong in any part of the transaction.

After remaining in New Bedford for three years, I met with William Lloyd Garrison, a person of whom you have possibly heard, as he is pretty generally known among slaveholders. He put it into my head that I might make myself serviceable to the cause of the slave, by devoting a portion of my time to telling my own sorrows, and those of other slaves, which had come under my observation. This was the commencement of a higher state of existence than any to which I had ever aspired. I was thrown into society the most pure, enlightened, and benevolent, that the country affords. Among these I have never forgotten you, but have invariably made you the topic of conversation — thus giving you all the notoriety I could do. I need not tell you that the opinion formed of you in these circles is far from being favorable …

I will not bring this letter to a close; you shall hear from me again unless you let me hear from you. I intend to make use of you as a weapon with which to assail the system of slavery — as a means of concentrating public attention on the system, and deepening the horror of trafficking in the souls and bodies of men. I shall make use of you as a means of exposing the character of the American church and clergy — and as a means of bringing this guilty nation, with yourself, to repentance. In doing this, I entertain no malice toward you personally. There is no roof under which you might need for your comfort, which I would not readily grant. Indeed, I should esteem it a privilege to set you an example as to how mankind ought to treat each other.

I am your fellow-man, but not your slave.

The Nature of Slavery

More than twenty years of my life were consumed in a state of slavery. My childhood was environed by the baneful peculiarities of the slave system. I grew up to manhood in the presence of this hydra headed monster—not as a master—not as an idle spectator—not as the guest of the slaveholder—but as A SLAVE, eating the bread and drinking the cup of slavery with the most degraded of my brother-bondmen, and sharing with them all the painful conditions of their wretched lot. In consideration of these facts, I feel that I have a right to speak, and to speak strongly. Yet, my friends, I feel bound to speak truly… .

First of all, I will state, as well as I can, the legal and social relation of master and slave. A master is one—to speak in the vocabulary of the southern states—who claims and exercises a right of property in the person of a fellow-man. This he does with the force of the law and the sanction of southern religion. The law gives the master absolute power over the slave. He may work him, flog him, hire him out, sell him, and, in certain contingencies, kill him, with perfect impunity. The slave is a human being, divested of all rights—reduced to the level of a brute—a mere “chattel” in the eye of the law—placed beyond the circle of human brotherhood—cut off from his kind—his name, which the “recording angel” may have enrolled in heaven, among the blest, is impiously inserted in a master’s ledger, with horses, sheep, and swine. In law, the slave has no wife, no children, no country, and no home.

He can own nothing, possess nothing, acquire nothing, but what must belong to another. To eat the fruit of his own toil, to clothe his person with the work of his own hands, is considered stealing. He toils that another may reap the fruit; he is industrious that another may live in idleness; he eats unbolted meal that another may eat the bread of fine flour; he labors in chains at home, under a burning sun and biting lash, that another may ride in ease and splendor abroad; he lives in ignorance that another may be educated; he is abused that another may be exalted; he rests his toil-worn limbs on the cold, damp ground that another may repose on the softest pillow; he is clad in coarse and tattered raiment that another may be arrayed in purple and fine linen; he is sheltered only by the wretched hovel that a master may dwell in a magnificent mansion; and to this condition he is bound down as by an arm of iron…  .

It is, then, the first business of the enslaver of men to blunt, deaden, and destroy the central principle of human responsibility. Conscience is, to the individual soul, and to society, what the law of gravitation is to the universe. It holds society together; it is the basis of all trust and confidence; it is the pillar of all moral rectitude. Without it, suspicion would take the place of trust; vice would be more than a match for virtue; men would prey upon each other, like the wild beasts of the desert; and earth would become a hell.

Nor is slavery more adverse to the conscience than it is to the mind. This is shown by the fact, that in every state of the American Union, where slavery exists, except the state of Kentucky, there are laws absolutely prohibitory of education among the slaves. The crime of teaching a slave to read is punishable with severe fines and imprisonment, and, in some instances, with death itself.

Nor are the laws respecting this matter a dead letter. Cases may occur in which they are disregarded, and a few instances may be found where slaves may have learned to read; but such are isolated cases, and only prove the rule. The great mass of slaveholders look upon education among the slaves as utterly subversive of the slave system. I well remember when my mistress first announced to my master that she had discovered that I could read. His face colored at once with surprise and chagrin. He said that “I was ruined, and my value as a slave destroyed; that a slave should know nothing but to obey his master; that to give a negro an inch would lead him to take an ell; that having learned how to read, I would soon want to know how to write; and that by-and-by I would be running away.” I think my audience will bear witness to the correctness of this philosophy, and to the literal fulfillment of this prophecy… .

While this nation is guilty of the enslavement of three millions of innocent men and women, it is as idle to think of having a sound and lasting peace, as it is to think there is no God to take cognizance of the affairs of men. There can be no peace to the wicked while slavery continues in the land. It will be condemned; and while it is condemned there will be agitation. Nature must cease to be nature; men must become monsters; humanity must be transformed; Christianity must be exterminated; all ideas of justice and the laws of eternal goodness must be utterly blotted out from the human soul—ere a system so foul and infernal can escape condemnation, or this guilty republic can have a sound, enduring peace… .

Fourth of July Oration, 1852

This, for the purpose of this celebration, is the 4th of July. It is the birthday of your National Independence, and of your political freedom. This, to you, is what the Passover was to the emancipated people of God. It carries your minds back to the day, and to the act of your great deliverance; and to the signs, and to the wonders, associated with that act, and that day. This celebration also marks the beginning of another year of your national life; and reminds you that the Republic of America is now 76 years old… .

Fellow-citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here to-day? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? and am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us?

Would to God, both for your sakes and ours, that an affirmative answer could be truthfully returned to these questions! …

But, such is not the state of the case. I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak to-day? …

Fellow-citizens; above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions! whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are, to-day, rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them. If I do forget, if I do not faithfully remember those bleeding children of sorrow this day, “may my right hand forget her cunning, and may my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth!” To forget them, to pass lightly over their wrongs, and to chime in with the popular theme, would be treason most scandalous and shocking, and would make me a reproach before God and the world. My subject, then fellow-citizens, is AMERICAN SLAVERY. I shall see, this day, and its popular characteristics, from the slave’s point of view. Standing, there, identified with the American bondman, making his wrongs mine, I do not hesitate to declare, with all my soul, that the character and conduct of this nation never looked blacker to me than on this 4th of July! Whether we turn to the declarations of the past, or to the professions of the present, the conduct of the nation seems equally hideous and revolting. America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future. Standing with God and the crushed and bleeding slave on this occasion, I will, in the name of humanity which is outraged, in the name of liberty which is fettered, in the name of the constitution and the Bible, which are disregarded and trampled upon, dare to call in question and to denounce, with all the emphasis I can command, everything that serves to perpetuate slavery-the great sin and shame of America! …

What point in the anti-slavery creed would you have me argue? On what branch of the subject do the people of this country need light? Must I undertake to prove that the slave is a man? That point is conceded already. Nobody doubts it. The slaveholders themselves acknowledge it in the enactment of laws for their government. They acknowledge it when they punish disobedience on the part of the slave. There are seventy-two crimes in the State of Virginia, which, if committed by a black man, (no matter how ignorant he be), subject him to the punishment of death; while only two of the same crimes will subject a white man to the like punishment. What is this but the acknowledgement that the slave is a moral, intellectual and responsible being? The manhood of the slave is conceded… .

Would you have me argue that man is entitled to liberty? that he is the rightful owner of his own body? You have already declared it. Must I argue the wrongfulness of slavery? Is that a question for Republicans? Is it to be settled by the rules of logic and argumentation, as a matter beset with great difficulty, involving a doubtful application of the principle of justice, hard to be understood? How should I look to-day, in the presence of Americans, dividing, and subdividing a discourse, to show that men have a natural right to freedom? speaking of it relatively, and positively, negatively, and affirmatively. To do so, would be to make myself ridiculous, and to offer an insult to your understanding. There is not a man beneath the canopy of heaven, that does not know that slavery is wrong for him… .

What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelly to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour… .

Americans! your republican politics, not less than your republican religion, are flagrantly inconsistent. You boast of your love of liberty, your superior civilization, and your pure Christianity, while the whole political power of the nation (as embodied in the two great political parties), is solemnly pledged to support and perpetuate the enslavement of three millions of your countrymen. You hurl your anathemas at the crowned headed tyrants of Russia and Austria, and pride yourselves on your Democratic institutions, while you yourselves consent to be the mere tools and bodyguards of the tyrants of Virginia and Carolina. You invite to your shores fugitives of oppression from abroad, honor them with banquets, greet them with ovations, cheer them, toast them, salute them, protect them, and pour out your money to them like water; but the fugitives from your own land you advertise, hunt, arrest, shoot and kill… .

Fellow-citizens! there is no matter in respect to which, the people of the North have allowed themselves to be so ruinously imposed upon, as that of the pro-slavery character of the Constitution. In that instrument I hold there is neither warrant, license, nor sanction of the hateful thing; but, interpreted as it ought to be interpreted, the Constitution is a GLORIOUS LIBERTY DOCUMENT. Read its preamble, consider its purposes. Is slavery among them? Is it at the gateway? or is it in the temple? It is neither. While I do not intend to argue this question on the present occasion, let me ask, if it be not somewhat singular that, if the Constitution were intended to be, by its framers and adopters, a slave-holding instrument, why neither slavery, slaveholding, nor slave can anywhere be found in it. What would be thought of an instrument, drawn up, legally drawn up, for the purpose of entitling the city of Rochester to a track of land, in which no mention of land was made? …

Now, take the constitution according to its plain reading, and I defy the presentation of a single pro-slavery clause in it. On the other hand it will be found to contain principles and purposes, entirely hostile to the existence of slavery.


The great virtue of a free market system is that it does not care what color people are; it does not care what their religion is; it only cares whether they can produce something you want to buy. It is the most effective system we have discovered to enable people who hate one another to deal with one another and help one another.

Milton Friedman

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