An Account of American Slavery: An Address Delivered in Glasgow, Scotland, on January 15, 1846
Glasgow Argus, January 22, 1846.
Mr. Frederick Douglass said it afforded him great pleasure to meet so many as had presented themselves this evening to hear the wrongs of his fellow-countrymen discoursed upon. He always enjoyed a meeting when it was gathered for any benevolent enterprise whatever, but such meetings as the present he regarded as his own, because their aim was the destruction of the enslavement of his race. Whenever he saw any considerable numberindeed, no matter how inconsiderable the number--gathered together for such an object, his heart throbbed with gratitude to God that there were any to sympathise with those who had been so long neglected.
He came to them this evening for the purpose of giving them an account of American slavery. He had no education to recommend him to their hearing. He had never had a day's schooling in his life. All the learning or education which he had he had stolenobtained it by stealthand they knew that slavery was a poor school for rearing teachers of any kind, not less of what were considered the ordinary branches of education than of morality and Christianity, or indeed of any thing else that was good. He trusted they would indulge him, therefore, and hear him with that patience and indulgence which the nature of his cause would at once suggest to them. (Applause.)
He would first state the object of his coming before them. He had been a slave in the United States. Indeed, he was still a slave by the laws of the United States, he was still a slave, liable at any moment to be dragged back into the bondage from which he had fled. He was a slave in Maryland, but about seven years ago he escaped from his master and fled to New Bedford, in the state of Massachusetts. There he lived some three years unnoticed by the abolitioniststhat is, he was not made prominent by the leading men amongst them. His heart, however, was warm in the Anti-Slavery cause, but he had no idea of being called upon to speak on the subject. At that time he got his living by rolling oil casks on the quays of New Bedford, but in 1841, about three years after his escape from slavery, he attended an Anti-Slavery meeting, where he was called upon by a gentleman who had heard him speak at a meeting of coloured people in favour of abolition, to say something. He was induced by this gentleman to get up and tell his experience in slavery, and the good effect produced by his narrating the circumstances of his enslavement induced the leading abolitionists of that place to request him to speak publicly on the question of slavery. (Applause.) He hesitated for some time, because he felt anything which he could say, could be saidand was being saidmuch better than if it were to be spoken by him.
He could express his own grievances, it was urged, and his refusing to do so would only tend to confirm the statement that the negro was inferior to the white; but he still felt disposed to keep back, and to leave to his white brethren, who had the time, the talent, and the education necessary for instructing the people on this subject, to stand forward and plead the cause. However, by the importunities of Mr. Garrison, and other leading abolitionists, he was induced to come forward in Massachusetts, and tell the evils of his own experience from time to time. In this way an interest was created in regard to both himself and the cause, but he still found it necessary to keep the public uninformed as to where he came from. He only told them he was a slave, that this was the way he was treated, and that others were treated, but he could not tell them who his master was, as any bad designing person might have sent to his master informing him of his whereabouts and the means by which he might be re-taken into bondage; so he kept the whole matter secret for four years. The enemies of the cause, however, in New England, when exposures of slavery became extensively known to be producing the desired effect, stepped forward and affirmed that he never was a slave. The abolitionists had knocked so much of the rust off him, and polished him to such an extent, that the friends of slavery would not believe he had ever been a slave. When he found out this, he sat down and wrote out his experience of slavery, telling the name of the state in which he had been a slave, the name of the county, the name of the town, and the name of the man who dared to call him his property. (Applause.)
He exposed the existence of crime, and identified the perpetrators. This exposed him to the terrible calamity of being dragged back to slavery; and to escape this calamity was one of the motives which induced him to come to this country. He had heard there was no slavery here. He had heard that a slave had but to step upon British soil to be free. (Applause.) He recollected to have read something like the following from one of this country's most eloquent orators"I speak," he says, "in the spirit of British law, which makes liberty commensurate with the British soil, and which proclaims to the stranger and to the sojourner that the ground on which he treads is holy, and is consecrated to the genius of universal freedom." (Cheers.) He had heard also, that "no matter in what disastrous battle a man's liberties had been cloven down, no . matter what complexion he wears, no matter whether an Indian or an African sun had burned upon him and darkened his hue, the moment he steps upon British ground his spirit walks forth in majesty, and he stands redeemed, regenerated, and disenthralled by the irresistible genius of universal emancipation." (Cheers.) He came here in pursuit of freedom.
From the period of his childhood he was satisfied of the wrongfulness of slavery. When he was only seven years of age he was satisfied that it was wrong to hold him in slavery. He believed he had as much right to be free as his little white master, and when he kicked him, he felt he had as good a right as he had to kick again. (Cheers and laughter.) At a very early period of his life, he resolved, come what might, to gain his freedom. (Applause.)
He was glad at being here, where no blood-hound could be set upon his track. He was proud of being amongst them and of perceiving none of those contemptuous, hateful manifestations with which people of colour were looked upon in the United States. In that country, termed the land of the free, and home of the brave, there was no spot of earth where he could stand free. If he went to the far west, he was liable to be enslaved. If he went to the far east, he was liable to be enslaved; and if he went to the far north, he was liable to be enslaved. Wherever the twenty-six stars shone on the blue ground of the American flag, there he was liable to be made a slave. In that vast country, stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean, there was no spot of earth secure for his personno spot of earth where he could be secure from the attacks of his pursuers, the slaveholders. There was no mountain so high, no valley so deep, and no spot so sacred as to give security to the slave. If he were to go to Bunker's Hill, where was fought the battle of American freedom, and to clasp the granite shaft which commemorated the achievement of a nation's independence, there he might be secured and dragged back to the man who claimed to hold him as his property. But this was all about himself, and he had felt it necessary, as a means of introducing himself to the audience, to say thus much respecting his own position. (Applause.)
But in advocating this cause on this side of the Atlantic, he had been met by this objectionWhy do you come to England for the purpose of talking on the subject of American slavery? We have slavery here, says one. Now, he wished to be distinctly understood that, in replying to this argument, or statement rather, he did not mean to dispute the existence of much misery and suffering in this country; but he denied that they had slavery here. While he admitted that they had severe want, poverty, wretchedness, and misery here, he denied that they had slavery. What was slavery? Let the slave answer the question to them. Let one who had felt in his own person the evils of slaverylet the mark of the slave-driver's lash on his own back tell them what it was. (Applause.) Let one who had experienced it in his own person tell them the difference between American slavery and what, by the misuse of the term, was called slavery in this country. (Applause.)
It was not to work hard. That was not slavery. Indeed, he had worked harder since he became a free man than ever he did before when he was a slave. When he got his freedom he went to work on the wharves in New Bedford, and he worked in a manner which he had never done when he was a slave. (Applause.) He had a wife and little one to take care of and provide for, and this was the mainspring of his actions. Before he had been moved to action by the lash; now he was operated upon by the hope of reward and of benefiting those he loved, his wife and child. (Much applause.) In these circumstances there was no work too low, too dirty, too menial for him. He was ready to clean the chimney or sweep the cellarhe was ready for anythinghe had a wife and child to take care of. Slavery is not working hard. He did it with delight, and the happiest moments he ever spent in his life was working on the wharves of New Bedford for his wife and child.
Slavery is not to be deprived of any political privilege. It is not to be deprived of the right of suffrage, otherwise all women were slaves, because they were universally deprived of this right. They were wrong when they applied this term to any relations of life in this country. It was not the relation of master and servantit was not the relation of master and apprenticeit was not the relation of ruled and ruler; but it was the relation in which man was made the property of his fellow-man. It was to be bought and sold in the market: it was to be a being indeed, having all the powers of mind of a man, capable of enjoying himself in time and eternityit was to take such a man, and make property of him. Having the physical power of a man, he may not exercise it,having an intellect, he may not use it,having a soul, he may not call it his own. The slaveholder decided for him when he should eat, when he should drink, when he should speak, and when he should be silentwhat he should work at, and what he should work for, and by whom he should be punished. He had no voice whatever in his destiny. This was a slave. Had they any such here? If they had such a system here it ought to be abolished, and he would raise his voice in favour of its abolition. (Applause.)
The slave may not decide who he should marry, when he should marry, how long the marriage contract should last, nor what may be the cause of its dissolution. The bloody-minded slaveholder might separate man and wife, sending the one any distance from the other. He might take the child from its mother, hurling it in one direction, and her in another, never to meet again. Those were the peculiarities of American slavery. There was no such thing here. Even the beggar on the street in this country could get what the law allowed him. The poorest mother in the land could clasp her infant to her bosom, and the most lordly aristocrat dared not lay hands on such a being. (Applause.)
When he came to England he was told they had slaves here. He came here to give them information respecting the slave system in the United States of America. He found there was a want of such information. He found that individuals were circulating throughout this country, as well as in England and Ireland, such misrepresentations of slavery as would have the effect, if believed, of cooling that British indignation against slavery which had existed for so many years. The very ship which brought him to this island, brought also such characters as he had spoken of.
In looking into a review the other day he met with an account of the travels of Mr. Lyell, the geologist, in the United States, and what he had read was well calculated to throw a mask over slavery, and to shade its horrid deformity from the gaze of the world. He had been in America. Very true. He had been in the Southern States. All very true. But he might have told them that he had been in the company of slaveholders, that he had been waited upon by slaves, that he had been kindly received wherever he went by the slaveholders, that he was regarded amongst them as one of their best friendsif he had told them all the truth, he would have informed them that he was not only amongst them, but that he became enamoured with them, and that his love for them had misled him as to the character of slavery. For any man to write as he did, showed the greatest ignorance of human nature. He spoke of the contentment and happiness of the slaves. He might as well speak of the happiness and contentment of the drunkard lying in the ditch. Why such a man could not be said to be a man. Show him a man contented in chains, and he would show that his manhood was extinct. He was not a man but a beast who would be contented in slavery.
He had been asked why he had run away, and he had given answers to slaveholders, implying that his master was a kind man, but he did not remember the day when he was at all contented with his condition as a slave. (Applause.) Was it natural to suppose that he would break the arm upon which he depended for existence? There was a little truth in this, for not only was the cruelty unnatural, but the whole system was unnatural. (Hear, hear.) It was unnatural for one man to trade in the bones and sinewsthe body and soul of another. The system being altogether unnatural, therefore, it required the whipping-post, the cat-o'-nine-tails, and the thumb screws, to keep it from annihilation. (Applause.) It must have these or it ceased to exist.
They would readily admit that he was a man and had rights. He might be asked, how he knew he had rights? He knew he had rights, because he had powers. He had a right to think, because God had given him the power. He had a right to take care of his own person, because God had given him the power of doing so. Man had no right to take that power away, and the man who dared to do so, was a thief and a robber The American people had taken away from three millions of men and women all the rights of citizensall the rights of Christiansand all the rights of humanity were denied to them. While the ministers of the gospel were telling them from Sabbath to Sabbath to obey God's laws, it was a crime to take the means of acquiring a knowledge of these laws. While they were telling them this in a land of civil and religious liberty, there were three millions of people denied the privilege of learning to read the name of the God who made them. (Cries of "Shame.") The slave-mother, for teaching her child the letters which composed the Lord's prayer, could be hung up by the neck till she was dead. (Sensabon.) The punishment of death was the penalty for a slave-mother teaching her child to read the Lord's prayer in Christian, democratic America.
He came here because the slaveholders did not wish him to be here He came here, because those in slavery knew that this monster of dark ness, which hated the light, and to which the light of truth was death could only live by being permitted to grope her way in darkness, and crush human hearts, unheard of and unnoticed by the religion and Christianity of the world. (Applause.)
He came here, because slavery was the common enemy of mankind, and because the same principle which enslaved the black man would enslave the white man. He came here, because slavery was one of those gigantic systems of evil which was sufficient of itself to destroy any nation, and to do all in his power to induce the humanity, morality, and Christianity of the world to rise up and crush this demon of iniquity. (Applause.) And, as England and Scotland had something to do in the enslaving of his race, he came to ask them to lend a hand in destroying this horrible relation. But, possibly, he was not asked why he came here; but he had been asked in other places that question; and he stated this to satisfy them that he had not been fighting a man of straw.
A question had been put to him, on the part of some of those who had been styled abolitionistsmen who had laboured ardently for the emancipation of the slaves in the West India islandsmen who had stood on that platform, who had come forward, prominently, when the cause of West Indian slavery was the questionand why were they not still amongst them, giving their blows and dealing their thunderbolts of destruction, as they once did, in a similar cause? He had been asked why he came to them, when the question was one belonging to America? Why, that kind of reasoning would reduce their sphere of action to very narrow bounds, and would, in effect, leave the matter to be decided by the slave and the slaveholder. Discussion was its deathit could not live in the midst of discussion; but he wished to encircle America about with a cordon of Anti-Slavery feelingbounding it by Canada on the north, Mexico on the west, and England, Scotland, and Ireland, on the east, so that wherever the slaveholder went he might hear nothing but denunciations of slavery, that he might be looked down upon as a man-stealing, cradle-robbing, and woman-stripping monster, and that he might see reproof and detestation on every hand. (Applause.) She looked to England for shaping her form of Government to some extent,and if she had a republican form of Government her statesmen looked to the old world for the wisdom how to conduct it, and on that account they ought to have the right kind of wisdom to bestow upon her. Were they the friends of the slaveholderswere they apologists for slaverywere they in fellowship with the slaveholderwould they belong to a church which held fellowship with slaveholderswould they enter into fellowship with the man who would hold fellowship with the slaveholder?No; they would not enter into fellowship with the men who would hold fellowship with such a man. Who would hold fellowship with him? Who would hold fellowship with the man-stealing, cradle-robbing, woman-beating American slaveholder? (Cheers.) If they were to assume this ground, they would soon see slavery trembling to its fall. If the people of this country, he maintained, took the stand they might takewhich they ought to take, and which the slaves were entreating them to take, by their groans and cries, by the clanking of their fetters, and the rattling of their chains, by their own sense of virtue and of compassion, and which they soon might takethe abolition of slavery in the United States might be a matter of history in six months. (Hear and cheers.)
The slaveholders did not like him to be here. They did not like him to be travelling at large, and thought he was quite out of his place here amongst white people, treated and shook hands with by the white people, as if he were one of themselves. He was quite above himself, they thought, and that he would be better to be taken down a button. (Cheers and laughter.)
As an illustration of slavery, he would give them an account of his voyage across the Atlantic. He left America on the 16th of August, in the Cambria, commanded by Captain Judkins, and he would tell them something of his treatment on board of that vessel. In the first place, he wished to let them know, that a coloured man was not allowed to take a cabin passage. (Shame.) So far the corrupting influence of American customs and manners extended, that on the deck of a British steamer, under the British flag, the prejudice was so strong that he could not take a particular passage on board a ship for this country, merely because of the colour of his skin. No objection was urged to his moral character. He came to them recommended, probably, as no other man came on the deck of that vessel, for, previous to his leaving the town of Lynn, a meeting of 1500 people, in a town of only 10,000 inhabitants, was convened to give him a character and a recommendation. (Applause.) He came certified as a man and a gentleman. For such he had ever tried to demean himself since his escape from bondage. Still he could not take a cabin passage, because a few pro-slavery, cadaverous, lantern-jawed Americans were on board. (Cheers and laughter.) There were a few pale-faced Americans on board, whose olfactory nerves would have been most offended if he had come anywhere in the neighborhood of them. He was ready to take a cabin passage, and to pay for it, and to behave himself as other men did, but he was refused on the ground that he was a coloured man. (Shame.) Yes, it was a shame for England so far to lower its dignity as to adopt the prejudices of the slaveholders on board any of her vessels, and to violate the British cross, merely to please the slaveholding, woman-stripping, cradle-plundering Americans. Well, when he got on board he took his position before the mast, and spent his days in the forecastle, feeling quite happy, and what gave him the greatest consolation was, that every revolution of the ponderous wheels of their noble ship bore him farther from the land of those proscriptions which he had then escaped.
During the passage discussions were excited on the question of slavery. An excellent friend of his, Mr. Buffum, was on board at the time, and having a white skin, he felt himself at liberty to go anywhere. It was quite an indorsement, a white skin in America. Those who had white skins might go anywhere; they might even go to Texas, that land of angelic personages. (Cheers and laughter.) As he had said, Mr. Buffum could go anywhere in the ship, but he did not leave him. (Great applause.) He went aft, but he took him with him in his heart. He (Mr. B.) talked with the officers and with the passengers on the question. He raised discussions on the subject of slavery. The discussions by-and-by became very exciting. Indeed, there was a difficulty of talking with his friend on such a subject without getting excited, for he never went for halfmeasures;to use an Americanism, he always went the whole hog. (Loud applause.)
Having a number of copies of his narrative on hand he put them in circulation amongst the passengers, who became quite interested in him, and he had occasionally visitors from the quarter-deck. Those who came to see him were the most intelligent amongst the passengers; their coming proving them to be that; for it was evident that they came to talk on the question of slavery. (Applause.) At length quite a desire sprung up to hear him speak on the subject of slavery. They learned that he had been a slave, and they wanted to have a sprig of the article. He steadily refused, and he wished them to mark this; because he was misrepresented in America with regard to this point. There he was represented to have put himself forward to speak, but he did not move a single step until he was invited by the Captain to do so. In compliance with his invitation he went upon the quarter-deck.
When they came in sight of the beautiful hills of Dungarvan, and got into smooth water, he complied with the request made by the passengers, and communicated to him through the Captain. He went upon the saloon deck, and was introduced by the Captain. He commenced to speak to them on the subject of slaveryand he might mention the Captain had taken an active part in assembling the passengers. The bell was rung, and the meeting was cried, and he proceeded to lecture. A number of Americans present seemed determined not to let him speak. (Hear, hear.) These lovers of law and order tried, by the shuffling of their feet, and other noises to prevent him from speaking. But they happened to have on board a company of American singersthe Hutchinson Familywho struck up one of their Anti-slavery songs, which had the effect of stilling the tumult. At the close of the song, he was again introduced to the audience, but he had not spoken two sentences before he was interrupted by one of the American, democratic, Christian, liberty-loving gentlemen, who called out, "It's a lie." How fine, how exceedingly gentlemanly, were these American republicans! (Cheers.) He went on, taking no notice of this interruption. But he had only spoken a few other words, when "It's a lie," was again bawled out by a Mr. Hazard.
He (Mr. D.) went on to say, that since it was all a lie he had said about slavery and American slaveholders, he would bring before them the slaveholders themselves to testify through their judges, their courts of law, their representatives and legislators, the truth of his statements. He meant to read the law of the United States on the subject of slavery. He never saw creatures so chop-fallen in his life; they might have been beaten with a straw. On his making this announcement a general shuffling of feet began. He proceeded, however, to read some of their most cruel slave lawslaws which, if tried by any other standard, went by the board. While reading, one man rushed up to him, and wished he had him in Cuba. Up came another from Louisiana, and wished he had him in New Orleans. A third started up, and wished he had him in Charleston; but none of them had the folly to wish to have him in old Glasgow.
One man was perfectly amusing. He was a very little man, and he ran about the deck, proposing to be one of a number to throw him over board. (Laughter. ) How prudent, how cautious, how calculating, to propose to be one of an indefinite number to pitch me into the sea! ~Cheers.) A good man, an Irishman of the name of Gougha calm, dignified, kind of characterwho looked down upon him, just as much as he looked down upon the creature who proposed to throw him overboard, stepped up to the little man, and said, "Have you never thought, my friend, that two can play at that game?" (Cheers and laughter.) He slunk away at that suggestion, and he heard no more of him.
Another man was quite as amusing. His name was Phillippi, and he wanted to prevent him from speaking. Why, he could have taken the creature and thrown him overboard. Of course, he would not have resorted to violence, except they had put hands upon him, and, indeed, he thought that although they had put hands upon him, that he would have submitted. The captain, who acted under these circumstances like a gentleman, having told this little man to "shut up," came forward and demanded audience, and addressed those rowdy gentlemen in something like the following terms:"Gentlemen, " he said, "since I left the wharf at Boston, I have done all in my power to make the voyage a pleasant one. We have had every kind of amusement; we have had conversations of various kinds, singing, and discussions. I have tried to manage so as to please all my passengers. Many of them came to me and asked me to give Mr. Douglass an opportunity to speak, as they were anxious to hear him. I, in obedience to their request, asked him to speak. I introduced him to you. The meeting was summoned here, as the passengers wished to listen to Mr. Douglass; and whoever does not want to hear him can go to some other part of the ship, and let those who wish to hear remain. (Applause.) You have acted derogatory to the character of men, of gentlemen, and of Christians, and I demand audience. Mr. Douglass, you are at liberty to speak, and I will protect you in your right to speak. I am captain of this ship; you are at liberty to speak, and no one shall prevent you." (Great applause.)
A little man from Philadelphia here stepped up and said he (Mr. D.) should not speak. The captain put him aside, when he put his hand under his coat, and he looked for him drawing out a dagger, but it was a card with a request to meet the captain in Liverpool. "Very well," replied the captain, "I will be there." (Cheers and laughter.) However, these gentlemen continued to show up their democratic injustice till the captain brought them to silence, by first threatening and then ordering the boatswain to produce the necessary implements to put them into irons. That was a new thing under the sun to put white slaveholders into irons! (Cheers.) They had been accustomed to put irons upon black people, but the idea of putting irons upon democratic republicans they could not understand; but seeing the captain was in earnest the creatures began to drop down, and in about ten minutes they had all disappeared. (Loud and continued cheering.)
Next morning they arrived at Liverpool, and when they stepped upon the wharf the porters showed as much respect and paid as much attention to the black as to the white man. (Applause.) Two days after that he met with several of those who laboured to crush him in America, and who would have scorned to be seen beside him in that country, on the most perfect equality. This was a most interesting position for him to fill. In Boston he asked permission to go in to see the wild beasts. Some people said, black men were the descendants of monkeys, and he might be anxious to see some of his relations, according to their account. He was told"We don't allow niggers in here." (Shame.) He went to a Church in New Bedford, and took his stand upon the lower floor, but he was told"We don't allow niggers in here." (Great disapprobation.) He went to the Museum, but was told there likewise"We don't allow niggers in here." He went to the Lyceum, and wanted to hear what was going on, but was again told"We don't allow niggers in here." But when he came to this country, everything was so changed that he sometimes suspected his own identity. (Cheers and laughter.) About two days after he arrived in England, having heard a great deal about the ancient city of Chester, and Eaton Hall, the seat of the Marquis of Westminster, he went to see it, and who should he see there but their good friends the American passengers by the Cambria, coming for the same purpose. They were all formed into one party, and shown through the hall. He was never so delighted; it seemed so strange that there was no door-keeper to say, "We don't allow niggers in here." (Great applause.) He did not know but he may have been wicked, and felt very proud that day to find himself treated on an equality with American slaveholders themselves, for he almost rubbed shoulders with them, but no one dared to say, "We don't allow niggers in here." (Great cheering and laughter.) This was a glorious change, and he felt proud that these men saw the way in which he was treated. They would see from what he related that the spirit of slavery did not leave the slaveholder when he left the American shores; and these persons, in whatever society they passed through, left behind them a streak of proslavery.
The churches of America were responsible for the existence of slavery. (Hear, hear.) Her ministers held the keys of the dungeon in which the slave was confined. They had the power to open and to shutthey had the heart of the nation in their handsthey could mould it to antislavery or to pro-slavery, and they had put the pro-slavery impress upon the national instrument which spilled his sister's blood. To hear a man preach, "Love your neighbour as yourself," and keep his fellow men in the most cruel bondageto hear a man preach, "Thou shalt not steal," who robbed whole hundreds of people of their liberty, and everything else which was worth possessingand to hear a man tell them, "To search the Scriptures," who made it death, for the second offence, to teach a child to know the letters which formed the name of the God who made him(Great sensation and applause)how horrible was it to hear a man using Scripture in justification of his cruelties, as a certain Captain Thomas Auld did, and saying, "He that knoweth his master's will and doeth it not, the same shall be beaten with many stripes!" (Cries of "Shame.") He had heard this with his own ears, and seen it with his own eyes.
He meant, in a future lecture, to give a specimen of American preaching in the peculiar canting tone of these pro-slavery preachers; but, in doing so, he wished it to be distinctly understood, that, in exposing the religion of the United States, that he had no intention of aiming a blow at Christianity proper. (Hear, hear.) After making a few observations on the importance of the mission in which he was engaged, to plead the cause of the poor oppressed slave, he concluded his address amidst the most enthusiastic applause.