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Frederick Douglass

The Anti-slavery Movement

 

 

Frederick Douglass (1817?-1895) had been held in slavery. After his escape he became one of the leaders of the Abolitionist Movement. In this speech, presented to a women's anti-slavery society, he reviews the status of the movement. 

. . . But I propose to speak of the different anti-slavery sects and parties, and to give my view of them very briefly. There are four principal divisions.

1. The Garrisonians, or the American Anti-Slavery Society.

2. The Anti-Garrisonians, or the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society.

3. The Free Soil Party, or Political Abolitionists.

4. The Liberty Party, or Gerrit Smith School of Abolitionists. . .

I shall consider, first, the Garrisonian Anti-Slavery Society. I call this the Garrisonian Society, because Mr. Garrison is, confessedly, its leader. This Society is the oldest of modern Anti-Slavery Societies. It has, strictly speaking, two weekly papers, or organs, employs five or six lecturers, and holds numerous public meetings for the dissemination of its views. Its peculiar and distinctive feature is its doctrine of "no union with slaveholders." This doctrine has, of late, become its bond of union and the condition of good fellowship among its members. Of this Society, I have to say, its logical result is but negatively, anti-slavery. Its doctrine, of "no union with slaveholders," carried out, dissolves the Union, and leaves the slaves and their masters to fight their own battles, in their own way. This I hold to be an abandonment of the great idea with which that Society started. It started to free the slave. It ends by leaving the slave to free himself. It started with the purpose to imbue the heart of the nation with sentiments favorable to the abolition of slavery, and ends by seeking to free the North from all responsibility of slavery, other than if slavery were in Great Britain, or under some other nationality. This, I say, is the practical abandonment of the idea, with which that Society started. It has given up the faith, that the slave can be freed short of the overthrow of the Government; and then, as I understand that Society, it leaves the slaves, as it must needs leave them, just where it leaves the slaves of Cuba, or those of Brazil. The nation, as such, is given up as beyond the power of salvation by the foolishness of preaching; and hence, the aim is now to save the North; so that the American Anti-Slavery Society, which was inaugurated to convert the nation, after ten years' struggle, parts with its faith, and aims now to save the North. One of the most eloquent of all the members of that Society, and the man who is only second to Mr. Garrison himself, defines the Garrisonian doctrine thus:

All the slave asks of us, is to stand out of his way, withdraw our pledge to keep the peace on the plantation; withdraw our pledge to return him; withdraw that representation which the Constitution gives in proportion to the number of slaves, and without any agitation here, without any individual virtue, which the times have eaten out of us, God will vindicate the oppressed, by the laws of justice which he has founded. Trample under foot your own unjust pledges, break to pieces your compact with hell by which you become the abettors of oppression. Stand alone, and let no cement of the Union bind the slave, and he will right himself.

That is it. "Stand alone"; the slave is to "right himself". I dissent entirely from this reasoning. It assumes to be true what is plainly absurd, and that is, that a population of slaves, without arms, without means of concert, and without leisure, is more than a match for double its number, educated, accustomed to rule, and in every way prepared for warfare, offensive or defensive. This Society, therefore, consents to leave the slave's freedom to a most uncertain and improbable, if not an impossible, contingency.

But, "no union with slaveholders." As a mere expression of abhorrence of slavery, the sentiment is a good one; but it expresses no intelligible principle of action, and throws no light on the pathway of duty. Defined, as its authors define it, it leads to false doctrines, and mischievous results. It condemns Gerrit Smith for sitting in Congress, and our Savior for eating with publicans and sinners. Dr. Spring uttered a shocking sentiment when he said, if one prayer of his would emancipate every slave, he would not offer that prayer. No less shocking is the sentiment of the leader of the disunion forces, when he says, that if one vote of his would emancipate every slave in this country, he would not cast that vote. Here, on a bare theory, and for a theory which, if consistently adhered to, would drive a man out of the world--a theory which can never be made intelligible to common sense the freedom of the whole slave population would be sacrificed.

But again: "no union with slaveholders." I dislike the morality of this sentiment, in its application to the point at issue. For instance: A. unites with B. in stealing my property, and carrying it away to California, or to Australia, and, while there, Mr. A. becomes convinced that he did wrong in stealing my property, and says to Mr. B., "no union with property stealers," and abandons him, leaving the property in his hands. Now, I put it to this audience, has Mr. A., in this transaction, met the requirements of stringent morality? He, certainly, has not. It is not only his duty to separate from the thief, but to restore the stolen property to its rightful owner. And I hold that in the Union, this very thing of restoring to the slave his long-lost rights, can better be accomplished than it can possibly be accomplished outside of the Union. This, then, is my answer to the motto, "No union with slaveholders." . . .

But to the second branch of the anti-slavery movement. The American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society has not yet departed from the original ground, but stands where the American Anti-Slavery Society stood at the beginning. The energies of this association are mainly directed to the revival of anti-slavery in the Church. It is active in the collection, and in the circulation of facts, exposing the character of slavery, and in noting the evidences of progress in the Church on the subject. It does not aim to abolish the Union, but aims to avail itself of the means afforded by the Union to abolish slavery. The Annual Report of this Society affords the amplest and truest account of the anti-slavery movement, from year to year. Nevertheless, I am somewhat against this Society, as well as against the American Anti-Slavery Society. It has almost dropped the main and most potent weapon with which slavery is to be assailed and overthrown, and that is speech. At this moment, when every nerve should be strained to prevent a reaction, that Society has not a single lecturing agent in the field.

The next recognized anti-slavery body is the Free Soil party, alias the Free Democratic party, alias-the Republican party. It aims to limit and denationalize slavery, and to relieve the Federal Government from all responsibility for slavery. Its motto is, "Slavery Local-Liberty National." The objection to this movement is the same as that against the American Anti-Slavery Society. It leaves the slaves in his [sic] fetters in the undisturbed possession of his master, and does not grapple with the question of emancipation in the States.

The fourth division of the anti-slavery movement is, the Liberty Party, a small body of citizens, chiefly in the State of New York, but having sympathizers all over the North. It is the radical, and to my thinking, the only abolition organization in the country, except a few local associations. It makes a clean sweep of slavery everywhere. It denies that slavery is, or can be, legalized. It denies that the Constitution of the United States is a pro-slavery instrument and asserts the power and duty of the Federal Government to abolish slavery in every State of the Union. Strictly speaking, I say this is the only party in the country which is an abolition party. The mission of the Garrisonians ends with the dissolution of the Union and that of the Free Soil party ends with the relief of the Federal Government from all responsibility for slavery; but the Liberty Party, by its position and doctrines, and by its antecedents, is pledged to continue the struggle while a bondman in his chains remains to weep. Upon its platform must the great battle of freedom be fought out--if upon any short of the bloody field. It must be under no partial cry of "no union with slaveholders"; nor selfish cry of "no more slavery extension"; but it must be, "no slavery for man under the whole heavens". The slave as a man and a brother, must be the vital and animating thought and impulse of any movement which is to effect the abolition of slavery in this country. Our anti-slavery organizations must be brought back to this doctrine, or they will be scattered and left to wander, and to die in the wilderness, like God's ancient people, till another generation hall come up, more worthy to go up and possess the land.

One anti-slavery movement nearly died out fifty years ago, and I am not prepared to deny the possibility of a like fate for this one. The elements of discord and deterioration are already in it and working their legitimate results. And yet I am not gloomy. Present organizations may perish, but the cause will go on. That cause has a life, distinct and independent of the organizations patched up from time to time to carry it forward . . . 

In conclusion, I have taken a sober view of the present anti-slavery movement. I am sober, but not hopeless. There is no denying, for it is everywhere admitted, that the anti-slavery question is the great moral and social question now before the American people. A state of things has gradually been developed, by which that question has become the first thing in order. It has got to be met. Herein is my hope. The great idea of impartial liberty is now fairly before the American people. Antislavery is no longer a thing to be prevented. The time for prevention is past. This is great gain. When the movement was younger and weaker--when it wrought in a Boston garret to human apprehension, it might have been silently put out of the way. Things are different now. It has grown too abundant--its ramifications too extended--its power too omnipotent, to be snuffed out by the contingencies of infancy . . . Another source of congratulation is the fact that, amid all the efforts made by the Church, the Government, and the people at large, to stay the onward progress of this movement, its course has been onward, steady, straight, unshaken, and unchecked from the beginning. Slavery has gained victories, large and numerous; but never, as against this movement-against a temporizing policy, and against Northern timidity, the slave power has been victorious; but against the spread and prevalence in the country, of a spirit of resistance to its aggression, and of sentiments favorable to its entire overthrow, it has yet accomplished nothing. Every measure yet devised and executed, having for its object the suppression of anti-slavery, has been as idle and fruitless as pouring oil to extinguish fire. A general rejoicing took place on the passage of "the Compromise Measures" of 1850. Those measures were called peace measures and were afterwards termed by both the great parties of the country, as well as by leading statesmen, a final settlement of the whole question of slavery; but experience has laughed to scorn the wisdom of pro-slavery statesmen; and their final settlement of agitation seems to be the final revival, on a broader and grander scale than ever before, of the question which they vainly attempted to suppress forever. The Fugitive Slave Bill has especially been of positive service to the anti-slavery movement. It has illustrated before all the people the horrible character of slavery toward the slave, in hunting him down in a free State, and tearing him away from wife and children, thus setting its claims higher than marriage or parental claims. It has revealed the arrogant and overbearing spirit of the slave States towards the free States; despising their principles--shocking their feelings of humanity, not only by bringing before them the abominations of slavery, but by attempting to make them parties to the crime. It has called into exercise among the colored people, the hunted ones, a spirit of manly resistance well calculated to surround them with a bulwark of sympathy and respect hitherto unknown. For men are always disposed to respect and defend rights when the victims of oppression stand up manfully for themselves.

There is another element of power added to the anti-slavery movement of great importance; it is the conviction, becoming every day more general and universal, that slavery must be abolished in the South or it will demoralize and destroy liberty in the North. It is the nature of slavery to beget a state of things all around it, favorable to its own continuance. This fact connected with the system of bondage, is beginning to be more fully realized. The slave-holder is not satisfied to associate with men in the Church or in the State, unless he can thereby stain them with the blood of his slaves. To be a slave-holder, is to be a propagandist from necessity; for slavery can only live by keeping down the undergrowth morality which nature supplies. Every new-born white babe comes armed from the Eternal presence, to make war on slavery. The heart of pity, which would melt in due time over the brutal chastisements it sees inflicted on the helpless, must be hardened. And this work goes on every day in the year, and every hour in the day.

What is done at home is being done also abroad here in the North. And even now the question may be asked, have we at this moment a single free State in the Union? The alarm at this point will become more general. The slave power must go on in its career of exactions. Give, give, will be its cry, 'till the timidity which concedes shall give place to courage, which shall resist. Such is the voice of experience; such has been the past; such is the present; and such will be that future, which, so sure as man is man, will come. Here I leave the subject; and I leave off where I began, consoling myself and congratulating the friends of freedom upon the fact that the anti-slavery cause is not a new thing under the sun; not some moral delusion which a few years' experience may dispel. It has appeared among men in all ages, and summoned its advocates from all ranks. Its foundations are laid in the deepest and holiest convictions, and from whatever soul the demon, selfishness, is expelled, there will this cause take up its abode. Old as the everlasting hills; immovable as the throne of God; and certain as the purposes of eternal power against all hindrances, and against all delays, and despite all the mutations of human instrumentalities, it is the faith of my soul that this Anti-Slavery cause will triumph.


"The Anti-Slavery Movement. A lecture by Frederick Douglass, before the Rochester ladies' anti-slavery society, Rochester, 1855," in Philip S. Foner, The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass (New York, 1950) 4 vols., II, 333-359. Reprinted in: Slavery Attacked: The Abolitionist Crusade, John L. Thomas, ed., (Englewood Cliffs, NJ; Prentice Hall, 1965) pp. 126-131.

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