“Set Us Free & Leave Us Alone”100
Excerpts from Frederick Douglass’ 1862 address to
the Emancipation League in Boston, in support of freeing the slaves.
Frederick Douglass was unquestionably one of the two most impressive black men in nineteenth-century America: the other was B. T. Washington. Both were born in slavery. We don’t hear a great deal about Mr. Douglass, but before you share his remarkable speech, let me give you a brief sketch of his background. I’m convinced you’ll be as impressed as I am.
He was a giant among giants, born in Tuckahoe, Talbot County, Maryland somewhere around February 1817. He was the son of an unknown white father, his mother was a slave named Harriet Bailey. She cared for him so dearly that when a young white woman took a liking to him, his mom sent him to Baltimore to become a house servant: he was about seven years of age at the time. In Baltimore, his mistress made the “mistake” of teaching him the rudiments of reading and writing: he soon mastered both.
From about 1824 to 1838 he was the subject of several “masters.” However, his ever expanding goal was to be free. After careful planning and placing himself in the proper position, on September 3, 1838, he escaped. He went first to New York City, then to New Bedford, Massachusetts where he worked as a stevedore and performed any handyman’s jobs he could find..
Practically from the very first day he arrived in the North, he began working to improve the lot of black Americans. He worked tirelessly in an effort to ingratiate himself to those who could make a difference in the lives of blacks. However, not only could he read and write very well, his oratory talent was extraordinary; in fact, his initial known appearance as a speaker was at an anti-slavery rally in 1841. His performance was so electrifying that he soon became the most sought-after black speaker in the abolitionist movement.
He was so persuasive that during one of his lectures in England in 1845, a group of his English supporters persuaded him to allow them to buy his freedom; no strings attached. After he returned to the United States in 1847 he went to Rochester, New York where, with the help of his benefactors, he started the first of several newspapers he was to edit (“The North Star”).
He was a tireless crusader for the abolition of slavery: he was in the forefront in the fight for the right of blacks to serve in the Civil War: he was one of the leading proponents for securing political and civil rights for freedmen; in fact, he was at the head of the line regarding virtually every cause involving the liberation of blacks.
The Emancipation League had been founded in Boston in 1861 by prominent white abolitionists, they sought the immediate emancipation of the slaves as the only way to bring peace to the nation. The Douglass speech that we are transcribing here was delivered in 1862 and contained many of the ideas that he so brilliantly advocated in the course of his distinguished career. He provided the only legitimate long term solution to the slavery problem as well as relations among all of us as we speak.101His speech is somewhat lengthy, but his solution is right-on, it is transcribed as follows:
“Ladies and Gentlemen:
The progress of the present tremendous war has developed great qualities of mind and heart among many loyal people, and none more conspicuously than patience. We have seen our sons, brothers, and fathers led to the battle field by untried and unskillful generals, and have held our breath; we have seen them repeatedly marched in thousands upon concealed batteries of the enemy, to be swept down by storms of iron and fire, and have scarcely murmured: we have seen the wealth of the land poured out at the frightful rate of a million a day without complaint; we have seen our Capital surrounded, hemmed in, blockaded in the presence of a fettered but chafing loyal army of a quarter of a million on the Potomac during seven long months, and still we have cried patience and forbearance. We have seen able and earnest men displaced from high and important positions to make room for men who have yet to win our confidence, and still have believed in the Government. This is all right, all proper. Our Government however defective is still our Government. It is all we have to shield us from the fury and vengeance of treason, rebellion, and anarchy.
(Policy of the government regarding slavery)
“If I were asked to describe the most painful and mortifying feature presented in the prosecution and management of the present war on the part of the United States Government, against the slaveholding rebels now marshaled against it, I should not point to Ball’s Bluff, Big Bethel, Bull Run, or any of the many blunders and disaster on flood or field; but I should point to the vacillation, doubt, uncertainty and hesitation, which have thus far distinguished our government in regard to the true method of dealing with the vital cause of the rebellion. We are without any declared and settled policy –and our policy seems to be, to have no policy.
“The winds and currents are ever changing, and after beating about for almost a whole year on the perilous coast of a wildering ocean unable to find our bearings, we at last discover that we are in the same latitude as when we set dial, as far from the desired port as ever and with much less heart, health and provisions for pursuing the voyage than on the morning we weighed anchor.
“If it be true that he that doubteth is condemned already, there is certainly but little chance for this Republic.
“At the opening session of the present Congress there was a marked, decided, and emphatic expression against slavery as the great motive power of the present slaveholding war. Many petitions, numerously and influentially signed, were duly sent in and presented to that body praying, first, that a just award be made by Congress to loyal slaveholders; and thirdly, that the slaves of rebels be wholly confiscated. The vigor, earnestness, and power with which these objects were advocated, as war measures, by Messrs. Stevens, Bingham, Elliott, Gurley, Lovejoy and others, inspired the loyal friends of Freedom all over the north with renewed confidence and hope both for the country and for the slave. The conviction was general that at last the country was to have a policy, and that that policy would bring freedom and safety to the Republic.
“Thus far, however, this hope, this confidence, this conviction has not been justified. The country is without a known policy. The enemies of the Abolition cause, taking alarm from these early efforts, have earnestly set themselves to the work of producing a reaction in favor of slavery, and have succeeded beyond what they themselves must have expected at the first.
(Credentials for legitimizing his stand)
“Among other old, and threadbare, and worn out objections, which they have raised against the Emancipation policy, is the question as to what shall be done with the four million slaves of the South, if they are emancipated? Or in other words, what shall be the future of the four million slaves?
“I am sensible, deeply sensible, of the importance of this subject, and of the many difficulties which are supposed to surround it.
“If there is any one great, pressing, and all-commanding problem for this nation to solve without delay, that problem is slavery. Its claims are urgent, palpable, and powerful. The issue involves the whole question of life and death to the nation.
“Some who speak on this subject are already sure as to how this question will finally be decided. I am not, but one thing I know: — If we are a wise, liberty-loving, a just and courageous nation — knowing what is right and daring to do it — we shall solve this problem, and solve it speedily, in accordance with national safety, national unity, national prosperity, national glory, and shall win for ourselves the admiration of an on-looking world and the grateful applause of coming generations. If on the other hand, we are a cunning, cowardly, and selfish nation given over — as other nations have been before us — to hardness of heart and blindness of mind, it needs no prophet to foretell our doom.
(Isn’t it incredible how the man could be so insightful!)?
“Before proceeding to discuss the future of the colored people of the slave States, you will allow me to make a few remarks, personal and general, respecting the tremendous crisis through which we are passing. In the first place I have not the vanity to suppose — and I say it without affectation — that I can add any thing to the powerful arguments of the able men who have preceded me in this course of lectures. I take the stand tonight more as an humble witness than as an advocate. I have studied slavery and studied freedom on both sides of Mason and Dixon’s line. Nearly twenty-two years of my life were spent in Slavery, and more than twenty-three have been spent in freedom. I am of age in both conditions, and there seems an eminent fitness in allowing me to speak for myself and my race. If I take my stand tonight as I shall do, with the down-trodden and enslaved, and view the facts of the hour more as a bondman than as a freeman, it is not because I feel no interest in the general welfare of the country: far from it.
“I am an American citizen. In birth, in sentiment, in ideas, in hopes, in aspirations, and responsibilities, I am an American citizen. According to Judge Kent there are but two classes of people in America: they are citizens and aliens, natives and foreigners. — Natives are citizens — foreigners are aliens until naturalized.
“But I am not only a citizen by birth and lineage, I am such by choice.
(Loyalty of black Americans)
“I once had a very tempting offer of citizenship in another country; but declined it because I preferred the hardships and duties of my mission here. I have never regretted that decision, although my pathway has been anything other than a smooth one; and to-night, I allow no man to exceed me in the desire for the safety and welfare of this country. And just here do allow me to boast a little, there is nothing in the circumstances of the present hour, nothing in the behavior of the colored people, either North or South, which requires apology at my hands. Though everywhere spoken against, the most malignant and unscrupulous of all our slanderers have not, in this dark and terrible hour of the nation’s trial dared to accuse us of a want of patriotism or loyalty. Though ignored by our friends and repelled by our enemies, the colored people, both north and south, have evinced the most ardent desire to serve the cause of the country, as against the rebels and traitors who are endeavoring to break it down and destroy it. That they are not largely represented in the loyal army is the fault of the Government, and a very grievous fault it is.
Mark here our nation’s degeneracy. Colored men were good enough to fight under Washington. They are not good enough to fight under McClellan. — They were good enough to fight under Andrew Jackson. They are not good enough to fight under Gen. Halleck. They were good enough to help win American independence but they are not good enough to help preserve that independence against treason and rebellion. They were good enough to defend New Orleans but not good enough to define our poor beleaguered Capital. I am not arguing against, not condemning those in power, but simply stating facts in vindication of my people; and as these facts stand, I do say that I am proud to be recognized here as an humble representative of that rejected race. Whether in peace or in war, whether in safety or in peril, whether in evil report or good report, at home or abroad, my mission is to stand up for the down-trodden, to open my mouth for the dumb, to remember those in bonds as bound with them.
“Happily, however, in standing up in their cause I do, and you do, but stand in defense of the cause of the whole country. The circumstances of this eventful hour make the cause of the slaves and the cause of the country identical. They must fall or flourish together. A blow struck for the freedom of the slave, is equally a blow struck for the safety and welfare of the country. As Liberty and Union have become identical, so slavery and treason have become one and inseparable. I shall not argue this point. It has already been most ably argued. All eyes see it, all hearts begin to feel it; and all that is needed is the wisdom and the manhood to perform the solemn duty pointed out by the stern logic of our situation. It is now or never with us.
“The field is ripe for the harvest. God forbid that when the smoke and thunder of this slaveholding war shall have rolled from the troubled face of our country it shall be said that the harvest is past, the summer is ended and we are not saved.
“There are two classes of men who are endeavoring to put down this strange and most unnatural rebellion. About patriotism and loyalty, they talk alike; but the difference between them is heaven wide — and if we fail to suppress the rebels and restore the country to a condition of permanent safety it will be chargeable less to the skill and power of the rebels themselves, than to this division and conflict among ourselves. Never could it be said more truly and sadly than now, that our enemies are those of our own household. — The traitors of the South are open, bold, decided. We know just where to find them. — They are on the battlefield, with arms in their hands and bullets in their pockets. It is easy to deal with the so-called Union men in Maryland, Western Virginia, and Kentucky, and those who sympathize with them in the Northern States.
(The issue of slavery — cause & effect)
“One class is for putting down the rebellion if that can be done by force and force alone, and without abolishing slavery, and the other is for putting down the rebellion by putting down slavery upon every rod of earth, which shall be made sacred by the footprints of a single loyal soldier. One class would strike down the effect; the other would strike at the cause. Can any man doubt for a moment that the latter is the wisest and best course? Is it not as plain as the sun in the heavens, that slavery is the life, the soul, the inspiration, and power of the rebellion? Is it not equally plain that any peace which may be secured which shall leave slavery still existing at the South, will prove a hollow and worthless peace, a mere suspension of hostilities, to be renewed again at the first favorable opportunity? — Does any man think that the slaveholders would relinquish all hope of Southern independence in the future because defeated in the present contest? Would they not come out of the war with a deadlier hate and a firmer purpose to renew the struggle hereafter, with larger knowledge and better means of success? He who thinks or flatters himself that they would not, has read history and studied human nature to little purpose.
“But why, O why should we not abolish slavery now? All admit that it must be abolished at some time. What better time than now can be assigned for that great work? — Why should it longer live? What good thing has it done that it should be given further lease of life? What evil thing has it left undone? Behold its dreadful history! Saying nothing of the rivers of tears and streams of blood poured out by its 4,000,000 victims — saying nothing of the leprous poison it has diffused through the life blood of our morals and our religion — saying nothing of the many humiliating concessions already made to it — saying nothing of the deep and scandalous reproach it has brought on our national good name — saying nothing of all this, and more the simple fact that this monster Slavery has eaten up and devoured the patriotism of the whole South, kindled the lurid flames of a bloody rebellion in our midst, invited the armies of hostile nations to desolate our soil, and break down our Government, is good and all-sufficient cause of smiting it as with a bolt from heaven. If it is possible for any system of barbarism to sing its own death warrant, Slavery, by its own natural working, is that system. All the arguments of conscience, sound expediency, national honor and safety unite in the fiat — let it die the death of its own election.
(If freed, what shall be done with the slaves)?
“….I come now to the more immediate subject of my lecture, namely: What shall be done with the four millions of slaves if they are emancipated? This singular question comes from the same two very different and very opposite classes of the American people, who are endeavoring to put down the rebels. The first have no moral, religious, or political objection to Slavery, and, so far as they are concerned, Slavery might live and flourish to the end of time. They are the men who have an abiding affection for rebels, and at the beginning marched to the tune of “No Coercion — No subjugation.” They have now dropped these unpopular “Noes,” and have taken up another set, equally treacherous. Their tune now is, No Emancipation. No Confiscation of slave property, No Arming of the Negroes. They were driven from the first set of “Noes” by the gleaming of a half million bayonets, and I predict that they will be driven from the last set, though I cannot promise that they will not find another set.
“The second class of persons are those who may be called young converts, newly awakened persons, who are convinced of the great evil and danger of Slavery, and would be glad to see some wise and unobjectionable plan of emancipation devised and adopted by the Government. They hate Slavery and love Freedom, but they are yet too much trammeled by the popular habit of thought respecting the Negro to trust the operation of their own principles. Like the man in the Scriptures, they see men only as trees walking. They differ from the first class only in motive and purpose, and not in promise and argument, and hence the answer to Pro-Slavery objections will answer those raised by our new anti-Slavery men. When some of the most potent, grave and reverend defenders of Slavery in England urged Wilberforce for a statement of his plan of emancipation his simple response was quit stealing.
“My answer to the question, what shall be done with the four million slaves if emancipated? Shall be alike short and simple: Do nothing with them, but leave them like you have left other men, to do with and for themselves. We would be entirely respectful to those who raise the inquiry, and yet it is hard not to say to them just what they would say to us, if we manifested a like concern for them, and that is; please to mind your business, and leave us to mind ours. If we cannot stand up, then let us fall down. — We ask nothing at the hands of the American people but simple justice, and an equal chance to live; and if we cannot live and flourish on such terms, our case should be referred to the Author of our existence. Injustice, oppression, and Slavery with their manifold concomitants have been tried with us during a period of more than two hundred years. Under the whole heavens you will find no parallel to the wrongs we have endured. We have worked without wages; we have lived without hope, wept without sympathy, and bled without mercy. Now, in name of common humanity, and according to the laws of the Living God we simply ask the right to bear the responsibility of our own existence.
“Let us alone. Do nothing with us, for us, or by us as a particular class. What you have done with us thus far has only worked to our disadvantage. We now simply ask to be allowed to do for ourselves. I submit that there is nothing unreasonable or unnatural in all this request. The black man is said to be unfortunate. He is so. But I affirm that the broadest and bitterest of the black man’s misfortunes is the fact that he is everywhere regarded and treated as an exception to the principles and maxims which apply to other men, and that nothing short of the extension of those principles to him can satisfy any honest advocate of his claims.
(Can the black man measure up?)
“Even those who are sincerely desirous to serve us and to help us out of our difficulties, stand in doubt of us and fear that we could not stand the application of the rules which they freely apply to all other people.
“Now, whence comes this doubt and fear? I will tell you. There is no difficulty whatever in giving ample and satisfactory explanation of the source of this estimate of the black man’s capacity.
“What have been his condition and circumstances for more than two centuries? These will explain all.
“Take any race you please, French, English, Irish, or Scotch, subject them to slavery for ages — regard and treat them everywhere, every way, as property, as having no rights which other men are required to respect. — Let them be loaded with chains, scared with the whip, branded with hot irons, sold in the market, kept in ignorance, by force of law and by common usage, and I venture to say that the same doubt would spring up concerning either of them, which now confronts the Negro. The common talk of the streets on this subject shows great ignorance. It assumes that no other race has ever been enslaved or could be held in slavery, and the fact that the black man submits to that condition is often cited as a proof of original and permanent inferiority, and of the fitness of the black man only for that condition. Just this is the argument of the Confederate states…
(Anglo-Saxons Race from slavery to excellence)
“…But what are the facts? I believe it will not be denied that the Anglo-Saxons are a fine race of men, and have done something for the civilization of mankind, yet who does not know that this now grand and leading race was in bondage and abject slavery for ages upon their own native soil. They were not stolen away from their own country in small numbers, where they could make no resistance to their enslavers, but were enslaved in their own country.
“Turn to the pages of the history of the Norman Conquest, by Monsieur Thierry, and you will find this statement fully attested. — He say: Foreigners visiting England, even so late as the sixteenth century, were astonished at the great number of serfs they beheld, and the excessive harshness of their servitude. The word bondage, in the Norman tongue, expressed at the time all that was most wretched in the condition of humanity. He again says: About the year 1381, all who were called bonds in English or in Anglo-Norman — that is, all the cultivators of land — were serfs in body and goods, obliged to pay heavy aids for the small portions of land which served them to feed their families, and were not at liberty to give up that portion of land without the consent of the Lords for whom they were obliged to do gratuitously their tillage, their gardening, and their carriage of all kinds. The Lords could sell them, together with their horses, their oxen, and their implements of husbandry — their children and their posterity — which in the English deeds was expressed in the following manner: Know that I have sold ____, my knave, and all his offspring, born or to be born.
“Sir Walter Scott, after describing very minutely the dress of a Saxon serf, says: One part of the dress only remains, but it is too remarkable to be suppressed. It was a brass ring resembling a dog’s collar, but without an opening, and yet so tight as to be incapable of being removed excepting by the use of the file. On this singular gorget was engraved, in Saxon letters, an inscription of the following purport; Gurth, the son of Beowulph, is the born thrall of Cedric Rotherwood.
“As an evidence of the contempt and degradation in which the Saxons were held, Monsieur Thierry says that after the conquest the Bishop of Lincoln reckoned only two languages in England — Latin for men of letters and French for the ignorant, in which language he himself wrote pious books for the use of the French, making no account of the English language and those who spoke it.
“The poets of the same period, even those of English birth, composed all their verses in French when they wished to derive from them either profit or honor. Such is a brief view of the social condition occupied for ages by a people now the mightiest on the globe.
(Conditions of Anglo-Saxons and blacks compared)
“…The Saxon was of no account then, the Negro is of no account now. May not history one day carry the analogy a step further? In the case of the Saxon, we have a people held in abject slavery, upon their own native soil by strangers and foreigners. Their very language made no account of, and themselves wearing brass collars on their necks like dogs, bearing the names of their masters. They were bought and sold like the beast of the field, and their offspring born and to be born doomed to the same wretched condition. No doubt that the people of this now proud and grand race in their then abject condition were compelled to listen to disparagement and insults from the Norman oppressors, as galling as those which meet the black man here. No doubt that these disparagements hung about their necks like a mountain weight to keep them down, and no doubt there were men of shallow brain and selfish hearts to tell them that Slavery was their normal condition.
“The misfortunes of my own race in this respect are not singular. They have happened to all nations, when under the heel of oppression. Whenever by another, their slavers and oppressors, in every such instance, and found their best apology for their own base conduct in the bad character of their victims. The cunning the deceit, the indolence, and the manifold vices and crimes, which naturally grow out of the condition of Slavery, are generally charged as inherent characteristics of the oppressed and enslaved race. The Jews, the Indians, the Saxons and the ancient Britons, have all had a taste of this bitter experience.
(The alleged inferiority plea of tyrants)
“…Necessity is said to be the plea of tyrants. The alleged inferiority of the oppressed is also the plea of tyrants. The effect upon these against whom it is directed is to smite them as with the hand of death. Under its paralyzing touch all manly aspirations and self-reliance die out and the smitten race comes almost to assent to the justice of their own degradation.
“No wonder that the colored people in America appear stupid, helpless and degraded. The wonder is rather that they evince so much spirit and manhood as they do. What have they not suffered and endured? They have been weighted, measured, marked and prized — in detail and in the aggregate. Their estimated value a little while ago was twenty hundred millions. Those twenty hundred millions of dollars have all the effect of twenty hundred millions of arguments against the Negro as a man and a brother. Here we have a mountain of gold, depending upon the continuance of our enslavement and degradation. No wonder that it has been able to bribe the press against us. — No wonder that it has been able to employ learning and eloquence against us. No wonder that it has bought up the American pulpit and obtained the sanction of religion against us. No wonder that it has turned every department of the Government into engines of oppression and tyranny toward us. — No nation, however gifted by nature, could hope to bear up under such oppressive weights.
“…It is one of the strangest and most humiliating triumphs of human selfishness and prejudice over human reason, that it leads men to look upon emancipation as an experiment, instead of being, as it is, the natural order of human relations. Slavery, and not Freedom, is the experiment; and to witness its horrible failure we have to open our eyes, not merely upon the blasted soil of Virginia and other Slave States, but upon a whole land brought to the verge of ruin.
(Black Americans are here to stay)
“…The number of colored people now on this continent and in the adjacent islands cannot fall far below twenty millions. An attempt to remove then would be as vain as to bail out the ocean. The whole naval power of the United States could not remove the natural increase of our part of this population. Every fact in our circumstances here marks us as a permanent element of the American people. Mark the readiness with which we adapt ourselves to your civilization. You can take no step in any direction where the black man is not at your back or side. — Go to California and dig gold: the black man is there. Go to war with Mexico, and let your armies penetrate the very heart of the country, and the black man is there. Go down into the coast of North and South Carolina, and the black man is there, and there as your friend, to give you more important and more trustworthy information than you can find among all the loyal poor white trash you can scare up in that region. The Negro is sometimes compared to the Indian, and it is predicted that, like the Indian, he will die out before the onward progress of the Anglo-Saxon race. I have not the least apprehension at this point. In features and complexion, the Negro is more unlike the European than is his Mongolian brother. But the interior resemblance is greater than the exterior difference. The Indian wraps himself in gloom and proudly glories in isolation — he retreats before the onward march of civilization. The humming of the honeybee warns him away from his hunting grounds. He sees the plowshare of civilization tossing up the bones of his venerated fathers, and he dies of a broken heart. Not so with the Negro. There is a vitality about him that seems alike invincible to hardship and cruelty. Work him, whip him, sell him, torment him, and he still lives, and clings to American civilization — an Uncle Tom in the Church and an Uncle Ben on the Southern coast, to guide our Burnside expeditions.
“My friends, the destiny of the colored American, however this mighty war shall terminate, is the destiny of America. We shall never leave you. The allotments of Providence seem to make the black man of America the open book out of which the American people are to learn lessons of wisdom, the nations of the old or the new world. Over the bleeding back of the American bondman we shall learn mercy. In the very extreme difference of color and features of the Negro and the Anglo-Saxon, shall be learned the highest ideas of the sacredness of man and the fullness and perfection of human brotherhood.”
Very lengthy, nevertheless, quite an extraordinary speech!