Sunday, October 9, 2022

I Have Come to Tell You Something About Slavery

Frederick Douglass (1818–1895)
From Frederick Douglass: Speeches & Writings

Portrait of Frederick Douglass, c. 1845. Oil on canvas, artist unknown. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. This painting is believed to be based on the engraving that appears as a frontispiece in Douglass’s first book, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (1845). Click on image to see full painting.
In August 1841, Nantucket hosted the island’s first antislavery convention— an event that would permanently alter Frederick Douglass’s life as a freed man. He was then living with his wife and two children in New Bedford, Massachusetts, where he was employed variously by a whale-oil refinery, at a shipyard, or in a brass foundry. He was also licensed to preach by the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church and frequently spoke from the pulpit.

“Mr. William C. Coffin, a prominent abolitionist in those days of trial, had heard me speaking to my colored friends in the little school-house on Second street, where we worshiped,” Douglass recalled in his Life and Times. “He sought me out in the crowd and invited me to say a few words to the convention.” A “few words” somehow became a speech to the entire gathering—well over five hundred people, most of them white—on the last night of the three-day event. Years later, the abolitionist and reformer Samuel J. May recalled when Douglass took the stage:
To his great confusion, he was called upon and urged to address the convention. A number were present from New Bedford who had heard his exhortations in the Methodist church, and they would not allow his plea of inability to speak. After much hesitation he rose, and, notwithstanding his embarrassment, he gave evidence of such intellectual power—wisdom as well as wit—that all present were astonished.
A correspondent for The National Anti-Slavery Standard, then edited by Lydia Maria Child, was in attendance and, unable to recall the reluctant speaker’s name, reported later that month:
One, recently from the house of bondage, spoke with great power. Flinty hearts were pierced, and cold ones melted by his eloquence. Our best pleaders for the slave held their breath for fear of interrupting him. . . . It seemed almost miraculous how he had been prepared to tell his story with so much power.
The reporter ended the article by noting that the closing session—scheduled to end at nine o’clock—held the audience spellbound until nearly ten because Douglass’s speech inspired William Lloyd Garrison to deliver a rousing, extemporaneous stemwinder “taking me as his text,” as Douglass put it.

What is clear from numerous surviving accounts and memoirs is that no one who witnessed Douglass’s “debut,” as it were, ever forgot it. Years later, however, the speaker himself could barely remember that night:
It was with the utmost difficulty that I could stand erect, or that I could command and articulate two words without hesitation and stammering. I trembled in every limb. I am not sure that my embarrassment was not the most effective part of my speech, if speech it could be called. At any rate, this is about the only part of my performance that I now distinctly remember. The audience sympathized with me at once, and from having been remarkably quiet, became much excited.
Although many eyewitnesses later remembered how his initial embarrassment gradually became confidence and “dignity” and how he shared stories of his years of bondage, no record has survived indicating the specifics of what Douglass said that night.

Before Douglass returned home, John A. Collins, an agent of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, offered him a paid position for a three-month trial period, during which he would travel with other abolitionists to speak at county meetings and attract subscribers for The National Anti-Slavery Standard and Garrison’s newspaper, The Liberator. “I was reluctant to take the proffered position,” wrote Douglass, who was still legally a fugitive. “I had not been quite three years from slavery and was honestly distrustful of my ability, and I wished to be excused. Besides, publicity might discover me to my master, and many other objections presented themselves.” Yet, in the end, Douglass accepted: “Here opened for me a new life—a life for which I had had no preparation. Mr. Collins used to say when introducing me to an audience, I was a ‘graduate from the peculiar institution, with my diploma written on my back.’”

In October 1841, the abolitionist Edward M. Davis, who was visiting from Philadelphia, witnessed Douglass speaking in Lynn, Massachusetts, during his “trial period.” (Douglass and his family would move to Lynn the following spring.) The speech by “the runaway slave,” Davis wrote, “was delivered with energy, and evidently from one unaccustomed to make speeches, yet it came so spontaneously that it thrilled through every one present, and compelled them to feel for the Wrongs he endured.” Impressed and awed, Davis had the presence of mind to write down the gist and “in some parts the language” of Douglass’s speech, and he published it in the The Pennsylvania Freeman. It is the earliest record of Frederick Douglass’s oratory and so it is the opening piece in the just-published Library of America volume collecting more than one hundred of his speeches and works of journalism. We present it below as our Story of the Week selection.

Notes: The man Douglass refers to as “my master” is Thomas Auld. For more on Auld, as well as the public letter Douglass addressed to him in 1848, see “Letter to His Old Master.” The “young female slave” was Douglass’s cousin Henny Bailey, who had been severely burnt in a childhood accident and lost the use of her hands. Douglass recounts Auld’s “most brutal” beating of “this lame and maimed woman” in My Bondage and My Freedom. Though not an abolitionist himself, John Quincy Adams during his post-presidential career as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, 1831–48, became an outspoken advocate for the right of citizens to petition the government to restrict slavery.

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For this week’s selection, we depart from the usual format and reproduce the selection, in its entirety, below. You may also download it as a PDF or view it in Google Docs

I Have Come to Tell You Something About Slavery: An Address

I feel greatly embarrassed when I attempt to address an audience of white people. I am not used to speak to them, and it makes me tremble when I do so, because I have always looked up to them with fear. My friends, I have come to tell you something about slavery—what I know of it, as I have felt it. When I came North, I was astonished to find that the abolitionists knew so much about it, that they were acquainted with its deadly effects as well as if they had lived in its midst. But though they can give you its history—though they can depict its horrors, they cannot speak as I can from experience; they cannot refer you to a back covered with scars, as I can; for I have felt these wounds; I have suffered under the lash without the power of resisting. Yes, my blood has sprung out as the lash embedded itself in my flesh. And yet my master has the reputation of being a pious man and a good Christian. He was a class leader in the Methodist church. I have seen this pious class leader cross and tie the hands of one of his young female slaves, and lash her on the bare skin and justify the deed by the quotation from the Bible, “he who knoweth his master’s will and doeth it not, shall be beaten with many stripes.”

Our masters do not hesitate to prove from the Bible that slavery is right, and ministers of the Gospel tell us that we were born to be slaves:—to look at our hard hands, and see how wisely Providence has adapted them to do the labor; and then tell us, holding up their delicate white hands, that theirs are not fit to work. Some of us know very well that we have not time to cease from labor, or ours would get soft too; but I have heard the superstitious ones exclaim—and ignorant people are always superstitious—that “if ever a man told the truth, that one did.”

A large portion of the slaves know that they have a right to their liberty.—It is often talked about and read of, for some of us know how to read, although all our knowledge is gained in secret.

I well remember getting possession of a speech by John Quincy Adams, made in Congress about slavery and freedom, and reading it to my fellow slaves. Oh! what joy and gladness it produced to know that so great, so good a man was pleading for us, and further, to know that there was a large and growing class of people in the north called abolitionists, who were moving for our freedom. This is known all through the south, and cherished with gratitude. It has increased the slaves’ hope for liberty. Without it his heart would faint within him; his patience would be exhausted. On the agitation of this subject he has built his highest hopes. My friends let it not be quieted, for upon you the slaves look for help. There will be no outbreaks, no insurrections, whilst you continue this excitement: let it cease, and the crimes that would follow cannot be told.

Emancipation, my friends, is that cure for slavery and its evils. It alone will give to the south peace and quietness. It will blot out the insults we have borne, will heal the wounds we have endured, and are even now groaning under, will pacify the resentment which would kindle to a blaze were it not for your exertions and, though it may never unite the many kindred and dear friends which slavery has torn asunder, it will be received with gratitude and a forgiving spirit. Ah! how the slave yearns for it, that he may be secure from the lash, that he may enjoy his family, and no more be tortured with the worst feature of slavery, the separation of friends and families. The whip we can bear without a murmur, compared to the idea of separation. Oh, my friends, you cannot feel the slave’s misery, when he is separated from his kindred. The agony of the mother when parting from her children cannot be told. There is nothing we so much dread as to be sold farther south. My friends, we are not taught from books; there is a law against teaching us, although I have heard some folks say we could not learn if we had a chance. The northern people say so, but the south do not believe it, or they would not have laws with heavy penalties to prevent it. The northern people think that if slavery were abolished, we would all come north. They may be more afraid of the free colored people and the runaway slaves going South. We would all seek our home and our friends, but, more than all, to escape from northern prejudice, would we go to the south. Prejudice against color is stronger north than south; it hangs around my neck like a heavy weight. It presses me out from among my fellow men, and, although I have met it at every step the three years I have been out of southern slavery, I have been able, in spite of its influence, “to take good care of myself.”

Originally published in The Pennsylvania Freeman, October 20, 1841. Reprinted from The Frederick Douglass Papers, volume 1 (1979). Copyright © 1979 by Yale University Press. Reprinted by permission.