Front Page Titles (by Subject) APPENDIX A.: WEST INDIA EMANCIPATION. - The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass: From 1817-1882
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APPENDIX A.: WEST INDIA EMANCIPATION. - Frederick Douglass, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass: From 1817-1882 
The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass: From 1817-1882, written by himself; with an Introduction by the Right Hon. John Bright, ed. John Lobb (London: Christian Age Office, 1882).
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WEST INDIA EMANCIPATION.
Extract from a speech delivered by Frederick Douglass in Elmira, N. Y., August 1, 1880, at a great meeting of coloured people, met to celebrate West India emancipation, and where he was received with marked respect and approval by the president of the day and the immense crowd there assembled. It is placed in this book partly as a grateful tribute to the noble transatlantic men and women through whose unwearied exertions the system of negro slavery was finally abolished in all the British Isles.
Mr. President;—I thank you very sincerely for this cordial greeting. I hear in your speech something like a welcome home after a long absence. More years of my life and labours have been spent in this than in any other State of the Union. Anywhere within a hundred miles of the goodly city of Rochester, I feel myself at home and among friends. Within that circumference, there resides a people which have no superior in points of enlightenment, liberality, and civilization. Allow me to thank you also, for your generous words of sympathy and approval. In respect to this important support of a public man, I have been unusually fortunate. My forty years of work in the cause of the oppressed and enslaved, have been well noted, well appreciated, and well rewarded. All classes and colours of men, at home and abroad, have in this way assisted in holding up my hands. Looking back through these long years of toil and conflict, during which I have had blows to take as well as blows to give, and have sometimes received wounds and bruises, both in body and in mind; my only regret is that I have been enabled to do so little to lift up and strengthen our long enslaved and still oppressed people. My apology for these remarks personal to myself, is in the fact that I am now standing mainly in the presence of a new generation. Most of the men with whom I lived and laboured in the early years of the abolition movement, have passed beyond the borders of this life. Scarcely any of the coloured men who advocated our cause, and who started when I did, are now numbered among the living, and I begin to feel somewhat lonely. But while I have the sympathy and approval of men and women like these before me, I shall give with joy my latest breath in support of your claim to justice, liberty, and equality among men. The day we celebrate is preeminently the coloured man’s day. The great event by which it is distinguished, and by which it will for ever be distinguished from all other days of the year, has justly claimed thoughtful attention among statesmen and social reformers throughout the world. While to them it is a luminous point in human history, and worthy of thought in the coloured man, it addresses not merely the intelligence, but the feeling. The emancipation of our brethren in the West Indies comes home to us, stirs our hearts, and fills our souls with those grateful sentiments which link mankind in a common brotherhood.
In the history of the American conflict with slavery, the day we celebrate has played an important part. Emancipation in the West Indies was the first bright star in a stormy sky; the first smile after a long providential frown; the first ray of hope; the first tangible fact demonstrating the possibility of a peaceful transition from slavery to freedom of the negro race. Whoever else may forget or slight the claims of this day, it can never be other to us than memorable and glorious. The story of it shall be brief and soon told. Six-and-forty years ago, on the day we now celebrate, there went forth over the blue waters of the Carribean sea a great message from the British throne, hailed with startling shouts of joy, and thrilling songs of praise. That message liberated, set free, and brought within the pale of civilization eight hundred thousand people, who, till then, had been esteemed as beasts of burden. How vast, sudden, and startling was this transformation! In one moment, a mere tick of a watch, the twinkle of an eye, the glance of the morning sun, saw a bondage which had resisted the humanity of ages, defied earth and heaven, instantly ended; saw the slave-whip burnt to ashes; saw the slave’s chains melted; saw his fetters broken, and the irresponsible power of the slave-master over his victim for ever destroyed.
I have been told by eye-witnesses of the scene, that, in the first moment of it, the emancipated hesitated to accept it for what it was. They did not know whether to receive it as a reality, a dream, or a vision of the fancy.
No wonder they were thus amazed, and doubtful, after their terrible years of darkness and sorrow, which seemed to have no end. Like much other good news, it was thought too good to be true. But the silence and hesitation they observed was only momentary. When fully assured the good tidings which had come across the sea to them were not only good, but true; that they were indeed no longer slaves, but free; that the lash of the slave-driver was no longer in the air, but buried in the earth; that their limbs were no longer chained, but subject to their own will, the manifestations of their joy and gratitude knew no bounds, and sought expression in the loudest and wildest possible forms. They ran about, they danced, they sang, they gazed into the blue sky, bounded into the air, kneeled, prayed, shouted, rolled upon the ground, embraced each other. They laughed and wept for joy. Those who witnessed the scene say they never saw anything like it before.
We are sometimes asked why we American citizens annually celebrate West India emancipation when we might celebrate American emancipation. Why go abroad, say they, when we might as well stay at home?
The answer is easily given. Human liberty excludes all idea of home and abroad. It is universal and spurns localization.
It is bounded by no geographical lines, and knows no national limitations. Like the glorious sun of the heavens, its light shines for all. But besides this general consideration, this boundless power and glory of liberty, West India Emancipation has claims upon us as an event in this nineteenth century in which we live, for rich as this century is in moral and material achievements, in progress and civilization, it can claim nothing for itself greater and grander than this act of West India Emancipation.
Whether we consider the matter or the manner of it, the tree or its fruit, it is noteworthy, memorable, and sublime. Especially is the manner of its accomplishment worthy of consideration. Its best lesson to the world, its most encouraging word to all who toil and trust in the cause of justice and liberty, to all who oppose oppression and slavery, is a word of sublime faith and courage—faith in the truth and courage in the expression.
Great and valuable concessions have in different ages been made to the liberties of mankind. They have, however, come not at the command of reason and persuasion, but by the sharp and terrible edge of the sword. To this rule West India Emancipation is a splendid exception. It came not by the sword, but by the word; not by the brute force of numbers, but by the still small voice of truth; not by barricades, bayonets, and bloody revolution, but by peaceful agitation; not by divine interference, but by the exercise of simple human reason and feeling. I repeat that, in this peculiarity, we have what is most valuable to the human race generally.
It is a revelation of a power inherent in human society. It shows what can be done against wrong in the world, without the aid of armies on the earth or of angels in the sky. It shows that men have in their own hands the peaceful means of putting all their moral and political enemies under their feet, and of making this world a healthy and happy dwelling-place, if they will faithfully and courageously use them.
The world needed just such a revelation of the power of conscience and of human brotherhood, one that overleaped the accident of colour and of race, and set at naught the whisperings of prejudice. The friends of freedom in England saw in the negro a man, a moral and responsible being. Having settled this in their own minds, they, in the name of humanity, denounced the crime of his enslavement. It was the faithful, persistent, and enduring enthusiasm of Thomas Clarkson, William Wilberforce, Granville Sharp, William Knibb, Henry Brougham, Thomas Fowell Buxton, Daniel O’Connell, George Thompson, and their noble co-workers, that finally thawed the British heart into sympathy for the slave, and moved the strong arm of that Government in mercy to put an end to his bondage.
Let no American, especially no coloured American, withhold a generous recognition of this stupendous achievement. What though it was not American, but British; what though it was not Republican, but Monarchical; what though it was not from the American Congress, but from the British Parliament; what though it was not from the chair of a President, but from the throne of a Queen, it was none the less a triumph of right over wrong, of good over evil, and a victory for the whole human race.
Besides: We may properly celebrate this day because of its special relation to our American Emancipation. In doing this we do not sacrifice the general to the special, the universal to the local. The cause of human liberty is one the whole world over. The downfall of slavery under British power meant the downfall of slavery, ultimately, under American power, and the downfall of negro slavery everywhere. But the effect of this great and philanthropic measure, naturally enough, was greater here than elsewhere. Outside the British Empire no other nation was in a position to feel it so much as we. The stimulus it gave to the American anti-slavery movement was immediate, pronounced, and powerful. British example became a tremendous lever in the hands of American abolitionists. It did much to shame and discourage the spirit of caste and the advocacy of slavery in church and state, It could not well have been otherwise. No man liveth unto himself.
What is true in this respect of individual men, is equally true of nations. Both impart good or ill to their age and generation. But putting aside this consideration, so worthy of thought, we have special reasons for claiming the 1st of August as the birthday of negro emancipation, not only in the West Indies, but in the United States. Spite of our national Independence, a common language, a common literature, a common history, a common civilization makes us and keeps us still a part of the British nation, if not a part of the British Empire. England can take no step forward in the pathway of a higher civilization without drawing us in the same direction, She is still the mother country, and the mother, too, of our abolition movement. Though her emancipation came in peace, and ours in war; though hers cost treasure, and ours blood; though hers was the result of a sacred preference, and ours resulted in part from necessity, the motive and mainspring of the respective measures were the same in both.
The abolitionists of this country have been charged with bringing on the war between the North and South, and in one sense this is true. Had there been no anti-slavery agitation at the North, there would have been no anti-slavery anywhere to resist the demands of the slave-power at the South, and where there is no resistance there can be no war. Slavery would then have been nationalized, and the whole country would then have been subjected to its power. Resistance to slavery and the extension of slavery invited and provoked secession and war to perpetuate and extend the slave system. Thus, in the same sense, England is responsible for our civil war. The abolition of slavery in the West Indies gave life and vigour to the abolition movement in America. Clarkson of England gave us Garrison of America; Granville Sharpe of England gave us our Wendell Phillips; and Wilberforce of England gave us our peerless Charles Sumner.
These grand men and their brave co-workers here, took up the moral thunder-bolts which had struck down slavery in the West Indies, and hurled them with increased zeal and power against the gigantic system of slavery here, till, goaded to madness, the traffickers in the souls and bodies of men flew to arms, rent asunder the Union at the centre, and filled the land with hostile armies and the ten thousand horrors of war. Out of this tempest, out of this whirlwind and earthquake of war, came the abolition of slavery, came the employment of coloured troops, came coloured citizens, came coloured jurymen, came coloured congressmen, came coloured schools in the South, and came the great amendments of our national constitution.
We celebrate this day, too, for the very good reason that we have no other to celebrate. English emancipation has one advantage over American emancipation. Hers has a definite anniversary. Ours has none. Like our slaves, the freedom of the negro has no birthday. No man can tell the day of the month, or the month of the year, upon which slavery was abolished in the United States. We cannot even tell when it began to be abolished. Like the movement of the sea, no man can tell where one wave begins and another ends. The chains of slavery with us were loosened by degrees. First, we had the struggle in Kansas with border ruffians; next, we had John Brown at Harper’s Ferry; next, the firing upon Fort Sumter; a little while after, we had Fremont’s order, freeing the slaves of the rebels in Missouri. Then we had General Butler declaring and treating the slaves of rebels as contraband of war; next we had the proposition to arm coloured men and make them soldiers for the Union. In 1862 we had the conditional promise of a Proclamation of Emancipation from President Lincoln; and, finally, on the 1st of January, 1863, we had the proclamation itself—and still the end was not yet. Slavery was bleeding and dying, but it was not dead, and no man can tell just when its foul spirit departed from our land, if indeed it has yet departed, and hence we do not know what day we may properly celebrate as coupled with this great American event.
When England behaved so badly during our late civil war, I, for one, felt like giving up these 1st of August celebrations. But I remembered that during that war, there were two Englands, as there were two Americas, and that one was true to liberty while the other was true to slavery. It was not the England which gave us West India emancipation that took sides with the slaveholders’ rebellion. It was not the England of John Bright and William Edward Foster, that permitted Alabamas to escape from British ports, and prey upon our commerce, or that otherwise favoured slaveholding in the South, but it was the England which had done what it could to prevent West India emancipation.
It was the Tory party in England that fought the abolition party at home, and it was the same party that favoured our slaveholding rebellion.
Under a different name, we had the same, or a similar party, here; a party which despised the negro and consigned him to perpetual slavery; a party which was willing to allow the American Union to be shivered into fragments, rather than that one hair of the head of slavery should be injured.
But, fellow citizens, I should but very imperfectly fulfil the duty of this hour if I confined myself to a merely historical or philosophical discussion of West India emancipation. The story of the 1st of August has been told a thousand times over, and may be told a thousand times more. The cause of freedom and humanity has a history and destiny nearer home.
How stands the case with the recently emancipated millions of coloured people in our own country? What is their condition to-day? What is their relation to the people who formerly held them as slaves? These are important questions, and they are such as trouble the minds of thoughtful men of all colours, at home and abroad. By law, by the constitution of the United States, slavery has no existence in our country. The legal form has been abolished. By the law of the constitution, the negro is a man and a citizen, and has all the rights and liberties guaranteed to any other variety of the human family, residing in the United States.
He has a country, a flag, and a government, and may legally claim full and complete protection under the laws. It was the ruling wish, intention, and purpose of the loyal people, after rebellion was suppressed, to have an end to the entire cause of that calamity by for ever putting away the system of slavery and all its incidents. In pursuance of this idea, the negro was made free, made a citizen, made eligible to hold office, to be a juryman, a legislator, and a magistrate. To this end, several amendments to the constitution were proposed, recommended, and adopted. They are now a part of the supreme law of the land, binding alike upon every State and Territory of the United States, North and South. Briefly, this is our legal and theoretical condition. This is our condition on paper and parchment. If only from the national statute book we were left to learn the true condition of the coloured race, the result would be altogether creditable to the American people. It would give them a clear title to a place among the most enlightened and liberal nations of the world. We could say of our country, as Curran once said of England, “The spirit of British law makes liberty commensurate with, and inseparable from, the British soil.” Now I say that this eloquent tribute to England, if only we looked into our constitution, might apply to us. In that instrument we have laid down the law, now and for ever, and there shall be no slavery or involuntary servitude in this Republic, except for crime.
We have gone still further. We have laid the heavy hand of the constitution upon the matchless meanness of caste, as well as the hell-black crime of slavery, We have declared before all the world that there shall be no denial of rights on account of race, colour, or previous condition of servitude. The advantage gained in this respect is immense.
It is a great thing to have the supreme law of the land on the side of justice and liberty. It is the line up to which the nation is destined to march—the law to which the nation’s life must ultimately conform. It is a great principle, up to which we may educate the people, and to this extent its value exceeds all speech.
But to-day, in most of the Southern States, the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments are virtually nullified.
The rights which they were intended to guarantee are denied and held in contempt. The citizenship granted in the fourteenth amendment is practically a mockery, and the right to vote, provided for in the fifteenth amendment, is literally stamped out in face of government. The old master class is to-day triumphant, and the newly-enfranchised class in a condition but little above that in which they were found before the rebellion.
Do you ask me how, after all that has been done, this state of things has been made possible? I will tell you. Our reconstruction measures were radically defective. They left the former slave completely in the power of the old master, the loyal citizen in the hands of the disloyal rebel against the Government. Wise, grand, and comprehensive in scope and design, as were the reconstruction measures, high and honourable as were the intentions of the statesmen by whom they were framed and adopted, time and experience, which try all things, have demonstrated that they did not successfully meet the case.
In the hurry and confusion of the hour, and the eager desire to have the Union restored, there was more care for sublime super-structure of the Republic than for the solid foundation upon which it could alone be upheld. They gave freedmen the machinery of liberty, but denied them the steam to put it in motion. They gave them the uniform of soldiers, but no arms; they called them citizens, and left them subjects; they called them free, and almost left them slaves. They did not deprive the old master class of the power of life and death which was the soul of the relation of master and slave. They could not, of course, sell them, but they retained the power to starve them to death, and wherever this power is held, there is the power of slavery. He who can say to his fellow-man, “You shall serve me or starve,” is a master, and his subject is a slave. This was seen and felt by Thaddeus Stevens, Charles Sumner, and leading stalwart Republicans, and had their counsels prevailed the terrible evils from which we now suffer would have been averted. The negro to-day would not be on his knees, as he is, abjectly supplicating the old master class to give him leave to toil. Nor would he now be leaving the South, as from a doomed city, and seeking a home in the uncongenial North, but tilling his native soil in comparative independence. Though no longer a slave, he is in a thraldom grievous and intolerable, compelled to work for whatever his employer is pleased to pay him, swindled out of his hard earnings by money orders redeemed in stores, compelled to pay the price of an acre of ground for its use during a single year, to pay four times more than a fair price for a pound of bacon, and be kept upon the narrowest margin between life and starvation. Much complaint has been made that the freedmen have shown so little ability to take care of themselves since their emancipation. Men have marvelled that they have made so little progress. I question the justice of this complaint. It is neither reasonable, nor in any sense just. To me, the wonder is, not that the freedmen have made so little progress, but, rather, that they have made so much; not that they have been standing still, but that they have been able to stand at all.
We have only to reflect for a moment upon the situation in which these people found themselves when liberated: consider their ignorance, their poverty, their destitution, and their absolute dependence upon the very class by whom they had been held in bondage for centuries, a class whose every sentiment was averse to their freedom, and we shall be prepared to marvel that they have under the circumstances done so well.
History does not furnish an example of emancipation under conditions less friendly to the emancipated class, than this American example. Liberty came to the freedmen of the United States, not in mercy but in wrath; not by moral choice, but by military necessity; not by the generous action of the people among whom they were to live, and whose good will was essential to the success of the measure, but by strangers, foreigners, invaders, trespassers, aliens, and enemies. The very manner of their emancipation invited to the heads of the freedmen the bitterest hostility of race and class. They were hated because they had been slaves, hated because they were now free, and hated because of those who had freed them. Nothing was to have been expected other than what has happened; and he is a poor student of the human heart who does not see that the old master class would naturally employ every power and means in their reach to make the great measure of emancipation unsuccessful and utterly odious. It was born in the tempest and whirlwind of war, and has lived in a storm of violence and blood. When the Hebrews were emancipated, they were told to take spoil from the Egyptians. When the serfs of Russia were emancipated, they were given three acres of ground upon which they could live and make a living. But not so when our slaves were emancipated. They were sent away emptyhanded, without money, without friends, and without a foot of land to stand upon. Old and young, sick and well, were turned loose to the naked sky, naked to their enemies. The old slave quarter that had before sheltered them, and the fields that had yielded them corn, were now denied them. The old master class in its wrath said, “Clear out! The Yankees have freed you, now let them feed and shelter you!”
Inhuman as was this treatment, it was the natural result of the bitter resentment felt by the old master class, and in view of it the wonder is, not that the coloured people of the South have done so little in the way of acquiring a comfortable living, but that they live at all.
Taking all the circumstances into consideration, the coloured people have no reason to despair. We still live, and while there is life there is hope. The fact that we have endured wrongs and hardships, which would have destroyed any other race, and have increased in numbers and public consideration, ought to strengthen our faith in ourselves and our future. Let us then, wherever we are, whether at the North or at the South, resolutely struggle on, in the belief that there is a better day coming, and that we by patience, industry, uprightness, and economy may hasten that better day. I will not listen, myself, and I would not have you listen, to the nonsense, that no people can succeed in life among a people by whom they have been despised and oppressed.
The statement is erroneous, and contradicted by the whole history of human progress. A few centuries ago, all Europe was cursed with serfdom, or slavery. Traces of this bondage still remain but are not easily discernible.
The Jews, only a century ago, were despised, hated, and oppressed, but they have defied, met, and vanquished the hard conditions imposed upon them, and are now opulent and powerful, and compel respect in all countries.
Take courage from the example of all religious denominations that have sprung up since Martin Luther. Each in its turn has been oppressed and persecuted.
Methodists, Baptists, and Quakers, have all been compelled to feel the lash and sting of popular disfavour—yet all in turn have conquered the prejudice and hate of their surroundings.
Greatness does not come to any people on flowery beds of ease. We must fight to win the prize. No people to whom liberty is given can hold it as firmly and wear it as grandly as those who wrench their liberty from the iron hand of the tyrant. The hardships and dangers involved in the struggle give strength and toughness to the character, and enable it to stand firm in storm as well as in sunshine.
One thought more before I leave this subject, and it is a thought I wish you all to lay to heart. Practise it yourselves and teach it to your children. It is this, neither we, nor any other people, will ever be respected till we respect ourselves, and we will never respect ourselves till we have the means to live respectfully. An exceptionally poor and dependent people will be despised by the opulent, and despise themselves.
You cannot make an empty sack stand on end. A race which cannot save its earnings, which spends all it makes and goes in debt when it is ill, can never rise in the scale of civilization, no matter under what laws it may chance to be. Put us in Kansas or in Africa, and until we learn to save more than we spend, we are sure to sink and perish. It is not in the nature of things that we should be equally rich in this world’s goods. Some will be more successful than others, and poverty, in many cases, is the result of misfortune rather than of crime; but no race can afford to have all its members the victims of this misfortune, without being considered a worthless race. Pardon me, therefore, for urging upon you, my people, the importance of saving your earnings; of denying yourselves in the present, that you may have something in the future, of consuming less for yourselves that your children may have a start in life when you are gone.
With money and property comes the means of knowledge and power. A poverty-stricken class will be an ignorant and despised class, and no amount of sentiment can make it otherwise. This part of our destiny is in our own hands. Every dollar you lay up, represents one day’s independence, one day of rest and security in the future. If the time shall ever come when we shall possess, in the coloured people of the United States, a class of men noted for enterprise, industry, economy, and success, we shall no longer have any trouble in the matter of civil and political rights. The battle against popular prejudice will have been fought and won, and in common with all other races and colours, we shall have an equal chance in the race of life.