A Simple Tale of American Slavery
Citation Information: Frederick Douglass, “A Simple Tale of American Slavery: An Address Delivered in Sheffield, England, on September 11, 1846.” Sheffield Mercury, September 12, 1846. Blassingame, John (et al, eds.). The Frederick Douglass Papers: Series One–Speeches, Debates, and Interviews. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979. Vol. I, p. 398.
A Simple Tale of American Slavery: An Address Delivered in Sheffield, England, on September 11, 1846
Sheffield Mercury, September 12, 1846.
- Frederick Douglas[s], a coloured fugitive slave, then rose, and was received with applause. He said—Mr. President, Ladies, and Gentlemen, I hope that no expectations have been created by the allusions of my friend Mr. Garrison to myself as an advocate of this cause, or of those made by my friend the President; for although I feel that my very complexion and presence here is a testimony against slavery in the United States, such as persons who never experienced the evils of slavery, could not give, yet I feel that my friend Garrison is better able to instruct you on this subject, and to put you in possession of the necessary facts, than I am. I have, however, been a slave, and am still a slave according to the laws of the United States. I never had a day’s schooling in my life, and, therefore, any learned or eloquent language from me need not be expected. I come here to tell a simple tale of slavery, as coming under my own observation.
- My friend, Mr. Garrison, has pointed out the difference between the condition of the American slave and that of the working people of this country. I need not dwell upon those differences; but do allow me to say that the slave in the United States is one who is in the possession of an irresponsible owner, who can do with [him] what he pleases. God has given to the slave a mind; but that mind may be improved only as the slave owner may choose. The slave has no privilege or enjoyment save those which the slave-holder thinks will be a means of increasing his value as a slave. If he supposes that teaching a slave to read militates against the value of the slave, he has power to withhold that knowledge from him, and he exerts upon him that power. If he thinks that religion militates against his interest, he withholds it from the slave, who only lives for his master, not for himself, not for the improvement and developement of his faculties; but merely to administer to the ease and luxury of the slave-holder.
- The slave has no rights; he is a being with all the capacities of a man in the condition of the brute. Such is the slave in the American plantations. He can decide no question relative to his own actions; the slave-holder decides what he shall eat or drink, when and to whom he shall speak, when he shall work, and how long he shall work; when he shall marry, and how long the marriage shall be binding, and what shall be the cause of its dissolution—what is right and wrong, virtue or vice. The slave-holder becomes the sole disposer of the mind, soul and body of his slave, who has no rights, all of which are taken from him. This is the condition of three millions of human beings in the United States.
- I ask no pardon from any audience before whom, in the providence of God, I am placed, for bringing this subject before them, for it is a subject that interests all men. Slavery is the enemy of all mankind, and as such all mankind should be made acquainted with its character. This is a sufficient answer to the question why my friend Garrison and myself have come to this country to expose the character of American slavery. I speak from experience when I say that the slave is under the absolute control of his master. His labour is not his own. If he works, it is that another may reap the profits of his toil. To take his earnings is to steal— to teach his children the way they should go is insurrection against his master, and to teach them to read the Word of God, is to render themselves liable to the punishment of death, it being death, on the second offence, to teach a slave to spell the name of the Great and Everlasting God that made him—(hear, hear).
- I am not one of those slaves in the United States who have experienced much cruelty in my own person. Nevertheless, I have felt the lash and the galling fetter. I have known what it is to be dragged fifteen miles to the human flesh market and be sold like a brute beast. I am from a slave-breeding state—where slaves are reared for the market as horses, sheep, and swine are. I was brought up in a state where the slave-holder found it to be his own interest to be a little more lenient and kind to his slaves. Understanding this, you that are thoughtful may see the reason of this kindness and leniency without my attempting to explain it. Slavery is said to exist in its mildest form in Maryland, and yet there may be seen cruelties deeper and darker than those described by my friend Garrison. The slave is driven by the beating of the lash, and often, immediately he is landed, is branded with the hot iron, often his ears are cut and his teeth drawn, so as to mark him in case he runs away, when he advertises him and so brings him back to bondage.
- I belonged to a member of the Methodist Episcopal Church, and who was a class-leader—(hear, hear). Since I came here to this country he has declared that if I land on the American soil, or as soon as my feet touch the American shore, so soon shall I be reduced to slavery. This has been circulated during the last five or six months in the American newspapers, and I have seen it in several. This is from a Methodist class-leader, and this will give you some idea of his “leadership”—(laughter). The man’s name is Thomas Hall [actually, Thomas Auld]. About ten years ago, I lived with this “Mr. Thomas Hall,” the class-leader and exhorter in the Methodist Episcopal Church. This “brother Hall” owned a girl 17 years of age, and her right hand was burnt in infancy by his orders, so as to render it of no use to her. That girl was an eyesore to “brother Hall;” she became a source of heavy expense, and to me it appeared that he was wishful to put her out of existence—(“shame”). I have seen him tie her hands up, and make her stand on her toes for five hours, and lacerate her back with the cow-skin until the blood ran to her feet—(sensation). In defence of his conduct, he quoted this passage of Scripture, “He that knoweth his master’s will, and doeth it not, shall be beaten with many stripes”—(laughter). I have seen him take my own brother, put him down on the ground, and stamp on his face until it was covered with blood—(great indignation).
- I have seen women, with their frantic children surrounding them, tied to a post, and lashed by an overseer until their blood covered their garments. The children were screaming for the release of their mother, while the husband was standing by with his hands tied, and after his wife was castigated, he received the same punishment. This is the state of things in Maryland, where slavery exists in its mildest form; but these things are necessary for the support of slavery in the United States. These cases are not the exceptions; they are of every-day occurrence in the slave-states of America, and also in every large plantation. Men not only confess that they do these things, but publish the facts to the world, thus showing that so far from being like exceptions to the rule, or condemned by public opinion, they are sustained and upheld by public opinion.
- The auctioneer’s block in Maryland is the place to witness the heartrending cruelties of slavery, not merely in the infliction of the lash on the back of the slave, but there you see the iron of slavery enter the soul of the slave. There you see the husband. torn from his wife, and the children torn from their parents. A case like this occurred not long since. A man and his wife, so far as such relations can exist in slavery, for there are no legal marriages among slaves, yet I am happy to say that among the slaves is to be found the purest morality and the strongest fidelity, especially amongst those who look upon themselves in the character of man and wife—(loud cheers). Unprotected by the law, virtue among the slaves is frequently regarded as a vice by their owners, and not a few female slaves have been made to feel the bloody lash in consequence of their adhesion to their own dignity as women, and it was a fact for a woman to lift her hand in order to defend her person from violence on the part of her master, that she may be struck dead by him, and there is no law to disturb the murderer—(shame).
- But I was going to describe the separation which took place. There was a wife at an auction block surrounded by many American gentlemen with money in their pockets. “Give us a bid, gentlemen,” said the auctioneer, “here is a fine, able-bodied woman, capable of undertaking field or house-work, sound in wind and limb, look for yourselves.” And then her limbs were brutally exposed, her husband standing by ready to be brought up next for sale. The woman was at length bid off by one who led her away as his own property. Here was a wife, mother, and sister, one for whom the Son of God poured out his blood, sold and doomed to the plantation or death. The eye of the husband followed in the direction of his wife, then he looked imploringly to the man who had purchased her, and besought him by tones and gestures, such as no one but in his situation could use, saying in effect, “purchase me also; ” but the man who had bought his wife was out-bid by another, and his owner took him in another direction. He besought his owner to allow him the privilege of taking a parting interview with his wife. This was denied him; but he rushed from his master’s hands, when he received blows with a whip, being caught by several slave-holders standing by; they held him a moment, and he dropped a corpse at their feet—(great sensation).
- Many a night have I been wakened in Philpotts-street, Baltimore, by the passing-by, at midnight, of hundreds of slaves, carrying their chains and fetters and uttering cries and howlings, almost enough to startle the dead. They were going to the market to work in cotton or sugar, going off to be killed in the space of five or six years, in the swamps of Alabama, Georgia, and Louisiana. These things are everyday occurrences in the United States; and for exposing this state of things, for bringing his powerful eloquence and pouring out his soul against such a state of things my brother Garrison has been laid in prison, and what is worse, he has been persecuted and stigmatised as an infidel by the Christian people of America, because he dared openly to unmask the hypocritical pretensions of those who committed these abominations—(loud cheers).
- All these cruelties are necessary for the maintenance of slavery. The slave-holder could not maintain his slaves without the right to torture them. The fear of death must be exercised. As my brother Garrison said, men do not go voluntarily to take upon them the yoke of slavery; they must have the fear of death before them, or they will not become slaves, at least profitable slaves. If we grant slavery to be right, then we must grant all its machinery to be right—such as the thumb-screw, the dungeons, the cat-o ‘-nine tails, and all the paraphernalia which are indispensable for the maintenance of slavery.
- But I pass from this, and proceed to expose more fully the white supporters of slavery in the United States. My brother Garrison has told you that the Government and the religion of the United States support slavery. I have already told you of my pious master—of his being a Methodist class-leader, and yet a slave-holder. The very religious sentiments of the slaves are made a means of keeping them in bondage. The slave-holder holds up the Word of God as the great justifier of slavery, and he tells the slave that the Almighty is an Overseer looking down upon him, and that if he ever disobeys his master’s orders God will bring him to judgment; and that the curling flames of a never-ending eternity will be the punishment of it. The great truth that God takes cognizance of the good and evil deeds of men is made the means of upholding the master’s authority over the slave, and for goading him to toil day and night, no matter how unjust the claims of his master. The slave is told that his duty to God is to obey the commands of his master, no matter what those commands may be. The slave-holder’s commands were absolute; if he demands the slave to curse God he must do so, as he is not a responsible being—that he is not responsible to God when his master’s will comes in conflict with the will of God.
- They often preach to the slaves—(laughter). You have had sixty missionaries in this country from the United States spreading contamination wherever they go, as I am prepared to show. The slaveholders are, however, anxious for the salvation of their slaves, and they give them religious instruction—(laughter). I will give you a specimen of it, to show you how the sentiments of the word of God can be prostituted to support the most damnable heresy possible.
- The speaker, in giving the following specimen of a sermon delivered to some slaves, added to its ludicrousness by the twang of the preacher which he imitated:—”Servants, be obedient to your masters”—(laughter). This is the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and ending of the religious teaching received by the slaves of the United States—(hear). “You should obey your masters, in the first place, because the Lord has commanded you to be obedient. Now, servants, this is an important consideration; the Lord commands you to be obedient to your masters. This consideration would be sufficient for the Christian, for his prayer is, day and night, ‘Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?’ The answer is this, ‘Be obedient to your masters’—(laughter). There may be those among us who ask ‘Who is the Lord that we should obey him?’ My answer is, ‘He who made the world, by whom we live, and move, and have our being’; he it is who commanded you to be obedient; he who can create and destroy, who declares that ‘the wicked shall be turned into Hell, with all the nations that forget God’; it is he who bids you to obey your masters.
- “Secondly—(great laughter, from the style in which the expression was uttered)—You should obey your masters in the second place, because your happiness depends upon your obedience; it is one of the greatest evidences of the wisdom and goodness of the Almighty that he has made the happiness of mankind universally to depend upon obedience, and whenever you see misery, poverty, want, and distress, oh, remember that it is all the result of disobedience—(loud laughter). Peculiarly is this the case with regard to yourselves.
- “Now, in order to illustrate my meaning, I will give you the case of a negro named Sam, who was sent to perform his labours, which ought to have taken him two hours and a half. His master, who was a pious soul—(laughter)—went to the place where Sam was, and, behold, Sam was fast asleep. What, think you, must have been the feelings of that pious master on finding his command disobeyed, his authority thrown off, and his work not done? Oh, servants, this was a trying time for this good man. He went to the law and the testimony to know his duty, and there he learnt the truth that ‘he who knew his master’s will, and did it not, shall be beaten with many stripes.’ He, therefore, took Sam up, and lashed him so that he could not work for a week after. The point I wish to bring to you is this—’to what was Sam’s whipping attributable?’ That is the question. You must see, as I know you do, that it was to his disobedience. Oh, then, if you would not be whipped, but well clothed, well fed, well taken care of, and bask in the sunshine of your master’s favour; if you would not offend him; oh, if you would not offend God, be obedient to your masters—(laughter).
- “Thirdly—(much laughter)—you should obey your masters, in the third place, because of the sense of gratitude with which you should be inspired by the knowledge of the fact that God has brought you in his great mercy from Africa to this country. Servants, this is an important consideration, and one to which I beg to call your attention for a little while. Let us take a passing view of Africa, and I dread to enter upon the picture. There was no Gospel there; the people were in ignorance, and darkness may be said to cover that part of the earth, and gross darkness the minds of the people. There there was no Sabbath, no sanctuary, nor any religious privileges; all was gloomy; there men were bowing down to stocks and stones, worshipping images, the work of their own hands; and the Lord seeing your wretched condition, put it into the hearts of good men, such as Newton and others, to leave their homes and families, and dared the ocean-waves, in order to snatch you as brands from the burning, and bring you to this Christian country— (laughter). Ought you not, then, servants, from these considerations, to be very obedient to your masters?
- “Fourthly—(renewed laughter)—you should obey your masters in the fourth place, because of your adaptability to your consideration as slaves. Evidently there is a difference between yourselves and your masters and mistresses. You have hard hands, strong frames, robust constitutions, and a black skin; your masters and mistresses have soft hands, slender frames, delicate constitutions, and white skins. Now, servants, to what is this difference owing? ‘It is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes’—(loud laughter). But, servants, allow me to give you a word of advice, lest you should be puffed up by this statement. If you are strong, boast not of your strength; for while God has given you strength and robust constitutions, and ability for your master’s service, remember that the benefits are not to be all on one side, but to be mutual; you confer nothing more on your master than you receive in return; for while you have this strength, you have not the intellect that your master has; you could not think or provide for yourselves, but it has pleased God to provide you good masters to think for and take care of you. Oh, then, how you should thank God that he has made one class of men to do the working and another class to do the thinking.” (Much laughter.) Perhaps many will deem this as nothing better than a caricature both of the sentiments and the voice in which they have been uttered. Yet I pronounce it to be sober truth and fact.
- Mr. Douglas[s] then proceeded at considerable length to urge the claims of the negro population of America on the consideration and sympathy of Englishmen. He particularly denounced the American Members of the Evangelical Alliance and of the World’s Temperance Convention, who he declared had yet to lay the first stone of their antislavery life. He also observed, that in America the revivals of religion and those of the slave trade went together, the groans of the slave being drowned in the “pious” exclamations of his master, and that the pulpit received the profit of the blood-stained traffic. He dwelt at some length on the evils of democracy in America, and showed that the working men of the United States were now the most inveterate enemies of the anti-slavery movement. He concluded amidst much applause.