American Prejudice Against Color

Frederick Douglass

Citation Information:  Frederick Douglass, “American Prejudice Against Color: An Address Delivered in Cork, Ireland, October 23, 1845.” Cork Examiner, October 27, 1845. Blassingame, John (et al, eds.). The Frederick Douglass Papers: Series One–Speeches, Debates, and Interviews. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979. Vol. I, p. 59.

American Prejudice Against Color: An Address Delivered in Cork, Ireland, October 23, 1845.

Cork Examiner, October 27, 1845.

  • Mr. President, Ladies and Gentlemen,—There is perhaps no argument more frequently resorted to by the Slaveholders in support of the slave system, than the inferiority of the slave. This is the burden of all their defence of the institution of slavery, “the negro is degraded—he is ignorant, he is inferior—and therefore ‘tis right to enslave him.” A distinguished divine, lately travelled in these countries—stung to shame for the humanity of his country, instead of confessing its sin before God and the Universe, adduced the pitiful argument for slavery of “inferiority of our race.” What if we are inferior? Is it a valid reason for making slaves of us? for robbing us of our dearest rights? Can there be any reason found in moral or religious philosophy, justifying the enslaving of any class of beings, merely on the ground of their inferiority—intellectual, moral, or religious? If we search the words of inspired wisdom, we shall find that the strong are to bear the infirmities of the weak,—teaching the wise the duty of instructing the ignorant; and if we consult the better feelings of humanity, we find all hearts on the side of the weak, the feeble, the distressed, and the outraged.
  • In no sound philosophy can slavery be justified. ‘Tis at war with the best feelings of the human heart. ‘Tis at war with Christianity. Wherever we find an individual justify[ing] slavery on such a pretext you will find him also justifying the slavery of any human beings on the earth. ‘Tis the old argument on the part of tyrants. Tyrants have ever justified their tyranny by arguing on the inferiority of their victims. The Slavery of only part or portion of the human family, is a matter of interest to every member of the human family; slavery being the enemy of all mankind. I wish it distinctly to be understood that this is no feeling of merely intellectual interest, but ‘tis also a matter of moral interest to you; since the morals it produces affect all men alike. I speak to Christian men and Christian women. The glory of Christianity is to be defended, to be maintained, but how, Mr. President, I ask, is Christianity to be defended and maintained if its professors—if those who stand forth as its advocates—are found with their hands dripping with the blood of their brethren? Why is Christianity to be maintained, if Christians stand by and see men, made in the image of God, considered as things—mere pieces of property?
  • In the name of Christianity, I demand that the people of these countries be interested in the question of slavery! In vain may the slaveowner tell you it is no concern of yours. Mr. President, it belongs to the whole nation of America; and to the Irishmen, not because they are Irish, but because they are MEN. Slavery is so gigantic that it cannot be coped with by one nation.—Hence I would have the intelligence and humanity of the entire people of Ireland against that infamous system.
  • I plead here for man. Notwithstanding our inferiority we have all the feelings common to humanity. I will grant frankly, I must grant, that the Negroes in America are inferior to the Whites. But why are they so? is another question—and a question to which I will call your attention for a few moments.—The people of America deprive us of every privilege—they turn round and taunt us with our inferiority!—they stand upon our necks, they impudently taunt us, and ask the question, why we don’t stand up erect? they tie our feet, and ask us why we don’t run? that is the position of America in the present time, the laws forbid education, the mother must not teach her child the letters of the Lord’s prayer; and then while this unfortunate state of things exist they turn round and ask, why we are not moral and intelligent; and tell us, because we are not, that they have the right to enslave [us]. Now let me read a few of the laws of that democratic country, not that I have anything against democracy. I am not here to call in question the propriety, or impropriety of a democratic government or to say anything in favor of any kind of government. I am here but to urge the right of every man to his own body, to his own hand and to his own heart (applause).
  • Mr. President, I shall give you a few specimens of these laws. In South Carolina in 1770, this law was passed. “Whereas the teaching of slaves to write is sometimes connected with inconvenience, be it enacted that every person who shall teach a slave to write, for every such offence shall forfeit the penalty of £100.” Mark, we are an inferior race, morally and intellectually. Hence ‘tis right to enslave us. The same hypocrites make laws to prevent our improvement. In Georgia in 1770 similar laws were passed; and in Virginia. South Carolina, in 1800, passed the following—that the assemblage of slaves and Mulattos for the purpose of instruction may be dissolved. In Louisiana the penalty of [for?] teaching a black in a Sunday school is, for the first offence 500 dollars fine, for the second death. This is in America, a Christian country, a democratic, a republican country, the land of the free, the home of the brave—the nation that waged the seven years warfare to get rid of a three-penny tea tax, and pledged itself to the declaration that all men are born free and equal, making it at the same time a penalty punishable with death for the second offense to teach a slave his letters.
  • Now I will briefly tell you what past during my voyage to this country which will illustrate the feelings of our people towards the black man. In taking up one of your papers this morning I saw an extract from the New York Herald by Gordon Bennett, one of the greatest slave haters in the world. It relates that a remarkable occurrence took place in the Cambria during its passage to England:—”A coloured slave named Douglas[s] is said to have spoken on anti-Slavery, and that a row took place in consequence.” You may have occasion to hear more of the New York Herald. The editor was over here some time ago, at the Conciliation-hall, and Mr. O’Connell denounced him in round terms.
  • Now the circumstance to which this refers is as follows—I took passage at Boston. or rather my friend Mr. Buffum, the gentleman who lived in the same town with me, went to Boston from Lynn to learn if I could have a cabin passage on board the vessel. He was answered that I could not, that it would give offence to the majority of the American passengers. Well, I was compelled to take a steerage passage, good enough for me. I suffered no inconvenience from the place—I kept myself in the forecastle cabin, and walked about on the forward deck. Walking about there from day to day my presence soon excited the interest of the persons on the quarter deck, and my character and situation were made known to several gentlemen of distinction on board, some of whom became interested in me.
  • In four or five days I was very well known to the passengers, and there was quite a curiosity to hear me speak on the subject of slavery—I did not feel at liberty to go on the quarter deck—the Captain at last invited me to address the passengers on slavery. I consented—commenced—but soon observed a determination on the part of some half a dozen to prevent my speaking, who I found were slave owners. I had not uttered more than a sentence before up started a man from Connecticut, and said “that’s a lie.” I proceeded without taking notice of him, then shaking his fist he said, again—that’s a lie. Some said I should not speak, others that I should—I wanted to inform the English, Scotch and Irish on board on Slavery—I told them blacks were not considered human beings in America. Up started a slave-owner from Cuba. “Oh,” said he, “I wish I had you in Cuba.” Well, said I, ladies and gentlemen, since what I have said has been pronounced lies, I will read not what I have written but what the southern legislators themselves have written—I mean the law. I proceeded to read—this raised a general clamour, for they did not wish the laws exposed.” They hated facts, they knew that the people of these countries who were on the deck would draw their own references from them.
  • Here a general hurry ensued—”Down with the nigger,” said one—”he shan’t speak” said another. I sat with my arms folded, feeling no way anxious for my fate. I never saw a more barefaced attempt to put down the freedom of speech than upon this occasion. Now came the Captain—he was met by one of the other party, who put out his fist at him—the Captain knocked him down—instead of his bowie, the fallen man drew out his card crying “I’ll meet you at Liverpool.” Well, said the Captain, “and I’ll meet you.” The Captain restored order, and proceeded to speak. “I have done all I could from the commencement of the voyage to make the voyage agreeable to all. We have had a little of everything on board. We have had all sorts of discussions, religious, moral and political, we have had singing and dancing, everything that we could have, except an anti-slavery speech, and since there was a number of ladies and gentlemen interested in Mr. Douglass, I requested him to speak. Now, those who are not desirous to hear him, let them go to another part of the vessel. Gentlemen,” he said, “you have behaved derogatory to the character of gentlemen and Christians. Mr. Douglas[s],” said he, “go on, pitch into them like bricks!” (Laughter.) However, the excitement was such that I was not allowed to go on. The agitation however did not cease, for the question was discussed, to the moment we landed at Liverpool. The Captain threatened the disturbers with putting them in irons if they did not become quiet—these men disliked the irons—were quieted by the threat; yet this infamous class have put the irons on the black. (Mr. Douglass showed the slave-irons to the meeting.)
  • Now that I am alluding to papers, allow me to say that there has been a little misunderstanding between myself and the Reporter of one of your papers. I am glad to have an opportunity of making an explanation respecting the matter. I believe the name of the paper is the Constitution. The first meeting, which was held in the Court-house, was reported, and the Reporter took occasion to speak of me as a fine young Negro. Well, that is the mode of advertising in our country a slave for sale. I took occasion to allude to the apparent sweeping manner in which I was spoken of; but I find from information which I have received that the gentleman who wrote it had no intention to sneer or speak slightingly of me or the Negro race at all. I am glad to know it.
  • This simple meeting gathered together to-day, may do something towards freeing the bondsman. Every true word spoken, every right aim levelled against slavery in this land will effect wonders in the destiny of the black slave in America. They will be free only by the combined influence of the Christian world. They can’t be free otherwise. America has not sufficient moral stamina in herself to emancipate the slave unassisted by the world.
  • My friends, you yourselves can cheer the heart of the slave by making every pro-slavery man feel the strength of your opposition to slavery. I have had an excellent illustration of this put into my hands by a friend recently—a letter from Mr. Haughton of Dublin, in which he exposes the conduct of a Minister of the Unitarian denomination who ventured across here, the Rev. W. Parkman.” That gentleman wished an introduction to Mr. Haughton, and sought an interview with him, but Mr. Haughton first enquired, “was he an abolitionist?” “I am not an abolitionist in the sense of the term that is understood in our country. Abolitionism is a party-man and I am not one in the party sense.” “Sir, would you preach against slavery in your pulpit?”—”No, Sir, I would not, it would injure my influence with my congregation, ‘twould offend some of my members. I am bound not to introduce anything that would be offensive,”—that is, in other words, I am not sent by God to preach, I am sent by my congregation.
  • My friends, there are charges brought against coloured men not alone of intellectual inferiority, but of want of affection for each other. I do know that their affections are exceedingly strong. Why, but a short time ago we had a glorious illustration of affection in the heart of a black man—Maddison Washington, he has made some noise in the world by that act of his, it has been made the ground of some diplomacy:—he fled from Virginia for his freedom—he ran from American republican slavery, to monarchical liberty, and preferred the one decidedly to the other—he left his wife and little ones in slavery—he made up his mind to leave them, for he felt that in Virginia he was always subject to be removed from them; he ran off to Canada, he was there for two years, but there in misery; for his wife was perpetually before him, he said within himself—I can’t be free while my wife’s a slave. He left Canada to make an effort to save his wife and children, he arrived at Troy where he met with Mr. Garrett; a highly intellectual black man, who admonished [him] not to go, it would be perfectly fruitless. He went on however to Virginia where he was immediately taken, put with a gang of slaves on board the brig Creole, destined for Southern America. After being out nine days, he could sometimes see the iron-hearted owners contemplating joyfully the amount of money they should gain by reaching the market before it was glutted.
  • On the 9th day Maddison Washington succeeded in getting off his irons, and reaching his head above the hatchway he seemed inspired with the love of freedom, with the determination to get it or die in the attempt. As he came to the resolution he darted out of the hatchway, seized a handspike, felled the Captain—and found himself with his companions masters of the ship. He saved a sufficient number of the lives of those who governed the ship to reach the British Islands; there they were emancipated. This soon was found out at the other side of the Atlantic and our Congress was thrown into an uproar that Maddison Washington had in imitation of George Washington gained liberty. They branded him as being a thief, robber and murderer; they insisted on the British Government giving him back. The British Lion refused to send the bondsmen back. They did send Lord Ashburton as politely as possible to tell them that they were not to be the mere watchdogs of American slave-owners; and Washington with his 130 brethren are free. We are branded as not loving our brother and race. Why did Maddison Washington leave Canada where he might be free, and run the risk of going to Virginia? It has been said that it is none but those persons who have a mixture of European blood who distinguish themselves. This is not true. I know that the most intellectual and moral colored man that is now in our country is a man in whose veins no European blood courses—’tis the Rev. Mr. Garrett; and there is the Rev. Theodore Wright—people who have no taint of European blood, yet they are as respectable and intelligent, they possess as elegant manners as I see among almost any class of people. Indeed my friends those very Americans are indebted to us for their own liberty at the present time, the first blood that gushed at Lexington, at the battle field of Worcester, and Bunker Hill (applause). General Jackson has to own that he owes his farm on the banks of the Mobile to the strong hand of the Neero. I could read you General Jackson’s own account of the services of the blacks to him, and after having done this, the base ingrates enslave us. Mr. Douglas[s] here sat down amidst the warmest applause of the meeting.
  • Mr. Douglas[s] again rose and said—I ought to have stated that there is held annually in the city of Boston an anti-slavery bazaar, the proceeds of which are appropriated to printing anti-slavery truth—sending the light of anti-slavery truth into the community; and that there are ladies, English, Irish and Scotch, who are interested in that bazaar, and send annual contributions to it in the shape of needle-work, painting, &c. Any such contributions will be thankfully received. Whatever is done, every stitch that is taken—every motion made with the paint brush, has a treble value on our side of the Atlantic. We are made to know that there are hearts beating in unison with our own. We hold up those little works of art that are presented at the fair, as incentives to industry on the part of our own people. True to their noble natures as women they ask—

“While woman’s heart is bleeding

Shall woman’s voice be hushed.”

  • I wish just to say to persons desirous of contributing to this Bazaar in Cork, that they can do so by forwarding their contributions to the Misses Jennings, Brown-Street, before the 23rd of next month.