American Slavery and Britain’s Rebuke of Man-Stealers

Frederick Douglass

Citation Information:  Frederick Douglass, “American Slavery and Britain’s Rebuke of Man-Stealers: An Address Delivered in Bridgwater, England, on August 31, 1846. Bridgwater Times, September 3, 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. 363.

American Slavery and Britain’s Rebuke of Man-Stealers: An Address Delivered in Bridgwater, England, on August 31, 1846

Bridgwater Times, September 3, 1846.

  1. Mr. Frederick Douglass said he experienced much pleasure in having an opportunity of addressing the meeting on the subject of American slavery—a subject attracting the attention of good men of every nation, and particularly of this kingdom. He had nothing to commend him in the way of learning. He was still a slave in the eye of the law. Having been so, he had not enjoyed many opportunities for intellectual improvement, and had never had a day’s schooling.
  2. In order to [provide] a better understanding of the subject he was about to discuss, he would give the meeting a history of the American government. There were slave and free states belonging to the American Union. Each state of the Union had a separate constitution, which guaranteed the right of local legislation. They can establish or abolish any institution within their own limits, and can either create or abolish slavery. Over all the states the general government exercised a controul by which the several states are bound in union—the general government levying taxes, &c. But there was a clause in the general Constitution to the effect that the general government should not interfere with institutions in the states. Thus whilst the general government could not put down slavery, it had been prostituted to uphold it, and thereby slavery was made a national institution; the government was therefore responsible for the existence of American slavery.
  3. There were fifteen slave and thirteen free states. The free were free only in name. Government bound the north with the south, and the east with the west, to bring their military power to crush the slave. Certain persons travelling in this country were suffered to go unrebuked, merely because they came from free states. But every American who holds office swears he will bring his entire force to bear in keeping the slave in bondage; and there was one clause in the American Constitution which made it the duty of the several states to return the slave to his master when he escaped from bondage. On the face of this clause a stranger would not see anything offensive. It seemed just that any one escaping from bondage—it seemed nothing but just—that he should be returned to that service. In consequence of this clause there was not a foot of ground in all the American Union on which their humble servant could stand without being liable to be hunted with blood-hounds. If he should go to America, he should go there with the view of being dragged again into slavery. But he would go to use the abilities that God had given him for the purpose of emancipating his race. He had been asked why the slaves did not rise? But those who put that question did not know the difficulties the slave had to contend with.
  4. Were the slave left with his master, slavery would not exist a single hour in America. But after a victory over the master, they had a nation against them. The slaveholder knew as well as the slave they could not hold a slave in bondage a single moment, if the slaves were left to themselves. It was not from the want of a love of liberty in the bosom of the slave, that slavery then existed. It was because a nation were overpowering them, and because they knew the whole nation were ready to come upon them as an avalanche, the slaves were kept in bondage.
  5. Some persons had asked why American slavery was agitated in England, and said slavery existed there. There were many interpretations of slavery—intemperance was slavery; working hard was slavery. If they allowed these persons to go on they would suppose that to eat or work or have any necessity at all was slavery. If there were slavery in England, let it perish! If there were oppression, he hated oppression! If there were tyranny, he hated the tyrant! Whatsoever he could do he would to wrest from the hand of the tyrant his bloody power! There was no slavery in England, and were the poorest peasant asked to change his lot, he would scorn to give up his liberty for that of slavery!
  6. Mr. Douglass directed the attention of the meeting to the character of American slavery, and said the slave was denied every privilege, he had not the right to say “myself;” his head, his eyes, his hands, his whole body, even his soul, his immortal spirit, were the property of another. The slave could not decide his own actions, his master, who claimed property in his person assumed to himself the right of deciding all things for his slave—what and how he should eat and drink, to whom he should speak; the circumstances under which he should work, and for whom; when and whom he should marry, and how long the marriage covenant should continue; they took upon themselves to decide for the slave that which was right and wrong.
  7. If a slave resisted the violence of his master, he was a rebel and might be killed; if he took his own earnings he was a thief, if he claimed his right to his person, he committed a crime that might be punished by death. If he loved his wife and resisted being separated from her he was an outlaw. The slave had no interest in himself and was a mere thing to be bought and sold. God had given him an intellect, but he was denied the opportunity of improving it. God had given him soul, but he might not seek its salvation. God had given him a body and had endowed him with powers to provide for that body, yet he might be sold and maltreated without redress. He was dragged down from the condition of man to a level with the brute creation. Were there any such in this country? There was not one! The humblest man in the realm could resist the proudest autocrat, backed up by the shield of the British law! Not so the slave.
  8. In the United States there were 3,000,000 of beings deprived of the right of improving themselves. The more like brutes they could be made the better were the desires of the slaveholder accomplished. For this purpose the slaveholder divided families and took the infant from it mother’s breast before it had the power of knowing her, and they made it penal for the slave to be taught his letters or for him to resist the oppression of the white man. In America the slave woman was totally unprotected—the slave-owner could do what he pleased with her person, and if she attempted to defend herself from the brutal outrages of her unfeeling master, she might be felled to the earth and killed; and this too, within fourteen days’ sail of a Christian nation, and in a country with which England had commercial relations.
  9. It was the opinion of many wise and good men on both sides [of] the Atlantic, that we ought not to interfere with the slave states. But he held slavery to be such a giant crime, that it sent forth its pestilential influence, and so darkened the human sense, that in a nation where it existed there was not the moral energy to do away with it. They wanted the influence of Christianity and also to surround America as it were with an iron wall of anti-slavery. There were various means through which something could be done for slavery. Slavery existed in the Union because it was reputable; it was not so disreputable out of the United States as it ought to be, because it was not sufficiently known. He wished therefore to raise the curtain from American slavery, and expose it to the eyes of all nations! He did not describe the cruelties of American slavery merely to excite horror. He did it because he was speaking from this side of the Atlantic to the slave holders on the other side, and would wish them to know that one, who had broken from the bonds of slavery, was ranging through Great Britain exposing the enormities of the system. Were he amidst the abettors of slavery he should be put down; but from England, free and brave England, a country to which the nations look up as the paragon of Christian purity and freedom, let these words go forth, and they would have a telling effect which could not be resisted.
  10. He was anxious to afford information here as to the system of American slavery, because the slave-holder did not wish him, and in so doing he had followed the maxim of Napoleon, of never occupying ground he could not hold. His master had advertised his intention, should he go back to America, of seizing him and again reducing him to slavery. But his master had transferred his right of property in him (Mr. Douglass) to his brother, a poor reckless creature. What a gift! he must seem somewhat rich; he held a slave 3,000 miles off!
  11. He had been charged with speaking against the peace of America. He denied that charge. He had spoken against the American constitution and would continue to do so—whilst there was a slave he would denounce it. Whilst America asserted the doctrine that every one was born equal, he would denounce her hypocrisy.
  12. He alluded to the moral condition of the slave. Whilst there were 3,000,000 denied the right of marriage, what a flood of pollution and iniquity must flow! He stated that not a slave was permitted to read the Bible; there were no Sunday schools allowed; and the Gospel was not preached; that the object of the slave-owner was to keep the slave in a state of heathenism.
  13. It was creditable that the British people could not believe that such a state of things existed in free America! Yet the statute book of Maryland contained seventy-one crimes for which a slave could be put to death out of these seventy-one crimes there was only one for which a white man could be put to death. 3,000,000 of human beings might be struck down, and you could not bring one of their bloody-minded oppressors to justice. A black man cannot give evidence against a white. A white man might strike a slave down in the streets and stab him. Mr. Douglass here read a number of advertisements for runaway slaves, and described the horrible tortures the slave suffered in being branded and otherwise marked. In South [Carolina,] Alabama and Georgia he said almost all the slave owners cut or burn off the ears of their slaves. He knew a woman who, in consequence of having attempted to run away, had her ear nailed to a wall, and in the agony of pain she gave a sudden wrench and her ear was torn from her head. He then described the sale of a slave and his wife at an auction. The woman was first put up and examined as though the purchaser had been examining a horse, and was at length sold off. Her husband was next brought forward, and in agony besought the man who had purchased his wife to buy him also, but he would not, and his wife was torn from him. In the agitation of the slave he broke away and followed in the direction his wife had been taken. He was pursued, struck in the head with a loaded whip, and being caught in the arms of a man, fell dead.
  14. Mr. Douglass had also been put in a slave gaol, sold, examined like a beast. In the Southern states of the American Union, such scenes were frequent. He had once known a man taken and burnt to death, and when the flames were kindled under him he besought the tyrant to shoot him, but he refused; when the flames had parched his face and the blood was flowing from every pore, he again asked to be shot, but the fire was taken away that he might die more slowly. This was known throughout America, but the government said it was the act of a sovereign people, and they could not interfere.
  15. The slave owners who were going through the length and breadth of the land ought to be rebuked. Curran had said speaking in the spirit of the British law, liberty was inseparable from the British soil; the moment a slave stood on British ground he was free. The moment a slave set foot on English ground, his spirit walked forth in majesty, and his frame swelled with the consciousness of freedom. Let then the British air and British soil be too holy to be breathed by a slave holder—let him see his conduct is held in detestation. Jonathan is always anxious to know how he stands before the world. Tell him how he stands before you. Let your press tell him! let your church tell him! let your pulpit tell him! let your government tell him!
  16. England was deceived in supposing that the Christian religion exists in the southern states of the Union. It was known there only in name. He had seen men-stealers, class-leaders and preachers. His own master was a class-leader, and he had seen him tie up a young woman, expose her, lash her back till the warm blood would trickle at her feet, and would quote scripture in support of his cruelty. He had known church members in America who were man stealers. Men were sold to build churches, women to support missionaries, and babes for Bibles. There were a slave gaol and church and auction mart in the same neighbourhood, and the blood-stained gold was used to support the church. Its members were devils dressed in angels’ clothing.
  17. It was a damning fact that slavery with gags and bonds lived and had its being under the American church—and that the church had served to weave its fetters and bind the chains by quotations from scripture. He challenged contradiction of his statements. He had uttered them in the United States, and not one would oppose them because they knew his charges were true. He should have to meet those charges in the United States. He had some character for truth in America and he should not like to forfeit it.
  18. They had a slave-holding religion in the south and a pro-slavery religion in the north. Only think of 3,000,000 of people unrebuked. The sin of the American church was not like that of the priest and the levite, a sin of omission only. They had openly and boldly supported slavery and slave holding, and had boasted of their sympathy with the heathen. Their ministers of religion on each returning Sabbath greeted the presence of the Almighty with a lie on their lips. Their first salutation was, “We thank thee, O Lord, that we live in a land of civil and religious liberty!” A land of civil and religious liberty where 3,000,000 of people are denied the right of marriage! a land of civil and religious liberty where 3,000,000 of immortal souls were held in bondage! a land of civil and religious liberty where men were licensed to breed slaves! a land of civil and religious liberty, where 3,000,000 of their fellow creatures were driven like brutes to the field before the biting lash, and not a whisper was heard from the press, from the pulpit, against these things! Was that a land of civil and religious liberty? And yet their ministers professed that America was the freest nation on the globe. Yes, they did profess well!
  19. He was not there, to invoke physical or political interference. The abolitionists of America did not contemplate physical force. They relied on God and truth and humanity for the overthrow of slavery in the United States. Thanks to heaven, the cause was rolling onwards, and he would hazard the sentiment that in ten years slavery would be removed. There was a class of abolitionists employed in enforcing the principles of truth and humanity against slavery. They have resolved to follow slavery everywhere. Hence they have attacked the church—they have resolved to attack it in the clergy, and the clergy have in consequence become very pious all at once, and accused them of infidelity. The abolitionists of England were called infidels because they had lifted their voices like a trumpet against slavery. They believed that they should do all things they wished others to do to them. On this ground they say, if you claim a right to think and act for yourselves, grant that right to your neighbours also. That was their infidelity! They regarded all who upheld slavery as Anti-Christ.
  20. Mr. Douglass then described the character of a slave-owner, and instanced the fact of a lady slave-holder having a woman tied to the stake and witnessing her punishment and branding without suffering a muscle of her face to be moved. He would condemn and cast a slave-owner out of the church, because the man who countenanced slavery countenanced every wrong—slavery was a fundamental wrong and struck at the rights of all men. A man who would steal a black horse would not hesitate to steal a white one. And so was it as regarded the stealing of men. A slave-holder was a man-stealer; in common phrase, he was a robber and murderer, and ought not to be considered as a follower of Christ. To take the property might be bad, but to take the body and soul also was bad. Stealing was taking that which was not one’s own, and would not he be a thief who would snatch a child from its mother’s arms and reduce it to slavery? And would not all Bridgwater in such a case be in arms to fetch back the child to its mother?
  21. He wished England to refuse Christian community with slave-holding America; by so doing it would give slavery a blow as if it had been struck by a bolt from heaven. He acknowledged England had spoken out. But he wished her to let the slave-holders know that the tide of moral indignation that had swept from her own escutcheon the stain of slavery, would wipe from America the damning spot of slavery also. Let America know that you will not rest till you have cleared from them that stain—disband your connection with the American church. Could they hug to their bosoms the man stealer, when they rejected the sheep stealer?
  22. He appealed to the ladies on behalf of the abolitionists of America, who were poor, and asked them to engage in making useful and fancy articles for the Boston bazaar. English ladies were engaged in the work—Bristol and Bridgwater had already sent articles. He did not ask their contributions for their pecuniary value, but on account of the sympathy they displayed. Every stitch, every painting, embodied and shadowed forth a spirit of freedom and spoke of the power of English sympathy; and against that sympathy all opposition was fruitless. One great means of overthrowing slavery was by diffusing light on the subject; for this purpose funds were required, without which they could neither print books nor circulate them. To supply these funds an annual bazaar was held in Boston. The receipts, which the first year were only 300 dollars had increased last year to 3,000 or 4,000 dollars; and if the ladies of England wished to serve the cause, they could best do so by contributing towards this bazaar.
  23. The cause never was in a more hopeful condition than at present. Let the north but say to the slave states, “Freedom can have no communion with slavery; if you will traffic in human flesh and blood, we will not be partakers of your iniquity. If you will invoke the vengeance of your offended God, the blood be on your own heads—if you will goad the slaves to fire and fury, on you be the consequences of your folly and your crime,” and the doom of slavery would be fixed, for the slaveholder would become too weak to hold the slave in bondage. To promote the growth of this feeling was what was sought. Let the pulpit speak out—let the press speak out against slavery, and let them heed not the revilings of the slaveholders. Mr. Douglass then thanked them for the attention with which he had been heard, and sat down amid the hearty and united applause of the meeting.