Emancipation is an Individual, a National, and an International Responsibility

Frederick Douglass

Citation Information:  Frederick Douglass, “Emancipation is an Individual, a National, and an International Responsibility: An Address Delivered in London, England, on May 18, 1846.” London Patriot, May 26, 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. 249.

Emancipation is an Individual, a National, and an International Responsibility: An Address Delivered in London, England, on May 18, 1846

London Patriot, May 26, 1846.

  1. Mr. Frederick Douglass then stood forward, and was received with enthusiastic cheers, on the subsidence of which he said: I experience great pleasure in having the opportunity afforded me of addressing an English audience on the subject of American slavery. About eight years ago I escaped from slavery in America, and went to New Bedford, where I obtained my livelihood by working on the wharfs as a common labourer. I remained at work there about three years, at which time I met with a number of abolitionists, both in New Bedford and Nantucket, who were holding an anti-slavery meeting.
  2. I was induced, from the kindly tone they entertained towards me, to say a few words at that meeting respecting what I knew was the actual state of slavery in Maryland. What I said led them to desire that I should go to different states [counties] in Massachusetts, and make known the facts with which I was acquainted, for they thought it would attract attention, and create a deeper interest than had been felt before on this subject. Accordingly, after much solicitation, I went to tell my story of the wrongs of my brethren in bonds.
  3. For four years I have prosecuted my labours in season and out of season, amidst obstacles and difficulties of various kinds, mobs, and so on. However, about the latter part of the four years, in such parts of the states as I was now very well known, my manner was such as to create a suspicion that I was not a runaway slave, but some educated free negro, whom the abolitionists had sent forth to attract attention to what was called there a faltering cause. They said, he appears to have no fear of white people. How can he ever have been in bondage? But one strong reason for this doubt was, the fact that I never made known to the people to whom I spoke where I came from. I never stated in public in the United States who my master was; and for this very good reason; had I told them, any one in the northern states might have written to him, and have informed him of my whereabouts, and I might have been hurled back to the jaws of that system from which I had escaped. I therefore kept the matter secret, contenting myself with facts regarding slavery, and having nothing to say of individual slaveholders. But it became necessary to set myself right before the public in the United States, and to reveal the whole facts of my case. I did not feel it safe to do so till last spring, when I was solicited to it by a number of anti-slavery friends, who assured me that it would be safe to do so. I then published a narrative of my experience in slavery, in which I detailed the cruelties of it as I had myself felt them. I stated the existence of crime, and identified the perpetrators of the crime that I alleged, calling them by name, and telling where they lived, and what Church they belonged to, and that the man who claimed property in my body and soul is a member of the Methodist Episcopal Church, and a class-leader in it. (Hear, hear.)
  4. My statements were taken up with avidity by the northern papers, and circulated in the far south, where my master soon became acquainted with the fact,—that this Frederick Douglass, who was going about through the whole of the United States, was the veritable Frederick Bailey, who was once his property. (Cheers.) There is no law by which I could be free in any part of America, so that it was thought better that I should leave the country for a while; at least until public opinion is so far advanced anti-slavery-wise in the northern states as to make it a little safer for me than it now is, and which may be the case in a year or two.
  5. One word with regard to the fact, that there is no part of America in which a man who has escaped from slavery can be free. This is one of the darkest spots in the American character. I want the audience to remember that there are those who come to this country who attempt to establish the conviction that slavery belongs entirely to the southern states of America and does not belong to the north. I am here, however, to say that slavery is an American institution—(hear, hear)—that it belongs to the entire community; that the whole land is one great hunting-ground for catching slaves and returning them to their masters. (Hear, hear.) There is not a spot upon which a poor black fugitive may stand free—no valley so deep, no mountain so high, no plain so expanded, in all that “land of the free and home of the brave,” that I may enjoy the right to use my own hands without being liable to be hunted by the bloodhounds. (Cheers.) Hence I came to this country, and I feel exceedingly glad to be here. (Loud cheers.)
  6. My master, whom I have accused of being a very mean man, and who has attempted a refutation of the truth of my narrative in a letter which he published in the United States, tried to show that he was an excellent man, and he has generously transferred his legal right in my body and soul to his brother. He has actually made his brother a present of the body and bones of Frederick Douglass. His brother must feel exceedingly rich to-day. (Laughter.) He must feel himself as wealthy as though he had received a title deed to the planet Mars. (Laughter and cheers.) He has given every proof of his meanness in giving me away running. He ought to have given me to his brother when I should have been of some service to him, but he has made him a present of a person 3,000 miles off. The brother, however, seems very proud of the gift, and resolves that if ever I touch American soil, I shall be instantly reduced to a state of slavery. However, it is not to a state of slavery that they wish now to have me reduced. They have a feeling of revenge to gratify.
  7. I have not only exposed them in the northern states, but during the last nine months I have been going the length of Ireland and Scotland, tearing off the mask from the abominable system of slavery, and exposing the American slaveholders to the gaze and indignation of the Christian people of those countries. (Cheers.) They feel it sensibly, as the periodicals they have coming from the other side show. They speak as though they felt the statements that are now being made for their character, by one who has broken the chain, and has succeeded in reaching a land where he may be free. (Loud cheers.)
  8. There is a great deal said in this country with regard to the system of American slavery. For my part, I have done speaking of the system of slavery. I have heard persons who would start up, and with both hands denounce the system in louder language, and more eloquent terms, than I am capable of using; but, at the same time, would stand apologising for the Christian character of the slaveholder, and speaking of him as being an excellent man as disconnected from the system. Now I have done with American slaveholders. This matter of holding slaves is an individual affair in America, as well as a national one. All attempts to remove the responsibility of the slaveholder from the individual to the nation, is erroneous, fallacious, false. All attempts to make it exclusively an individual matter are equally wrong—however it is more of an individual matter than a national one. The slaveholder holds his slave from choice—he trades in the bodies and souls of his fellow-men, because it is convenient for him to do so. He is not compelled, as some have stated in this country, to hold his slave by law. There is not a single slaveholder in the United States but what could give liberty to every slave in his possession. (Hear, hear.) All the arguments, therefore, based on this position, must fall to the ground, since the fact itself does not exist. I know that there are laws in some of the States making it impossible to emancipate their slaves on the soil, or making it impossible for them to remain on the soil in an emancipated state; but there is not a state in the American Union to which a slaveholder may not take his slaves and give them that liberty to which they are entitled by the laws of God and of nature. (Cheers.)
  9. One would think, from reading certain statements, that the religious part of the slaveholders were anxiously desirous to get rid of their slaves—really praying daily and hourly to be shown some way by which to get rid of this very troublesome species of property. While the learned gentlemen in the north of this country are puzzling their brains in devising some way by which the masters may emancipate them, there is not a slave in all America so ignorant but what he could decide the question instantly as to how the master might put him in possession of freedom. (Laughter and cheers.) All that he has to do is to say, “I relinquish my claim upon your slaves. There is the north star; it shines upon the British dominions. Go to Canada, and in any of her Majesty’s dominions the slave may be free.” (Cheers.) The slaveholder, therefore, is without excuse in this matter. (Renewed cheers.) He is individually responsible, for while the law permits him to hold a slave it does not compel him.
  10. But I have a word to say about the relation of master and slave as it exists in the United States. I have had a little opportunity since I escaped from slavery of investigating the character of slavery as it exists in other countries, and I am able to say in no country in the world does it exist in so hateful, so horrible a form as in the United States of America. I think there is no part of the world where the spirit of slavery may be seen in so horrible a light as in the United States of America. I am bound to say that every slaveholder there is a legalised keeper of a brothel on his own plantation, be he doctor of divinity, president, or senator. He is by the laws of the land, and by his relation to his slave, compelled to make all his slaves live in utter disregard of the marriage institution. (Hear, hear.) Slavery in America is a system of universal concubinage, and all the Churches of this country ought to be made acquainted with it. There is not a slaveholder in America who does not hold exclusive jursidiction over the body and soul, over the mind, the moral perceptions, the affections of his slave; indeed, over him entirely for time and eternity, in so far as the occupancy of his time has anything to do with eternity, or his state beyond the grave. He claims a right to decide on what he shall work [at], how much he shall work, when he shall be punished, by whom he shall be punished, how much he shall be punished, for what he shall be punished. He claims a right to determine for him what is virtue and what is vice, he claims a right to determine all circumstances as to his conduct.
  11. The slave is a marketable commodity in the hands of his master; he may dispose of his person, and, in cases of extremity, may kill him, and no law in the United States will punish the guilty perpetrator of the murder. Look to South Carolina! they have a law which commences with a show of humanity, and says that the slaveholder who does kill his slave shall be punished as though he killed a free black man unless such slave dies under moderate correction; so that a slaveholder may deliberately whip his slave to death, and no law takes hold of the murderer. If the slaveholder shoot him dead upon the spot he would not be punished unless he was prosecuted by his neighbours; for if ten thousand slaver were present, not one would be allowed to give testimony against him.
  12. On Captain Lloyd’s plantation, where I lived, a man of the name of Denby was shot under the most horrible circumstances. He attempted to run from the overseer when he wished to whip him, or, as the slave” holder would say, correct him. He took refuge in some water, where he stood waist deep. Mr. Gore, the overseer, told him that he would give him three calls, and unless he came out he would shoot him dead on the spot. The first and the second were given—Denby made no response; the third was given, and he stood firm. Gore, without any further deliberation or consultation with any one, raised his musket and poured its deadly contents into the bosom of the slave; his body soon sank, and the blood alone marked the spot where it had stood. He was called to give an account of himself, and to state why he had resorted to so bloody an expedient. He replied, that the slave had refused to be whipped, and that he had set a dangerous example to the other slaves; that if he had permitted him to have got off under such circumstances, there would have been an end to all rule and all order on the plantation. Gore, instead of being punished, had his fame blazed abroad as being- a successful, a determined, an inflexible overseer. His crime was not even submitted for judicial investigation, and he now lives as much respected as though he had not been stained by his brother’s blood. The last I heard of him was from Mr. Thompson, the son of Dr. Andrew Thompson, a slaveholder i in America. This Mr. Thompson attempted to show that the cruelty alleged did not exist, and, in proof of it, said Mr. Gore is a member of the Episcopal Church. (Hear, hear.) But I need not narrate these circumstances of cruelty to you, and I do not like it myself.
  13. I have in the United States felt it necessary to go into a detail of the cruelty practiced on the slaves; but I take it there is no need to do a work of that kind in such an audience as this. There is another mode that will have a better effect on the cause that I am trying, in my feeble way, to advocate; and that is, to point out the means by which slavery is upheld in the United States. This is the question that must be brought before the people of this country. You all know that slavery is a crime—that it is the vilest system that ever saw the sun—that so far as the relation of master and slave is concerned, it is one of those monsters of darkness to which the light of truth is blind. Now slavery exists in the United States because public opinion upholds it. Slavery is reputable there because it is not disreputable out of those states—because its character is not fully known—and because certain persons have felt it their duty to cover up their own delinquency in travelling in America, by casting a veil on the bloody enormities that are being practiced. (Cheers.) At all times when travelling on my anti-slavery mission, I felt it my duty to expose this.
  14. That slavery in the United States is reputable, is evident from the fact that you see slaveholders filling the most important offices in Church and State. A man-stealer is now the President of the United States—man-stealers are members of the Churches—man-stealers are doctors of divinity—man-stealers are actually bishops of Churches. (Loud cries of “Hear, hear.”) Man-stealers are ministers plenipotentiaries at the various courts of Europe—man-stealers are in the American Government at this time; and to trade in the body and soul of a brother is not there regarded as a crime, because it is not elsewhere regarded as a crime as it ought to be. (Cheers.) It is to beget the conviction abroad, that slavery is this crime, and that it ought so to be treated, that I am among you to-day.
  15. Slaveholders are not only ministers and members of Churches, but they openly defend it, by quoting the fact of Paul sending Onesimus to Philemon, and they allege that that case shows that neither Christ nor his apostles had any objection to men holding slaves as property. Men are sold to build Churches—babies are sold to buy Bibles. (Loud cries of “Hear, hear.”) The blood sold on the auction-block goes into the treasury of the Church, and the pulpit in return covers it with the garb of Christianity. Our Lord says, “Search the Scriptures, for in them ye think ye have eternal life;” but these men deny to three millions of people the right to learn the name of the God that made them. This is the religious state of things in America. It has been said to me since I came here, “How can you say these things about the American Churches? Does not the Lord pour out his blessing on those Churches? Have they not had revivals?” Yes, they have revivals, but the revivals of religion and revivals of the Slave-trade go hand in hand together. When the Slave-trade is going on most prosperously, then there is the most money given to support “the Gospel,” as they call it; but it is not the Gospel of Christ, it is not the Gospel according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John, but it is a Gospel according to slavery. (Hear, hear.)
  16. I must here say a word upon another topic, for I cannot get the Free Church out of my mind. (Hear, hear.) I have to charge its deputation that went to the United States with going to a land where they saw 3,000,000 of people, for whom Christ poured out his precious blood, divested of every right, stripped of every privilege, and denied the right of reading the Word of God. They are herded together, things sold upon the auctioneer’s block, and torn from each other to satisfy the rapacity of the slave-dealer. That deputation, however, did not raise a whisper against this infernal state of things. I have to charge them with going into that land with an understanding that they were to keep thus silent, that they were to preach such and such doctrines only as would bring them the cordial support of the slave-stealers of America. (Cheers.) In doing this they have inflicted a great wound on the glorious cause of emancipation, and I will tell you why they have done it.
  17. During the last fifteen years the abolitionists have been arduously labouring, amidst all kinds of odium, to establish the conviction, that holding human beings in the condition of slaves is a sin against God, and ought so to be regarded by the Churches. They have laboured to create such a moral and religious sentiment as would entirely purify the Churches of America from all connexion with the slave system. They had succeeded to some extent. In 1830 there was scarcely a Church in America that stood out against slavery, and in 1836, the Methodist General Conference, at its meeting at Cincinnati, decided, “that we have no right, wish, or intention to interfere with the relation of master and slave as it exists in the southern states of the Union,” which was equivalent to saying that they had no right, wish, or intention to emancipate the slave from his thraldom. The Baptists, Congregational, and Presbyterian Churches were all linked and interlinked, woven and interwoven with the slaveholder; they throw around him all the sanctions of Christianity; and endorse him, as the Free Church is now doing, as a follower of Christ.
  18. The abolitionists saw the state of things. They said that slavery was gnawing at the very vitals of the Church—that it was corrupting it at the very core—and they determined to mete out to the slaveholder the same treatment that they would to any other thief. They have succeeded to a considerable extent. In 1840 the northern Churches spoke out on the subject. The Methodist Episcopal Church has been rent because the northern Churches were not willing to have a man preside over them as a bishop whose hand was stained with the blood of fifteen souls. (Cheers.) The Baptist Church has been divided on missionary operations, and they will have no fellowship with the slaveholder who persists in retaining his slaves in bondage. (Loud cheers.) There is a large class of Presbyterians pursuing the same course.
  19. We were looking forward with hope to a speedy purification of the entire Church from all connexion with the slave system when the deputation from the Church of Scotland bearing the name of “Free,” a name which reminded the slave of that for which his soul panted, visited America. Instead, however, of coming to break his yoke, that deputation came to shake hands with the slaveholders, and to say to the northern Churches, You were wrong in unfellowshiping these men; they are good and pious men, said one of them, whom the Churches of Scotland would do well to imitate. (Hear.) In this way they have injured our cause, and they have done it knowingly. The American Anti-Slavery Committee, soon after the arrival of these gentlemen from the Free Church, put forth a remonstrance eloquently written, full of pathetic appeal, imploring them in the name of humanity and of religion, not to stain their cause by taking blood-stained gifts to build their Free Churches, and pay their Free Church ministers in Scotland. (Cheers.) They shut their ears to this remonstrance. I persist in calling slavery man-stealing; in calling the slaveholder a thief—and for the best of reasons, because it is his true name. I know there are some in this country who question my right, as Mr. Burnet says, to myself—I have run off with stolen property. These hands do not belong to me—they belong to Captain Hall; well, I cannot believe it—I beg to differ from the gentleman. (Loud cheers.)
  20. I really think I have a right to myself; all the reasoning of Dr. Chalmers and Dr. Cunningham and Dr. Candlish, and a reverend gentleman who has addressed us, was based upon the ground that my master has a title to me; it does not for a moment shake my opinion that I have the best right to myself. (Cheers.) Feeling this, I cannot consent to go back, even if some of these gentlemen should try to act the part that the apostle Paul did in the case of Onesimus. However, I do not agree with the opinion that the apostle Paul recognised Onesimus as the property of Philemon. The Jewish law says: “Thou shalt not deliver a man back to his master; he shall dwell with thee in the land.” I do not think, that if, under Moses and the prophets, it would have been wrong to return me back to bondage, that in the nineteenth century of the Christian era it would be right to send me back. I think, however, it would be right to send back the money. (Laughter, and immense cheering.)
  21. We do not think, however, that the Free Church has any objection to sending back the money on account of the money itself; but I think they have worked themselves up to believe that it would be wrong for them to send it back, or at least that it would be humiliating to do it. I am rather inclined to this last opinion. (Cheers.) But I know that if they do not send it back they will put themselves in such a relation to the slaveholders that they will demand it to be returned as loudly as we do. They are already denouncing Mr. Lewis, one of the deputation. They say, he dined at our tables—we welcomed him to our pulpits—he took our money, and never uttered a word against our slavery—our patriarchal relations; but as soon as he got back to Scotland, being stung by the rebukes he has received, he finds it necessary to denounce it. Send back the money! (Cheers.) All their rebukes fall powerless on the slaveholder while they retain the money. The slaveholders say, these men turn round and lecture us on the impropriety of using the very means to get the money by which they have built their churches. (Hear, hear.)
  22. If the Free Church would only consult expediency in the matter, and lay aside its pride for a few moments, they will see that it is not only just but expedient to return the money. There are many parties who have given their tens, and scores, and hundreds of pounds to that Church, who will not contribute another farthing to it while it retains this money. (Cheers.) I was in the Assembly of the Church of Scotland when they came to the conclusion that they would not admit a slaveholder amongst them.
  23. We have no means in America of accomplishing the object we have in view, except religious means. We do not ask you to send your army or your navy, but you are bound to use every means within your reach to remove this blot from the country. The world is looking to England to this subject. As early as I can remember, I have thought of England in connexion with freedom, and both foes and friends are still looking there. I would advise you to concentrate your energies on America; for I regard that country as the sheet-anchor of slavery throughout the world. While, on the one hand, there is a determination on the part of the United States to uphold slavery; on the other, there never was so great a determination among large numbers to get rid of it as at the present time. (Cheers.)