A Few Facts and Personal Observations of Slavery

Frederick Douglass

Citation Information:  Frederick Douglass, “A Few Facts and Personal Observations of Slavery: An Address Delivered in Ayr, Scotland on March 24, 1846.” Ayr (Scot.)Advertiser, March 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. 195.

A Few Facts and Personal Observations of Slavery: An Address Delivered in Ayr, Scotland on March 24, 1846

Ayr (Scot.) Advertiser, March 26, 1846.

  1.  Mr. Douglass said—I feel much delight in presenting myself to such a large and respectable audience as I now see before me. I am always delighted to meet with those who, in sympathising affection, assemble to consider the wrongs of their race. It is the peculiar characteristic of Christianity that it is a code of mercy,—that it interests itself in the welare of man,—and is ever ready to lend its ear to the distressed, and to send them succour.
  2. I am here to-night to let you know the wrongs, the miseries, and the stripes of three millions of human beings for whom the Saviour died and though time would fail me to give all the details of the horrid system by which they are held, I yet hope to place before you sufficient acts to enlist your sympathies in their behalf. Having last night directed attention to the relations of master and slave, and to the perversion of Christianity by the slave-holders, I now wish to state a few facts which have come under my own experience.
  3. I was born a slave. My master’s name is Thomas Auld. Besides me, he had other relations of our family whom he counted as his own property, and at this moment I have four sisters and one brother in the same state of degradation and bondage from which I myself have happily escaped. I have a grandmother who has reared twelve children, all of whom have been driven to the Southern slave market and sold; and now she is left desolate and forlorn, groping her way in the dark, without one to give her a cup of water in her declining moments. Thus does slavery break asunder the parental and domestic ties; the mother is separated from her children—the husband from the wife—and the brother from the sister; while all are driven about, like beasts of burden, at the will of their oppressors. And yet among this class are to be found individuals of the most exalted virtue—true and honourable to each other, while uniting in hatred of those who call themselves their masters, and sometimes even living as man and wife,—joined no doubt by Him whose tie no one can break asunder, though unacknowledged by their heartless taskmasters. I have an old aunt sold away 1000 miles from my grandmother, and three or four other relations are sharing the same doom,—all participating in the wrongs of the slave, who is denied every right,— moral, social, political, and religious,—and strips entirely of all that distinguishes man as a rational being. I was born in this condition myself.
  4. I owe my liberty and my learning all to stealth; and, in order to give you some idea of the manner in which I learned to read, I must communicate a little of my history. When seven years old, I was sent by my master to his son-in-law’s, and there had the fortune to find a kind and tender-hearted mistress. She was newly married, and her family never having kept slaves, I was treated by her with great lenity. She taught me my letters, and continued to instruct me till she learned that by so doing she was breaking the laws—for in America the crime of teaching a slave is punishable, in some parts, with death for the second offence. Her husband found out what she had been engaged in, and stopped her, at the same time saying that this was the very way to render slaves unmanageable,—which is indeed the true philosophy of all slaveholding. She did stop, but my master’s words sunk into my heart, young as I was, and the opposition thus given to my progress only incited me the more in the pursuit of education. I obtained a primer—applied to boys on the street, when sent on messages, to instruct me,—stealthily embraced every opportunity of advancement, till in four years I could in some measure read the Scriptures, and many a time have these hands (holding them up) lifted from the street the soiled and waste leaf, cleaned and dried it, and then pored over it till I had mastered its contents.
  5. When somewhat grown up, I was put into the ship-yard to pick oakum, boil pitch, and otherwise assist the carpenters. Here I learned the first rudiments of writing, by observing the marks which the workmen made on the wood, when fitting it for any particular part of the ship, and having mastered all that could be safely communicated here, I had again recourse to the boys on the streets, boasting of my little powers in order to excite them to a trial, by which I might learn what I was as yet all but ignorant of. Many a time have they taken the chalk from me, with the contemptuous sneer, “can a nigger write?” and displayed their superior powers, gratifying at once their own vanity and my most earnest wishes. About this time I fell in with some old copy books of my young master, and by writing on the spaces betwixt the lines, soon rendered myself pretty expert at penmanship. By similar means I acquired a knowledge of figures, and learned the multiplication table, frequently the sand being the only place I had to practice on. Thus persevering, I at length acquired, unknown to my master, a considerable knowledge of the English language, writing, and arithmetic, and it was just as he said, for the more learning and information I picked up, the more did I become convinced that I was held unjustly in slavery; the more did I see the unhallowed nature of those bonds which held me and my brethren from the rights of man, and the more determined was I to gain my liberty.
  6. I looked on my cruel taskmasters with the utmost horror, and shuddered at the very presence of men who had robbed me of father, mother, and friends,—who had stripped me of every right which God had given to me—and who would, if they had been able, have crushed every aspiration after freedom in my bosom. I determined to be free, and from the age of ten years, was continually planning means to snap my chain; but it was not till I was twenty years old that I succeeded in what I had long toiled for. The means of my escape I have never revealed, lest I should disclose to the cruel slaveholder what may be of use to his victims. The time may come when I may disclose this, but never will it be said that I have held up the lamp to the tyrant, in order to show the way by which he may overtake those who make their escape from him. I will not let him know the deadly enemies that continually surround him when pursuing the run-away, nor the unseen hands that are raised to strike him the deadly blow. I will not tell him the evils that hover over his path, nor ease the terrors that I know rankle in his breast; I would rather show him that even when surrounded by those whom he thinks he has subdued and humbled, he is yet in the midst of death, and that the negro crouching at his feet, has it in his heart to level him with the dust.
  7. After my escape, I arrived at New Bedford, where I was engaged rolling oil casks on the quay, and doing anything that presented itself; yes, ladies and gentlemen, you must know that the individual who now addresses you even occupied at that time the elevated position of a chimney-sweep. (Cheers and laughter.) I must say that I worked harder then than when in slavery; but the work was pleasant, for I had an end to serve by it. I had not the mortification of seeing my wages taken by a cruel master, and spent in luxuries by him and his friends. No; I wrought for myself—I wrought for my wife, and I was contented and happy.
  8. Mr. Douglass proceeded to state the circumstances which had first led to his appearance in public. He had been requested to address an abolitionist meeting by an individual who had heard him officiate in a Methodist class, and he thus described his sensations in appearing before an audience of white men:—”I was called on to tell what I had suffered, and what I thought and knew of slavery. I hesitated—I trembled. Accustomed to consider white men as my bitterest enemies, I dared not for some time look them in the face. I found, however, what I had never seen before, that the countenances of the audience were illumined with kindness—that I was indeed among a band of brothers—and so I proceeded to tell my simple tale. It had the desired effect. The woes of slavery coming from one who had seen them—who had felt them, created an impression on the meeting which was productive of great good.”
  9. From that time he was taken under the auspices of the Abolitionist Society, and his humble labours had been blessed in the cause of his fellows He had awakened an influence which was every day increasing, and swelling the tide which he hoped would soon beat down the prison walls of slavery. He had to practice all possible acts to conceal himself from the pursuit of those who thirsted for his blood; for, as he eloquently expressed himself—”there is no spot on the vast domains over which waves the star-spangled banner where the slave is secure;— go east, go west, go north, go south, he is still exposed to the bloodhounds that may be let loose against him;—there is no mountain so high—no valley so deep—no spot so sacred, but the man-stealer may enter and tear his victim from his retreat.” (Cheers.) As he had always, when lecturing, concealed the name of his master, and likewise changed his own, and at the same time withheld all the details of his escape, and where he had been born, suspicions were raised by the slaveholders, who were very much disturbed by his appearance in public, that he was an impostor. To counteract this he at length resolved to write his life, which he accordingly did, but this only exposed him still more to the rage of his persecutors. An answer was published to his life by one of them—a Mr. Thomson, a friend of his master’s—who, as argument against him, contended that he had none of the features of a slave, and particularly of the individual he represented himself to be. He could face white men—was learned—had not the crouching character of the negro—and, in short, was very different from the generality of slaves.
  10. Mr. Douglass at length felt that it was no longer safe to remain in America, as every means were being taken for his apprehension; he accordingly crossed the Atlantic, and he rejoiced that he now found in the paw of the British Lion that safety which had been denied him under the wide-spread wings of the American Eagle. In reply to the defence of the slave-holders, which represented him as a “recreant slave,” and his former master as all that was kind and charitable, he wrote an answer, which was published in the American abolitionist journals. He told them that “Frederick the free was a very different person from Frederick the slave; that although they had represented him as having been but an ordinary slave when in his master’s hands, (and, indeed, he did not claim to be anything extraordinary yet,) they must remember that emancipation made a slave a man, and little did they know his thoughts even when he was in their thraldom.” (Great applause.) He told them, likewise, that they were greatly deceived if they judged of the minds of their slaves by their carriage before them. The poor wretches well knew, that if they showed the least symptoms of intelligence, heavy punishment awaited them, and thus they felt it to be [in] their interests to look as much as possible like insensible brutes.
  11. Mr. Douglass, after dwelling on the controversy which had been raised on his account in America, and the good which was likely to result from it, proceeded to give some details of slavery in connection with Christianity. He said—”My master was a class-leader in a Methodist Chapel, and considered in every way, according to the standard of the place, an exemplary and pious man; yet I have seen the monster come home from his meeting, tie up my own cousin, and with his own hands apply the whip to her bare back till the warm red blood was dripping to her heels, and at the same time quoting the Scripture passage—’He that knoweth his master’s will, and doeth it not, shall be beaten with many stripes!’ It is quite customary to brand slaves, as the people in this country mark their cattle, but by a process the most cruel and agonising. The arm of the slave is stripped, or whatever part the instrument is to be applied to, and the branding iron, almost red hot, broils the name of the master into the quivering flesh of the wretched victim, causing the most excruciating agony. I have seen all this done by men calling themselves Christians; and not only this, but deeds of darkness too revolting to be told, and from which humanity would shudder. A girl whom I knew had her ear nailed to a post, for attempting to escape, and yet so desperate had the cruelties inflicted on her person rendered her, that even this did not hold her, as she tore herself away from it, and escaped, leaving the half of her ear attached to the nail. She did escape, but so great was the effect of the injuries she received, that she, like many others, became an idiot.
  12. Thousands are thus bored and beaten, and all done under the sanction of the majesty of LAW, and in a country, too, which boasts of her liberty! About five years ago,” Mr. Douglass continued, “it was discovered that slavery had her stronghold in the church,—that under the very droppings of the sanctuary the chains and fetters of the slaves were forged, and that indeed Christianity had become so linked with slavery, that it was time for some great effort to be made to remedy the awful state of affairs. An effort was made. The churches in the northern states stood out against the accursed system, and declared that they could no longer hold fellowship with slave-tolerating bodies. Large denominations were rent in twain, but the cause of the poor slave prospered. Public opinion became arrayed on his side, and the feelings of the country were enlisted in his behalf.
  13. The cause was triumphing gloriously, when it was doomed to receive a blow from an unsuspected quarter. The Free Church of Scotland, finding that they required money to build their churches and pay their ministers, resolved to send a deputation to American to endeavour to raise this. A mission came. They were met by a Committee of the Anti-slavery Society in New York, and beseeched and implored not to go among the slave-holders, as they would stain the cause of Christ, and stab that of the slave. They were told the state of public sentiment, and that nothing would give the slave-holders greater delight than to have their practices sanctioned by the descendants of Knox. They were told that if they went among them, the slaveholders would cast it in the teeth of the abolitionists,—’See, the religious intelligence of Scotland is on our side, and we care not for your enmity,’ and thus they would give them cause for triumph. But the deputation heeded us not. They went to the southern states. They entered the pulpits, they joined in fellowship, and they engaged in the Lord’s Supper with the very men who were the props of slavery! They took their blood-stained money—money wrung from the groans, the sweat, the tears, and the blood of the slave, and now they are at home quietly enjoying the accursed thing. Was not this too bad? Was it Christian? I ask you was it a fair representation of the feelings and opinions of the people of Scotland, or of this audience? (Cries of No, No.) I was wont, when addressing an American assembly, to refer to the various movements in the cause of freedom going on in different parts of the world, and among them to the rise of the Free Church, and you may well conceive the grief I felt at hearing of this act.
  14. Look for a moment at what the slave holder does, and then you will have some idea of the body with which this Church has linked herself. He is a being who considers his slave only valuable to him as a brute is valuable, and who takes it upon him to degrade his soul and grind his faculties in every possible manner,—who separates all his social ties, and crushes him to the dust,—who bereaves him of all that makes life worth enjoying, and looks upon him only as a soulless and senseless creature. This is slavery, and it rises before us a solitary horror; yet to this monstrous curse has the Free Church allied herself—received it into her bosom, and welcomed it into her fellowship!” Mr. Douglass dwelt long and eloquently on this part of his subject, gathering warmth as he advanced, and calling loudly, at every sentence, on the Free Church to SEND BACK THE MONEY! He brought every possible view of the subject before the audience, sometimes harrowing up their feelings with recitals of blood, and again persuasively and mildly reasoning the point; at one time cutting with the most vigorous sarcasm, and again assuming all the solemnity of a man deeply in earnest.
  15. He said it was not against the Free Church as a Church he aimed his arguments—his prepossessions were in her favour—but against her alliance with the curse of slavery, and stated that any other Church, even the one under whose roof he then stood, would meet with the same castigation if found perpetrating the same abomination. The only remedy for the evil was to send back the money, an exclamation which he vehemently repeated time after time. This subject occupied his attention till a late period of the evening, the audience all the while expressing their entire concurrence in the sentiments advanced, and energetically cheering him throughout the time he discussed it. He concluded by calling on the members of the Free Church to exert their influence in the cause of the poor slave, and stated that a movement had already risen among them, particularly in the north, which he hoped would yet have the effect of revoking the act of the General Assembly, and cause them to send back the money. Mr. Douglass took his seat amid prolonged applause.