The Horrors of Slavery and England’s Duty to Free the Bondsman

Frederick Douglass

Citation Information:  Frederick Douglass, “The Horrors of Slavery and England’s Duty to Free the Bondsman: An Address Delivered in Taunton, England, on September 1, 1846.” Somerset County Gazette, September 5, 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. 371.

The Horrors of Slavery and England’s Duty to Free the Bondsman: An Address Delivered in Taunton, England, on September 1, 1846

Somerset County Gazette, September 5, 1846.

  1. The slave is a portion of his master’s goods and chattels. If he is fed, he is fed as his property; if he is clothed, he is clothed as his master’s property. Whatever tends to detract from his value as property is carefully withheld from him. In proof of this take the fact—the damning fact— that in several of the states of America it is made punishable with death to teach a slave to spell the name of the God who made him—(cries of “shame”). The slave-owner exercises unlimited right over the body and soul of his slaves. The slave has intellect, but he dares not use it. He has a soul—he may not call it his own. He has a conscience—he may not be guided by it. His master thinks for him, decides for him; his master supplants his intellect—his master supplants his soul—he supplants Almighty God—(sensation). This is the relation between master and slave as it exists in the United States. Not only is the slave absolute property, but he must be barbarously and inhumanly treated in order to keep him a slave.
  2. Education and slavery are incompatible—to be able to read the Sacred Scriptures would be to see the inconsistency of slavery. In order to make a man contented as a slave they prevent all chance of his detecting any inconsistency in his position. He must not see that the master sustains towards him the guilty position of a robber. He must see that he is a slave, but not know why—(hear, hear).
  3. Now, I have no learning to recommend me to your consideration. I have never had a day’s schooling in my life. All the education I possess, I may say, I have stolen while a slave. I did manage to steal a little knowledge of literature, but I am now in the eyes of American law considered a thief and a robber, since I have not only stolen a little knowledge of literature, but have stolen my own body also—(laughter and applause).
  4. If a slave uses his own earnings, he steals. To say his hands are his own is to place himself in rebellion against his master. This is the relation between master and slave, and in order to maintain it we have all the terrors of slavery—the whip, the gag, the chains, the thumb-screw, blood-hounds, dungeons, cat-of-nine tails, stocks and fetters—(cries of “shame”). This goes to make up the bloody paraphernalia with which the slave is kept in bondage—(hear, hear). Added to this, the intellectual eye of the slave is bored out, and he is sent from time to eternity in the dark—(hear, hear). He has no means of acquiring knowledge. If he is caught in the attempt to gain it, he is exposed to punishment.
  5. You may be disposed to enquire why I bring this subject before the British public? I may be asked here, as I have been elsewhere, “why discuss this question in England? We have no slaves here. We have abolished our slavery in the West Indies and our other colonies. We have washed our hands of the iniquity; but we have no right to interfere with slavery in the United States.” These sayings are in the mouths of what are called judicious and humane people. But I am anxious to show, as I can show, that the English above all other people should take a deep interest in removing slavery from America—(applause). I am not going to advise the use of physical force for the accomplishment of that great object. Were I to propose that you should attempt any political interference, you would object to it. I am not here to advocate national interference, nor to invoke physical assistance.
  6. We have discovered in the progress of the anti-slavery movement, and in your other noble reforms, that there is a power even stronger—a power more potent—than the bullet-box and cartridge-box—(applause). We rely upon that, and that only. We have begun to look to God for help and success—to rely on him who measureth the earth with his hand, and ordereth all things—(applause). We cast aside carnal weapons. We rely on truth, on the great principles of justice, love and mercy—(cheers). May not these be wielded by Englishmen? May not these be directed against American slavery?—(hear, hear).
  7. Truth is our armour; our watchword, love. We ask no physical aid at your hands; but we ask you to exert the mental, moral and religious influence within your reach, against American slavery. Let the press, the pulpit, the forum, and the nation, speak out in tones that cannot, be misunderstood by America. Tell them that public opinion in England—the moral feeling of this country—that pure and manly feeling which swept from your own colonies the damning degradation of slavery—is now being directed against the slavery of the United States—(cheers).
  8. Hold up before them their inconsistencies. Tell them to look at their Act of Declaration—to contrast that with their conduct. In that declaration we have these truths—let us tell the Americans they are self-evident—”That all men are born free and equal”—(hear and cheers). Ask them to give up slavery and stand by that Declaration. Demand this in the name of consistency—(cheers). Let England speak out on the subject. I know it is the opinion of many clear-sighted men on this side of the Atlantic that there are evils which it is not politic to expose beyond the locality in which they occur. I confess that in certain cases this consideration has its full weight with me.
  9. There are many evils in the world which can be best removed by confining our efforts to the localities in which they exist. But not so with slavery; that is not one of them. It is such an awful crime; it sends forth such contaminating breath; it so blunts and stupefies the mind and head; it so paralyses all that is humane and kind in the human heart, and is so well calculated to beget a character favourable to its own continuance, that the nation in which it exists has not the moral power necessary to effect its removal—(hear, hear). So that we must appeal to the world for aid in this movement. Slavery has well-nigh destroyed the national conscience of the United States. It has well nigh corrupted the entire fabric of religion. It has left us but a name to live when we are dead. We desire to infuse moral life into the United States—to infuse religious life into the American people.
  10. We wish to bring the influence of England to bear upon that nation which washes its hands in human blood—(cheers). Have I not a right to call the attention of this country to the evils of American slavery on the ground of common humanity? The slave is a man, and whatever is inimical to his rights is inimical to your rights,—(cheers). I am here also to interest you in this cause because you hold peculiar relations with the people of the United States. Americans, when they would wrap themselves up in their carnal security and use excuses for slavery, say “England entailed this evil upon us.” Although there is not absolute truth in the statement, there is just enough truth in it to save it from being an absolute falsehood—(cheers). Slavery was, it is true, introduced into the States by the British government; but the Americans in throwing off their allegiance to the British crown, might also have thrown off their slavery—(cheers). So that they are as much responsible for the existence of slavery in the United States now as though they had begun the iniquitous work of importing slaves since their separation from Britain— (cheers). But if Englishmen really did introduce slavery into America, it is now your duty to undo that which you have done to pluck up this giant sin, and rid a country from the curse inflicted upon it by your fathers—(cheers).
  11. You should take an interest in this matter, because you speak the same language as the Americans. You ask what influence you have upon them. I answer, very great. You speak the same language, you profess the same religion, your standard of morality is the admitted standard of morals in America. They look to you, as an experienced nation for many lessons of morality, for piety, and for civil and religious liberty. It is important therefore that the people of this country should have correct views and correct information with regard to American slavery. As England is a land on which no slave can breathe—for as soon as his feet touches the ground his fetters fall off cheers)—so let the antislavery feeling of the people be so strong that slave-holders will find your atmosphere too pure, too healthy, too warm for them—(loud cheers).
  12. I would not trouble you with any of the horrors of slavery, but that I wish the slave holders to know that I am exposing them in this country. I know I need not do so in order to induce you to action. Still I am anxious—for in speaking to you I am speaking to America—that the slave-owners should be aware that their iniquities are known to you. My feeble words are taken back by the Press to the land from which I fled, and I am anxious that it should be so, and that your sentiments should accompany them—(cheers). I will now give you a few specimens of slave-holders’ barbarity in the southern states of America.
  13. I could give you accounts of myself, but really I am almost tired of speaking of my own individual case to assemblies like this. I have suffered much, but nothing in comparison to thousands of others. I wear on my back the marks of the slave drivers’ whips, I have four sisters and one brother dragging out a miserable existence in slavery. I know what it is by experience; and although I was tenderly treated, according to the standard of tenderness erected among slave-holders, I have suffered deeply and severely. My master, the man who claims to own these hands and this body, who says I am his property, who writes me down in his ledger among his horses, sheep and swine,—who calculates on bequeathing me at his death to his children,—who expects that my children will be the property of his own—he is a member of the Methodist Episcopal Church in America—(cries of “shame,” and “oh! the hypocrite”). His name is Thomas Hall [actually Thomas Auld]. I have seen him take up a young woman, and cause her to stand like this (the speaker displayed a painful posture) for four hours at a time. I have seen him make bare her back and lash her until the warm blood trickled at his feet—(sensation). At this bloody deed he would use these words “He that knoweth his master’s will and doeth it not, shall be beaten with many stripes”— (expressions of horror). You can scarcely believe it; but I speak what I have seen with my own eyes and heard with my own ears. That man was a member of the Methodist church—an honourable member! I name that church simply from the fact of my master being a member of it— (cheers).
  14. Slavery has corrupted the very life blood of the American church. Christianity lies bound hand and foot in the southern states. The gospel is not preached there. It cannot be preached. You may preach under the very eaves of St. Peter’s, in Rome unmolested; but you may not lift up your voice in behalf of the Saviour in the slave states of America. Human beings are there kept in the most abject state of ignorance and degradation. Without speaking of the cruelties enacted there, think of this—Three millions of human beings live without marriage, live in a state of universal concubinage, universal pollution—(hear, hear). Women are subject to the absolute control of their beastly owners, and if in defence of their own dignity as human beings they raise their hands against their carnal masters, they are liable to be put to death—(expressions of horror). This is slavery in the United States. It is almost too bad to be believed, yet it is true, and the darker features of slavery yet remain to be brought forward.
  15. The religion of the land, so far from being opposed to this state of things, is the great supporter of it—(hear, hear). What I mean by religion is simply this—Various bodies calling themselves Christians defend the system and encourage it. These bodies are the Baptists, Methodists, Congregationalists, Episcopalians, Unitarians, Universalists, and others. The churches in the southern states are corrupt to the very core. They have men-stealers for members, for ministers, for class-leaders, for sabbath-school teachers, and for every office from that of steward up to that of minister—(hear, hear). We have men-stealers to build our churches—human beings sold to buy Bibles for the heathen!—(hear hear, and “it’s too bad.”) The pulpit and the auctioneer’s platform stand near each other. The Blood-stained gold goes to support the pulpit, and the pulpit covers the infernal business with the garb of Christianity—(hear, hear). The man who preaches “Thou shalt not steal,” is he who keeps the slave in bondage, and steals not only his body, but destroys his soul. He who preaches, “Thou shall not commit adultery,” denies to millions the rite of marriage. He who stands forth and says “Search the Scriptures, for in them ye have eternal life,” makes it punishable with death to learn any portion of them—(hear, hear).
  16. Here we have religion and robbery the allies of each other, revivals of religion and revivals of slavery going hand in hand; the prison and the church standing near each other, the groans of the slave drowned in the pious shouts of his master—(hear, hear). This is no extreme picture. I will prove that it is not overdrawn, by the words of the masters themselves, as published in the newspapers of the southern states. Slaves frequently escape from bondage, and live in the woods. Sometimes they are absent eight or nine months without being discovered. They are hunted with dogs, kept for the purpose, and regularly trained. Enmity is Instilled into the blood-hounds by these means:—A master causes a slave to tie up the dog and beat it unmercifully. He then sends the slave away and bids him climb a tree; after which he unties the dog, puts him upon the track of the man and encourages him to pursue it until he discovers the slave. Sometimes, in hunting the negroes, if the owners are not present to call off the dogs, the slaves are torn in pieces—(sensation); this has often occurred.—Mr. Douglass then read some of the advertisements which had been published by masters, for the discovery of runaway slaves, and in which they were described as having marks of the whip upon them, as wearing chains on their legs, as being branded with the owner’s name, &c. The process of branding was this—A person was tied to a post, and his back, or such other part as was to be branded, laid bare; the iron was then delivered red hot (sensation), and applied to the quivering flesh, imprinting upon it the name of the monster who claimed the slave. It was also a common practice to draw the teeth of slaves, although sound, in order to be able the better to identify them, should they run away.
  17. The wretched condition of slaves, he said, is evident from the fact of their running the risk of a terrible death in their efforts to escape from it. I know a young woman, on an estate in Alabama, who attempted to escape from her master, and as a punishment her fingers were nailed to a post. In her agony she made a convulsive effort, and tore her flesh in a most horrible manner. After reading several advertisements, Mr. Douglass said—The publication of these show that in the southern states of America there is no public sentiment against the barbarities practiced upon the slaves. The slave-holders publish their infamy with impunity— (hear, hear). No one hears of these things with emotion there. The slave is protected by no one. What would be said of the man who in this town should brand his horse? Would not the concentrated indignation of the inhabitants descend upon him? No one would dare to publish a deed, or if he did he would himself be branded with infamy—(cheers). In the United States three millions of human beings are subjected to the branding iron—(hear, hear). Let the Press, let the Pulpit, thunder against the foul iniquity—(cheers). Let the press of England blaze with anti-slavery indignation. Let it call upon the Americans to abolish slavery—to tear down their star-bespangled banner and bind the wounds of their slaves up with it. Let every man there know that England holds America in the utmost reprobation for her slave-holding character—(cheers).
  18. In conclusion I have a word to say to the Christian people of this country. Let me say that it is my opinion that England has it in her power through her church organization to give freedom to the slaves in America. I mean, if England would determine to exclude from her church all who hold a property in slaves. By shutting the pulpits against such persons, by showing how sincerely you abhor man-stealers, you may effect much good—you may destroy those evils which I have feebly pourtrayed. Slavery exists in America because it is reputable. It is reputable there because it is not so disreputable out of the states as it ought to be; it is not so disreputable out of the states as it should be because its character is not fully known—(cheers). The President of the United States is a man-stealer—(hear, hear). The ministers plenipotentiary to all the courts in Europe are men-stealers. Members of Congress, of the Senate, of the Cabinet, of the Church, of the Supreme Court, are men-stealers; and all this served to show the painful fact that slavery is not m disrepute in America.
  19. Let the brand of infamy be fixed upon the horrid system. Let the Christian churches in England declare that they will not hold Christian fellowship with slave-holders—that the very fact of a man being a slave owner is a sufficient reason for his rejection from communion with Christians—(cheers). I am not laying down rules of communion for this land; I only demand consistency at the hands of those churches which have a communion test. There are few churches in this land but would feel insulted if I should tell them they ought to admit sheep-stealers into communion with them. There are no churches but the Unitarian and the Church of England which will admit sheep-stealers—(laughter), and hence it is these churches confer no character on those whom they admit—they do not declare that a man is a Christian, but the other churches do. I am anxious to have consistency. If the sheep stealer is excluded, so ought the man-stealer. It is no greater sin to steal a sheep than to steal a human being (cheers).
  20. But, you may ask, is the slave-owner really a man-stealer? My answer is, he takes that which does not belong to him, and that, I believe, constitutes a thief. A robber is one who by force takes possession himself of that which rightfully belongs to another. Do not slave-holders do this? Do I belong to myself, or do I not? If I do, has not the blackest negro in America an equal right to claim himself (cheers). I know I have a right to myself. How do I know this? Because God has given me power and faculties. If He did not intend that I should think, He would not have given me the ability to think. He gave me these hands, this head, these shoulders, (which the head so much ornament)—(laughter). These are my own—my birth right as a human being; but the slaveholder takes them from me. He strikes down all right in striking down one right—(hear). The right of one man to himself is the right of every man to himself. How do you establish your rights? Not by the colour of your skin, not by the texture of your hands, not by the cast of your features. Your rights to yourselves are self-evident, and to strike down those rights is to strike down the fundamental right—the right to which all other rights are attached—(cheers). A slave-holder is as much worse than an ordinary thief as a murderous pirate is worse than a common pickpocket—(cheers). He destroys body and soul; he claims the intellect; he binds the soul in fetters; he strikes down the man and reduces him to the level of the brute.
  21. Will you reject the sheep-stealer, and hug to your bosoms the man-stealer? Should this be done? It should not. Yet it is done—done in Christian England. There are at this moment representatives of slaveholding states in the Evangelical Alliance, which meets in London; there are men thieves there—(hear, hear). They have met to denounce the Roman Catholics. One of their objections to Roman Catholicism is, that it does not allow the laity to read the Scriptures. Yet they punish with death any among the three millions of slaves in the United States who dare to read the Scriptures—(hear, hear). Should not Taunton speak out against this inconsistency?—(loud cheers). If your Christian communion confers a Christian character, ought it to be conferred upon the slaveholders?—(No, no.) I do not believe a slave owner can be a Christian— (cheers). I do not believe the spirit of Christ can rest in that bosom which is filled up with chains and gags and thumbscrews—(loud cheers). If Christianity were allowed to have a full and fair hearing, slavery would be abolished for ever.
  22. I love Christianity. I rely upon it for the redemption and emancipation of my fellow creatures. I love the precepts of Christianity, because the founder of it was one who came to deliver the captive from chains and dungeons. I love the world embracing principle which makes it the duty of its votaries to do to others as they would others should do to them—(cheers). If you claim freedom for yourself, grant it to your neighbour. Once blot out the sin of slavery, it would never be heard of again. There would be no more war, no more bloodshed. Nations would merge into one another, their boundaries being only subservient to carrying forward the great principles of Christianity and establishing equal rights among mankind—(cheers)—Mr. Douglass, in conclusion, drew attention to a bazaar which is held periodically in Boston, (U.S.) for the purpose of raising funds to promote the anti slavery cause, and expressed a hope that still larger contributions would be sent from England than hitherto. He sat down amid loud cheering.