Intemperance and Slavery

Frederick Douglass

Citation Information:  Frederick Douglass, “Intemperance and Slavery: An Address Delivered in Cork, Ireland, on October 20, 1845,” Truth Seeker, 1: 142-44 (1845-46). Blassingame, John (et al, eds.). The Frederick Douglass Papers: Series One–Speeches, Debates, and Interviews. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979. Vol. I, p. 55.

Intemperance and Slavery: An Address Delivered in Cork, Ireland, on October 20, 1845

Truth Seeker, 1: 142-44 (1845-46).

  1. Mr. Frederick Douglass said:—Ladies and Gentlemen,—The first sentiment that presses for utterance, is that of gratitude. I feel exceedingly grateful to my honored friend, the president, for affording me an opportunity of meeting with so many highly intelligent and influential people as I see before me. I feel grateful also for the distinguished honor conferred upon me by having been invited by him to a seat by his side in your distinguished presence. I know not why ‘tis so, I know not why I am humbled, when I reflect on what I have been, and what I now am. When I think of the situation I once filled, and of the one I now fill, I can scarcely believe my own identity. I was not a slave to intemperance, but a slave to my fellow-men. From deprivation of the ordinary facilities of addressing bodies like the present, you will naturally infer, that I feel embarrassment in my present situation, as one entirely beyond anything I ever expected. But seven years ago I was ranked among the beasts and creeping things; to-night I am here held as a man and a brother. I don’t know what to say. That I am a teetotaler is most true. I have been a staunch one for some years. I shall forget for a moment that I ever was a slave. If I can forget it, I think I could move as a man among you. If I can but forget the position in which I once was, I can turn my attention to teetotalism, and shall be able to speak as a man for a few moments.
  2. Mr. President,—Teetotalism has been an interesting subject to me. We have a large class of free people of color in America; that class has, through the influence of intemperance, done much to retard the progress of the anti-slavery movement—that is, they have furnished arguments to the oppressors for oppressing us; they have pointed to the drunkards among the free colored population, and asked us the question, tauntingly—”What better would you be if you were in their situation?” This of course was a great grievance to me. I set my voice against intemperance. I lectured against it, and talked against it, in the street, in the wayside, at the fire-side; wherever I went during the last seven years, my voice has been against intemperance. But notwithstanding my efforts, and those of others, intemperance stalks abroad among the colored people of my country. Still I am pleased to be able to say, that the change in their situation, with regard to intemperance, has been great in the last seven years. Take Philadelphia, for example: there are 1500 colored people there, and there are now not less than 80 Temperance Societies among that class. In the constitution of these societies are incorporated rules to look after their sick, and to bury members that may die. They have been enabled to contribute a sufficient sum to the treasury to take care of their own poor.
  3. But we have had difficulties in struggling out of our drunkenness. No longer ago than 1842, on the 1st day of August—the day, Mr. President, on which the slaves in the West Indies were emancipated. It is common in our country among abolitionists to celebrate that day. Well, a large number of colored people in Philadelphia attempted to celebrate that day by forming themselves into a temperance procession, and walking through the streets, with appropriate banners, and thus to make a temperance impression on their fellow brethren who had not yet joined their ranks. They had also ‘freedom’ inscribed upon their banner. Well, such was the feeling in this slave-holding city, that the display of the banner brought upon these poor colored people an infuriated mob! Their houses were burnt down in different parts of the city, and their churches were burned to the earth, themselves turned out of the city, and the city authorities and police did nothing to prevent it!
  4. We have great difficulty in becoming virtuous men in our country; this feeling, as developed thus, is not felt as much in the New England States. About three years ago it was not common to see a colored person in a temperance meeting in New England even, because it was understood they were unacceptable people. Though rum would degrade them in common with white people, they were excluded by what is called prejudice against color! True, the white and the black could wallow in their degradation in the same mire, but when the white man became sober, he had no idea of the black man coming up by his side, sober. But this state of things has much altered, and a little before my leaving Massachusetts, I received several invitations from white temperance societies to lecture to them upon temperance. And in the last procession in Boston, some 16,000 teetotalers passed on, mingling with them,—you might see the sons and daughters of Ethiopia in common with the whites. The consequence has been, the colored people of New England have gradually advanced out of their degradation. I have great reason to rejoice at the temperance movement.
  5. Temperance in our Country has made rapid advances from time to time. I have heard of the advance of temperance in this country. I have heard also of the interest having decreased very much. The enemies of temperance represent thee good cause to be waning here;—they say that the temperance movement is going down! You may thus hear in all directions those who are desirous to throw—not cold water, but rum and brandy, over the temperance ranks! Well, I am glad to have been in Ireland, and to be able to answer their charges, to the utter chagrin of the enemies of this cause in my own country. If meeting with thousands of beings who are taking the pledge with every sincere expression of delight, then is the temperance movement on the wane. We may answer the objection as a man once answered it in America. He said—”Twas going down—going gloriously down—going down east, down west, down north, down to every point of the compass—going into every family—spreading peace and comfort and gladness over the entire community.” It may be said to be so going down in Ireland. (Great applause.)
  6. I am deeply engaged in the anti-slavery cause. I am deeply engaged in attempting to get my colored brethren out of slavery. I believe, Mr. President, that if we could but make the world sober, we would have no slavery. Mankind has been drunk. I believe that if the slaveholder would be sober for a moment Would consider the sinfulness of his position—hard-hearted as he is, I believe there is humanity enough if we could get him sober—we could get a public opinion sufficiently strong to break the relation of master and slave. All great reforms go together. Whatever tends to elevate, whatever tends to exalt humanity in one portion of the world, tends to exalt it in another part; the same feeling that warms the heart of the philanthropist here, animates that of the lover of humanity in every country.
  7. I have some experience in this matter. When first I landed in Dublin, the warmest reception that I received any where, at home or abroad, was in a temperance meeting, where thousands had congregated to receive the pledge from the Rev. Doctor Spratt.
  8. I feel glad to speak to you. All that I wanted was to shew you that I loved the temperance cause; and I love emancipation. DON’T FORGET THE BONDSMAN. I can talk a little better upon that subject than upon temperance. I have a wonderful sight of facts on the question of slavery to throw before the people of Ireland. My words, feeble as they are when spoken at home, will wax stronger in proportion to the distance I go from home, as a lever gains power by its distance from the fulcrum.