Intemperance Viewed in Connection With Slavery

Frederick Douglass

Citation Information:  Frederick Douglass, “Intemperance Viewed in Connection With Slavery: An Address Delivered in Glascow, Scotland, on February 18, 1846.” Glasgow Saturday Post, February 21, 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. 165.

Intemperance Viewed in Connection With Slavery: An Address Delivered in Glascow, Scotland, on February 18, 1846

Glasgow Saturday Post, February 21, 1846.

  1. Mr. Frederick Douglas[s], of Massachusetts, (an escaped slave) now rose, amid loud and long continued cheering, to propose the next sentiment. He said, Mr. President, Ladies and Gentlemen,—I feel proud to stand upon this platform, and with pride regard the reception I have received in standing forward here for the purpose of throwing in my mite towards advancing the temperance cause in Scotland. (Cheers.) The subject announced for me in the programme is the question of intemperance viewed in connexion with slavery. Now, I confess I feel some difficulty in discussing the two subjects, the one in connexion with the other; still, I have a few facts respecting the working of slavery in connexion with intemperance in the United States, which, if they tend to throw light on the subject, it may be of some importance to you.
  2. You must remember that slavery is a poor school for rearing moralists, or reformers of any kind, and it is not less a poor school for rearing reformers than for rearing orators; and you are not, therefore, to expect much at my hands on that score, for I am almost in the same position as Mr. Buffum, although I did not lose my green bag, but so green is it that I am afraid I may appear very green in your eyes during the progress of my remarks. (Laughter.)
  3. One of the first means or measures to which the slaveholder resorts in subjecting the slave to his control, is to destroy his thinking powers. This accomplished—the strong man thus bound—the slaveholder may do what he pleases with his victim. Various modes have been resorted to by the slaveholders to bind this element of character which distinguishes us from the brute creation. One among that number is to give us freely at given times intoxicating drink. On each Saturday night it is quite common in the State of Maryland (the slave state from which I escaped) for masters to give their slaves a considerable quantity of whisky to keep them during the Sabbath in a state of stupidity. At the time when they would be apt to think—at a time when they would be apt to devise means for their freedom—their masters give them of the stupefying draught which paralyzes their intellect, and in this way prevents their seeking emancipation. (Hear, hear.) In the same way at holiday time, the slave masters look upon the slave who rejects the privilege with suspicion and distrust, and those slaves only are looked upon satisfactorily who lie drunk and stupid during the holidays. They do this for the purpose of disgusting the slave with his freedom.
  4. The poor bondman is constantly desiring freedom, he seeks for freedom, for liberty, and his master gives him to understand that there are certain days in the year when he may have liberty. The holidays are days of liberty to the slave, but instead of making them days of pure and undefiled freedom the slaveholder makes them days of disgusting vice, disgusting debauchery, disgusting intemperance, and thus when the slave passes through his holidays, he feels that liberty, after all, is not of so much consequence, he might as well be enslaved to a man as enslaved to whisky; and he gets up from his whisky, takes a long breath, and returns to the work of slavery without having advanced one jot towards freedom. This is the effect of intoxicating drink, and this matter of intemperance is [as] intimately connected with the cause of freedom as [with] the cause of civilization.
  5. That nation no matter how much it boasts of its freedom, no matter how free it may be from monarchical, aristocratical, or autocratical government, while its people drink deep of the inebriating bowl, they are slaves, they cannot be otherwise, for what is it that is free, that is desired to be free about man? Why it’s the mind, the soul, it’s the powers that distinguish him from the brute creation, that makes it desirable for him to be free. (Hear.) This intemperance enslaves—this intemperance paralyses—this intemperance binds with bonds stronger than iron, and makes man the willing subject of its brutal control. (Cheers.)
  6. The coloured population of the United States have had great difficulties to contend with in rising from their degradation—difficulties unknown to the temperance cause in other lands. One of the great arguments of the enemies of the negroes has been his fondness for intoxicating drink, although he learnt this fondness from his master, he is denounced as drunken—as worthless—as degraded—as being morally and religiously incapacitated to fill those stations in life equally with the white man—and in connexion with this part of the subject I wish to state here some facts in regard to the progress of the coloured people in the United States, for I am informed that an individual has recently travelled in this country, who states, in vindication of slavery, that between the negro and white man there is an impassable barrier, that the negroes are incapable of enjoying liberty with the white—and this argument is based on the degradation of the black.
  7. Now, let me tell you what the free blacks of the northern States have had to contend with in becoming sober men. Instead of being encouraged and entreated by the philanthropists of that land to become temperate slaves and virtuous and industrious men, every possible hindrance has been thrown in their way, and by the power of the whites they have been kept back from moral and physical improvement. In confirmation of this statement, I may mention one fact: I mean the case of a mob in 1842 in Philadelphia. The black man, you must be aware, is excluded, in that land of the free and the brave, from the temperance platform—but thank God, I am not so here. (Loud and continued cheering.) You need not clap your hands, I was merely stating a fact. (Laughter and cheers.)—You have merely clapped to no purpose. (Renewed laughter and cheers.) Why, I believe you have nearly clapped me out of my speech. (Great laughter.)
  8. I was proceeding to say then, that the coloured people being separated from the whites—seeing that they were not allowed to come upon the temperance platform with the whites—and seeing at the same time that intemperance degraded the blacks as it did the whites—and as temperance was beneficial to the one, so would it be to the other, resolved to have platforms of their own. (Cheers and laughter.) Accordingly, Mr. Robert Purvis, a wealthy black, Mr. Steven Smith and a number of others, erected halls, employed lecturers to go among their coloured brethren to get them to sign the pledge, and in this way raised a large society. The 1st of August, you know, is the anniversary of the Emancipation of slaves in the West India Islands, and in 1842 on that day the coloured people of Philadelphia felt disposed to make a demonstration on behalf of temperance, as well as to shew their deep gratitude to God and to the philanthropists of this country, for striking the chains from the limbs of 800,000 brethren in the West India Islands, and they formed themselves into a procession. They got their glorious banners, with their heart-inspiring mottoes raised, and they proceeded to walk with rejoicing hearts through the streets of Philadelphia.
  9. Did the white people rejoice that the negroes were coming up from degradation? No; that simple procession raised the spirit of murder in that city, and they had not proceeded more than two streets before they were fallen upon by a ruthless mob—their banners torn down—their houses burned with fire, their temperance halls levelled with the ground, and a number of them, by force of brick-bats, driven out of the city. (Oh! oh! and “Shame.”) This was the condition of the poor free coloured people in that land of the free and home of the brave. (Hear, hear.) The coloured population cannot move through the streets of Philadelphia if they have virtue and liberty on their banners,—if they have virtue, liberty, and sobriety they must be pelted with brick-bats. Let them go through the streets, however, poor, mean, pitiful drunkards, and then the pro-slavery people will smile and say, “Look at that poor fellow, it is very evident there is an impassable barrier between us and thou.” (Great cheering.)
  10. I used to love the crittur. (Laughter.) I used to love drink—That’s a fact. (Renewed laughter.) I found in me all those characteristics leading to drunkenness—and it would be an interesting experience if I should tell you how I was cured of intemperance, but I will not go into that matter now. One of my principal inducements was the independent and lofty character which I seemed to possess when I got a little drop. (Laughter.) I felt like a president. (Renewed laughter.) By the way, let me tell you of an illustration of my own feelings of a man who had similar feelings under similar circumstances. When he got a drop he felt as if he was the moderator, or judge, or chairman of a society—or as one who had the responsibility of keeping good order. He happened one night to be going home across a field a little top heavy, and he fell near to a pig sty. After laying there for a time he got very cold and he crawled into the sty, and the old occupant being out he laid himself down in her bed, and made himself quite comfortable (laughter) until the return of the old creature with her company of young. A gentleman chancing to pass that way had his ears saluted with the old cry of “order, gentlemen, order”—(laughter)—on which he went into the sty and there he found the old occupant of the sty with all her young, trying to get the fellow out of the bed. (Shouts of laughter.) I also used to feel something like the president of a pig stye. However, I was cured of that. Here Mr. Douglas[s] related an amusing anecdote about a colony of rats from which he drew a very appropriate moral bearing on the question of moderation, and drunkenness, and after a few further remarks concluded an able address amid loud and protracted cheering.