The Skin Aristocracy in America

Frederick Douglass

Citation Information:  Frederick Douglass, “The Skin Aristocracy in America: An Address Delivered in Coventry, England, February 2, 1847.” Coventry Herald and Observer, 5 February 1847. Blassingame, John (et al, eds.). The Frederick Douglass Papers: Series One–Speeches, Debates, and Interviews. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979. Vol. II, p. 3.

The Skin Aristocracy in America: An Address Delivered in Coventry, England, February 2, 1847

Coventry Herald and Observer, 5 February 1847.

  1. Mr. DOUGLASS commenced by observing that the sight of that meeting, with its “sea of upturned faces,” reanimated him with the hope that the day was not far distant when there would not be a slave in all the world. As that meeting might not exactly understand the nature of slavery, he would give a synopsis of the subject.
  2. Slavery, as practiced in the slave-holding States of America, was the claim of one man to hold property in the person of another, so that if the slave took his own earnings it was stealing; he could not look upon himself as his own, but was treated, used, and looked upon as a “chattel personal,” herded with the beasts of the field, and, like them, submitted to be punished without restraint, and bought and sold in the public market. That was the relation of the master to the slave in America, and cruelty was inseparable from such a system, for without it such a relation could not exist.
  3. What was it that impelled the white man to labour, to till the fields, to plough, and sow, and reap? Not, surely, the love of labour; no, it was the hope of reward. The slave had no such hope; he could never look for reward, therefore he must be flogged to his work. He knew it had been said that it was not the interest of masters to ill-treat their slaves, any more than it was the interest of a man who kept horses to ill-treat them. But were there not numberless instances where horses were ill-fed and cruelly treated, sometimes to the death? And even so it was with slaves. But the human being—the slave—was out of his place as a beast of burden. Hence it required even harsher treatment to keep him in that condition. You must bore out his intellectual eye—blind him to his humanity—for the slaveowner well knows that while there is a spark of the divinity in his soul, he cannot reckon upon keeping him a slave, and accordingly it must be blotted out.
  4. But it was not necessary, he should hope, to prove to them that Slavery was cruel. He knew that the mere outrage, upon abstract justice, was enough to excite the deepest hatred against the system in the hearts of a British audience. His object was to show the degree of unnatural hatred which was felt by Republican and Christian America against the coloured man.
  5. There were in that country 500,000 nominally free coloured people, doomed to all ignoble employments. Every attempt was made to keep them out of respectable society, and confine them to a low grade of life, that they might feel themselves a degraded class. A black man is an American’s prejudice. In the war with England, America had induced her slaves to fight for her, upon the promise of granting them their independence. The negroes fought nobly, and the victory at [New] Orleans was the result. But when the contest was over, the musket was taken from their shoulders, the whip applied to their backs, and they were driven back to the fields to slavery. No matter how great in respect to his wealth or intelligence a negro might be, in that country he was denied all station, all respect, all influence. There was a skin aristocracy in America; no, not exactly the skin, it was the colour of the skin, that was the mark of distinction, or the brand of degradation. To such an extent was this feeling carried, that if a white man, if, for instance, his honoured friend the Chairman, were to walk with him through some of the streets in the cities of that country, as he had walked with him here, he would run the risk of being hooted and mobbed.
  6. He would relate a circumstance which had happened to himself, and which would illustrate this feeling. He was travelling on one occasion in the night, when we are all of one colour. Some passengers were taken up upon the road. It being dark, they did not see his colour. There was conversation, he joined in it, his opinions were received with the utmost deference. It was sir this, and sir the other. He discussed the question of the Corn Laws, then agitating in England, and so pleased was he with the spirit and friendliness which animated the party, that he began to hope darkness would take the place of day; but the dreaded morning light was coming, and when the glorious sun burst in its magnificence over the mountain tops in the East, lo, there was a peeping under the brim of his hat, and the friend who sat next [to] him suddenly cried out, “he’s a nigger.” The friendly correspondence stopped from that moment. He was looked at askance with glances of disgust, which seemed to accuse and blame him for not having proclaimed himself a negro. Even in the Church-yard there was a place put apart for the bones of the coloured man.
  7. But the hatred of the American was especially roused against the intellectual coloured man. When he is degraded, they can bear with him; he is in the condition which they think natural to him; but if he is intelligent and moral, then there is a contradiction to their theory. If a negro were to rival a Webster in eloquence, a Wesley in piety, a Brougham in learning, or a Sir Robert Peel in political knowledge, an American would not tolerate him. The speaker here gave some anecdotes illustrative of the contempt which is felt for the negro, and also in answer to the assertion which had been made that the coloured man is devoid of natural affection.
  8. It was impossible to find a people more destitute of moral feeling than those of America. For sixty years they had boastingly proclaimed in their professed love of freedom a notorious lie. If you want to know an American, find out the opposite of all his professions. When he talks of freedom, remember his three millions of slaves. Recollect when he talks of religion, that his Church is built on skulls, and that his humanity is bespoke by the fetters and the groans of his victims. What but abuse and detraction is the freedom of his press? Remember that in that boasted land of freedom, the Post-Office is not secure. In Charleston, South Carolina, they suspected some correspondence, and having seized and rifled the mail bags, they strewed the contents about the streets. Look at the way in which the right of petition had been treated there. Half a million of signatures flung with the utmost contempt in the faces of the petitioners. If such a thing had occurred in England, it would have excited an earthquake of agitation. Mr. Douglass here alluded to the sum of money which his friends in this country had sent over to America to purchase his freedom.
  9. The reason why he spoke in such unmeasured terms of the Americans was, he wanted the people of this country to form a right estimate of them. It might be said, why provoke them? His object was to provoke them. It was in the moral world as in the physical. There were cases which required irritation. Now the American conscience needed blistering. (Laughter.) Talk of an American, only see him, how he prides himself upon being the smartest man in all creation. His first question is, “now what do you think of me?” his next, “what do you think of my country?” They would now know what answer to return to these questions.
  10. The speaker then went on to describe a visit he had made the day before to the birth-place of England’s greatest poet. There he was struck by seeing on the walls the names of Americans from every State of the Union. These persons had been going through the country, representing the subject of slavery in anything but its true light. He found that not a single person who had been brought in contact with these travellers, but had been infected by them with false notions on slavery. It was, therefore, but just, that one slave breaking loose from his fetters, should come to disabuse the minds of the people of England, and set them right upon this subject.
  11. There were, it was true, exceptions to the statements he had made, and he rejoiced that a great change had come over a portion of the public mind of New England within the last few years. Once he was travelling in that district; he stepped into a Railway car at Lynn, and had not been there long, when a little white man also got in and ordered him to withdraw. He showed him his ticket; it was of no avail. The man still continued to demand that he (Mr. Douglass) should take himself off. He asked this person the reason why he made such a request, and he replied, “Why, you know you are a negro.” “I denied it,” said Mr. Douglass, “for you know,” he continued, “I am but half a negro; betwixt and between, as they say. ” By the way, on one occasion when I was relating this anecdote, an Irishman who sat beneath me, said to his comrade near him, “Och, is that little man only half a negro: then what would a whole one be? ” —(Laughter.)—”Well, my white fellow-passenger left me to get help, in order to turn me out; but determining not to go with any will of my own, I placed myself so as to cause them some trouble to remove me. ” The speaker then described how he was torn from the carriage, and thrown out by the road side amidst the taunting cheers of the people, who told him to remember that was what he would get for presuming to sit among white people. That was four years ago; but so great had been the change in Lynn, where this had occurred, that he could now go into that town and be greeted with the utmost kindness and respect by the very men who had formerly been guilty of that outrage. A similar change had also come over the religious community of Lynn; they had become ashamed of the unchristian distinctions which had separated the coloured man from the white man at their communion table, and all alike now partook of the holy sacrament.
  12. At this part of the address, the Hall was so excessively crowded, as to cause considerable inconvenience to those who were sitting in the back seats, and there was a short pause in consequence of the noise arising from this circumstance. After which, at the request of the Chairman, Mr. Douglass gave an outline of his own history, which, together with the eloquent remarks uttered towards the conclusion of his address, our space will not permit us to report. In allusion to the object of his visit to this country he observed, that he wanted Englishmen to ask themselves what they felt upon this question, and if they had made up their minds to assist the slaves. He asked them to demand the abolition of slavery in America. Let the protest go forth on the wings of the press; for the voice of England would be potential on this subject.
  13. The speaker then appealed to the ladies of Coventry in behalf of the Anti-Slavery Bazaar at Boston, which was established for the sale of articles wrought in needle-work, the proceeds being devoted to the printing and gratuitous circulation of tracts and other publications on the subject of slavery. Besides the pecuniary value of the articles contributed, there was a moral worth in the influence upon the hearts of those who made them. Many of the large towns of England had engaged to send boxes of fancy work to the Bazaar at Boston, and he hoped Coventry would do the same.
  14. The speaker, after again describing the nature of the claim which the subject had upon the English people, concluded his address amidst the cheers of the assembly, by requesting the names of those ladies who might feel disposed to aid in the practical furtherance of the object, by receiving the contributions of the inhabitants of Coventry.