Slavery and America’s Bastard Republicanism

Frederick Douglass

Citation Information:  Frederick Douglass, “Slavery and America’s Bastard Republicanism: An Address Delivered in Limerick, Ireland, on 10 November 1845,” The Frederick Douglass Speeches, 1841-1846.

Limerick Reporter, 11 November 1845.

  1. Mr. Douglas(s) (for that is his name) proceeded to address them. He said slavery was a question in which every human being ought to feel a deep interest. It aimed at, and accomplished, the destruction of all the rights of men. It was an enemy of the entire human family. The principle that enslaved the black would enthrall the white, and the spirit of tyranny that for the last 300 years made the children of Africa its victims, would devote every one whom he now addressed to its cruel altar. It was a strange contradiction that in human character, that in a country that boasts to be the freest in the world, slavery exists in its worst and most aggravated forms—a country that threw off the yoke of colonial bondage for a three-penny tax on tea, proceeding upon the principle that all men were equal, and yet was the propagator of the heinous crime of slavery. It was to slavery, as it existed in the United States, he alluded, and he thought he might be permitted to speak of it, having himself endured its woes, and felt the bloody lash.
  2. He had been met with the objection that slavery existed in Ireland, and that therefore there was no necessity for describing its character as found in another country (hear, hear). His answer was, that if slavery existed here, it ought to be put down, and the generous in the land ought to rise and scatter its fragments to the winds (loud cheers).—But there was nothing like American slavery on the soil on which he now stood. Negro-slavery consisted not in taking away a man’s property, but in making property of him, and in destroying his identity—in treating him as the beasts and creeping things. GOD had given the negro a conscience and a will, but his conscience was no monitor to him, for he had no power to exercise his will—his master decided for him not only what he should eat and what he should drink, what he should wear, when and to whom he should speak, how much he should work, how much and by whom he is to be punished—he not only decided all these things, but what is morally right and wrong. The slave must not even choose his wife, must marry and unmarry at the will of his tyrant, for the slave-holder had no compunction in separating man and wife, and thus putting asunder what GOD had joined together. Could the most inferior person in this country be so treated by the highest? If any man exists in Ireland who would so treat another, may the combined execrations of humanity fall upon him, and may he be excluded from the pale of human sympathy!
  3. There was a feeling in some quarters that the descriptions given in this country of negro-slavery were all exaggerations. He had seen a sketch by a geologist, Doctor or Professor Lyell, who had gone from England on a tour to America, and returned from it apparently under the impression that the negro’s lot was not an unenviable one. If this individual be only as loose in his reasoning, and as fallacious in his premises in geological matters, his theories were of little value. It was but eleven days’ sail to America, and there was, therefore a great intercourse between the two counties. Tourists were constantly going over. Professor Lyell was a geologist, and when he visited the south where he saw slavery, but he was taken by the hand by the slave-holding geologists—he walked with their daughters, dined at their tables; in fact, lived with them. It was from these he received all his impressions of slavery, and was it (not) to be presumed that the wolf would say that the lamb loved to be eaten up by him (laugher, and cheers). Thus, even geologists were led astray. He said that slaves laughed and sung, and were, therefore, happy. This man was not he geologist for him. But he would not attack his geology, but his slaveology. And it was important that a slave who struck off his fetters should come forth and proclaim to the world what he experienced in his own person.
  4. He would, in the first place, proceed to show them some of the laws and the implements under which the bondsmen luxuriated.—(There were here loud cries of “hear, hear, hear.” The speaker then said that in America they were not accustomed to much applause at public meetings, and without any wish to alter the customs of this country, or introduce American customs, he begged respectfully to say that he had no desire for any demonstrations of applause, and, considering the sacred character of the building in which they were assembled, he would prefer being allowed to proceed without them, as he was anxious not to give offence, or have it given to those who might have any objection to cheers.) Mr. Douglas(s) then proceeded to read extracts from the laws of the slave holding states, from which it appeared that a slave was liable to be whipped severely, and have his ear cut off for the most trivial offence, such as riding a horse without the written permission of his master. There were now 14 slaveholding states, Florida having been lately added to the union, and Texas was about to be added, which would make 15 slave-holding to 13 free states. Now, he charged the American nation with being emphatically responsible for slavery in the whole of the country. It was not peculiar to the Southern States, for all the states were united under one constitution, and that constitution protected and supported slavery.—for instance there was no one spot in all America upon which he could stand free.
  5. Though God had said, “thou shalt not deliver up the slave to his master,” the constitution of the United States said differently. He was an outlaw in America, and he could be hunted back again to his master, if identified. Yet their liberty caps were striking the clouds (there were here loud cries of “hear, hear,” when the speaker again said that these demonstrations rather disconcerted than aided him. He proceeded)—The Americans were most anxious to have it understood, that all the country was not implicated in slavery, and accordingly when one of them came to this country he was sure to say that he was from a free state; but unless he came as an out-and-out abolitionist he came stained with robbery and human blood—a participator in the law of the land, that the slave must be a slave or die. To carry out this law the judges and the other officers of the state solemnly swore every year. Even the battle places could not protect the slave. If he (Mr. Douglas(s)) should go to Bunker’s Hill, and there seizing the monument erected to liberty, and claim the freedom for which his fathers shed their blood (for it was a negro who shed the first blood, and fired the first gun on that battle field), yet there would be no liberty for him there. Even when that monument was dedicated, and Daniel Webster, the great American orator, was eloquent upon human liberty, boasting of the deeds achieved by their ancestors, and their throwing off the British yoke, John Tyler, the man-slaver, was there—John Tyler who had even sold his own children as slaves, he was present with a slave holding an umbrella over his head (hear, hear).
  6. Yes; the Americans, as a nation, were guilty of the foul crime of slavery, whatever might be their hypocritical vaunts of freedom. It was not his wish to condemn republicanism, but the slavery that was identified with it; but it was not a true democracy, but a bastard republicanism that enslaved one-sixth of the population.—They were free booters who wished to be free to plunder every one within their reach—stretching their long, bony fingers into Mexico, and appropriating her territory to themselves in order to make it a hot bed of negro slavery. Mexico with all her barbarism and darkness had wiped away the stain of slavery from her dominions, and now the enlightened, Christian United States had stained again what was washed. He wanted them to know, and if there was a reporter present they would know that a slave had stood up in Limerick and ridiculed their democracy and their liberty.
  7. One of the reasons why he was there to-night was that he was not to be a fugitive from a nation of men-stealers. He did not say there were not so many good men in America, but the majority of the country and the legislature were stained with blood. About 7 years ago he escaped from his master Thomas Auld, in Maryland, into Massachusetts, the freest of the free states. He live there till within the last 3 months, and his family were there still. He escaped on the 3d of December (September), 1838, and came to New Bedford. He got his livelihood by rolling oil casks, and the labour was sweet to him, for it was voluntary, and he received his own earnings which were filched from him before by his master.
  8. About 3 years after his escape some gentlemen hearing of his addressing meetings of the black population on the subject of slavery induced him to go about lecturing through that state, concealing his name and the place from which he escaped, for had these been made known, some Judas or lago would have betrayed him. Having thus lectured for 4 years a number of persons began to doubt if he ever were a slave. He did not answer the Jim Crow description which was given of negroes at New York, and in theatres in this country. He was sorry to find that one of these apes of the negro had been recently encouraged in Limerick, but the reptile was only supported by those of his own kind. The people of the free state of Massachusetts thought from the description they had seen given of negroes, and from the fact of his having an education, the conclusion was come to by many—that he was not a slave. This led him to publish a narrative of his life, in which he detailed the crimes of the slaveholders, and mentioned their names. That settled the question, but it endangered his safety. There were 6500 copies of the work sold from the time of its publication May last till the first of August.
  9. Not deeming it safe to remain in America, he embarked at Boston, on the 16th of August, in the Cambria, for this country; and he could not illustrate slavery better than by stating what took place on board the ship. The slaveholders got up a regular mob, and threatened to throw him over board. They first manifested their feeling when they found he took a cabin passage, and insisted that he should go to the steerage, for it is the law of the skin aristocracy at the other side of the waters, that a negro should not go in the cabin with whites. He had therefore, to change to the steerage, and he was content with it particularly when he reflected that every wave brought him further from the bloody and persecuting prejudice that drove him out of his country. A gentleman asked him where he was going, and he soon found out that he was a fugitive slave; considerable interest was excited on board, and there was a wish among the Scotch, English, and Irish passengers that he should address them and give a narrative of his case. He well knew that he could not do so without the permission of the Captain, and he accordingly declined. Some gentlemen however made interest with Captain Judkins, who gave the permission when they got in sight of Ireland. He little thought that he had American democrats on board.—The meeting was announced on the saloon or quarter deck, among the rest the slaveholders made their appearance and would not allow him to speak; but the Hudson family being on board, and being American abolitionists, they sung one of their beautiful songs, and drowned the uproar. At the conclusion of it the Captain took advantage of the silence, and introducing him begged them to hear what he had to say. He had not uttered an entire sentence when one of the slaveholders said “that is a lie.” When he got into the middle of another sentence, another slaveholder said “that is a lie” in true American fashion. Well said he (Mr. Douglas(s)) if every thing he had stated upon his authority was a lie, he would read for them what they would admit was not a lie.
  10. He then took up a book and quoted from it the laws of the slaveholding states. A spark of fire thrown into a magazine could not have produced a greater explosion.__ They could not bear to have the iniquities of slavery exposed, and they reared up against him like demons. One said, shaking his fist at him (Mr. D.) he wished he had him at Cuba. Another little creature, that he wished he had him at New Orleans; and a third, if he had him at Savannah how he would “use him up;” he would be one of the number to throw him overboard. How very courageous, one of the indefinite number to throw one man overboard (laughter).
  11. There happened to be an Irishman present from Dublin whose name was Gough; he was so tall that he (Mr. Douglas(s)) had to look up to him. It was remarkable, that not a man of the slaveholders wished to have him (Mr. Douglas(s)) in Ireland, for they knew that he would get fair play there (hear, and cheers), and when the fellow threatened to throw him overboard, he was told by the Irishman that two might play at that game (enthusiastic cheering). He (Mr. Douglas(s)) then called for three cheers for old Ireland. Mr. Gough had stood up with such a calm dignity, over-looking these little creatures, that he awed them into silence. Afterwards, however, they cursed and swore, and raved, as only slaveholders can. The Captain called them to order, and told them their conduct was derogatory to the character of gentlemen, of Christians, and of men. He had, at the request of a number of the passengers, permitted Mr. Douglas(s) to address them; and if there were any there who did not wish to hear him, let them go to another part of the ship. The Captain then said, “Douglas(s), pitch into them like bricks” (loud laughter). He did his best to comply with the Captain’s order, when a New Orleans man ran at him. The Captain, who was a powerful man, pushed the little fellow aside, when he put his hand into his breast, and he (Mr. Douglas(s) thought he was now about to draw a bowie knife to stab the Captain, but behold he showed him his card, and told him he would meet him in Liverpool. “Very well,” said the Captain, “I will meet you there,” a reply which caused the slaveholder to slink away in silence, and he afterwards seemed to have totally forgotten the challenge (hear, and laughter).
  12. The Captain then desire the mate to bring irons to put these gentlemen into who were so fond of putting others in irons. This silenced them. And these were the friends of free speech! So much did they hate discussion on the subject of slavery, that if any man stood up on that assembly and defended it against him (Mr. D), they would be anything but obliged to him. It was upon this feeling of slaveholders that he wished to operate, and his words would be borne on the wings of the press beyond the Atlantic wave. They would fly up and down through the regions of the north—they would cross the line of the slave-holding south—they would reverberate through the valley of the Mississippi, and there was no part of the land into which they would not penetrate.
  13. Mr. Douglas(s) then proceeded to exhibit some of the implements used in torturing the slaves, among which was an iron collar taken from the neck of a young woman who had escaped from Mobile. It had so worn into her neck that her blood and flesh were found on it (sensation). After showing the fetters used in chaining the feet of two slaves together, he exhibited a par of hand-cuffs taken from a fugitive slave who escaped from Maryland into Pennsylvania. He knew the man well. He was being brought in custody to his master by a constable—he saw a sharp rock before him, and with one might effort he raised his hands, and, striking the hand-cuffs against the stone, broke them and at the same time his left wrist (sensation). He fled and was overtaken but with the unbroken hand he drew a dirk from his breast, and cut down his pursuer (cries of “bravo”). He escaped to Canada where alone on the American Continent he could be safe, and there he enjoyed that liberty under a monarchical government which he looked for in vain in his won land under a boasted democracy.
  14. So true was it that the slave must leave his native soil to be free. In the language of Curran, their own orator—”I speak in the spirit of the British law which makes liberty commensurate with, and inseparable from British soil; which proclaims even to the stranger and sojourner, the moment he sets his foot on British earth, that the ground upon which he treads is holy, and consecrated by the genius of universal emancipation. No matter in what language his doom may have been pronounced;—no matter in what complexion incompatible with freedom, an Indian or an African sun may have been cloven down—no matter with what solemnities he may have been devoted upon the altar of slavery; the first moment he touches the sacred soil of Britain, the alter and the God sink together in the dust; his soul walks abroad in her own majesty—his body swells beyond the measure of his chains, that burst from around him, and he stands redeemed, regenerated and is enthralled by the irresistible genius of universal emancipation” (applause).
  15. If an American ever came among them speaking of the liberty of his country, let them make his cheek crimson by telling him that there is not a single spot in all his land where the sable man can stand free. Mr. Douglas(s) then went on to exhibit a horrid whip which was made of cow hide, and whose lashes were as hard as horn. They were clotted with blood when he first got them. He saw his master tie up a young woman eighteen years of age, and beat her with that identical whip until the blood ran down her back.—And the wretch accompanied the whipping with a quotation from Scripture, “He that knew his master’s will and did it not shall receive many strips” (cries of “horrible”). This man was Thomas Auld, of St. Michael(s). he would proceed further in his exposure of slavery, but it was now too late, being half-past nine o’clock, and he would therefore reserve what he had to say till Wednesday evening, when he would give another lecture of the series he intended to deliver.