Slavery As It Now Exists in the United States

Frederick Douglass

Citation Information:  Frederick Douglass, “Slavery As It Now Exists in the United States: An Address Delivered in Bristol, England on August 25, 1846.” Bristol Mercury and Western Counties Advertiser, August 29, 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. 341.

Slavery As It Now Exists in the United States: An Address Delivered in Bristol, England on August 25, 1846

Bristol Mercury and Western Counties Advertiser, August 29, 1846.

  1. Mr. Frederick Douglass said—He felt sincerely grateful for the opportunity afforded him of speaking to them of the wrongs of three millions of his coloured fellow-countrymen in the United States. He had nothing to commend him to their consideration in the way of learning. Slavery, they must have already perceived, was a poor school for rearing moral and religious teachers, and hence if he, having been the subject of slavery, should betray, in the course of the few remarks he had to make to them, a want of that refinement found only among those who had superior advantages, they would of course set it down to the right cause, and not add anything to the already heavy weights that crushed down the slaves of the United States to the level of the brute creation (hear, hear).
  2. They were doubtless aware that in the United States there were a certain class of philosophers who denied to the coloured race equal humanity with the whites, and who spoke of them as being the connecting-link between humanity and the brute creation. Of course he did not believe their philosophy (laughter and applause). The subject of American slavery was now beginning to attract considerable attention both in this and other countries. During the last twelve months a series of public meetings had been held in this kingdom, and there was at the present time much light on the subject: and wherever intelligence of the question had gone he was happy to say that a corresponding desire to do something to promote it had been found.
  3. He was not there to trouble them with any horrible details of his own experience in slavery—those would be found in the narrative of his life—but he was there to speak generally upon the question of slavery as it now existed in the United States. There were in that country three millions of slaves, and their condition physically, morally, and intellectually was such as to excite in every true man the deepest feelings of sympathy for the slave and indignation against the master. He knew of no country in which slavery had existed or did now exist, where it assumed a more horrible form than in the United States of America (hear). Not so much in the lashing, branding, cathauling, hunting, imprisoning—as in the moral condition of the slaves. In the first place he was denied all intellectual improvement. It was made by the laws punishable with death, for a second offence, to teach a slave his letters. In the next place, there was, as they had been told, an utter abolition of the institution of marriage. A slave was not protected in that relation. He might be separated from his partner at any time at the will or caprice of his master. His own wishes or will were never consulted—he lived only for his master’s interest, and his master might do whatever he liked with him.
  4. He was the more anxious to bring fairly before them the horrors of slavery generally in the United States, because he found a disposition here among a certain class of writers and others to regard American slavery with some degree of indifference (hear, hear), on account of the political disadvantages under which some portion of the subjects of this country were said to labour. And he had heard individuals here say, “Why talk to us of American slavery—why speak to us of slavery 3000 miles off? We have slavery in England!” Now, he thought that this application of the term “slavery” had the effect of removing in some measure the horror with which the system had hitherto been contemplated (hear, hear). He wished, therefore, to show that slavery in the United States was a very different thing from anything with which, in this country its name had been connected. He believed that those who used the term in relation to any institutions in England, did so in ignorance, and without at all knowing the horrible character of slavery in the United States. He took up a paper the other day in which the writer, commenting on the recent formation in this country of an Anti-Slavery League, having for its object the overthrow of slavery throughout the world, spoke of “political slavery in England.” He spoke of slavery in the army, slavery in the navy, and, looking upon the labouring population, he contemplated them as slaves. He then asked, “Why does not England set the example by doing away with these forms of slavery at home, before it called upon the United States to do so?”
  5. He (Mr. Douglass) had not one word to say in defence of any form of oppression on earth—not a sentence in extenuation of the conduct of any tyrant on earth. His wish, his prayer was, that tyranny and oppression of every kind might have an end (cheers). Yet was he there boldly to proclaim that there was no more similarity between slavery, as existing in the United States, and any institution in this country, than there was between light and darkness. Only look at the condition of the slave: stripped of every right—denied every privilege, he had not even the privilege of saying “myself”—his head, his eyes, his hands, his heart, his bones, his sinews, his soul, his immortal spirit, were all the property of another. He might not decide any question for himself—any question relating to his own actions. The master—the man who claimed property in his person—assumed the right to decide all things for him—what he should eat, how he should eat, what he should drink; to whom he should speak, what he should speak; for whom he should work and under what circumstances; when he should marry, to whom he should marry, and how long the marriage covenant should continue, for they claimed the power of separating those who considered themselves joined together before God (hear). They took upon themselves to determine for the slave what was right and what was wrong, and they had a very different code of morals from that contained in the decalogue.
  6. If a slave used his hands to resist the violence of his master, he was a rebel, who might be knocked down and even killed. If he took his own earnings, he stole, and might be whipped as a thief. If he asserted his right to his own person, he committed the highest crime, and might suffer death. If he loved his wife, and chose not to be separated from her at the will of his master, he was a traitor and an outlaw. The slave had no interest in himself—he had no right to himself—he was a mere thing to be bought and sold at the will of his master—he could have no more information than was compatible with the will of his master.
  7. God had given him an intellect, but he might not improve it. God had given him a soul, but he might not seek its salvation in the way his conscience and his moral perceptions might suggest. God had given him a body, and certain powers to provide for it, yet he might be sold and maltreated, and he had no redress. He was a mere thing—a human brute, dragged down from the condition of a man and ranked with the brute creation. Were there any such in this country? No—not one (hear). They had their rags and their poverty, their hard toiling for a subsistence, as also they had in the northern states of America, but they had not slavery (cheers). No man could assert over another the right of property—he was free to act—free to go and free to come; but the slave was bound in unending chains—he could not improve, progress was annihilated with him.
  8. It had been said by one who had written most intellectually as to what happiness consisted in, that progress was the great cause and mainspring of happiness in the human family—the improvement and expansion of our faculties. In the United States there were three millions of human beings who were denied the right to improve themselves; the more like brutes they could be made, the more beastly in their habits they could be made, the better were the wishes of the master accomplished—for his desire was to break up as far as possible all likeness to mankind on the part of the slave. For this purpose they divided families; for this purpose they took the infant from the mother before it had the power of knowing her; for this purpose they made it penal for a slave to be taught his letters, penal to ward off the blow aimed at him by the white man. They made it punishable with death for a woman to protect herself from the violence of her master. In that country a slave woman was left utterly unprotected—she had no defence—the slaveowner could do what he pleased, and if a woman tried to defend her person from the brutal outrage of an unfeeling master, she might be struck to the earth and killed on the spot.
  9. These were hard sayings, and few perhaps might be ready to believe those things to be true. Their incredulity was creditable to them as Englishmen and as Christians. Such atrocities were abhorrent to their feelings as men; so abominable in their view as Christians, that they could not bring themselves to believe such statements. The Americans, they would say, were men. Yes, they were men, but bad men, men corrupted through a long series of years, accustomed to such brutal outrages on the black population, that they would commit any atrocity on the persons of the slaves without remorse. But they in England would not believe these things, because the Americans were a nation of professing Christians.
  10. In the professing Christianity of the United States was to be found the cause of the continuance of slavery. The clergy and the church in the United States were engaged in sending the gospel to the heathen; they contributed to send missionaries abroad, and were loud and long in their denunciation of the Roman Catholics because they said that church did not encourage the reading of the Bible by the laity, and yet the time had not come when a single church in the United States had made a single movement towards giving a single Bible to a slave (hear).
  11. Yes, they were a nation of professors. No other nation on the earth was so loud in its professions as the American people: their political professions were unbounded. They had heard of America, 3000 miles off, as the land of the free and the home of the brave; the asylum where the oppressed of all nations on the face of the globe could find refuge. Loud and long were their harangues on the 4th of July, the anniversary of their independence. Their declaration put forth that all men were born free, and were equally entitled to certain inalienable rights—to life and liberty in the pursuit of happiness; that all just governments derived their right to govern from the people—and yet, under the very eaves-droppings of their political institutions—under the very eaves-droppings of their chapels, were heard the clank of the fetters and the rattling of the chains which bound their miserable slaves together, to be driven by the lash of their driver on board the ships for New Orleans, there to be sold in the market like brutes (cheers). Yes, they were a nation of professors, and if any one wished to find what their true character was, let him find what just the opposite of their professions was, and he would have it duly declared.
  12. Yes, they were a nation of Christian professors! Their ministers of region, on each returning sabbath, greeted the presence of the Almighty with a lie on their lips. Their first salutation was, “We thank thee, O Lord, that we live in a land of civil and religious liberty.” A land of civil and religious liberty, where three millions of people were deprived by stern enactment of the right to read the word of God! A land of civil and religious liberty, where three millions of people were denied the right of marriage! A land of civil and religious liberty, where to train up the child in the way he should go was punishable with death! A land of civil and religious liberty, where three millions were in chains! A land of civil and religious liberty, where to keep a sabbath school exposed the individual to imprisonment, chains, and death! (Loud cheers.) A land of civil and religious liberty, where the Bible Society dared not circulate a single Bible among three millions of people’ A land of civil and religious liberty, where to act on the principle of the gospel which they professed, and to do to others as they would be done by, was to incur the penalty of death! Was that a land of civil and religious liberty? And yet their ministers of religion cried amen to the prayer, and professed that America was the freest nation on the globe. Oh, yes, they did profess well.
  13. There were at the present time some 50 or 60 of those ministers in this country, and if his friend Mr. Garrison had no other reason for visiting England than to counteract the machinations of those men and resist their evil influence upon society, that reason alone would be an abundant one. The American churches were the main upholders of slavery. He did not mean to condemn the organisation of these churches, although their enemies would have the people believe that the abolitionists were infidels, atheists, and everything that was bad; and they made out, too, a very plausible story. They said “the abolitionists oppose us, the ministers of the most high God—they are opposed to the churches;” but they took good care to conceal the reason why they opposed them (hear, hear). They were opposed to the churches, but it was upon the principle upon which the prophet Isaiah was opposed to a false church in his days—he found her full of blood: there were solemn fasts and professions, but the church was full of blood, and the prophet opposed it. So, in the United States, they found bishops, and ministers, and members of churches dealing in slaves and supported by the traffic in slaves; and the abolitionists opposed the churches because they did not believe that the religion of Jesus Christ needed for its support a traffic in human flesh and blood (cheers).
  14. He regretted that it was so, and he had too much shrunk from attacking the church in America, more than he ought to have done. He begged pardon of his brethren in bonds for that shrinking from his duty. He would never shrink from it again (cheers). He meant, with God’s aid, to lift up his voice—feeble though it was—against that church and against the ministers of that church, whoever they might be. He was bound to do that; he could not do otherwise without sacrificing the duty he had undertaken.
  15. The American churches had not taken a negative position in regard to the great question of slavery. Their sin was not like that of the priest and the levite, a sin of omission only, although that would have exposed them to condemnation. They had openly and boldly come forward in support of slavery and slaveholding. The ministers of that church, when the politicians were defeated by the abolitionists in the arguments they advanced, sacrilegiously took up the Bible of truth, and quoted the word of the living God as an argument in favour of slavery—a system of wholesale concubinage, wholesale plunder, and wholesale murder— that system which, to use the language of John Wesley, was in itself the concentration of every abomination, was strenuously upheld and boldly defended by learned divines, reverend doctors, and whole presbyteries and synods in the United States. Such was the state of the case. The simple fact that, under the very eaves-droppings of the pulpits might be found the whip, the chains, the thumb-screws, and all the accursed paraphernalia of slavery—that all the instruments of bondage and oppression were to be met with in the very presence of the altar, unrebuked by the American churches, was enough to show the unchristian character of those churches.
  16. What they (the abolitionists) wanted, was to create in England such a horror of slavery and of a slave-holding religion, as that the members of Christian churches in England might be led to disclaim any denominational fellowship with the churches of the United States (hear). And why should this not be done—could any one give a reason? Who wanted to hold fellowship with a man-stealer? (hear, hear) and was not a slaveholder a man-stealer? But the churches wanted to turn the tables on him (Douglass) and said he was a man-stealer. How did the meeting think they made out their case? They said that he had stolen himself from his master (a laugh); that the government of the United States had solemnly guaranteed to his master a right of property in his body, and that, in the face of that solemn obligation—in the face of that solemn enactment of the sovereign people of the United States—he had run off with himself (applause and laughter). And they were calling upon him to come back, and telling him that his master was terribly enraged with him, and considered that no punishment would be too bad for him because he had committed the awful theft of stealing his own body, and his own hands, and of appropriating them to himself, an individual in England.
  17. Those slaveholders in America had so nice a sense of justice, that they could detect theft anywhere, except in the right place (laughter and cheers). They called him, then, a thief, and he was endeavouring to turn the joke upon them, and to prove that instead of upon him the charge fastened upon them.
  18. And he wanted the Christian people of England to exclude from Christian communion with them all who were slaveholders, all who participated in the inhuman traffic, and all who apologised for slavery. And why not? Were they to admit into communion with them the man who had deprived another of his right? Would they admit a sheep-stealer, or one who apologised for sheep-stealing? Would they not be afraid, as O’Connell once said, that he would put his theory into practice. Such a one called on Mr. O’Connell once. “Are you a slaveowner?” said O’Connell; “No, sir,” replied his visitor from the Northern States, “but I will discuss the question with you.” “Discuss the question!” said O’Connell, “would I discuss the propriety of picking pockets with a man? no, sir, I should show him the door, lest he put his theory into practice” (cheers).
  19. So he (Mr. D.) would say to them when any one wanted to discuss the propriety of slavery. Clearly they would not admit a sheep-stealer to their fellowship—why, then, should they be more gracious or more complaisant to a man-stealer? He was aware that there were in England a set of very feeling people who felt very much for the slaveholder. They pleaded for him that he had been brought up a slaveholder—that his early habits were slaveholding—that all his property was vested in slaves—and that, relying on the fruits of their labour, he had been brought up in such a delicate manner that he was unfitted for any kind of business (hear). This kind of sympathy they had to contend with in the United States; but it was sympathy without justice—a sort of wrong-sided sympathy—a sympathy for the man who knocked you down and trampled upon you; but none at all with the man who was knocked down and trampled upon (cheers).
  20. In all their considerations of the question—in all their communications with America upon it, they should always remember the slaves. It was a wise saying of the apostle, “Remember them in bonds as bound with you.” The fault was that many sympathised wit the slaveholders while they thought nothing of the long series of years during which the poor slaves had been deprived of their own property—and not only of the right to their own property, but of the right to their own bodies, hands, arms, and intellect (cheers). Let them henceforth treat the slaveholder as a man-stealer, and refuse communion with him.
  21. Some sinners they might admit to their churches, in the hope of inducing in them a conviction of their sin; but the slaveholder was a peculiar kind of sinner. He was not like the publican who smote his breast and cried to God for mercy; but he was a proud, obdurate, hardened, daring sinner—a sinner who gloried in his sin, and who was prepared to hold up his head anywhere in the sight of God and man and declare that he was a slaveholder. The abolitionists wanted to humble him—they knew that the only chance of saving him from himself was to humble him, and they believed that the best way of doing it would be to exclude him from the communion of the church—to set the brand of Cain upon him and mark him out as a vagabond. And was he not a vagabond—when he would, without remorse, steal yon bright-eyed boy (pointing to a child among the audience), tear him from his mother’s arms, deny him the right to cultivate his intellect, doom him to slavery and ignorance, and force him to drag his chains and fetters under the degrading torture of the lash? (Loud cheers.) If there was such a man, ought he not to be branded with the mark of crime? ought he not to be marked as a villain, a vagabond? And such was every slaveholder.
  22. The slaveholder had no wish to be confined to black men, he would steal white men as readily as a man who stole a black horse would not scruple to steal a white horse. The slave had all the sensibilities of a white man. He felt the lash on his back as keenly—he felt as strongly as the white man the curse of slavery—and the only reason why he did not forcibly emancipate himself was because he saw himself surrounded by an overwhelming power—by a community which had resolved that the poor slave must either remain a slave or die (hear)—that the moment he attempted to become a freeman the whole nation should set upon him and kill him, or hunt him down and restore him to the bondage of his master.
  23. The speaker then referred to the rapid progress of the abolition cause in the United States, and particularly acknowledged the great advantages which had resulted from the unceasing efforts of Mr. Garrison, and from the formation of ladies’ auxiliaries. As one of the whip-scourged slaves he tendered to them his most grateful acknowledgments. One great means of overthrowing slavery was by diffusing light on the subject; for this purpose funds were required, without which they could neither print books nor circulate them. To supply these funds an annual bazaar was held in Boston. The receipts, which the first year were only 300 dollars, had increased last year to 3000 or 4000 dollars; and if the ladies of England wished to serve the cause, they could best do so by contributing towards this bazaar (cheers). The cause never was in a more hopeful condition than at present; the feeling in favour of “no union with slave states” was spreading through the country, and when that feeling should be universal in the north, slavery must cease.
  24. Let the north but say to the slave states, “Freedom can have no communion with slavery; if you will traffic in human flesh and blood, we will not be partakers of your iniquity. If you will invoke the vengeance of your offended God, the blood be on your own heads—if you will goad the slaves to fire and fury, on you be the consequences of your folly and your crime.” When the north should say this to the south, the doom of slavery would be fixed, for the slaveholder would become too weak to hold the slave in bondage (applause). To promote the growth of this feeling was what was sought. Let the pulpit speak out—let the press speak out against slavery—let them heed not the revilings of the slaveholders (hear). He knew that O’Connell was the friend of the negro, because the slaveholders denounced him—he knew that Garrison was the friend of his race, because he heard them curse him (hear). They knew full well whom to curse and whom to praise. After some further remarks, Mr. Douglass concluded by saying that God was on the side of freedom, and the abolitionists must prevail. The conclusion of his truly eloquent and forcible address, which had been listened to with the most marked interest throughout, was greeted with long-continued cheering.