Texas, Slavery, and American Prosperity

Frederick Douglass

Citation Information:  Frederick Douglass, “Texas, Slavery, and American Prosperity: An Address Delivered in Belfast, Ireland, on January 2, 1846.” Belfast News Letter, January 6, 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. 118.

Texas, Slavery, and American Prosperity: An Address Delivered in Belfast, Ireland, on January 2, 1846

Belfast News Letter, January 6, 1846.

  • Mr. Frederick Douglass rose—his coming forward upon the platform was greeted with applause which lasted more than a minute. He said—Mr. Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen, according to the notice that has been given to this highly respectable and intelligent audience, I rise for the purpose of calling your attention to the subject of the Annexation of Texas to the United States. A question may rise in your minds as to what the Annexation of Texas to the States has to do with Slavery in America. This question I think I shall be able to answer during the remarks I shall have to make this evening.
  • I regret my inability to give you in one short lecture the history of the various circumstances leading to the consummation of the Annexation of Texas. If I were able to do so, you would see that it was a conspiracy from beginning to end—a most deep and skilfully devised conspiracy—for the purpose of upholding and sustaining one of the darkest and foulest crimes ever committed by man. But I will not attempt to give you a minute history of the incidents and occurrences which have led to the present position of the question.
  • Texas is that part of Mexico, north [south] of Arkansas and extending from the Gulf of Mexico to the Rio Del Norte. The extent of this country is almost equal to that of France, and its fertility is such that it is estimated as being able to support not less than twenty millions of souls. In 1820 this vast territory, as well as all the rest of Mexico, was subject to the Spanish Government. The history of the settlement of Texas by its present population is briefly as follows: In the year just mentioned, Moses Austin, of the State of Tennessee—a slave holding State—obtained a grant from the Royal Government of Spain to settle in that territory 300 families, on the condition that they should be industrious, sober, upright men, and professors—mark this—of the Roman Catholic religion. Austin obtained by this grant, great advantages to himself, and when he died his son Stephen Austin became the legal representative of his father, and prosecuted the work of settling the 300 families, for whom his father had obtained the large grants of land, with vigour, stimulating many who would not have otherwise thought of leaving their homes to go into this beautiful country, that they might enrich themselves, and lay the foundations of wealth for their children. During the prosecution of this design, however, the revolution broke out in Mexico, by which that country was severed from the Spanish government, and this event rendered the original contract of settlement null and void, so that Austin applied for and obtained a similar grant from Mexico, by which he succeeded in completing the number of families intended to be settled in Texas.
  • The settlers soon spread abroad reports of the fertility and salubrity of the country, and these reports induced a general spirit of speculation, and thus a way was opened for the practice of the grossest hypocrisy. Many persons were induced, from the love of gold, to pretend the profession of the Roman Catholic religion, thus obtaining large quantities of land. This spirit of speculation was entered into by the people of different nations, including many from England, Ireland, and Scotland. I have the names of several persons even from this town who took part in the settlement of Texas, but the territory was chiefly settled by the citizens of the United States—of the slaveholding states—of America. It was early seen by them that this would be a delightful spot to curse with slavery. They accordingly took their families and slaves to Texas, from the blighted and blasted fields of Virginia—fields once fertile as any under Heaven—(hear)—and which would have still remained so had they not been cursed by the infernal spirit of slavery.
  • We do not hear of much confusion in Texas, until 1828 or 1829, when Mexico after having erected herself into a separate government and declared herself free, with a consistency which puts to the blush the boasted “land of freedom,” proclaimed the deliverance of every captive on her soil. Unlike the boasted republic of America, she did this at an immense cost to her own slaveholders—not proclaiming liberty with her lips, while she fastened chains on the slave—not securing liberty for her own children but also for the degraded bondsman of Africa. (Cheers.) This act of the Mexican government was resisted at once by the settlers who had carried their slaves into Texas, though they were bound by a solemn agreement to submit to the laws of Mexico. They remonstrated with the government. They said their slaves were too ignorant and degraded to be emancipated. The Mexican government, desirous to treat amicably with those whom it had welcomed to its bosom, listened to this remonstrance, and consented that the Texian slaves should be only gradually emancipated under a system of indentured apprenticeship. Even this restriction was evaded by the Texians, making the indentures binding for 99 years. In fact they showed themselves to be a set of swindlers. Well, Mexico attempted an enforcement of her law, making it impossible for any man to hold an apprentice more than ten years. This was resisted on the plea that the slaves would not be fit for freedom even then. One would think ten years long enough to teach them the value of liberty, but these wise Americans could not understand how that could be the case.
  • The Texians still persisted in holding their slaves, contrary to the express declaration of their legislature—contrary to the law of the land—to drive them before the biting lash to their hard tasks, day after day, without wages. Again, the Mexican Government attempted to enforce its law, but then Texas revolts—defies the law—and calls upon the people of the United States to aid her in, what they termed their struggle for religious liberty! (Hear.) Yes, they said they could not worship God according to the dictates of their conscience, alluding to the contract entered into by them as professing Roman Catholics. I am not prepared to say whether that contract was a righteous one or not, but, I do say, that after possessing themselves of the land, on the faith of their being Roman Catholics, they should be the last to complain on that score. If they had been honest, they would have said, in regard to their religious opinions, “We have changed our minds; we feel we cannot longer belong to the Church of Rome; we cannot, according to our contract, worship God as our conscience dictates; many of us are Methodists—many are Presbyterians; if you will allow us to worship God as we think right, we will stay in the soil; if not, we feel compelled to abandon it, and seek some other place.” (Cheers.) That is the way that common honesty would force them to act, but the people of the United States—and here is one of the darkest acts of their whole history—understanding the terms upon which the Texians had obtained the territory, and well-knowing the exact nature of the contract—offered them the means of successfully resisting Mexico—afforded them arms and ammunition, and even the men who. at San Jacinto, wrested the territory from the rightful owners. Here was an act of national robbery perpetrated, and for what? For the re-establishment of slavery on a soil which had been washed pure from its polluting influence by the generous act of a “semibarbarous” people! (Hear.)
  • The man who goes into your ship on the high seas, puts out the captain, takes down the ensign and declares himself the owner—is no greater robber than the people of the United States. And what are their excuses, their apologies, their reasons—for they always give reasons for what they do? One of them is, that Mexico is unable to defend her territory, and that therefore they have a right to take it! What do you think of a great heavy-fisted fellow pouncing on every little man he meets, and giving as his reason that the little man is unable to take care of himself? (Cheers.) We don’t see this pretext made use of in the case of Canada. (Hear.) Mexico, nevertheless, is a sister republic, which has taken that of the United States for a model. But Mexico is a weak government, and that is the reason America falls on her—the British territories are safe because England is strong. (Hear.)
  • Oh, how superlatively base—how mean—how dastardly—do the American people appear in the light of justice—of reason—of liberty—when this particular point of her conduct is exposed! But here there was a double point to be gained—on the part of the Southern planters to establish and cultivate large plantations in the South—and on that of the Northern ones, to support what Daniel O’Connell says should not be called the internal, but the infernal, slave-trade, which is said to be worse than the foreign slave-trade, for it allows men to seize upon those who have sported with them on the hills, and played with them at school, and are associated with them in so many ways and under so many interesting circumstances. This is more horrible still than to prowl along the African shore and carry off thence men with whose faces at least we are unfamiliar, and to whose characters we are strangers. Still the chief object of the Annexation of Texas was the quickening of the foreign slave-trade, which is the very jugular vein of slavery, and of which, if kept within narrow limits, we would soon be rid. But the cry of slavery is ever “Give, give, give!” That cry is heard from New England to Virginia. It goes on, leaving a blighted soil behind—leaving the fields which it found fertile and luxuriant, covered with stunted pines. From Virginia it has gone to North Carolina, and from that to South Carolina, leaving ruin in its train, and now it seizes on the fertile regions of Texas, where it had been previously abolished by a people whom we are wont to call semi-civilized. They say they only want to increase their commerce, and add to their security. Oh what a reason to give for plunder! (Hear.) The pirate of the high seas might make the same excuse.
  • Mankind thinks that whatever is prosperous is right. Henry Clay said that what the law has made property is property, and that 200 years of legislation has made the negro slave property. With a sang froid more like that of a demon than a man he added, “It will be asked will not slavery come to an end? Why, that question has been asked fifty years ago, and answered by fifty years of prosperity.” Prosperity is the rule of conduct. Justice is nothing—humanity is nothing—Christianity is nothing—but prosperity is everything. (Hear.) I was some time since, on the same principle, spoken to by a member of the church, who told me I was mistaken in my views and laboring against the will and wisdom of God, in this manner—”Don’t you see,” said he, “that we have been adding to our numbers, lengthening our cords and strengthening our stakes—don’t you see the church growing in the favor of the world.” This element of character is peculiar to the Americans; all they ask is prosperity, and therefore we see their bony fingers pointing towards the Pacific, threatening to overwhelm and destroy every other power which may dispute their claims. I am sorry that England, on this occasion, did not act with that high spirit of justice which led her to emancipate 800,000 of her own slaves elsewhere. I am sorry that she stepped forward with almost indecent haste to recognise the Texian banditti as an independent Republic. (Hear.) Oh, the love of money! rightly has it been called the root of all evil—with this lust for gold has England too been contaminated, and hence the result we witness.
  • Two years ago, I had hoped that there was morality enough, Christian-mindedness enough, love of liberty enough, burning in the bosoms of the American people, to lead them to reject for ever the unholy alliance in which they have bound themselves to Texas. When I first heard of this event, at a meeting in Massachusetts, I was covered with confusion of face, for I believed we had religion enough among us to have prevented the horrid consummation. That event threw a gloom over the hearts of the struggling abolitionists, and led them to feel that the powers of darkness had prevailed against them. I hung my head, and felt that I was deceived in the people among whom I lived, and that they were hurrying their own destruction by dipping their hands in the blood of millions of slaves. However, I recovered when I remembered that ours was not a ca[u]se in which the human arm was the only agent—when I remembered that God was God still, I took courage again, and resolved to continue to pray to that God who has the destinies of nations in his hand to change their hearts.
  • We are still, however, strong, for the last intelligence I had from the United States was, that 40,000 good men and true, in Massachusetts, had petitioned the Government not to allow Texas to be received as a State until she had abolished slavery. (Cheers.) What will be the immediate result, I know not, but Texas in the Union or out of it—slavery upheld or slavery abolished—one thing I do know—that the true words now spoken, in Massachusetts, will create a resistance to this damning measure, which will go on under the smiles of an approving God, augmenting in power till slavery in the United States will be abolished. (Hear.) I know not how that consummation will be achieved. It may be in a manner not altogether agreeable to my own feelings. I do not know but the spirit of rapine and plunder, so rampant in America, will hurry her on to her own destruction. I hope it will not, for although America has done all that a nation could do to crush me—although I am a stranger among you—a refugee abroad, an outlaw at home—yet, I trust in God, no ill may befall her. I hope she will yet see that it will be her duty to emancipate the slaves. The friends of emancipation are determined to do all they can—

Weapons of war we have cast from the battle,—

Truth is our armour, our watchword is love;

Hushed be the sword and the musketry’s rattle,

All our equipments are drawn from above.

  • Let no one accuse me of attempting to stir up a spirit of war. You may accuse me of being an impostor, or trying to make money—you may accuse me of what you please—but not of stirring up a war against that land which has done me and my race so much injury. For, though, If ever a man had cause to curse the region in which he was born, I am he—though my back is scarred with the lash of the driver—nature, law, and Christianity bind me to the United States of America.
  • Mr. Douglass then alluded to the charges which had been made against him, and which are fully disposed of in the letter in reply to “Civis,” already alluded to. He then spoke of 36 ministers of Belfast having signed a resolution to the effect that slave-holders should not be admitted as members of the Christian Church. That circumstance had cheered his heart, and he would remember the 2d of Jan. 1846, as a most glorious day, inasmuch as with the recollections of that day would always be associated what 36 Christian ministers of Belfast had done in furtherance of the great cause he advocated. Their protest would cross the Atlantic, and fall as a bomb-shell amongst the slave-holders, filling their souls with terror and dismay.
  • Mr. Douglass then alluded to the many kind friends he had met with In Belfast, and said they would always be dear to his heart wherever his lot might be cast. Their Christian and fatherly advice would never be forgotten; and he would take care so to walk, that they would never hear that he had by any conduct of his retarded the progress of the holy cause of which he was the humble advocate, or that he had acted a part unbecommg an humble follower of the Lord Jesus. He then resumed his seat amid the warmest and most enthusiastic demonstrations of applause.