AGRICULTURE AND BLACK PROGRESS (1873-09-18)

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18 SEPTEMBER 1873 375

dignity, the courage that I have found among the colored people of this city. Go on, and ways will open before you by which you can improve your condition and make yourselves useful, honorable, happy and prosperous citizens.

AGRICULTURE AND BLACK PROGRESS: AN ADDRESS DELIVERED IN NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE, ON 18 SEPTEMBER 1873

New National Era, 18 September 1873. Other texts in Nashville Republican Banner, 19 September 1873; Nashville Union and American, 19 September 1873; Address Delivered by Hon. Frederick Douglass, at the Third Annual Fair of the Colored Agricultural and Mechanical Association, on Thursday, September 18, 1873, at Nashville, Tennessee (Washington, DC, 1873); Speech File, reel 14, frames 654—65, reel 32, frames 541—51, FD Papers, DLC.

Frederick Douglass’s appearance at the third annual fair of the Tennessee Colored Agricultural and Mechanical Association in Nashville on 18 September 1873 was the highlight of six days of exhibitions, competitions, and sports events that drew blacks from as far away as Memphis. On 17 September a special delegation met Douglass’s train at nearby Gallatin en route from Louisville, Kentucky. where he had briefly visited that city’s exposition and been toasted by the local Democratic press. By mayoral decree the day of Douglass’s speech was a “colored holiday.” A massive procession, led by the Sons of Relief, accompanied Douglass to the fairgrounds amphitheater, where as many as five thousand people, including an ex—governor, assembled. The Association’s secretary, Abram Smith, introduced Douglass, who, according to the Republican Banner, spoke “under great disadvantage”: the sun was in his eyes and the audience lacked the attentiveness and respect that he had grown accustomed to receiving from northern black assemblies. “I found myself better appreciated by the whites than my own people at Nashville,” he later lamented to Gerrit Smith, undoubtedly referring to press commentary that his address “cannot be too widely disseminated among his race.” This was an unlikely problem given that the orator had come prepared with thousands of copies in pamphlet form. Douglass fared better the following day

------------- special poll tax to support black paupers and schools. By 1872 blacks had achieved legislative relief on these matters. But despite such reforms freedmen remained subject to the terrorist activities and depredations of whites who variously styled themselves “Regulators” and “Redeemers.” Du Bois, Black Reconstruction, 566—71; E. Merton Coulter, The Civil War and Readjustment in Kentucky (Chapel Hill, 1926), 340—65; Ross A. Webb, Kentucky in the Reconstruction Era (Lexington, Ky, 1979). 36—61.

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when he briefly addressed students at Fisk University, was favorably received by Governor Brown, and rendered his “Self-Made Man” speech to an attentive audience of about two thousand at the fair’s exhibition building. See Appendix A, text 10, for précis of alternate texts. Nashville Republican Banner, 16, 17, 18, 20, 21 September 1873; Nashville Union and American, 14, 16, 17, 18, 20, 21 September 1873; NNE, 2 October 1873; Louisville (Ky.) Commercial, 23 April 1873; Douglass to Gerrit Smith, 26 September 1873, Gerrit Smith Papers, NSyU.

Fellow-citizens and Gentlemen: When I had the honor to receive your kind and unexpected invitation to visit Nashville, a city famous for its elegance and refinement, and the scene of so many thrilling events and patriotic associations during the late struggle for Union and liberty, I was naturally enough very much pleased with the prospect of being present on this occasion, but when I was informed that my visit was not to be either for pleasure or observation, but to make an address, and that the said address must be of a character appropriate to this your third annual agricultural exhibition, my joy and enthusiasm received a very decided check; the “native hue of resolution was sicklied over with the pale cast of thought."1 The fact is—and I am not ashamed to admit it—I felt very much as some of our generals did when called upon to face the enemy on the open field of battle. I would have gladly been relieved of the command, and to have allowed the imposing task assigned me to fall into other and more competent hands. But your committee was composed of earnest and resolute men. They were men from Tennessee, and as willful as old Hickory himself.2 They made no account of any modest distrusts of my ability, would bear none of my excuses, and in short would be satisfied with nothing less than my presence and speech, on this occasion. Well, gentlemen, these willful men have succeeded; they have got me here, but I beg you to remember the old saying, which must have originated with farmers, for the best things always have originated with them, that “one man may carry a horse to water, but twenty cannot make him drink.”3

The ground of my hesitation about coming here was not the cholera,

1. Douglass quotes Hamlet, act 3, sc. 1, lines 84—85.

2. Andrew Jackson, whose nickname derived from the popular belief that he was tough as hickory. Albert R. Frey. Sobriquets and Nicknames (Boston, 1888), 257.

3. This proverb can be traced back to John Heywood, The Proverbs and Epigrams of John Heywood (1562 and 1566; New York, 1967), 27.

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for Nashville is now tolerably healthy;4 it was not the distance I would have to travel to get here, for your railway communications are nearly equal to any in the country, but the trouble was the address, the appropriate address. There was the rub.5 It was the rub then and it is the rub now, and instead of disappearing on my approach it is all the more perplexing when I look out upon this expectant multitude, and remember the high-sounding praises heaped upon me in anticipation of my coming.

Gentlemen, this is an agricultural and mechanical industrial fair. I am surrounded to-day by industrious mechanics and farmers, and you have got me up here to tell you what I know about farming. Now, I am neither a farmer nor a mechanic. During the last thirty-five years I have been actively employed in a work which left me no time to study either the theory or the practice of farming. I could far more easily tell you what I don’t know about farming than what I do know, though the former would take more time to tell it than the latter. Well, gentlemen, I do not mean to censure your excellent committee for paying me in advance and insisting upon my coming, thus buying a pig in a bag,6 not knowing what kind of an animal would come forth at the time, but I am bold to say that they violated in that act one of the first rules of successful farming, which is to see that the tools are always placed in the hands that can use them best. There are, undoubtedly, hundreds of colored men in the vicinity of Nashville, practical farmers and mechanics, who could address you upon the subjects of this occasion far more appropriately and effectively than I can do. This suggestion may seem rather late, but it may serve you a good turn when the business of selecting a speaker shall come round again.

But, gentlemen, there is a sunnier side to this distressing picture. Since I am now here, and there is no possible way of escape, I may at least employ the device of the boy who whistled in the graveyard to keep up his courage. Several considerations serve in some measure to reconcile me to my task. One of these is the fact that being a public speaker, I have often found myself in just such embarrassing situations at other times and places.

4. A cholera epidemic that besieged Nashville in 1873 reached its peak of virulence in mid-June. As many as 700 people died, but blacks suffered disproportionately, accounting for 430 of the 697 deaths reported between 7 June and 10 July alone. The resultant panic caused thousands to flee the city. ACC. 1873, 729; Jesse C. Burt, Nashville: Its Life and Times (Nashville, 1959), 73.

5. An allusion to Hamlet, act 3, sc. l, line 65.

6. An earlier version of this phrase, “I will never bye the pyg in the poke," appears in Heywood, Proverbs and Epigrams, 139.

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If you will pardon me a little autobiography and, perhaps, a little egotism, as well, I will tell you, that like many other men, I have been all my life long doing extraordinary things for the first time, some of which had been better undone. I have been constantly required to undertake the performance of works which came upon me as a surprise, and for which I had no previous training or preparation, and while my work has generally been rather unskillfully and imperfectly done, I have always had a thoughtful and generous people for my judges, who have measured and estimated my achievements not by the rule of intrinsic excellence, but by the rule of my disadvantages, and have thus often accorded me higher praise than I could possibly claim on the score of merit.

Besides this, there is encouragement in the subject itself. Agriculture is one of the very oldest themes, and one upon which only a genius can he expected to say anything either new or striking. Originality is out of the question. The knowledge already accumulated and recorded on this subject is vast and minute, and the man who can give but a glimpse of one of the many sides of this vast accumulation of knowledge does not speak in vain.

In few things, perhaps, more than in farming, does one find that there is nothing new under the sun.7 The sages of to-day do but reiterate the wisdom of the sages of antiquity. The perception of truth may be new or old, but the truth itself is neither old nor new, but eternal as the Universe. The discovery of the fundamental principles of Agriculture reach far beyond the limits of authentic history, for men tilled the soil long before they wrote books, and would never have written books if they had not tilled the soil. All the present rests upon all the past. The very best that.any in my circumstances can do is to teach and preach the discoveries made by other men and at other times.

There are doubtless many great truths which yet remain to be discovered and applied to Agriculture, as well as to many other matters of human welfare. It was a favorite saying of Theodore Parker, that “all the space between man’s mind and God’s mind is crowded with truths which wait to be discovered and organized into law for the practice of men."

But mankind is so nearly on a level of equality that no one man may claim the exclusive merit of original discovery. Truth, like the gentle light of Heaven, usually dawns upon more than one mind at the same time, so that there is seldom a discovery which has not more than one to claim the honor of it.

7. Eccles. 1 : 9.

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Gentlemen, I find still another source of encouragement. It is in the terms you employ in announcing my subject to-day. I am to speak to you of the importance of agricultural and mechanical industry and of united effort on the part of our people to improve their physical, moral, and social condition. Upon a subject so broad and comprehensive and deeply interesting it would be almost impossible to speak without saying something capable of being turned to use by sensible people.

Now, gentlemen, having looked out for myself, always an important lesson, and one which farmers readily learn, let me attend to you. I give you my warmest congratulations, first of all, upon the attitude you have assumed before the American people this day. I especially congratulate you upon the noble example you have set for our whole race. You have gone to work like earnest men, fully believing in the future of your people. You have wisely availed yourselves of a well-known power, the power of association, organization, mutual counsel and cooperation. You have dared to organize an Agricultural and Mechanical Association for the State of Tennessee. You propose to avail yourselves of whatever knowledge or wisdom there may be in this State, which can assist you in the work of your general improvement. You have dared to open here, in the city of Nashville, a State Agricultural Fair, to display the rich fruits of your industry, and to ask your fellow-countrymen, of all conditions and colors, to view and inspect them. This is an act, on your part, as brave as it is wise. It proves that you are not ashamed of your achievements. It proves that you, like the great Oliver Cromwell and all other brave men, want to be painted as you are, and to receive no other or higher credit than that which you honestly win by open and fair competition.

The organization of your State Agricultural Society, and this third annual exhibition, demonstrate that you appreciate the new order of things which has dawned upon the country. By these two signs you advertise and inform the world of your farewell, your departure forever from the moral and intellectual stagnation of a by-gone condition, and have taken up your line of march under the banner of liberty with the more advanced peoples of the earth to higher plains of civilization, culture, and refinement.

I congratulate you again, gentlemen, upon the point of time at which you begin your public career of agricultural industry. In this respect the conditions of success are nearly perfect. You have taken the tide at its flood.8 You start in the full blaze of the accumulated wisdom of ages. No

8. Douglass adapts Julius Caesar, act 4, sc. 3, line 295.

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