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WE ARE NOT YET QUITE FREE: AN ADDRESS DELIVERED AT MEDINA, NEW YORK, ON 3 AUGUST 1869
Rochester Daily Democrat, 4 August 1869. Other texts in Rochester Union and Advertiser, 6 August 1869; New York Tribune, 7 August 1869; New York Times, 8 August 1869; New York Revolution, 19 August 1869; National Anti-Slavery Standard, 21 August 1869; Foner, Life and Writings, 4 : 218-20.
The occasion of the thirtieth anniversary of British West Indian Emancipation drew a large, “attentive and appreciative audience” from several western New York counties to Medina, New York, on 3 August 1869 to hear Frederick Douglass commemorate both that event and President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Press reports, however, chose to concentrate on Douglass’s exposition of the plight of his son Lewis. The New York women’s rights periodical the Revolution, for example, pointed to his paternal “Eloquent Indignation” and “sublime utterances.” A hint of subversion emanating from the orator’s circumscribed eulogy of Lincoln may have led Gerrit Smith to write Douglass, “I thank God, that He gave you the power to make this noble Speech, & I thank you for using the power.” Douglass’s critical edge did not go without public scrutiny; the Rochester Union and Advertiser dismissed his characterization of Lincoln as “next to treason. . . . Had a white man uttered such a statement, he would have been mobbed.” Rochester Union and Advertiser, 4 August 1869; Alexandria (Va.) Gazette, 10 August 1869; Washington Daily Morning Chronicle, 10 August 1869; Gerrit Smith to Douglass, 10 August 1869, Gerrit Smith Papers, NHi.
MY FRIENDS AND FELLOW-CITIZENS:—The custom of celebrating the anniversaries of great events, which have in any marked degree changed and improved the conditions and relations of men, is a part of the history of human society, and the sentiment which prompts, institutes and sustains these annual festivals is one of the most beautiful and beneficent of our nature. All civilized nations have their great days, rendered memorable by important epochs in their progress. The observance of these days is transient or permanent, general or special, partly according to the character of the events themselves, and partly to the sensibility and constancy of the people affected by them. Sad, indeed, is the condition of that nation or people which is no longer thrilled with grateful emotions by the annual return of the day signalized by some great benefit or deliverance. I hail it as a sign of vital moral feeling in the colored people of this country that they are behind no class in the recognition of national beneﬁts.
The two grand events which we are here to-day to celebrate, are too recent, and too familiar to require elaborate description. As to the first of
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these, all know that on the first of August, thirty-five years ago, eight hundred thousand slaves were instantaneously emancipated in the British West Indies. The history of this sublime spectacle, and the movement by which it was produced, have been often narrated and set forth in language far more thrilling and effective than I can command to-day. Great, however, as was that event, it is dwarfed in comparison with emancipation in our own country. I propose, in my remarks to-day, to divide my time in accordance with the relative importance of the great beneﬁts noted for our commemoration. The first remarkable feature of West India emancipation is found in the fact that it came without war or bloodshed. When we consider the interests involved, the passions excited, the bloody history of human progress, the cost of reform, the fierceness, pride, and tenacity with which tyrants have, in all ages, clung to unjust power, it is somewhat strange that the sword was not called into exercise and that blood did not ﬂow in the British Islands before slavery could there be brought to an end. The battle for emancipation in England was purely a moral and political one, and the victory achieved was a victory of reason and moral conviction, over selﬁshness, pride, and cruelty.
In this view, the event is not only sublime and glorious, but highly significant. Above and beyond its immediate effects upon the condition and destiny of the emancipated slaves and their former masters, the achievement is especially important in its bearing upon reformatory movements everywhere. It stands forth as one of the most valuable attestations of the supreme power of truth. It is an argument that the friends of no cause— however unpopular and however despised—need despair of ultimate success, if they only have truth and justice on their side.
It should however be remarked that though the West India emancipation was essentially a moral and political triumph, it was not for this reason altogether free from difficulties, dangers and hardships. Indeed, it seems to be a law of the universe that nothing valuable shall be obtained without labor and agony. The early advocates of the slave in England encountered much the same odium and something [of] the same violence which antislavery men met and contended against in our own land and in our own day. No genuine tyrant surrenders his scepter without a struggle. The slaveholders of the West Indies were no exception to this general rule. The history of their conduct towards their slaves and towards the Abolitionists proves them to have been as obdurate, selfish and cold-blooded a set of tyrants as ever cursed the earth or wielded the lash. Those who represented the cause of slavery were usually dextrous debaters, seldom venture [venturing] into
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the field of fundamental principles for arguments. They talked of expediency, of cheap sugar, of vested rights, of contented and happy slaves, of the mental and moral inferiority of the negro, of the settled order of society, of the dangers of emancipation and the like. Many of the slave proprietors resided in England; some of them never saw their plantations. They committed their negroes to the management and to the lash of brutal overseers, while they remained at home to support the character of gentlemen and Christians. Many of them were members of the established church. Their high social and political position gave them power with the statesmen of the country, and their religious associations gave them the sympathy of the church. With such elements of strength they could make, and did make a formidable and long continued resistance to the anti-slavery movement.
When, however, they found that resistance was [in] vain, that the judgment and determination of England was against them, that the system of slavery could not survive the blows it has received, that they, themselves, had become odious in the eyes of decent men, they resorted to cunning and diplomacy and completely humbugged England. They said to the British Parliament, “We will give up our negroes, but you must pay us for them. It is true, they are stolen goods; and we have no right to them, and are pretty sure that we cannot hold them; but you have consented to it so long that you are bound to bear a part of the cost of their emancipation.” The trick prevailed. England did pay for the slaves, and in doing so, she marred the beauty and perfection of a glorious triumph of truth and justice. Had she given the emancipated negroes the twenty million pounds sterling that she gave the masters, she would have more nearly conformed to manifest right, and have set a wiser and better example.¹
It may not be uninstructive to remark here that British emancipation was not wholly due to local causes or to any special virtue of the British people. As no single particle of matter stands alone, so no great event seems to stand alone. The anti-slavery movement in England was only one manifestation of a widely prevailing sentiment. A glance at the period shows that there existed the greatest activity in the cause of liberty all over Europe. The downfall of the first Napoleon had been followed by a most rapid and chilling reaction; abuses and tyrannies which had fallen and
1. The Emancipation Act of 1833 authorized £20 million in compensation for slaveholders in the British West Indies. W. L. Burn, Emancipation and Apprenticeship in the British West Indies (London, 1937), 117; Frank J. Klingberg, The Anti-Slavery Movement in England: A Study in English Humanitarianism (1926; New York, 1968), 299-300.
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disappeared under his iron rule, now came forth afresh and became vigorously active all over Europe. Waterloo was the signal for a revival of obsolete pretentions[?].²
In France especially the reaction was most striking and painful. It seemed as if the wheels of progress had all been suddenly reversed, and that society had all at once assumed a permanent retrogressive march. The old nobility which had been overthrown by the revolution of 1789, and which Napoleon had in various ways humbled, weakened and held in check, again lifted their haughty heads, reasserted their claims, and actually regained many of their former privileges. As with the nobility, so too with the priesthood. Under Napoleon they had been wisely restricted to their ecclesiastical functions. Upon his fall they immediately arose from their former prostration and began again to exercise that sinister, crafty and pernicious influence peculiar to their class, upon the politics ofthe nation. The liberty of speech and of the press were among the first to suffer from this new order of things, and this was, of course, a blow at all liberty; for when speech is not free, when the press may not speak out its honest convictions, tyranny goes unrebuked, liberty is ruled[?] in doubt and darkness, there is an end to progress, and such was the condition of Europe for a time after the fall of the greatest Captain of his age.
This gloomy and cheerless state of facts culminated in the year 1830, four years before the date of British emancipation. As usual, tyranny then overleaped itself, and the people awoke. Through the violence and stupidity of Charles the Tenth, the most stupid of all the Bourbons, the French people were startled into a new life, which quickly communicated itself to all Europe. Charles undertook to do for France what the slave power attempted in our own country. He attempted the extinction of the liberty of the press. His arrogance and folly cost him a crown, and imparted new vigor to the people all over Europe. France became the theatre of comprehensive political discussions. Belgium led off in a struggle for the independence of Holland. Poland, gasping on her lance, began that ever memorable revolt against Russian bondage, which though unsuccessful,
2. The Belgian village of Waterloo was the site ofthe 18 June 1815 defeat of Napoleon I, emperor of France, by allied forces under the command of the duke of Wellington. Napoleon was subsequently banished to the island of Saint Helena. Napoleon's fall set the stage for the restoration of the Bourbons with the return of the comte de Provence as Louis XVIII. Frederick B. Artz, Reaction and Revolution: 1814—1832 (New York, 1934), 126—29; John Keegan, The Face of Battle (New York, 1976), 121—29; Henry Houssaye, 1815 Waterloo, trans. Arthur Emile Mann (London, 1900), 288—94.
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has made her name precious to the lovers of liberty in every quarter of the globe. All over Germany there were uprisings for liberty.³ The West Indies produced their black heroes and the slaves of Virginia set forth their Nat Turners. That State was on the point of becoming a free state. England felt the almost universal impulse, granted an extension of suffrage by her Reform Bill of 1832 and broke the chains of eight hundred thousand slaves in her West India possessions in 1834.
But, as I have already intimated, there is neither time nor necessity for dwelling now and here upon the subject of West India emancipation, though the causes contributing to the result, immediate and remote, are deeply interesting.
I have spoken of the transient and permanent observance of certain great days among men, and it has long been a question with me whether the continuance of the lst of August as a day of celebration is desirable or proper. Saying nothing now against some of the incidents of such occasions, such as disorder and drunkenness, which have sometimes disgraced them, I think we may put it aside upon the ground of fitness. While slavery existed in our country and while it was necessary to agitate the public mind upon the question of its abolition. the lst of August was a most valuable auxiliary. The celebration of the day gave us the full advantage of contrast— ing the noble example of Britain with the mean example of America. We could commend the one while we condemned and denounced the other. But to-day neither the event, nor the example serves any such useful purpose. The great English nation of to-day does not stand upon this question where it stood thirty-five years ago, and the American people have made vast and wonderful progress. Since the date of British emancipation a change has come over both nations. The praises due to England thirty-five years ago, are not due to England now, and the censures due to America then are inappropriate now. Upon the question of slavery the two countries
3. With the restoration of the Bourbon crown, emigres of the revolution and clergy were intent upon a return of the ancien régime in spite of Louis XVIII’s Charter of 1814. Prominent within this ultramontanist party was the king’s brother, the comte d‘Artois (1757—1836), who ascended to the throne in 1824 as Charles X. Charles’s controversial support of aristocratic and clerical interests ultimately precipitated the July Revolution of 1830 and his abdication when he issued ordinances that regulated the press and the electoral process. News of French revolutionary activity inspired the Belgians, who in later months revolted against Dutch rule and created an independent state. Disturbances also occurred in several German states, where liberal reforms were achieved though later repressed. France’s influence was also apparent in Poland’s November 1830 revolt against the rule of Czar Nicholas I that was brutally crushed. John M. S. Allison, Thiers and the French Monarchy (London, 1926), 103—23; Artz, Reaction and Revolution, 1—22, 110—18, 126—34, 224—34. 263—85; Vincent W. Beach, Charles X of France: His Life and Times (Boulder, Colo., 1971), 213—30, 241—