The Present and Future of the Colored Race in America

Frederick Douglass

Douglass’ Monthly

Speech delivered to the Church of the Puritans, New York

June 1863

Ladies and Gentlemen

I think that most of you will agree with me in respect to the surpassing importance of the subject we are here to consider this evening though you may differ from me in other respects. It seems to me that the relation subsisting between the white and colored people of this country, is of all other questions, the great, paramount, imperative and all commanding question for this age and nation to solve.

All the circumstances of the hour plead with an eloquence, equaled by no human tongue, for the immediate solution of this vital problem. 200,000 graves. — A distracted and bleeding country plead for this solution. It cannot be denied, nobody now even attempts to deny, that the question, what shall be done with the Negro, is the one grand cause of the tremendous war now upon us, and likely to continue upon us, until the country is united upon some wise policy concerning it. When the country was at peace and all appeared prosperous, there was something like a plausible argument in favor of leaving things to their own course. No such policy avails now. The question now stands before us as one of life and death. We are encompassed by it as by a wall of fire. The flames singe and burn us on all sides, becoming hotter every hour.

Men sneer at it as the “n–r question,” endeavoring to degrade it by misspelling it. But they degrade nothing but themselves. They would much rather talk about the Constitution as it is, and the Union as it was, or about the Crittenden, or some other impossible compromise, but the Negro peeps out at every flash of their rhetorical pyrotechnics and utterly refuses to be hid by either fire, dust or smoke. The term, Negro, is at this hour the most pregnant word in the English language. The destiny of the nation has the Negro for its pivot, and turns upon the question as to what shall be done with him. Peace and war, union and disunion, salvation and ruin, glory and shame all crowd upon our thoughts the moment this vital word is pronounced.

You and I have witnessed many attempts to put this Negro question out of the pale of popular thought and discussion, and have seen the utter vanity of all such attempts. — It has baffled all the subtle contrivances of an ease loving and selfish priesthood, and has constantly refused to be smothered under the soft cushions of a canting and heartless religion. It has mocked and defied the compromising cunning of so called statesmen, who would have gladly postponed our present troubles beyond our allotted space of life and bequeath them as a legacy of sorrow to our children. But this wisdom of the crafty is confounded and their counsels brought to naught. A divine energy, omniscient and omnipotent, acting through the silent, solemn and all pervading laws of the universe, irresistible, unalterable and eternal, has ever more forced this mighty question of the Negro upon the attention of the country and the world.

What shall be done with the Negro? meets us not only in the street, in the Church, in the Senate, and in our State Legislatures; but in our diplomatic correspondence with foreign nations, and even on the field of battle, where our brave sons and brothers are striking for Liberty and country, or for honored graves.

This question met us before the war; it meets us during the war, and will certainly meet us after the war, unless we shall have the wisdom, the courage, and the nobleness of soul to settle the status of the Negro,on the solid and immovable bases of Eternal justice.

I stand here tonight therefore, to advocate what I conceive to be such a solid basis, one that shall fix our peace upon a rock. Putting aside all the hay, wood and stubble of expediency, I shall advocate for the Negro, his most full and complete adoption into the great national family of America. I shall demand for him the most perfect civil and political equality, and that he shall enjoy all the rights, privileges and immunities enjoyed by any other members of the body politic. I weigh my words and I mean all I say, when I contend as I do contend, that this is the only solid, and final solution of the problem before us. It is demanded not less by the terrible exigencies of the nation, than by the Negro himself for the Negro and the nation, are to rise or fall, be killed or cured, saved or lost together. Save the Negro and you save the nation, destroy the Negro and you destroy the nation, and to save both you must have but one great law of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity for all Americans without respect to color.

Already I am charged with treating this question, in the light of abstract ideas. I admit the charge, and would to heaven that this whole nation could now be brought to view it in the same calm, clear light. The failure so to view it is the one great national mistake. Our wise men and statesmen have insisted upon viewing the whole subject of the Negro upon what they are pleased to call practical and common sense principles, and behold the results of their so called practical wisdom and common sense! Behold, how all to the mocker has gone.

Under this so called practical wisdom and statesmanship, we have had sixty years of compromising servility on the part of the North to the slave power of the South. We have dishonored our manhood and lied in our throats to defend the monstrous abomination. Yet this greedy slave power, with every day of his shameless truckling on our part became more and more exacting, unreasonable, arrogant and domineering, until it has plunged the country into a war such as the world never saw before, and I hope never will see again.

Having now tried, with fearful results, the wisdom of reputed wise men, it is now quite time that the American people began to view this question in the light of other ideas than the cold and selfish ones which have hitherto enjoyed the reputation of being wise and practicable, but which are now proved to be entirely and absolutely impracticable.

The progress of the nation downward has been rapid as all steps downward are apt to be.

First. We found the Golden Rule impracticable. Second. We found the Declaration of Independence very broadly impracticable. Third. We found the Constitution of the United States, requiring that the majority shall rule, is impracticable. Fourth. We found that the union was impracticable.

The golden rule did not hold the slave tight enough. The Constitution did not hold the slave tight enough. The Declaration of Independence did not hold the slave at all, and the union was a loose affair and altogether impracticable. Even the Democratic party bowed and squatted lower than all other parties, became at last weak and impracticable, and the slaveholders broke it up as they would an abolition meeting. Nevertheless: I am aware that there are such things as practicable and impracticable, and I will not ignore the objections, which may be raised against the policy which I would have the nation adopt and carry out toward my enslaved and oppressed fellow countrymen.

There are at least four answers, other than mine, floating about in the public mind, to the question what shall be done with the Negro.

First. It is said that the white race can, if they will, reduce the whole colored population to slavery, and at once make all the laws and institutions of the country harmonize with that state of facts and thus abolish at a blow, all distinctions and antagonisms. But this mode of settling the question, simple as it is, would not work well. It would create a class of tyrants in whose presence no man’s Liberty, not even the white man’s Liberty would be safe. The slaveholder would then be the only really free man of the country. — All the rest would be either slaves, or be poor white trash, to be kept from between the wind and our slaveholding nobility. The non-slaveholder would be the patrol, the miserable watch dog of the slave plantation.

Second. The next and best defined solution of our difficulties about the Negro, is colonization, which proposes to send the Negro back to Africa where his ancestors came from. — This is a singularly pleasing dream. But as was found in the case of sending missionaries to the moon, it was much easier to show that they might be useful there, than to show how they could be got there. It would take a larger sum of money than we shall have to spare at the close of this war, to send five millions of American born people, five thousand miles across the sea. It may be safely affirmed that we shall hardly be in a condition at the close of this war to afford the money for such costly transportation, even if we could consent to the folly of sending away the only efficient producers in the largest half of the American union.

Third. It may be said as another mode of escaping the claims of absolute justice, the white people may Emancipate the slaves in form yet retain them as slaves in fact just as General Banks is now said to be doing in Louisiana, or then may free them from individual masters, only to make them slaves to the community. They can make of them a degraded caste. But this would be about the worst thing that could be done. It would make pestilence and pauperism, ignorance and crime, a part of American Institutions. It would be dooming the colored race to a condition indescribably wretched and the dreadful contagion of their vices and crimes would fly like cholera and small pox through all classes. Woe, woe! to this land, when it strips five millions of its people of all motives for cultivating an upright character. Such would be the effect of abolishing slavery, without conferring equal rights. It would be to lacerate and depress the spirit of the Negro, and make him a scourge and a curse to the country. Do anything else with us, but plunge us not into this hopeless pit.

Fourth. The white people of the country may trump up some cause of war against the colored people, and wage that terrible war of races which some men even now venture to predict, if not to desire, and exterminate the black race entirely. They would spare neither age nor sex. But is there not some chosen curse, some secret thunder in the stores of heaven red with uncommon wrath to blast the men who harbor this bloody solution? The very thought is more worthy of demons than of men. Such a war would indeed remove the colored race from the country. — But it would also remove justice, innocence and humanity from the country. It would fill the land with violence and crime, and make the very name of America a stench in the nostrils of mankind. It would give you hell for a country and fiends for your countrymen.

Now, I hold that there is but one way of wisely disposing of the colored race, and that is to do them right and justice. It is not only to break the chains of their bondage and accord to them personal liberty, but it is to admit them to the full and complete enjoyment of civil and political Equality.

The mere abolition of slavery is not the end of the law for the black man, or for the white man. To emancipate the bondman from the laws that make him a chattel, and yet subject him to laws and deprivations which will inevitably break down his spirit, destroy his patriotism and convert him into a social pest, will be little gain to him and less gain to the country. One of the most plausible arguments ever made for slavery, is that which assumes that those who argue for the freedom of the Negro, do not themselves propose to treat him as an equal fellow citizen. The true course is to look this matter squarely in the face and determine to grant the entire claims of justice and liberty keeping back no part of the price.

But the question comes not only from those who hate the colored race, but from some who are distinguished for their philanthropy: can this thing be done? can the white and colored people of America ever be blended into a common nationality under a system of equal Laws? Mark, I state the question broadly and fairly. It respects civil and political equality, in its fullest and best sense: can such equality ever be practically enjoyed?

The question is not can there be social equality? That does not exist anywhere. — There have been arguments to show that no one man should own more property than another. But no satisfactory conclusion has been reached. So there are those who talk about social Equality, but nothing better on that subject than “pursuit,” the right of pursuit has been attained.

The question is not whether the colored man is mentally equal to his white brother, for in this respect there is no equality among white men themselves.

The question is not whether colored men will be likely to reach the Presidential chair. I have no trouble here: for a man may live quite a tolerable life without ever breathing the air of Washington.

But the question is: Can the white and colored people of this country be blended into a common nationality, and enjoy together, in the same country, under the same flag, the inestimable blessings of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, as neighborly citizens of a common country?

I answer most unhesitatingly, I believe they can. In saying this I am not blind to the past. I know it well. As a people we have moved about among you like dwarfs among giants — too small to be seen. We were morally, politically and socially dead. To the eye of doubt and selfishness we were far beyond the resurrection trump. All the more because I know the past. All the more, because I know the terrible experience of the slave, and the depressing power of oppression, do I believe in the possibility of a better future for the colored people of America.

Let me give a few of the reasons for the hope that is within me.

The first is, despite all theories and all disparagements, the Negro is a man. By every fact, by every argument, by every rule of measurement, mental, moral or spiritual, by everything in the heavens above and in the earth beneath which vindicates the humanity of any class of beings, the Negro’s humanity is equally vindicated. The lines which separate him from the brute creation are as broad, distinct and palpable, as those which define and establish the very best specimens of the Indo-Caucasian race. I will not stop here to prove the manhood of the Negro. His virtues and his vices, his courage and his cowardice, his beauties and his deformities, his wisdom and his folly, everything connected with him, attests his manhood.

If the Negro were a horse or an ox, the question as to whether he can become a party to the American government, and member of the nation, could never have been raised. The very questions raised against him confirm the truth of what they are raised to disprove. We have laws forbidding the Negro to learn to read, others forbidding his owning a dog, others punishing him for using fire arms, and our Congress came near passing a law that a Negro should in no case be superior to a white man, thus admitting the very possibility of what they were attempting to deny.

The foundation of all governments and all codes of laws is in the fact that man is a rational creature, and is capable of guiding his conduct by ideas of right and wrong, of good and evil, by hope of reward and fear of punishment. Can any man doubt that the Negro answers this description? Do not all the laws ever passed concerning him imply that he is just such a creature? I defy the most malignant accuser to prove that there is a more law abiding people anywhere than are the colored people. I claim for the colored man that he possesses all the natural conditions and attributes essential to the character of a good citizen. He can understand the requirements of the law and the reason of the law. He can obey the law, and with his arm and life defend and execute the law. The preservation of society, the protection of persons and property are the simple and primary objects for which governments are instituted among men.

There certainly is nothing in the ends sought, nor in the character of the means by which they are to be attained, which necessarily excludes colored men. I see no reason why we may not, in time, co-operate with our white fellow-countrymen in all the labors and duties of upholding a common government, and sharing with them in all the advantages and glory of a common nationality.

That the interests of all the people would be promoted by the full participation of colored men in the affairs of government seems very plain to me. The American government rests for support, more than any other government in the world, upon the loyalty and patriotism of all its people. The friendship and affection of her black sons and daughters, as they increase in virtue and knowledge, will be an element of strength to the Republic too obvious to be neglected and repelled. I predict, therefore, that under an enlightened public sentiment, the American people will cultivate the friendship, increase the usefulness and otherwise advance the interests of the colored race. They will be as eager to extend the rights and dignity of citizenship as they have hitherto been eager to deny those rights.

But a word as to objections. The constitution is interposed. It always is.

Let me tell you something. Do you know that you have been deceived and cheated? You have been told that this government was intended from the beginning for white men, and for white men exclusively; that the men who formed the Union and framed the Constitution designed the permanent exclusion of the colored people from the benefits of those institutions. Davis, Taney and Yancey, traitors at the south, have propagated this statement, while their copperhead echoes at the north have repeated the same. There never was a bolder or more wicked perversion of the truth of history. So far from this purpose was the mind and heart of your fathers, that they desired and expected the abolition of slavery. They framed the Constitution plainly with a view to the speedy downfall of slavery. They carefully excluded from the Constitution any and every word which could lead to the belief that they meant it for persons of only one complexion.

The Constitution, in its language and in its spirit, welcomes the black man to all the rights which it was intended to guarantee to any class of the American people. Its preamble tells us for whom and for what it was made. But I am told that the ruling class in America being white, it is impossible for men of color ever to become a part of the “body politic.” With some men this seems a final statement, a final argument, which it is utterly impossible to answer. It conveys the idea that the body politic is a rather fastidious body, from which everything offensive is necessarily excluded. I, myself, once had some high notions about this body politic and its high requirements, and of the kind of men fit to enter it and share its privileges. But a day’s experience at the polls convinced me that the “body politic” is not more immaculate than many other bodies. That in fact it is a very mixed affair. I saw ignorance enter, unable to read the vote it cast. I saw the convicted swindler enter and deposit his vote. I saw the gambler, the horse jockey, the pugilist, the miserable drunkard just lifted from the gutter, covered with filth, enter and deposit his vote. I saw Pat, fresh from the Emerald Isle, requiring two sober men to keep him on his legs, enter and deposit his vote for the Democratic candidate amid the loud hurrahs of his fellow citizens. The sight of these things went far to moderate my ideas about the exalted character of what is called the body politic, and convinced me that it could not suffer in its composition even should it admit a few sober, industrious and intelligent colored voters. It is a fact, moreover, that colored men did at the beginning of our national history, form a part of the body politic, not only in what are now the free states, but also in the slave states. Mr. Wm. Goodell, to whom the cause of liberty in America is as much indebted as to any other one American citizen, has demonstrated that colored men formerly voted in eleven out of the thirteen original states.

The war upon the colored voters, and the war upon the Union, originated with the same parties, at the same time, and for the same guilty purpose of rendering slavery perpetual, universal and all controlling in the affairs of the nation. Let this object be defeated and abandoned, let the country be brought back to the benign objects set forth in the preamble of the Constitution, and the colored man will easily find his way into the body politic, and be welcome in the jury box as well as at the ballot box. I know that prejudice largely prevails, and will prevail to some extent long after slavery shall be abolished in this country, but the power of prejudice will be broken when slavery is once abolished. There is not a black law on the statute book of a single free state that has not been placed there in deference to slavery existing in the slave states.

But it is said that the Negro belongs to an inferior race. Inferior race! This is the apology, the philosophical and ethnological apology for all the hell-black crimes ever committed by the white race against the blacks and the warrant for the repetition of those crimes through all times. Inferior race! It is an old argument. All nations have been compelled to meet it in some form or other since mankind have been divided into strong and weak, oppressors and oppressed. Whenever and wherever men have been oppressed and enslaved, their oppressors and enslavers have in every instance found a warrant for such oppression and enslavement in the alleged character of their victims. The very vices and crimes which slavery generates are usually charged as the peculiar characteristic of the race enslaved. When the Normans conquered the Saxons, the Saxons were a coarse, unrefined, inferior race. When the United States wants to possess herself of Mexican territory, the Mexicans are an inferior race. When Russia wants a share of the Ottoman Empire, the Turks are an inferior race, the sick man of Europe. So, too, when England wishes to impose some new burden on Ireland, or excuse herself for refusing to remove some old one, the Irish are denounced as an inferior race. But this is a monstrous argument. Now, suppose it were true that the Negro is inferior instead of being an apology for oppression and proscription, it is an appeal to all that is noble and magnanimous in the human soul against both. When used in the service of oppression, it is as if one should say, “that man is weak; I am strong, therefore I will knock him down, and as far as I can I will keep him down. Yonder is an ignorant man. I am instructed, therefore I will do what I can to prevent his being instructed and to withhold from him the means of education. There is another who is low in his associations, rude in his manners, coarse and brutal in his appetites, therefore I will see to it that his degradation shall be permanent, and that society shall hold out to him no motives or incitements to a more elevated character.” I will not stop here to denounce this monstrous excuse for oppression. That men can resort to it shows that when the human mind is once completely under the dominion of pride and selfishness, the reasoning faculties are inverted if not subverted.

I should like to know what constitutes inferiority and the standard of superiority. Must a man be as wise as Socrates, as learned as Humbolt, as profound as Bacon, or as eloquent as Charles Sumner, before he can be reckoned among superior men? Alas! if this were so, few even of the most cultivated of the white race could stand the test. Webster was white and had a large head, but all white men have not large heads. The Negro is black and has a small head, but all Negroes have not small heads. What rule shall we apply to all these heads? Why this: Give all an equal chance to grow.

But I am told that the Irish element in this country is exceedingly strong, and that that element will never allow colored men to stand upon an equal political footing with white men. I am pointed to the terrible outrages committed from time to time by Irishmen upon Negroes. The mobs at Detroit, Chicago, Cincinnati, and New York, are cited as proving the unconquerable aversion of the Irish towards the colored race.

Well, my friends, I admit that the Irish people are among our bitterest persecutors. In one sense it is strange, passing strange, that they should be such, but in another sense it is quite easily accounted for. It is said that a Negro always makes the most cruel Negro driver, a northern slaveholder the most rigorous master, and the poor man suddenly made rich becomes the most haughty insufferable of all purse-proud fools. Daniel O’Connell once said that the history of Ireland might be traced like a wounded man through a crowd — by the blood. The Irishman has been persecuted for his religion about as rigorously as the black man has been for his color. The Irishman has outlived his persecution, and I believe that the Negro will survive his.

But there is something quite revolting in the idea of a people lately oppressed suddenly becoming oppressors, that the persecuted can so suddenly become the persecutors. Let us see a small sample of the laws by which our Celtic brothers have in other days been oppressed. Religion, not color, was the apology for this oppression, and the one apology is about as good as the other.

The following summary is by that life-long friend of the Irish-Sydney Smith:

In 1695, the Catholics were deprived of all means of educating their children, at home or abroad, and of all the privileges of being guardians to their own or to other persons’ children. Then all the Catholics were disarmed, and then all the priests banished. After this (probably by way of joke) an act was passed to confirm the treaty of Limerick, the great and glorious King William, totally forgetting the contract he had entered into of recommending the religious liberties of the Catholics to the attention of Parliament.

On the 4th of March, 1704, it was enacted that any son of a Catholic who would turn Protestant should succeed to the family estate, which from that moment could no longer be sold, as charged with debt and legacy. On the same day, Popish fathers were debarred, by a penalty of five hundred pounds, from being guardians to their own children. If the child, however young, declared himself a Protestant, he was to be delivered immediately to the custody of some Protestant relation. No Protestant to marry a Papist. No Papist to purchase land or take a lease of land for more than thirty-one years. If the profits of the land so leased by the Catholic amounted to above a certain rate, settled by the act, farm to belong to the first Protestant who made the discovery. No Papist to be in a line of entail, but the estate to pass on to the next Protesant heir, as if the Papist were dead. If a Papist dies intestate, and no Protestant heir can be found, property to be equally divided among all the sons; or, if he has none, among all the daughters. By the 16th clause of this bill, no Papist to hold any office, civil or military. Not to dwell in Limerick or Galway, except on certain conditions. Not to vote at elections.

In 1709, Papists were prevented from holding an annuity for life. If any son of a Papist chose to turn Protestant and enroll the certificate of his conversion in the Court of Chancery, that court is empowered to compel his father to state the value of his property upon oath, and to make out of that property a competent allowance to the son, at their own discretion, not only for his present maintenance, but for his future portion after the death of his father. An increase of jointure to be enjoyed by Papist wives upon their conversion. Papists keeping schools to be prosecuted as convicts. Popish priests who are converted, to receive thirty pounds per annum.

Rewards are given by the same act for the discovery of Popish clergy — fifty pounds for discovering a Popish bishop, twenty pounds for a common Popish clergy, ten pounds for a Popish usher! Two justices of the peace can compel any Papists above 18 years of age to disclose every particular which has come to his knowledge respecting Popish priests, celebration of mass, or Papist schools. Imprisonment for a year if he refuses to answer. Nobody can hold property in trust for a Catholic. Juries in all trials growing out of these statutes to be Protestants. No Papist to take more than two apprentices, except in the linen trade. All the Catholic clergy to give in their names and places of abode at the quarter sessions, and to keep no curates. Catholics not to serve on grand juries. In any trial upon statutes for strengthening the Protestant interest, a Papist juror may be peremptorily challenged.

In the next reign, Popish horses were attached and allowed to be seized for the militia. Papists cannot be either high or petty constables. No Papists to vote at elections. Papists in towns to provide Protestant watchmen, and not to vote at vestries. In the reign of George second, Papists were prohibited from being barristers. Barristers and solicitors marrying Papists, considered to be Papists, and subjected to all penalties as such. Persons robbed by privateers, during a war with a Popish Prince, to be indemnified by grand jury presentments, and the money to be levied on the Catholics only. No Papist to marry a Protestant; any priest celebrating such marriage to be hanged.

A full acount of the laws here referred to may be found in a book entitled, “History of the penal Laws against Irish Catholics,” by Henry Parnell, member of Parliament. — They are about as harsh and oppressive, as some of the laws against the colored people in border and Western States. These barbarous and inhuman laws were all swept away by the act of Catholic Emancipation, and the present barbarous laws against the free colored people, must share the same fate.

There are signs of this good time coming all around us. Slavery has overleapt itself. — Having taken the sword it is destined to perish by the sword, and the long despised Negro is to bear an honorable part in the salvation of himself and the country by the same blow. It has taken two years to convince the Washington Government, of the wisdom of calling the black man to participate in the gigantic effort now making to save the country. Even now they have not fully learned it — but learn it they will, and learn it they must before this tremendous war shall be ended. — Massachusetts, glorious old Massachusetts, has called the black man to the honor of bearing arms, and a thousand are already enrolled.

Now what will be the effect? Suppose colored men are allowed to fight the battles of the Republic. Suppose they do fight and win victories as I am sure they will, what will be the effect upon themselves? Will not the country rejoice in such victories? and will it not extend to the colored man the praise due to his bravery? Will not the colored man himself soon begin to take a more hopeful view of his own destiny?

The fact is, my friends, we are opening a new account with the American people and with the whole human family. Hitherto we have been viewed and have viewed ourselves, as an impotent and spiritless race, having only a mission of folly and degradation before us. Tonight we stand at the portals of a new world, a new life and a new destiny. We have passed through the furnace and have not been consumed. During more than two centuries and a half, we have survived contact with the white race. We have risen from the small number of twenty, to the large number of five millions, living and increasing, where other tribes are decreasing and dying. We have illustrated the fact, that the two most opposite races of men known to ethnological science, can live in the same latitudes, longitudes, and altitudes, and that so far as natural causes are concerned there is reason to believe that we may permanently live under the same skies, brave the same climates, and enjoy Liberty, equality and fraternity in a common country.

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