Uncollected Frederick Douglass Speech Discovered

I love research. I feel like Indiana Jones when I’m digging around in a box crumbling paperwork at the legal archives. And, though it’s a lot easier to search old newspapers that have been digitized, it’s more of an adventure to browse the microfilm reels. For one thing, it’s the closest you can get to time travel. Whatever story you’re looking for is crammed in among ads for feed stores and constipation cures, all the gossip and drama of the day, and all of the things that seemed important to people in another day and age.

And you’re apt to find a lot more than just whatever you’re looking for: I can barely list all of the stories I’ve discovered on microfilm while I was looking for something else. The Lonesome Death of Barton Edsall, the wonderful tale of Sensational Viola, the adventures of Mary Holland, America’s ‘Woman Sherlock Holmes.” I even ran across a story that led to new victim of a known historical serial killer being identified one time. But it’s certainly not every day I run into something like an apparently-uncollected Frederick Douglass speech.

My work on the new “Who’s Who” book for Graceland Cemetery has recently had me digging up a lot more “early” Chicago sources – stuff from the 1830s-50s. A great many Underground Railroad veterans are at Graceland, and I’m trying to get the earliest accounts of their legal battles, adventures, and speeches. This led me to seek out a microfilm reel of Western Citizen, an anti-slavery newspaper published in Chicago in the 1840s, and its successor paper, Free West, which they had at the Chicago History Museum.

Like most 1840s Chicago papers, the Citizen was thin on local news. I sometimes joke that editors of those days figured that there were only eight or nine people in town who weren’t dying of cholera at any given time, and they probably already knew what was happening in town. But the Western Citizen still had some gems – accounts of fugitive slave issues in the city that I’d only seen retold in sources decades later (though they were usually retold by Zebina Eastman, who edited the Citizen and spent his old age reminiscing about it, so the older and later sources are often from the same guy), and a few stories of that nature that I hadn’t seen before at all. There was some new data about Graceland residents such as L.C.P. Freer, James H. Collins, Samuel Willard, and Seth Paine (and even cleared up the mystery of why the spelling in Willard’s firsthand account of his attempt to help a runaway slave is so wonky – the Citizen contained several letters Willard wrote to the editor about “spelling reform.”)

In the reel, I stumbled onto a transcript of a speech Frederick Douglass had given. One line jumped right out at me -“The slave, when he was first running away…. had rather meet a wolf than a Christian. Rather a rattlesnake than a man with a prayer book under his arm.” I took pictures of the whole article (I never print things; it’s faster and easier just to take pictures of the microfische screen), and started googling lines from the speech when I got home. It was, as Douglass speeches usually were, a really dynamite speech. But other than Eastman quoting a bit about Douglass saying he’d rather meet a wolf than a Christian, none of the lines came up in searches. As near as I can find, the Dec 1, 1853 issue of Free West is the only time the speech has been published.

There are some great pull quotes. Just a few:

“I have sometimes thought the farther men got up into the church, the further they got from humanity.”

“It is idle to hope that the politics of a country will be purer than its religion.”

“I said slavery is aggressive. Give it Florida to-day, and it will want Texas to-morrow. Give it Texas to-morrow, and it will want California the day after. Give it California, and it will demand the Isles of the Caribbean Sea. Give it these, and it will demand the whole continent. Give it this, and it will demand the whole world.”

” There is no city of refuge to which he can flee, who is guilty of the crime of having a darker skin than some of the rest of mankind.”

“You must abolish slavery, or be abolished by slavery.”

If I wanted to be dramatic I could call it a “lost” speech (for the sake of clicks, I probably should!), or “unpublished.” But it’s not really lost, in the sense that Lincoln’s 1856 Bloomington speech is lost, and not really unpublished since it was published in 1853. “Uncollected” is probably the best term. Maybe just “undigitized” or “ungooglable.” In any case, I can’t shake the feeling that it’s gotta be out there someplace, if it’s out there anywhere outside of a microfilm reel, it’s not easy to find.

So, a bit of background for the speech itself: in 1850, anti-slavery and abolitionist activists in Chicago were badly rattled by the Fugitive Slave Act, which required authorities in non-slave states to help slave catchers. It was dangerous even for free people of color, as enslavers could claim pretty much anybody as a runaway and the law was generally going to be on their side.

There were both pro and anti slavery members of both major political parties – the democrats and the whigs – but the anti-slavery voices always seemed to end up capitulating to the slave power, so there was a broad push throughout the 1850s for a new party that would take a tougher stance. There had been the “Free Soil Democrats,” the “Liberty Party,” and countless others. Though members of them always called themselves “abolitionists” in later decades, they were more properly “anti-slavery.” They believed slavery was wrong, didn’t want it to be in any new territories, and were generally willing to help slaves escape, but they didn’t exactly have a plan for what to do about the institution in places where it already existed. Many, I think, were “abolitionists at heart.” Their speeches certainly make it look as though they wanted slavery to end everywhere, but it seemed like an impossible goal at the time.

In 1853, the new party on the block was the “Free Democrats,” who believed in “No more slave states, no slave territories, no national slavery, and no national legislation for the extradition of slaves.” Members attempted to attract the anti-slavery voters of both major parties, drawing them into one coalition. Zebina Eastman served as the secretary. The party didn’t make much of a dent in national politics, but they held a convention in Princeton, IL in October, 1853, and brought in Frederick Douglass as a keynote speaker.

I couldn’t completely transcribe the speech, as the bottom of the page, and a few stray lines, were totally illegible in the microfilm. I’ve also broken it up into more paragraphs and added a few notes explaining topical references. But here’s the Free West‘s transcript of what Douglass said that day:


Delivered at the Illinois Free Democratic State Convention, held at Princeton (IL), Oct 25, 1853. Reported by L. North and A.C. Van Zant

Mr President, Ladies and Gentlemen:

Slavery has been sometimes called a peculiar institution – our peculiar institution – an institution peculiar to the South. I think no name so well befits it as peculiar. It is peculiar in that it can only exist by destroying the rights of some, and abridging the rights of others. It is peculiar in the laws designed to protect it. One peculiarity is, that the testimony of a slave may not be taken against his master, or any white man; peculiar in that one human being cannot (line illegible) respects. It is peculiar in that it does not recognize the marriage relations, it is peculiar in that it abolishes the relation of a father, so far as it can. Here at the North the child takes the name of its father, and follows his condition. In slavery it follows the condition of the mother. This is very peculiar. The reason of this peculiar feature is: the slaveholder sometimes finds it profitable and pleasurable to sustain the double relation of father and master.

I desire to say a few words with regard to the aggressive tendency of slavery. The principle was eloquently set forth this afternoon, that ‘The interest of one is the interest of the whole.’ Much has been said, and facts have been repeated in your hearing til they have become familiar to you, and I feel reluctant to reiterate them. But anti-slavery men must repeat facts and reasons, time and again.

The time was, when slavery was a peculiar institution of the south; but now we call it ‘our peculiar institution.’ It was once a local institution, but now it is a National institution. We were once asked, “What have we to do with slavery?” The questions may not be asked, “What have we not to do with slavery?” 

Slavery is aggressive. Slavery don’t like to see freedom anywhere. It must be strangled. I said slavery is aggressive. Give it Florida to-day, and it will want Texas to-morrow. Give it Texas to-morrow, and it will want California the day after. Give it California, and it will demand the Isles of the Caribbean Sea. Give it these, and it will demand the whole continent. Give it this, and it will demand the whole world. Hem it in at the South, and it will attempt to roll in at the North, and I am sorry to say there appears to be quite too strong a desire here to come under its rule. 

I think it not out of place to say to the people of the North, you must abolish slavery, or be abolished by slavery. Things certainly look to it. Men are not aware how little freedom in its essence remains. We consistently thank God that we live in a land of Liberty. From the proud Pacific that chafes our western shores, to the stormy Atlantic on our busy eastern coast, we bask in the sunshine of freedom. Our fourth of July orators, first of May anniversary speakers, and Doctors of Divinity tell us we are a God-ordained people, destined to evangelize the world; and yet there is not a nation on the whole face of the globe which presents a greater obstacle to freedom than ours, where Christianity finds so many difficulties to encounter as right here, in our own land. It is not so hard to carry the gospel in to the center of China or Africa, as to Mississippi, to Louisiana or Texas. The herald of the cross finds in our own land an enemy more subtle than in any other part of the globe.

While we thank God for the Bible and our institutions of learning, there are three and a half million of our fellow men unable to read and denied the world of the Lord! The minister will find the professed Christians of the South the most dangerous enemy – and enemy who will have disregard, and force others to disregard, the marriage institution, and all the sacred obligations they owe to God and to man. Slavery has strangled religion there, and it will here. It has tried to extend its scepter all over our land, and carry out its peculiar features everywhere. It aims to destroy all manly thought and action, and will unless it be firmly withstood.

The Whig and Democratic parties have with singular unanimity welcomed it; both have bowed their necks to the slave power. At Baltimore, in 1852, both parties declared their adhesion to the ‘Fugitive Slave Law,’ a law which has in it nearly all the peculiar elements of slavery, a law that strikes down the principles of liberty and establishes the whole doctrine of slavery. That law these two parties have recognized. Their respective resolutions are satellites of which this law is the center of light and attraction. This nefarious enactment strikes down the trial by jury, places the liberty of our American citizens in the hands of a bribed court, and convicts him upon evidence a thousand miles from the place where he is tried. 

The two parties call on you and me (for I am a voter in the State of New York) (cheers) to give them power – They ask us to make that infernal slave law a finality. Make it final; final as the laws of the Medes and Persians. They want us to swear that we never will be wiser. 

(A voice in the audience – “parties may not be wiser, but men will”). 

My friend well says, ‘parties may not be wise, but men will.’ They want to put out the light, whenever and wherever it shall shine. The Whigs declare they will discountenance (make faces at) all agitations of the subject. The democrats promise to resist all agitation. What similarity! They wish to abolish the right of Free Speech – They are not only united in this, but in other principles. It is truly said that there is no thing offered in one platform that is denied in the other.  On the subject of international improvements there has been a difference alleged. But there is no conflict. The Whigs are in favor of constitutional appropriations, and the democrats are opposed to (illegible) for this purpose. The differences between the two parties is about as great as ‘come to fairly and fairly come to’ (Laughter).

The bottom of the page is not legible, so the last paragraph in each column could not be transcribed

(Section Illegilble)

… should hear men with the strength and will of a John Knox, proclaiming the Higher law of God in opposition to the lower law of man. Everywhere language of denunciation, of resistance would be heard. It is not the ordinancy only, of baptism or the Sabbath, that we defend, but the right of man to observe it.

But no wonder you are not disturbed by this Fugitive Slave Law. Your religion is not a religion of justice and mercy. I wish you could open your eyes and see that this law has forbidden the preaching of the gospel. My friends, this ought to arouse you. Every man should be alarmed at such a base attempt to strike down his dearest interests.

With the Whig and Democratic parties, it is only regarded a thing affecting party (three lines illegible)… most sacred rights, still, they quietly submit to the gag, and are silent.

Need I tell you what is Christian duty here? This law has turned day into night. The slave follows the North Star through bog and (fog?), swimming rivers and crossing deep ravines. With feet sore, raiment torn, flesh emaciated, he flies, he gathers roots on which to subsist, and hides himself by day in the branches of trees. He comes to my door, knocks, and says ‘I am a stranger, hungry and naked, take me in. The slave hunters are on my track.’ – What is my duty? Why take him in, if all Hell is in pursuit. This is Christian duty. But for this act I am liable to be fined one thousand dollars, or be imprisoned six months. Yet we boast this is a free country, though there is no spot where the slave is safe. He is hunted everywhere. The slave, when he was first running away, distrusted the moon. He feared its light would discover him. He fears everything. He had rather meet a wolf than a Christian – had rather encounter a rattlesnake than a man with a prayer-book under his arm! Man should have in his countenance something sweet, smiling, heavenly, full of mercy and tenderness, but a man, a Christian in the popular sense, should not; no look of charity or mercy should ever beam from his benighted countenance.

We compliment Captain Ingraham, who saved Kozsta from imprisonment – probably from death  (an affair in which Capt. Ingraham saved Martin Kozsta, a non-citizen US resident, when he was abducted overseas, a case that led to rulings that non-citizen residents were still under American protection and won Ingraham a congressional gold medal  – ed). We laud his bravery to the skies, who in the face of the armed vessels of every nation of the world, dared to demand a man who had been seized as a fugitive from a despicable tyranny. And yet we have an Ingraham in the North, in the City of Brotherly Love, whose business it is to send back fugitives from American slavery. (audience: “Shame!”) (Commissioner Ingraham, a judge in Pennsylvania, made the news for sending fugitives back to slave states a few times in the early 1850s -ed).

There is no safety to the man who wishes to flee from bondage. He can find no safety anywhere. In ancient times there were cities of refuge, to which even the murderer might flee; but we have no place of safety – none. There is no city of refuge to which he can flee, who is guilty of the crime of having a darker skin than some of the rest of mankind.  We have broad prairies, we have deep valleys and mighty forests. We have our sacred places on which to erect monuments to liberty, but no place for the fugitive from slavery. There are no glens so secluded, no mountains so high, no caves so deep, that he can lift his eye to heaven and say ‘Blessed be God, I am free.’ 

You may start the slave, and chase (him) from sanctuary to sanctuary, across the green hills of New England, the battle fields of Concord and Lexington, on to where the shaft of Bunker Hill’s proud monument pierces the sky, and then beneath the shade of its cloud-capped summit the slave-hunter may place upon his limbs the shackles of slavery, and drag him to Fanueil Hall, or even across the very threshold of Independence Hall, where our revolutionary sires placed their signatures to the Declaration of Independence, ‘that highest page in manhood’s history,’ and there doom him and his posterity to endless servitude. 

Whigs and Democrats have pledged themselves that this land shall be given to the slave hunter. And God’s professed ministers preach obedience to the Fugitive Slave Law! Strange! But such is the case.

If you are Christians, true Christians, you cannot stay in either of these parties. But it is idle to hope that the politics of a country will be purer than its religion. I bring this matter home to the church and clergy, and to those who are believers. 

It is a disheartening circumstance, that the dominant parties of our land have bowed down to the Fugitive Slave law, and to slavery – Obedience and respect to these is forever to be the test of fitness for all offices. The old fashioned test of Jefferson, ‘Is he honest, is he capable,’ is thrown by, and the single one, ‘Is he a slave hunter?’ is substituted. To every true man, this must be disgusting. For Whigs who have hated the negro so that you would not touch him with a pair of tongs, are called on to run after, to catch and hug the fugitive! (laughter and cheers). 

But there is a still more disheartening feature. It is that this law has its main efficiency on account of the support of the clergy. Webster, Clay and Filmore could never have effected its support without the aid of the Clergy. Nor are these the mere common men. Their word would not be listened to, nor could it be obtained. Picked men are found all over the country. Picked men – nothing less than your Doctors of Divinity. I have sometimes thought the farther men got up into the church, the further they got from humanity. (Applause).

Men were wanted who stood high in the church – men who taught theology to give effect to this hateful law. Humanity was shocked, and trembled when it was first published to the world. But men high up in the church, in pontifical robes, gathered together and stood around it. There was Doctor Moses Stuart, Cox, Tyng, Lord, Sharp, Lathrop, Spencer, and a host of other Doctors who sent out their long sermons – not such as take but thirty minutes in the delivery – in the Castle Garden committee. These sermons were printed in cheap book form for circulation, and sent to Washington, and from there under the frank of Congressmen, were distributed all over the land. In these they tell us God ordained slavery, that the fugitive slave law is a..

(end section illegible).

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