The Lessons of Emancipation To The New Generation

This following speech was delivered at “Hoffman’s Grove” (which is now called Grove Park) in Elmira on August 3rd, 1880, as part of a celebration of the August 1st anniversary of the adoption of the British Slavery Abolition Act in the West Indies, and the emancipation of enslaved people there. The text of Douglass’s speech has been reconstructed from multiple sources. To view these sources for yourself, scroll down to the “Note On The Text” after the body of the speech. For more details about the historical contexts for the speech, please check out our supplementary Emancipation Week materials:

“Even If He Weren’t My Friend: Frederick Douglass & Mark Twain” by Matt Seybold

“Memory-Building & Memorializing in Elmira: Mark Twain & John W. Jones in Relation” by Jill Spivey Caddell

“The Fickle Affections of the Elmira Advertiser for Frederick Douglass” by Matt Seybold

“The Invisible Home of Frederick Douglass, John W. Jones, & Mark Twain” by Jill Spivey Caddell, Shirley Samuels, & Matt Seybold

This Matthew Brady portrait of Frederick Douglass was taken in 1880, the same years as Douglass’s Emancipation Day address.

Mr. President and Friends: – I thank you for this cordial greeting. I hear in it something like the thrilling notes of a welcome home after a long absence. More years of my life and labors have been put into this State than in any other State in the Union. Anywhere within a hundred miles of the goodly city of Rochester, I feel at home. Within that circumference, for enlightenment, liberality and civilization, the people have no superiors in this country or any other.

Allow me to thank you, also, for your generous words of sympathy and approval. In respect to this important support to a public man, I have been unusually fortunate.

My forty years work in the cause of the oppressed and enslaved, has been observed, well appreciated and well rewarded. All classes and colors, at home and abroad, have in this way held up my hands. Looking back to these longer years of toil and conflict, during which I have had blows to take as well as blows to give, and have sometimes received wounds and bruises, both in body and mind, my only regret is, that I have done so little to lift up and strengthen my long enslaved and still oppressed people.

I make these remarks, personal to myself, because I am standing mainly before a new generation. Most of the men with whom I lived and labored, five and thirty years ago, have passed away. There are but few left to tell the story of the early days of anti-slavery. Scarcely any of the colored men who advocated the cause, during that time, are now on the stage of active life – and I begin to feel lonely. But while I have the sympathy and approval of men and women like these before me – I pledge you my latest breath in behalf of justice, liberty and equality for all men.

The day we celebrate is pre-eminently the colored man’s day. The great event which has distinguished it, and which will forever distinguish it from all other days of the year, has justly claimed the thoughtful attention of the Statesmen, and of social reformers throughout the world. To us however, West India emancipation speaks more to feeling, than to thought. It stirs the heart and fills the soul with grateful sentiments.

In the history of our struggle with American slavery, the day we celebrate, has played an important part. Emancipation in the West Indies, was to us the first bright star in a dark and stormy sky; the first smile after a long Providential frown. It conveyed the first ray of hope to the enslaved of our land by demonstrating the possibility of negro freedom. Whoever else may forget or slight its claims, it will never be other than a memorable and glorious day in the minds of the colored people of the United State.

The story of it shall be brief and soon told: Six and forty years ago, the first day of this month, the day we are constructively celebrating, there went forth over the blue waters of the Caribbean Sea a great message hailed with startling shouts of joy, and loud and thrilling songs of praise. For on that day, eight hundred thousand people were liberated, set free, and received within the pale of Law – civilization and human Brotherhood.

How vast and sudden was the transformation! In one moment, the tick of a watch, the twinkling of an eye, a glance of the morning sun, saw a bondage of ages ended; saw the slave whip burnt to ashes; saw the slave’s chains melted and powerless; saw the slave’s heavy iron fetters all broken and buried forever. The change was so sudden, and so great that in the first moment of it, those who were the subjects of it hesitated as to what it was. They did not know whether to receive it as a reality or a dream. No wonder they were amazed and doubtful, and thought it too good to be true; But when those long enslaved, whip scarred, bruised and battered victims of the cruel old slave system, were fully assured that the good tidings, which had come across the seas were true, that they were indeed no longer slaves, when they knew that the slave driver’s arm had fallen by his side; that the lash was no longer to plow deep furrows into their quivering flesh, and they were no longer to be chained, bought and sold like horses, sheep and swine, their gratitude knew no bounds; their feeling manifested itself in the wildest possible forms of expression. They ran about, they danced, they gazed into the blue sky, they leapt into the air, they kneeled, they prayed, they shouted, they rolled upon the ground, they embraced each other, they threw their children high over their head, and caught them in their arms, they laughed and wept for joy. Those who witnessed the scene say they never saw anything like it before.

But now I must answer a question or two and thereby defend the custom we are here perpetuating. We are asked why celebrate West India Emancipation when we might celebrate American Emancipation? Why go abroad, when we might stay at home. The answer is easy: In the first place human liberty excludes all idea of home and abroad. It is universal and disdains localization. As Lowell says:

When a deed is done for freedom

Through the broad earths aching breast

Runs a thrill of joy prophetic

Trembling on from East to West.

It is bounded by no geographical lines or national limitations. Like the glorious sun in the Heavens, its light shines for all.

Then this West India exhibition of the power and glory of Liberty, standing alone, is worthy of celebration. Rich as this Nineteenth Century is, in its moral and material achievements – in its progress and civilization, (and it is very rich), it can claim nothing for itself greater, grander or more to its credit, than this West India Emancipation. Whether we consider the matter of it or the manner of it, the tree or its fruit, it is alike worthy of thought and memory.

Especially is the manner of its accomplishment worthy of consideration. Herein, I think, is its best lesson to the world. Here is its most encouraging word to all who toil and trust in the overthrow of injustice, slavery and oppression in the world.

Great and valuable concessions have been made to the liberties of mankind. They have, however generally come only at the command of the sword. But this concession, was an exception. It came not by the sword, but by the word – not by the brute force of numbers, but by the still small voice of truth; not by barricades, bayonets and bloody revolution; but by peaceful agitation; not by Divine interference; but by the exercise of simple human sentiment. In this peculiarity we have its greatest value. It is a revelation of peaceful human power. It shows what can be done against wrong in the world without armies on the earth, or angels in the sky. It shows that men have in their own hands the means of putting all their moral and political enemies under their feet, and of making this world a good and pleasant dwelling place for mankind, if they will but use them.

It was a new and much needed revelation of the power of conscience, and of human brotherhood, overleaping the accident of color and race, a grand human event wrought out by human means. For it was the faithful, persistent and enduring enthusiasm of Thomas Clarkson, William Wilberforce, Granville Sharpe, William Knibb, Henry Brougham, Thomas Fowell Buxton, Daniel O’Connell, George Thompson and their noble coworkers that finally thawed the British heart into sympathy for the slave, and moved the strong arm of that Government in mercy to put an end to his bondage.

John W. Jones, a former conductor on the Underground Railroad, was President of the Emancipation Day organizing committee and Douglass’s host for the day.

Let no American, especially no colored American withhold a generous recognition of this glorious achievement. What though it is not American, but British; what though it was not Republican, but monarchal; what though it was not from the American Congress, but from the British Parliament; what though it was not from the chair of a President, but from the throne of a queen, it was none the less a triumph of right over wrong, of good over evil and a victory for the whole human race.

Besides: We may properly celebrate this day because of its special relation to our American Emancipation. In doing this we do not sacrifice the general to the special, the universal to the local. The cause of human liberty is one the world over. They downfall of slavery under British power, meant the downfall of slavery ultimately, under American power, and the downfall of negro slavery everywhere. But the effect of this great and philanthropic measure, naturally enough, was greater here than elsewhere. Outside the British Empire, no other nation was in a position to feel it so much as we. The stimulus it gave to the American anti-slavery movement was immediate, pronounced and powerful. British example became a tremendous lever in the hands of American Abolitionists. It did much to shame and discourage the spirit of Caste and the advocacy of slavery in church and state. It could not well have been otherwise. No man liveth unto himself. What is true in this respect of individual men is equally true of nations. Both impart good or ill to their age and generation. But putting aside this consideration so worthy of thought, we have special reasons for claiming the First of August as the birth day of negro Emancipation, not only in the West Indies, but in the United States. Spite of our national Independence, a common language, a common literature, a common history, and a common civilization make us a part of the British Empire. England can take no step forward in the pathway of a higher civilization without drawing us in the same direction. She is still the mother country, and the mother too of our abolition movement. Though her Emancipation came in peace and ours in war; though hers cost treasure and ours blood, though hers was the result of a sacred preference, and ours resulted in part from necessity, the motive and mainspring of the respective measures were the same in both.

The abolitionists of this country have been charged with bringing on the war between the North and South, and in one sense this is true. Had there been no anti-slavery agitation in the North there would have been no active anti-slavery anywhere to resist the demands of slave power at the South, and where there is no resistance, there can be no war. Slavery would have then been nationalized and the whole country would then have been subjected to its power. Resistance to slavery and the extention of slavery, invited and provoked secession and war to perpetuate and extend the slave system. Thus in the same sense, England is responsible for our civil war. The abolition of slavery in the West Indies gave life and vigor to the abolition movement in America. Clarkson, of England, gave us Garrison of America. Granville Sharpe of England gave us our Wendell Phillips; and Wilberforce of England gave us our peerless Charles Sumner. These grand men, and their brave coworkers here took up the moral thunder bolts which had struck down slavery in the West Indies and hurled them with increased zeal and power against the gigantic system of slavery here, till goaded to madness, the traffickers in the souls and bodies of men, flew to arms, rent asunder the union at the centre, and filled the land with hostile armies and the ten thousand horrors of war. Out of this tempest, out of this whirlwind and earthquake of war came the abolition of slavery, came the employment of colored troops, came colored citizens, came colored jurymen, came colored congressmen, came colored schools in the South, and came the great amendments of our National Constitution. We celebrate this day too, for the very good reason that we have no other to celebrate. English emancipation has one advantage over American Emancipation. Hers has a definite anniversary. Ours has none. Like our slaves, the freedom of the negro has no birth-day. No man can tell the day of the month, or the month of the year upon which slavery was abolished in the United States. We cannot even tell when it began to be abolished. Like the movement of the sea, no man can tell where one wave begins and another ends. The chains of slavery with us, were loosened by degrees. First we had the struggle in Kansas with border ruffians, next we had John Brown at Harpers Ferry, next the firing upon Fort Sumter, a little while after we had Fremont’s order freeing the slaves of the Rebels in Missouri. Then we had General Butler declaring and treating the slaves of rebels as contraband of war; next we had the proposition to arm colored men and make them soldiers for the union. In 1862, we had the conditional promise of a proclamation of Emancipation from President Lincoln, and finally on the First of January 1863 we had the proclamation itself, and still the end was not yet. Slavery was bleeding and dying but it was not dead, and no man can tell just when its foul spirit departed from our land, if indeed it has yet departed, and hence we do not know what day we may properly celebrate as coupled with this great American event.

When England behaved so badly during our late civil war, I for one, felt like giving up the first of August celebrations. But I remembered that during that war, there were two Englands, as there were two Americas, and that one was true to liberty, while the other was true to slavery. It was not the England which gave us West India Emancipation that took sides with the Slaveholders Rebellion. It was not the England of John Bright, and William Edward Forster that permitted Alabama to escape from British Ports and prey upon our Commerce or that otherwise favored the slaveholding South; but it was the England which had done what it could to prevent West India Emancipation. It was the Tory party in England that fought the abolition party at home, and the same party it was that favored our slaveholding rebellion.

Under a different name we had the same or a similar party here, a party which despised the negro and consigned him to perpetual slavery; a party which was willing to allow the American Union to be shivered into fragments rather than that one hair on the head of slavery should be injured.

But Fellow Citizens I should but very imperfectly fulfill the duty of this hour if I confined myself to a merely historical or philosophical discussion of West India Emancipation. The story of the first of August has been told a thousand times over, and may be told again many thousand times more. The cause of freedom and humanity has a history and destiny nearer home.

How stands the case with the recently emancipated millions of colored people in our own country? What is their condition today? What is their relation to the people who formerly held them as slaves? These are important questions, and they are such as trouble the minds of thoughtful men of all colors at home and abroad.

On manuscript pages 27-28, Douglass crosses out a large portion of his quotation of John Philpot Curran. It is possible this edit was made when Douglass was excerpting the speech for later use. (see “Note on the Text”)

By law, by the Constitution of the United States, slavery has no existence in our country. The legal form has been abolished. By the law and the Constitution, the negro is a man and a citizen, and has all the rights and liberties guaranteed to any other variety of the human family, residing in the United States. He has a country, a flag and a Government, and may legally claim full and complete protection under the Laws. It was the ruling wish, intention and purpose of the loyal people after rebellion was suppressed to have an end to the entire case of that calamity, by forever putting away the system of slavery and all its incidents. In pursuance of this idea the negro was made free, made a citizen, made eligible to hold office, to be a jurymen, a legislator, and a magistrate. To this end several amendments to the Constitution were proposed, recommended and adopted. They are now part of the supreme law of the land, binding alike upon every State and Territory of the United States, North and South. Briefly this is our legal and theoretical condition. This is our condition on paper and parchment. If only from the national statute Book we were left to learn the true condition of the colored race, the result would be altogether credible to the American people. It would give them a clear title to a place among the most enlightened and liberal nations of the world. We could say of our country as Curran once said of England. “The spirit of British Law makes liberty commensurate with, and inseparable from the British soil, which proclaims even to the stranger and sojourner the moment he sets his foot upon British earth, that the ground on which he treads is holy and consecrated by the genius of universal Emancipation. No matter in what language his doom may have been pronounced, no matter what complexion incompatible with freedom an Indian or an African sun may have burnt upon him; no matter in what disastrous battle his liberty may have been cloven down. No matter with what solemnities his may have been devoted on the alter of slavery; the first moment he touches the sacred soil of Britain, the alter and the God sink together in the dust; his soul walks forth in her own majesty; his body swells beyond the measure of his chains that burst from around him, and he stands redeemed, regenerated and disenthralled by the irresistible genius of universal Emancipation.

Now I say that this eloquent tribute to England, if only we looked into our own Consitution, might apply to us. In that instrument we have laid down the Law now and forever, that there shall be no slavery or involuntary servitude in this Republic except for crime. We have gone still further: We have laid the heavy hand of the Consitution upon the matchless meanness of caste as well as the hell black crime of slavery. We have declared before all the world that there shall be no denial of rights on account of color or previous condition of servitude. The advantage gained in this respect is immense. It is a great thing to have the Supreme Law of the land on the side of justice and Liberty. It is the line up to which the nation is destined to march – the Law to which the nation’s life must ultimately conform. It is a great principle up to which, we may educate the people – and to this extent its value exceeds all speech.

But today, in most of the Southern States, the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments, are virtually nullified. The rights which they were intended to guarantee are denied and held in contempt. The Citizenship granted in the fourteenth amendment is practically a mockery, and the right to vote provided for in the fifteenth amendment is literally stamped out in the face of Government. The old master class is today triumphant, and the newly enfranchised class, in a condition but little above that in which they were found before the rebellion.

Do you ask me how, after all that has been done, this state of things has been made possible. I will tell you. Our reconstruction measures were radically defective. They left the former slave completely in the power of the old master, the loyal citizen in the hands of the disloyal rebel against the Government. Wise, grand and comprehensive in scope and design, as were the reconstruction measures; high and honorable as were the intentions of the statesmen by whom they were framed and adopted, time and experience which try all things, have demonstrated that they did not successfully meet the case.

In the hurry and confusion of the hour, and the eager desire to have the Union restored, there was more care for the sublime superstructure of the Republic than for the solid foundation upon which it could alone be upheld. They gave freedman the machinery of Liberty; but denied them the steam to put it in motion. They gave them the uniform of soldiers, but no arms; they called them citizens, and left them subjects; they called them free and almost left them slaves.

They did not deprive the old master class of the power of life and death over their former slaves. They couldn’t sell them but could starve them. Skin for Skin as Satan said of Job: all that a man hath will he give for his life.

Now the man who has it in his power to say to his fellow man, you must obey me or you shall starve, holds in his hands the power to make himself a master and his fellow man a slave. Could the nation have been induced to listen to those stalwart Republicans, Thaddeus Stevens and Charles Sumner, some of the evils from which we now suffer would have been averted. The negro would not today be on his knees, as he is, supplicating the old master class to give him leave to toil. His would not now be leaving the South as from a doomed city and seeking a home in uncongenial climes, but tilling the soil in comparative independence. He would not now be swindled out of his hard earnings by money orders for wages with no money in them. He would not be compelled to pay ten dollars per annum for an acre of ground which would not sell for more than half that sum. He would not have to pay four times more than fair price for a pound of Bacon as is now the case, because left by our emancipation measure at the mercy of the men who had robbed him all his life and his people for centuries. Much complaint is made that the Freedmen have made so little progress, and have shown so little ability to take care of themselves since their emancipation. Is this a just complaint? Is it reasonable? I neither think it just, nor fair. To me the wonder is not that the Freedmen have made so little progress; but that they have made so much. Not that they have been standing still; but that they stand at all. Reflect for a moment upon the situation in which these people found themselves when they were liberated; consider their ignorance, poverty and destitution and their absolute dependence upon the class by which, for two hundred years they had been held in Bondage, and you will be prepared to marvel that they have done as well as they have. History does not furnish an example of Emancipation under conditions less friendly to the emancipated class than was ours. Liberty came to them, not in mercy, but in wrath; not by moral choice, but by military necessity; not by the people among whom the Freedmen were to live, and whose good will was essential to the success of the measure; but by a people regarded as strangers and foreigners, invaders and trespassers, aliens and enemies. The very manner of their emancipation naturally invited to the head of the Freedmen the bitterest hostility. They were hated because they were free, and hated because of those who had freed them. They old master class looked upon Emancipation as one of the means by which rebellion had been overthrown and the South humiliated.

Nothing was to have been expected but that the old master class would endeavor as far as possible to make this great measure unsuccessful and odious. It was born in a tempest and whirlwind of war, and has lived in a storm of violence and blood. When the Hebrews were emancipated they were told to take spoil from the Egyptians. When the serfs of Russian were emancipated they were given three acres of ground upon which they could live and make a living. But not so when our slaves were emancipated. They were sent away empty handed, without money, without friends, and without a foot of land to stand upon. Old and young, sick and well were turned loose to the open sky, naked to their enemies. They old slave quarter that had before sheltered them and the fields that had yielded them corn were now denied them. The old master class in their wrath, told them to clear out, the Yankees have freed you, now let them feed and shelter you.

This is an early 20th-century depiction of Grove Park, which had previously been called “Hoffman’s Grove.” The land was originally owned by one of the city’s early settlers, George Hoffman. At the time of Douglass’s speech, it was owned by George McCann who, six years later, sold it to the city to become a public park. You can view its location on our interactive map of 1901 Elmira.

Inhuman as was this treatment it was the natural result of the bitter resentment felt by the old master class, and in view of it, the wonder is not that the colored people of the South have done so little in the way of acquiring a comfortable living, but that they live at all. Take all the circumstances into consideration, the colored people have no reason to despair. We still live, and while there is life there is hope. The fact that we have endured wrongs and hardships which would have destroyed any other race and have increased in numbers and public consideration, out to strengthen our faith in ourselves and our future. Let us then, whenever we are, whether at the North or at the South, resolutely struggle on in the belief that there is a better day coming and that we by patience, industry, uprightness and economy may hasten to that better day. I will not listen myself, and I would have you listen to the nonsense, that no people can succeed in life among a people by whom they have been despised and oppressed. The statement is erroneous and contradicted by the whole history of human progress. A few centuries ago, all Europe was cursed with serfdom or slavery – traces of this bondage may yet be discovered; but they are now so dim and shadowy as not be seen with the naked eye. The Jews only a century ago were despised, hated and oppressed, but they have defied, met and vanquished the hard conditions imposed upon them, and are now opulent and powerful, and compel respect in all countries. Take courage from the example of all Religious denominations that have sprung up since Martin Luther. Each in its turn has been oppressed and persecuted. Methodists, Baptists and Quakers have all been compelled to feel the lash and sting of popular disfavor – yet all in their turn have conquered the prejudice and hate of their surroundings.

Greatness does not come to any people on flowery beds of ease. We must fight to win the prize. No people to whom Liberty is given, can hold it as firmly and wear it as grandly as those who wrench their liberty from the iron hand of the tyrant. The hardships and dangers involved in the struggle give strength and toughness to the character, and enables it to stand firm in storm as well as sunshine. One thought more, before I leave this subject, and it is a thought I wish you all to lay to heart, practice it yourselves and teach it to your children. It is this: neither we nor any other people, will ever be respected till we respect ourselves, and we will never respect ourselves till we have the means to live respectably. An exceptionally poor and dependent people, will be despised by their opulent surroundings, and despise themselves. You cannot make an empty sack stand on end. A race which cannot save its earnings, which spends all it makes when it is well, and goes in debt when it is sick can never rise in the scale of civilization no matter under what laws of Civilization it may chance to be. Put us in Kansas or in Africa, and until we learn to save more than we spend, we are sure to sink and perish.

It is not the nature of things that all should be equally rich in this worlds goods. Some will be more successful than others, and poverty in many cases is the result of misfortune, rather than crime; but no race can afford to have all its members the victims of this misfortune, without being considered a worthless race. Pardon me therefore, for urging upon you, my people, the importance of saving your earnings, of denying yourselves in the present, that you may have something in the future, of consuming less for yourselves, that your children may have a start in life when you are gone. With money and property comes knowledge, and power. A poverty stricken class will be an ignorant and despised class, and no amount of sentiment can make it otherwise. This part of our destiny is in our own hands. Every dollar you lay up represents one days independence, one day of rest and security in the future. If the time shall ever come when we shall possess among the colored people of the United States a class of men, noted for enterprise, industry, economy, and success, we shall no longer have any trouble in the matter of civil and political rights. The battle against popular prejudice will have been fought and won, and in common with all other races and colors we shall have an equal chance in the race of life.

But I cannot dwell upon topics of this nature any longer. While this not a political gathering, it is not improper on this free occasion, to call attention to the fact, that we are now fairly within the rapid current of a political canvass of vast and commanding importance to the whole country, and of special and pressing interest to us as a part of an oppressed and proscribed people.

Douglass spent much of the Summer and Fall of 1880 stumping for the Republican ticket in New York and Indiana, two crucial swing states that went to the Democrats in 1876. Both were won narrowly by Republicans in 1880.

On the fourth of November next a President and a Vice President of the United States are to be chosen. The candidates for these high offices are already in the field. The national Republican party held in Chicago, nominated and commended James A. Garfield of Ohio, and Chester A. Arthur of New York for these high offices. The first for President and the second for Vice President.

On the other hand, the Democratic Party meeting at Cincinnati, a few weeks later, nominated for the same offices, General Hancock, and Mr. English. As these two parties mainly devide the voters of the whole country, the alternative now before us is James A. Garfield, the Republican, or Winfield Scott Hancock, the Democrat. Both parties are calling upon us in common with all other citizens, for our voice, our work and our vote for their respective candidates.

What answer shall we make, what answer should we make to these two political parties? Shall we say James A. Garfield of Ohio, or Winfield Scott Hancock of Pennsylvania? Shall it be the National Republican party, or the sectional Democratic party. Where shall we go? Before answering this question, allow me a work in respect to the nature of the canvass. To my mind it is not so much a canvass of the merits of the candidates as a canvass of the merits of the parties. It is not so much, who or what is Garfield or Hancock; but what is the character, composition, tendencies, principles, aims and ends of the respective parties by which they have been brought to the front and by which they are commended and supported. In other words which of the two great parties shall dictate the policy and administer the National Government during the four years succeeding the fourth of next March? Experience has demonstrated that this is not a Government of persons, but of parties, that ours is not an autocracy, but a Republic. There is in it a one man power – but it is a power qualified by a written Constitution, by political parties, and by the declared and settled judgement of the American people.

If at any time a President of the United States should take it into his head, that he is the State, that he is wise enough and strong enough to carry on this Government without the support and cooperation of a party, or that he can make or unmake parties at his pleasure, he will find himself in deep water and in a sinking condition.

All who have tried this experiment have miserably failed. John Tyler tried it, and failed. Millard Fillmore tried it and failed, Andrew Johnson tried it and failed, and no man will try it hereafter and succeed. Parties are not made, but grow. They do not originate with rulers, but with the people, and hence their power and vitality. In politics as well as elsewhere the whole is more than a part, the many more than the few. Elihu Burritt used to say, it was better to be a small piece of something than a large piece of nothing. As the nation is more than a party, so a party is more than an individual. The creator is ever more than the creature. The candidate is not the creator of the party; but the party is the creator of the candidate. They have the power to lift up, and they have the power to cast down, and they have generally shown a pretty strong disposition to retain this power and to exercise it when required so to do. In a word, the party, whether it be the Democratic Party, or the Republican Party, will be the power behind the Throne itself. Hence we should not exalt the importance of the candidate above the party, and enter into a contest about mere personal qualities or achievements; but should weigh and measure the parties which are to mould, guide, command and control them.

But let their be no misconstruction here. Let no man imagine that in thus subordinating the candidates to the great parties to which they belong that I either underestimate their importance, or shrink from a comparison of their respective merits. I see nothing in the situation to suggest or impose this precedence. I hardly think that James A. Garfield has anything to fear from the most rigid and searching comparison with W. S. Hancock, equally certain am I that Chester A. Arthur cannot suffer by comparison with William H. English.

On the day before Douglass’s Emancipation Day appearance, the Elmira Advertiser (a staunch Republican newspaper) reminded its readers of William H. English’s 1860 question from the floor of the House of Representatives: “How long will it be before Hon. Pompey Smash, Fred Douglass or some other kinky-headed and thick-lipped darkey presents himself here, all redolent with the peculiar odor of his race, to claim a seat as one of the people’s representatives?”

It is said in praise of General Hancock, that when this country was in the throes of Rebellion, and many of those who had been educated at West Point at the Public expense were going over to the enemy, that he remained faithful and loyal; but so did James A. Garfield. It is said that Hancock fought bravely, skillfully and successfully to suppress the rebellion; so did James A. Garfield. Thus in loyalty to the union and in bravely fighting to maintain it against the slaveholding oligarchy that sought to overthrow it, Hancock gains nothing over Garfield in the comparison.

Both men are entitled to the respect and gratitude of the American people for the part they took in that supreme crisis. It is hard for men to be just. Hard for an Englishman to be just to an Irishman, hard for an Irishman to be just to an Englishman, for a Christian to be just to a Jew, a white man to a Chinaman, or a Democrat to be just to a Republican – but I propose to be just to this loyal fighting Democrat at least. If either has the better of the other in the comparison thus far, the palm must be awarded to James A. Garfield. Hancock was under special obligations of honor and duty to go into that war. He had been educated and trained at the public expense for that very contingency. That he did not meanly, traitorously and cowardly skulk as many of his Democratic brethren did, is creditable alike to his head and heart. But neither the act nor the motive places this man one hairsbreadth above Garfield. A West Point graduate, a military man by profession, in search of reputation at the cannon’s mouth, must have felt it a small sacrifice, and very strong temptation to take a hand in the war to suppress the rebellion.

On the other hand there were special reasons why Garfield should hesitate and even decline the fiery ordeal. He was a man of peace by profession, taste and inclination. He was devoted to art and science; but not to the art and science of war. For him the tented field had no attraction, and the black of the Bugle no music: now for such a man, uncovered by any special obligation, to drop all, at the first cry of danger and distress of his country, and bare his breast to the storm of war, should give him a higher piece in our respect and esteem, than would be due to the educated, trained and necessarily ambitious warrior.

When Garfield went to the war, it was not because he was, in legal phrase held and firmly bound to go. He went not as a bondman; but as a freeman. The motive and mainspring of his action was instinctive, spontaneous loyalty and patriotism. I think well of military schools and standing armies. They are important to the public order. But experience has shown that the best defense of free American Institutions, is in the hearts and arms of the American people themselves. This truth is happily illustrated in the character and conduct of James A. Garfield and the patriotic millions of the North during the late rebellion – the men who could leave the plow, the desk, the plane, the factory, and the peaceful walks of life and march in defense of their country to any field however remote, and assail any point however dangerous.

I do not undervalue the trained soldier. To my mind, no grander man now walks the continent than the trained soldier, and tried statesman, U. S. Grant. Always true, always modest, always magnanimous, always wise, he is today, as is every stalwart Republican in the land, a firm supporter of Garfield and Arthur.

We have now seen how our candidates stand as soldiers and as loyal men. It would be easy to carry the comparison further and illustrate by a patient statement of facts. This however is unnecessary. The facts can be found in documents already before the world, known and read of able men, and need not occupy our time here. Let us now get a little nearer to these men, and see how they compare in some other important respects. How do they stand as to ability and statesmanship? Here most manifestly we have everything in favor of Garfield and simply nothing in favor of Hancock.

No honest Democrat who knows anything about the qualifications of the two men will venture to compare Hancock with Garfield in respect to statesmanship. General Hancock himself, does not and cannot hold himself out to the world as a statesman. He is too sensible, and too well aware of the good sense of the American people – and like a soldier, he is too careful to avoid making himself ridiculous by any such a pretention. He is a soldier and a patriot. That is all. Much in these, nothing in anything else. Equally meritorious with him in these, Garfield is superior to him in everything else.

Theodore Parker, divided greatness into three grades: First greatness in administration; second, greatness in the ability to organize: Thirdly; greatness in the discovery of truth, and this last was the greatest of all greatness. It does not appear that General Hancock has shown himself great in either of these grades of greatness, certainly not in the highest grade.

The only statesmanlike sentiment with which he is credited, even by his political friends, is that the military power should be subordinate to the civil power. That is a very good sentiment; but it is neither original nor profound. It has floated on the surface of American politics from the beginning of our Government.

The only significance it had when uttered by General Hancock was due to the circumstances that surrounded him, and these condemn it as inappropriate. It was uttered in the South, when the embers of rebellion were still smoking, when Andrew Johnson, (the Moses of the colored man) had betrayed that race into the bloodstained hands of the old master class; when he had betrayed the Republican party, by which he had been elected, when he was plotting the organization of a new party upon its ruins, when he was was seeking the destruction of the Freedman’s Bureau; when outrage, riot and murder held sway in the South, when the only protection the colored people of the South had was the arm of the Federal soldier, and it was uttered with a view to deprive our people even of this imperfect protection, and to make their subjection to the old master class full and complete.

Now to this utterance, more than to all his services to the union cause General Hancock is indebted for his nomination to the Presidency of the United States by the Democratic party. His services to the union cause is to blind the North, and the order in which this sentiment appears, is to win the South – but the main element, which has brought him to the front, is that he has since the war on the all important question of protection to the Freemen, sympathised with the old master class. This is the statesmanship by which he is commended. One idea, one alone, and that is the subordination of loyal military power to rebel slaveholding civil power.

As US Marshal for the District of Columbia, Douglass would play a prominent role in the inauguration ceremonies for James A. Garfield in March of 1881.

Now how stands the case of General Garfield? He has been in office and in the public eye ever since the suppression of rebellion. He has during the last few years, since James G. Blaine left the House of Representatives been the leader of that body, and the most conspicuous and commanding figure seen there. His name is a household word. His voice and vote has been given on every important question which has engaged the attention of the House of Representative during the last sixteen years. I need not refer in detail to his record. He has shown himself a clearheaded and thoughtful statesman – By his frequent and powerful speeches in vindication of the principles of justice and Liberty in that body he has placed himself in the front rank of American statesmen. The time would fail me if I attempted any such work here.

I come back then, to the question, the all important question, as to what answer we ought to make to these appeals for our voices and our votes. In no relation we sustain to our fellow man is wisdom more required than here. There is no calculating the good or the evil that may come to our country and to ourselves from wise or foolish political action and association.

Certainly in order to vote wisely with any party, we ought to have a clear understanding of its character, composition and tendencies. We should know what have been its principles, its doctrines, and its measures. No man can be true to himself, to his people or his country, who does not make himself master of this knowledge. Wherever else we may be stupid and ignorant, here we are bound to be wide awake and intelligent. How then shall this knowledge, so imperatively necessary to the public good be obtained? I answer, not by shutting our eyes and stopping our ears, not by cultivating forgetfulness of the past and refusing to look into the antecedents of a political party, not by blind trust in the professions of individuals on the street or on the stump who for selfish purposes may conceal the truth from you. There are men who would be miserable if they wronged you to the extent of a dime, who would without scruple mislead you in politics. My advice to all, and especially to the colored people of this country, is that they search the heart and history of political parties which ask their support.

Let me first call attention to the character, composition, principles, doctrines and aims of the Democratic party, and in dealing with that party, I find no place for soft speech, delicate compliment or patronizing disclaimers. Neither fear nor favor should come between the Citizen and this stern duty of investigation. This is not the place for the elegant circumlocutions of the drawing room and the parlor. Wherever else men may be weak and effeminate, here they should be honest and stalwart. We should be either hot or cold, one thing or the other. It offends my soul to hear a man talk as if one party were about as good as another, as if he would keep an open door between these parties, so as easily to glide from one to the other as interest or inclination may prompt. I am a Republican, a black Republican, a stalwart Republican. And I look at the Democratic party from the Republican point of view, and not from any middle ground between the two parties. I do not deny that possibility of reformation to any political party. It is composed of men, and men may be wiser and better in one generation than in another. Because a party pursued a bad and wicked end forty years ago – may not make it impossible, that it shall pursue a good one now. But we must take a rational view of probabilities, and a stern view of facts as well. We should remember that the sins of the fathers descend to their children from generation to generation. From its very nature, the essential character of a political party is incapable of sudden and violent change, either from good to evil or from evil to good. It is in fact, more likely to go from bad to worse and to go rapidly, than from good to better. A stream flowing through a given channel wears it deeper and deeper the longer it runs.

To hear some men talk you might think the character of a great party worn as a very loose garment – that it may be slipped on, and off without effort, and at a moment, or like a porous plaster to the back, easily removed or replaced with a little tepid water, or by holding it to a moderately warm smoothing iron. But the character of a political party is no loose garment, and no plaster to the back. It is a part of the bone, muscle, fat and fibre. It can be changed only by changing the air it breathes, and the diet on which it lives.

It may easily change its form, but not its substance. It may assume a virtue, if it has it not. Once at least in its life the Democratic party has given a striking example of this sort, of which I may say some more hereafter.

When the Devil was sick

The Devil as saint would be

But when the Devil got well

The Devil a saint was he.

from Gargantua & Pantagruel by Francois Rabelais (Book IV, Chapter xxiv) [1548]
The Library of Congress manuscript ends with Douglass quoting from Rabelais, but we know from newspaper accounts that the speech continued for some time thereafter. The remainder we take from the Elmira Advertiser transcription. Read the “Note on The Text” for why.

In its lean, hungry condition, eager and restless, more reduced in weight and size than Tanner after his fasting experiment, the Democratic party has several times since the war surprised and startled the country by a sudden and violent charge of fraud. I have seen a dancer on the stage who was to outward seeming a man at one moment and a woman the next, yet it was the same person, and the deception only deceived for a second. The Democratic party is like Barnum‘s dancer. It turns about and whirls about, and does just so.

To know the character and the true inwardness of the Democratic party we must not limit ourselves to its present appearance and professions. Political parties, like individual men, are governed and will be governed by their antecedents. We must go back to such times and such events as reveal its animus.

I know that its leaders will howl and gnash their teeth if we go into their closet and drag out the ghastly skeletons; be we must do it nevertheless. What a party has done when it has the power that party is likely to do when it again gets power.

I admit that the American people have a tolerably good memory, but they are more likely to forget too soon than remember too long the actions of parties during the late war.

Twenty years ago the Democratic party of the South, then, as now, the controlling power in the party, told us if it failed in the pending election to keep the control it then had, of the Federal Government, the South would secede. Anticipating resistance to their meditated treason and rebellion, the Democratic party of that section, long before the election, organized and armed itself for bloody contest.

The Democratic party being then in power, holding in its hands both the purse and the sword of the nation, not only did nothing to check this frightful and devilish purpose, but did all it could to cripple the nation and strengthen its enemies. Jeff Davis was busy in the Senate and Floyd in the war office, the one by speech and the other by acts – worked in common cause of treason, while the Democratic President sat trembling in the Presidential chair, telling us that there was no power in the Constitution to coerce a State.

Oh, Fellow Citizens! Those were terrible times and we do well to remember them, and to remember what followed. I need not tell you that the bloody threat of the Democratic party was literally carried out. The contingency arose, the good and great Abraham Lincoln was elected, the Loyal nation refused to confide the Government to the Democratic party, and the Democratic party did precisely as it said it would. It sundered the Union at the centre, confronted the sections with hostile armies, murdered half a million of men, filled the land with widows and orphans, and piled up a debt against the nation heavier than a mountain of gold.

Now wonder that the Democratic party now covers its bleared eyes with its hands; no wonder that it shrinks from its blood-stained path; no wonder that the nation remembers and shudders, for where under the whole heavens was there ever such a crime committed and its perpetrators treated with such amazing leniency?

The blood of patriots, the tears of woe-smitten widows and orphans, cry from the ground, but not for vengeance; they only implore us to swear, and to faithfully perform our oath, that with the help of God no representative of that Democratic party, under what guise soever he may come, shall ever sit again in the Presidential chair and dictate the policy and shape the destiny of this great nation.

But, fellow citizens, I will, if you please, continue the story of the Democratic party. While it was vigorously carrying on the war at the South, it was not idle at the North. While our recruiting sergeants were marching through our streets, with drum and fife, banner and badge, from morning till night, foot-sore and weary, calling for men to fill up the gaps made by rebel bullets in the loyal army, this party was fomenting riot and bloodshed against the draft here in the North – creating a reign of terror in New York and doing all it could to embarrass the government and dishearten its friends. Had the doors of all the prisons in the land been opened, and all the thieves, thugs and murderers turned loose to prey upon the country, the evil would have been far less than that inflicted by the Democratic party.

And now where is the evidence that this party has repented? Where is the proof that its character has changed for the better? Is it to be found in the fact, that when the war was over, it opposed with might and main all the measures of the government to secure, not indemnity for the past but security for the future? Is it to be found in the fact that it opposed the abolition of slavery, the enfranchisement of the freedmen, and the maintenance of the public credit by resumption of and payment of the national debt? Is it to be found in its refusal to pay Deputy Marshals for doing their duty in the enforcement of the laws plainly written in the statute book of the nation? Is it to be found in the fact that they find in the Solid South, made solid by lawless violence and murder, hope for the election of Hancock? Is it to be found in the fact that as soon as they got possession of the Senate and House of Representatives, it promptly turned out all the minor officers of those bodies and put rebels in their places? These and a hundred other facts show that we have today the same old party to fight that confronted us during the war, and nothing else.

Of the Republican party I need not speak. It is the same as during and before the war, the same enlightened, loyal, liberal, and progressive party that it was. It is the party of Lincoln, Grant, Wade, Seward and Sumner, the party to which we are today indebted for the salvation of the country, and today it is well represented in its character and composition by James A. Garfield and Chester A. Arthur.

Now fellow citizens, I have done, I leave you to decide as to which of these parties you will have to shape the policy and control the destiny of this country during the next four years. The people of no State in the Union have the power so largely to decide this question as the people of the State of New York, and with you will be the largest responsibility.

I have no charge to give to the colored voters of this state. You are fifteen thousand in number, and your vote may turn the scale one way or the other, and say whether this country shall be ruled by a party of liberal ideas, by justice and fair play, or by a party especially distinguished by its devotion to slavery, rebellion and bitter prejudice against the race to which you belong. Each colored voter of this State should say in scripture phrase, “may my hand forget its cunning and my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth if ever I raise my voice or give my vote, for the nominees of the Democratic party.”

Note On The Text

by Matt Seybold (Editor of

“Extracts” from this speech have been included in several collections of Frederick Douglass’s work, beginning with Douglass’s own Life & Times of Fredrick Douglass, published in 1881. However, so far as I can ascertain, the full arc of the speech as it was delivered on August 3rd, 1880 has never previously been published. The reasons for this are unclear, although I have a hypothesis, which I will outline below. First, however, I want to comment on the sources used to create the above edition of the speech.

First and foremost, I have worked from Douglass’s own manuscript, now part of the open-access collection: The Frederick Douglass Papers at the Library of Congress. Newspaper accounts of the event report that Douglass read his speech from manuscript, so I proceeded under the assumption that the manuscript more closely resembles the speech Douglass gave in Elmira than does either the revised “extract” he published the next year in Life & Times or the newspaper transcriptions that circulated in the days following (more on these to come). Here is the Library of Congress manuscript:

In transcribing Douglass’s manuscript, I retained his original punctuation. It is possible that Douglass’s sometimes unconventional usage of commas and dashes may have been guideposts for elocution. It is also possible that sometimes I have misinterpreted a stray pen mark as purposeful punctuation. I also strove to retain his spelling, capitalization, and other stylistic idiosyncrasies. Douglass’s penmanship is impeccable, but there are still occasional ambiguities. You can, of course, review the manuscript and apply your best judgment.

The main problem with the manuscript is that it is incomplete. Douglass himself numbered the pages. The first page is missing and, based on newspaper accounts, Douglass spoke for some time after reciting the snippet of verse on the 74th and final page of the Library of Congress manuscript. While it is certainly possible that Douglass chose to begin and end his speech extemporaneously, I have reason to believe his manuscript was divided after the speech and that the missing portion of it came into the hands of Elmira journalist, Dr. Ira F. Hart.

Hart was, in 1880, the editor and part owner of the Elmira Advertiser, which was, at the time, the only daily newspaper in the city. Hart had served the Advertiser in several roles since 1860, when he was also a full-time physician and a surgeon at the Union Army hospital located near the Chemung River on Elmira’s west side (now known as Foster House). Hart became editor of the Advertiser in 1870, remained in that role until 1886, and retired from the paper altogether in 1889. However, he continued to contribute to other local periodicals, especially the Elmira Star-Gazette, through the first decade of the 20th Century. (It’s worth mentioning here that Hart had a spectacularly long life for a man of his generation, nearly 85 years.)

The “With Pad & Pencil” columns were a regular feature of the Elmira Star-Gazette during the final decade of Hart’s life. The Star-Gazette was then co-edited and co-owned by Frank Gannett and Seymour Copeland, who would become media moguls during the interwar period, eventually founding the Gannett News Service (now Gannett Co.). “With Pad & Pencil” was the original version of what would become a speciality of Gannett-owned paper, a selection of very short squibs, gossip, announcements, and other bits of information which were not substantive enough to warrant a headline unto themselves but would likely pique the interest of local readers. Among these on March 6, 1911 is a very cursory profile of Dr. Hart focused on his collection of scrapbooks.

The contents of Hart’s scrapbooks include what the Star-Gazette correspondent calls “two original manuscripts that [Dr. Hart] values very highly.” These have been “bound in book form” and are “well-preserved.” The first is the address from the dedication of Woodlawn Cemetery, the second is Douglass’s speech, described as follows:

The volume from Dr. Ira F. Hart’s scrapbook collection held by the Chemung County Historical Society.

Unfortunately, while the Chemung County Historical Society does have one volume from Dr. Hart’s scrapbook collection (fascinating in its own right), I have been unable, as yet, to trace what happened to the other volumes, including the one containing what I presume to be the missing pages of Douglass’s “Lessons of Emancipation” manuscript.

Further leading me to this hypothesis is that Dr. Hart’s Elmira Advertiser published a transcript of Douglass’s speech on the back page of their August 4, 1880 issue. While Dr. Hart was quite a talented stenographer (something commented upon by his fellow journalists), there are several moments early in the Douglass’s speech where he resorts to paraphrasing or substantively departs from the language of the Library of Congress manuscript.

Most notably, early in the speech (on the page Douglass numbered “5” in his manuscript) Hart temporarily ceases his transcription for a period of nearly 25 manuscript pages, stating only “Mr. Douglass then a great length proceeded to enlarge on historical matters of emancipation import, and discussed the moral aspects and results of freedom upon the colored race, and justified in ample manner the American celebration of English emancipation, as in a measure the opening wedge to the birth, so to speak, of American disenthrallment. Mr. Douglass also touched, in an eloquent manner, upon the condition and prospects of his people in this country.”

“Lessons of Emancipation” is structured in three parts. Hart’s transcription omits almost the entirety of the first part, the comparison of British and American paths to emancipation, which is the occasion for Douglass speaking in the first place.

Hart also entirely omits Douglass’s introduction to the second part of his speech, on the condition of Black people in the former Confederate States, and abridges and paraphrases much of the second part, notably eliminating Douglass’s detailed descriptions of the sharecropping system. The first 42 pages of Douglass’s manuscript are reduced to less than one column (or roughly 15%) of Hart’s transcription. The remaining columns in the Elmira Advertiser recount in great detail the final section of Douglass’s speech: his endorsement of the Republican candidate, James A. Garfield, for President. Exactly one column (or 20%) of the transcription comes after the text of Douglass’s manuscript.

Back Page of Elmira Advertiser (August 4, 1880)

As you can see, the Advertiser retrospectively framed Douglass’s appearance at “Hoffman’s Grove” as a campaign speech, calling the transcription they provided “a splendid campaign document” and encouraging readers to “read and circulate.” This they did. Portions of the Advertiser account made it into other newspapers, far and wide, in the coming weeks, including the New York Times. Most of the publications produced in later collections of Douglass’s speeches use the Elmira Advertiser transcription, including the authoritative Frederick Douglass Papers from Yale University Press.

The Papers editors chose to treat the Advertiser transcription and the “extract” from Life & Times as two distinct documents. They do not attempt to synthesize them. They do not appear to rely upon the manuscript, and thus there is material in the above reconstruction of the speech which has never been published before. The version Douglass published in Life & Times is heavily revised and ends on manuscript page “46,” just before he turns to the election.

My hypothesis is likely becoming clear at this point. I suspect that Douglass gave Hart the latter portion of his manuscript. The Advertiser was a heavily partisan paper which, following the July conventions, had started dedicating at least one full page in every issue to campaigning for Garfield. Hart may not have been particularly interested in the subject matter from the first two sections of Douglass’s address, or Douglass may have wished to retain those portions for his own purposes. Perhaps Douglass regarded the political endorsement portion of his speech as fleeting and immaterial. The election season would soon be over, though the plight of emancipated people would not be.

The “extract” from the speech published the next year focuses on the arguments from the first half of “Lessons of Emancipation.”

While I have sought to reconstruct the text published above with an eye towards reproducing the speech as it was likely delivered on August 3, 1880 in Elmira, I strongly encourage scholars to consider all of the source texts. We hope to facilitate such engagement by embedding all those sources together in this note.

I conclude with a plea to all readers, especially residents of Elmira and the Southern Tier. Help us find the missing pages of Douglass’s manuscript! There’s a good chance Dr. Hart’s scrapbooks are in somebody’s attic somewhere!

Matt Seybold is Associate Professor of American Literature & Mark Twain Studies at Elmira College, resident scholar at the Center For Mark Twain Studies, & editor of He would like to acknowledge the following people who have played crucial roles in preparing the reconstruction of Douglass’s Emancipation Day speech and other materials which we’ll be featuring during Emancipation Week:

Robert H. Hirst, General Editor of The Mark Twain Project & Curator of The Mark Twain Papers at Bancroft Library, UC-Berkeley

Mallory Howard, Assistant Curator at The Mark Twain House & Museum

Joe Lemak, Director of The Center For Mark Twain Studies

J. D. Iles, Host of Hidden Landmarks

Charlie Mitchell, Professor of History at Elmira College

Jenny Monroe, President of The Park Church

Lewis Wyman, Reference Librarian at Library of Congress

Jillian Spivey Caddell, Lecturer in Nineteenth-Century American Literature at University of Kent

Shirley Samuels, Director of American Studies at Cornell University

Rebecca Bultman, Special Collections Researcher at Albert & Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia

Rachel Dworkin, Archivist of Chemung County Historical Society

Katie Boland, CEO of YWCA Elmira & The Twin Tiers

Ann Hayes, Reference Librarian at Big Flats Historical Society