Frederick Douglass Project Writings: The Reasons for Our Troubles

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Speech on the War Delivered in National Hall, Philadelphia, January 14, 1862.

Douglass' Monthly,February, 1862

Ladies and Gentlemen:—

My purpose to-night is not to win applause. I have no high-sounding professions of patriotism to make. He is the best friend of this country, who, at this tremendous crisis, dares tell his countrymen the truth, however disagreeable that truth may be; and such a friend I will aim to be to-night. Many things have been said against the free colored people of the North, and a strong current is turned against them; but I believe that up to this time, no man, however malignant, has been able to cast the shadow of a doubt upon the loyalty and patriotism of the free colored people in this the hour of the nation's trial and danger. Without exulting, but with thankfulness, I may say it, while treason and rebellion have counted upon aid and comfort all over the North, among those who have every reason to be true and faithful to the State, no rebel or traitor has dared look at the free colored men of the North, but as an enemy. There are English rebels, Scotch rebels, Irish rebels, but I believe there are no black rebels. The black man at heart, even if found in the rebel camp, is a loyal man, forced out of his place by circumstances beyond his control. I really wish we had some other expressive title for the traitors and rebels who are now striking at the heart of the country which has nursed and brought them up. Rebel and Traitor are epithets too good for such common monsters of perfidy and ingratitude. Washington, Jefferson, John Jay, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, and many other brave and good men, have worn those appelations, and I hate to see them now worn by wretches who, instead of being rebels against slavery, are actually rebelling against the principles of human liberty and progress, for the hell-black purpose of establishing slavery in its most odious form.

I am to speak to you to-night of the civil war, by which this vast country—this continent is convulsed. The fate of the greatest of all modern Republics trembles in the balance. "To be, or not to be—that is the question." The lesson of the hour is written down in characters of blood and fire. We are taught, as with the emphasis of an earthquake, that nations, not less than individuals, are subjects of the moral government of the universe, and that flagrant, long continued, and persistent transgressions of the laws of this Divine government will certainly bring national sorrow, shame, suffering and death. Of all the nations of the world, we seem most in need of this solemn lesson. To-day, we have it brought home to our hearths, our homes, and our hearts.

Hitherto, we have been content to study this lesson in the history of ancient governments and nationalities. To-day, every thoughtful American citizen is compelled to look at home. Egypt, Palestine, Greece and Rome all had their warnings. They disregarded them, and they perished. Today, we have our warning, not in comets blazing through the troubled sky, but in the terrible calamity of a wide-spread rebellion enacted before our eyes. The American Republic is not yet a single century from the date of its birth. Measuring its age by that of other great nations, our great Republic—for such it truly is—great in commerce, great in numbers, great in mechanical skill, great in mental, moral and physical resources, great in all the elements of national greatness—fills but a speck on the dial plate of time, and stands within the inner circle of childhood. In the brief space of three quarters of a century, this young nation, full of promise and the hope of political liberty throughout the world, rose from three millions to thirty millions. Its mighty heart beats with the best blood of all nations. It was literally sown in weakness and raised in Power. It began life in toil and poverty, and up to the present moment, it is conspicuous among the nations of the earth for opulence and ease. In the fullness of our national strength and glory, we had already begun to congratulate ourselves upon the wisdom and stability of our Government. When all Europe, a few years ago, was convulsed with revolution and bloodshed, America was secure, and sat as a queen among the nations of the earth, knowing no sorrow and fearing none.

To-day, all is changed. The face of every loyal citizen is sicklied over with the pale cast of thought. Every pillar in the national temple is shaken. The nation itself has fallen asunder in the centre. A million of armed men confront each other. Hostile flags wave defiance in sight of the National Capital during a period of six long and anxious months. Our riches take wings. Credit is disturbed, business is interrupted, national debt—the mill-stone on the neck of nations—and heavy taxation, which breaks the back of loyalty, loom in the distance. As the war progresses, property is wantonly destroyed, the wires are broken down, bridges demolished, railroads are pulled up and barricaded by fallen trees; still more and worse, the great writ of habeas corpus is suspended from necessity, liberty of speech and of the press have ceased to exist. An order from Richmond or Washington—one stroke of the pen from Davis or Lincoln sends any citizen to prison, as in England, three centuries ago, British subjects were sent to the Tower of London. A hateful system of espionage is in process of formation, while war and blood mantles the whole land as with the shadow of death. We speak and write now by the forbearance of our rulers, not by the sacredness of our rights. I speak this not in complaint; I admit the necessity, while I lament it. The scene need not be further portrayed. It is dismal and terrible beyond all description. We have it burnt upon our very souls. I will not mock you by further painting that scene.

The spoilers of the Republic have dealt with the nation as burglars—stealing all they could carry away, and burning the residue.—They have emptied your treasury, plundered your arsenals, scattered your navy, corrupted your army, seduced your officers, seized your forts, covered the sea with pirates, "heated your enemies, cooled your friends," insulted your flag, defied your Government, converted the national defences into instruments of national destruction, and have invited hostile armies of foreign nations to unite with them in completing the national ruin. All this, and more, has been done by the very men whom you have honored, paid and trusted, and that, too, while they were solemnly sworn to protect, support and defend your Constitution and Government against all foes at home and abroad.

To what cause may we trace our present sad and deplorable condition? A man of flighty brain and flippant tongue will tell you that the cause of all our national troubles lies solely in the election of Abraham Lincoln to the President of the Republic. To the superficial this is final. Before Lincoln there was peace; after Lincoln there was rebellion. It stands to reason that Lincoln and rebellion are related as cause and effect. such is their argument; such is their explanation. I hardly need waste your time in showing the folly and falsehood of either. Beyond all question, the facts show that this rebellion was planned and prepared long before the name of Abraham Lincoln was mentioned in connection with the office he now holds, and that though the catastrophe might have been postponed, it could not have been prevented, nor long delayed. The worst of our condition is not to be sought in our disaster on flood or field.—It is to be found rather in the character which contact with slavery has developed in every part of the country, so that at last there seems to be no truth, no candor left within us. We have faithfully copied all the cunning of the serpent without any of the harmlessness of the dove, or the boldness of the lion.

In dealing with the causes of our present troubles we find in quarters, high and low, the most painful evidences of dishonesty. It would seem, in the language of Isaiah, that the whole head is sick, and the whole heart is faint, that there is no soundness in it.—After-coming generations will remark with astonishment this feature in this dark chapter in our national history. They will find in no public document emanating from the loyal Government, anything like a frank and full statement of the real causes which have plunged us in the whirlpool of civil war. On the other hand, they will find the most studied and absurd attempts at concealment. Jefferson Davis is reticent. He seems ashamed to tell the world just what he is fighting for. Abraham Lincoln seems equally so, and is ashamed to tell the world what he is fighting against.

If we turn from the heads of the Government to the heads of the several Departments, we are equally befogged. The attempt is made to conceal the real facts of the case.—Our astute Secretary of State is careful to enjoin it upon our foreign ministers to remain dumb in respect to the real causes of the rebellion. They are to say nothing of the moral differences existing between the two sections of the country. There must be no calling things by their right names—no going straight to any point which can be reached by a crooked path. When slaves are referred to, they must be called persons held to service or labor. When in the hands of the Federal Governments, they are called contrabands—a name that will apply better to a pistol, than to a person. The preservation of slavery is called the preservation of the rights of the South under the Constitution. This concealment is one of the most contemptible features of the crisis.

Every cause for the rebellion but the right one is pointed out and dwelt upon. Some make it geographical; others make it ethnographical.

"Lands intersected by a narrow frith abhor each other;
Mountains interposed make enemies of nations,

Which else like kindred drops had mingled into one."

But even this cause does not hold true.—There is no geographical reason for national division. Every stream is bridged, and every mountain is tunnelled. All our rivers and mountains point to union, not division —to oneness, not to warfare. There is no earthly reason why the corn fields of Pennsylvania should quarrel with the cotton fields of South Carolina. The physical and climatic differences bind them together, instead of putting them asunder.

A very large class of persons charge all our national calamities upon the busy tongues and pens of the Abolitionists. Thus we accord to a handful of men and women, everywhere despised, a power superior to all other classes in the country. Absurd and ridiculous as this is, its adherents are hoary-headed and bearded men.

Others still explain the whole matter, by telling us that it is the work of defeated and disappointed politicians at the South. I shall waste no time upon either. The cause of this rebellion is deeper down than either Southern politicians or Northern Abolitionists. They are but the hands of the clock. The machinery moves not because of the hands, but the hands because of the machinery. The ship may be great, but the ocean that bears it is greater. The Southern politicians and the Northern Abolitionists are the fruits, not the trees. They indicate, but are not original causes. The trouble is deeper down, and is fundamental; there is nothing strange about it. The conflict is in every way natural.—"How can two walk together except they be agreed?" "No man can serve two masters." "A house divided against itself cannot stand." It is something of a feat to ride two horses going the same way, and at the same pace, but a still greater feat when going in opposite directions.

Just here lies a true explanation of our troubles. We have made the mistake—the great and deplorable mistake of supposing that we could sow the wind without reaping the whirlwind. We have attempted to maintain our Union in utter defiance of the moral chemistry of the universe. We have endeavored to join together things which in their nature stand eternally asunder. We have sought to bind the chains of slavery on the limbs of the black man, without thinking that at last we should find the other end of that hateful chain about our own necks.

A glance at the history of the settlement of the two sections of this country will show that the causes which produced the present rebellion, reach back to the dawn of civilization on this continent. In the same year that the Mayflower landed her liberty-seeking passengers on the bleak New England shore, a Dutch galliot landed a company of African slaves on the banks of the James river, Virginia. The Mayflower planted liberty at the North, and the Dutch galliot slavery at the South.—There is the fire, and there is the gunpowder. Contact has produced the explosion. What has followed might have been easily predicted. Great men saw it from the beginning, but no great men were found great enough to prevent it.

The statesmanship of the last half century has been mainly taxed to perpetuate the American Union. A system of compromise and concessions has been adopted. A double-dealing policy—a facing-both-ways statesmanship, naturally sprung up, and became fashionable—so that political success was often made to depend upon political cheating. One section or the other must be deceived. Before railroads and electric wires were spread over the country, this trickery and fraud had a chance of success. The lighting made deception more difficult, and the Union by compromise impossible. Our Union is killed by lightning.

In order to have union, either in the family, in the church, or in the State, there must be unity of idea and sentiment in all essential interests. Find a man's treasure, and you have found his heart. Now, in the North, freedom is the grand and all-comprehensive condition of comfort, prosperity and happiness. All our ideas and sentiments grow out of this free element. Free speech, free soil, free men, free schools, free inquiry, free suffrage, equality before the law, are the natural outgrowths of freedom. Freedom is the centre of our Northern social system. It warms into life every other interest, and makes it beautiful in our eyes. Liberty is our treasure, and our hearts dwell with it, and receives its actuating motives from it.

What freedom is to the North as a generator of sentiment and ideas, that slavery is to the South. It is the treasure to which the Southern heart is fastened. It fashions all their ideas, and moulds all their sentiments.—Politics, education, literature, morals and religion in the South, all bear the bloody image and superscription of slavery. Here, then, are two direct, point-blank and irreconcilable antagonisms under the same form of government. The marvel is not that civil war has come, but that it did not come sooner. But the evil is now upon us, and the question as to the causes which produced it, is of less consequence than the question as to how it ought to be, and can be thrown off. How shall the civil war be ended?

It can be ended for a time in one of two ways. One by recognizing the complete independence of the Southern Confederacy, and indemnifying the traitors and rebels for all the expense to which they have been put, in carrying out this tremendous slaveholding rebellion; and the second is by receiving the slaveholding States back into the Union with such guarantees for slavery as they may demand for the better security and preservation of slavery. In either of these two ways it may be put down for a time; but God forbid that any such methods of obtaining peace shall be adopted; for neither the one nor the other could bring any permanent peace.

I take it that these United States are to remain united. National honor requires national unity. To abandon that idea would be a disgraceful, scandalous and cowardly surrender of the majority to a rebellious minority—the capitulation of twenty million loyal men to six million rebels—and would draw after it a train of disasters such as would heap curses on the very graves of the present generation. As to giving the slave States new guarantees for the safety of slavery, that I take to be entirely out of the question. The South does not want them, and the North could not give them if the South could accept them. To concede anything to these slaveholding traitors and rebels in arms, after all their atrocious crimes against justice, humanity, and every sentiment of loyalty, would be tantamount to the nation's defeat, and would substitute in the future the bayonet for the ballot, and cannon balls for Congress, revolution and anarchy for government, and the pronunciamentoes of rebel chiefs for regulating enacted laws.

There is therefore no escape. The only road to national honor, and permanent peace to us, is to meet, fight, dislodge, drive back, conquer and subdue the rebels. When a man and woman are lawfully joined together for life, the only conditions upon which there can be anything like peace in the family, are that they shall either love or fear each other. Now, during the last fifty years, the North has been endeavoring, by all sorts of services and kindnesses, to win and secure the affection of the South. It has stepped sometimes a little beyond the requirements of true manly dignity to accomplish this, but all in vain.

We have bought Florida, waged war with friendly Seminoles, purchased Louisiana, annexed Texas, fought Mexico, trampled on the right of petition, abridged the freedom of debate, paid ten million to Texas upon a fraudulent claim, mobbed the Abolitionists, repealed the Missouri Compromise, winked at the accursed slave trade, helped to extend slavery, given slave-holders a larger share of all the offices and honors than we claimed for ourselves, paid their postage, supported the Government, persecuted free Negroes, refused to recognize Haiti and Liberia, stained our souls by repeated compromises, borne with Southern bluster, allowed our ships to be robbed of their hardy sailors, defeated a central road to the Pacific, and have descended to the meanness and degradation of Negro dogs, and hunted down the panting slave escaping from his tyrant master—all to make the South love us; and yet how stand our relations?

At this hour there is everywhere at the South, nursed and cherished, the most deadly hate towards every man and woman of Northern birth. We, here at the North, do not begin to understand the strength and bitter intensity of this slaveholding malice. Mingled with it is a supercilious sense of superiority—a scornful contempt—the strutting pride of the turkey, with the cunning and poison of the rattlesnake. I say again, we must meet them, defeat them, and conquer them. Do I hear you say that this is more easily said than done? I admit it. Nevertheless, there is a way to do it, and to do it effectually.

I have not a very exalted idea of Southern courage, notwithstanding the successes attending their arms, thus far, during the rebellion. Their domestic habits make them passionate and cruel, but not calm and brave. They will readily fight when they have every advantage. They can whip a Negro with his hands tied, catch a Connecticut peddler a thousand miles from home, beat and ride him out of town on a rail—capture a hospital full of sick folks, or bombard, with ten thousand men, a starving garrison of seventy men. I never got into a dispute with one of the Southern braves yet, but that he expressed the wish that he had me in the South, where, of course, he would have every advantage.

But how shall the rebellion be put down ? I will tell you; but before I do so, you must allow me to say that the plan thus far pursued does not correspond with my humble notion of fitness. Thus far, it must be confessed, we have struck wide of the mark, and very feebly withal. The temper of our steel has proved much better than the temper of our minds. While I do not charge, as some have done, that the Government at Washington is conducting the war upon peace principles, it is very plain that the war is not being conducted on war principles,

We are fighting the rebels with only one hand, when we ought to be fighting them with both. We are recruiting our troops in the towns and villages of the North, when we ought to be recruiting them on the plantations of the South. We are striking the guilty rebels with our soft, white hand, when we should be striking with the iron hand of the black man, which we keep chained behind us. We have been catching slaves, instead of arming them. We have thus far repelled our natural friends to win the worthless and faithless friendship of our unnatural enemies. We have been endeavoring to heal over the rotten cancer of slavery, instead of cutting out its death-dealing roots and fibres. We pay more attention to the advice of the half-rebel State of Kentucky, than to any suggestion coming from the loyal North. We have shouldered all the burdens of slavery, and given the slaveholders and traitors all its benefits; and robbed our cause of half its dignity in the eyes of an on-looking world.

I say here and now, that if this nation is destroyed—if the Government, shall, after all, be broken to pieces, and degraded in the eyes of the world—if the Union shall be shattered into fragments, it will neither be for the want of men, nor of money, nor even physical courage, for we have all these in abundance; but it will be solely owing to the want of moral courage and wise statesmanship in dealing with slavery, the cause and motive of the rebellion.

Witness the treatment of Fremont's proclamation. When that memorable document was given to the public, all truly loyal men felt that the Pathfinder of the Rocky Mountains had found the true path out of our national troubles. His words were few and simple, but strong enough to vibrate the heart of a continent. The weakness and imbecility of the letter of the President, condemning that proclamation, have thus far characterized the whole war. Slavery has been, and is yet the shield and helmet of this accursed rebellion; but for this its brains would have been out long ago. President, Government, and army, stand paralyzed in the presence of slavery. They are determined only to save the Union so far as they can save slavery.—The President asserts that he approved of the proclamation of Fremont generally, but disapproved of one feature of it. What was the proclamation generally? Why this: the establishment of martial law in Missouri.—The President approved of that. What was it specially? Why, the confiscation and emancipation of all the slaves belonging to rebels. The President was in favor of martial law, in favor of shooting rebels, but was not in favor of freeing their slaves. In this brief letter to Fremont, we have the secret of all our misfortune in connection with rebellion.

I have been often asked since this war began, why I am not at the South battling for freedom. My answer is with the Government. The Washington Government wants men for its army, but thus far, it has not had the boldness to recognize the manhood of the race to which I belong. It only sees in the slave an article of commerce—a contraband. I do not wish to say aught against our Government, for good or bad; it is all we have to save us from anarchy and ruin; but I owe it to my race, in view of the cruel aspersions cast upon it, to affirm that, in denying them the privileges to fight for their country, they have been most deeply and grievously wronged. Neither in the Revolution, nor in the last war did any such narrow and contemptible policy obtain. It shows the deep degeneracy of our times—the height from which we have fallen—that, while Washington, in 1776, and Jackson, in 1814, could fight side by side with Negroes, now, not even the best of our generals are willing so to fight. Is McClellan better than Washington? Is Halleck better than Jackson?

One situation only has been offered me, and that is the office of a body servant to a Colonel. I would not despise even that, if I could by accepting it be of service to my enslaved fellow-countrymen. In the temple of impartial liberty there is no seat too low for me. But one thing I have a right to ask when I am required to endure the hardships and brave the dangers of the battle field. I ask that I shall have either a country, or the hope of a country under me—a Government, or the hope of a Government around me, and a flag of impartial liberty floating over me.

We have recently had a solemn fast, and have offered up innumerable prayers for the deliverance of the nation from its manifold perils and calamities. I say nothing against these prayers. Their subjective power is indispensable; but I know also, that the work of making, and the work of answering them, must be performed by the same hands. If the loyal North shall succeed in suppressing this foul and scandalous rebellion, that achievement will be due to the amount of wisdom and force they bring against the rebels in arms.

Thus far we have shown no lack of force. A call for men is answered by half a million. A call for money brings down a hundred million. A call for prayers brings a nation to its altars. But still the rebellion rages.—Washington is menaced. The Potomac is blockaded. Jeff Davis is still proud and defiant, and the rebels are looking forward hopefully to a recognition of their independence, the breaking of the blockade, and their final severance from the North.

Now, what is the remedy for all this? The answer is ready. Have done at once and forever with the wild and guilty phantasy that any one man can have a right of property in the body and soul of another man. Have done with the now exploded idea that the old Union, which has hobbled along through seventy years upon the crutches of compromise, is either desirable or possible, now, or in the future. Accept the incontestible truth of the "irrepressible conflict." It was spoken when temptations to compromise were less strong than now. Banish from your political dreams the last lingering adumbration that this great American nation can ever rest firmly and securely upon a mixed basis, part of iron, part of clay, part free, and part slave. The experiment has been tried, and tried, too, under more favorable circumstances than any which the future is likely to offer, and has deplorably failed. Now lay the axe at the root of the tree, and give it—root, top, body and branches—to the consuming fire.—You have now the opportunity.

"There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.
Omitted, all the voyage of their lives

Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat.

We must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures."

To let this occasion pass unimproved, for getting rid of slavery, would be a sin against unborn generations. The cup of slave-holding iniquity is full and running over; now let it be disposed of and finished forever. Reason, common sense, justice, and humanity alike concur with this necessary step for the national safety. But it is contended that the nation at large has no right to interfere with slavery in the States—that the Constitution gives no power to abolish slavery. This pretext is flung at us at every corner, by the same men who, a few months ago, told us we had no Constitutional right to coerce a seceded State—no right to collect revenue in the harbors of such States—no right to subjugate such States—and it is part and parcel of the same nonsense.

In the first place, slavery has no Constitutional existence in the country. There is not a provision of that instrument which would be contravened by its abolition. But if every line and syllable of the Constitution contained an explicit prohibition of the abolition of slavery, the right of the nation to abolish it would still remain in full force. In virtue of a principle underlying all government—that of national self-preservation—the nation can no more be bound to disregard this, than a man can be bound to commit suicide. This law of self preservation is the great end and object of all Governments and Constitutions. The means can never be superior to the end. But will our Government ever arrive at this conclusion? That will depend upon two very opposite elements.

First, it will depend upon the sum of Northern virtue.

Secondly, upon the extent of Southern villainy.

Now, I have much confidence in Northern virtue, but much more in Southern villainy.— Events are greater than either party to the conflict. We are fighting not only a wicked and determined foe, but a maddened and desperate foe. We are not fighting serviles, but our masters—men who have ruled over us for fifty years. If hard pushed, we may expect them to break through all the restraints of civilized warfare.

I am still hopeful that the Government will take direct and powerful abolition measures. That hope is founded on the fact that the Government has already traveled further in that direction than it promised. Neither our law-makers, nor our laws, are like those of the Medes and Persians. They are but the breath of the people, and are under the control of events. No President, no Cabinet, no army can withstand the mighty current of events, or the surging billows of the popular will. The first flash of rebel gunpowder, ten months ago, pouring shot and shell upon the starving handful of men at Sumter, instantly changed the whole policy of the nation. Until then, the ever hopeful North, of all parties, was still dreaming of compromise. The heavens were black, the thunder rattled, the air was heavy, and vivid lightning flashed all around; but our sages were telling us there would be no rain. But all at once, down came the storm of hail and fire.

And now behold the change! Only one brief year ago, the great city of Boston, the Athens of America, was convulsed by a howling pro-slavery mob, madly trampling upon the great and sacred right of speech. It blocked the streets; it shut up the halls; it silenced and overawed the press, defied the Government, and clamored for the blood of Wendell Phillips, a name which will live and shine while Boston is remembered as the chief seat of American eloquence, philanthropy and learning. Where is that mob to-night? You must look for it on the sacred soil of old Virginia.

Nothing stands to-day where it stood yesterday. Humanity sweeps onward. To-night with saints and angels, surrounded with the glorious army of martyrs and confessors, of whom our guilty world was not worthy, the brave spirit of old John Brown serenely looks down from his eternal rest, beholding his guilty murderers in torments of their own kindling, and the faith for which he nobly died steadily becoming the saving faith of the nation. He was "justly hanged," was the word from patriotic lips two years ago; but now, every loyal heart in the nation would gladly call him back again. Our armies now march by the inspiration of his name; and his son, young John Brown, from being hunted like a felon, is raised to a captaincy in the loyal army.

We have seen great changes—everybody has changed—the North has changed—Republicans have changed—and even the Garrisonians, of whom it has been said that repentance is not among their virtues, even they have changed; and from being the stern advocates of a dissolution of the Union, they have become the uncompromising advocates of the perpetuity of the Union. I believed ten years ago that liberty was safer in the Union than out of the Union; but my Garrisonian friends could not then so see it, and of consequence dealt me some heavy blows. My crime was in being ten years in advance of them. But whether the Government shall directly abolish slavery or not, the war is essentially an abolition war. When the storm clouds of this rebellion shall be lifted from the land, the slave power, broken and humbled, will be revealed. Slavery will be a conquered power in the land. I am, therefore, for the war, for the Government, for the Union, for the Constitution in any and every event.