Frederick Douglass Speech on the Thirteenth Amendment


In May 1865 William Lloyd Garrison moved at its convention for the disbanding of the American Anti-Slavery Society on the grounds that the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery by Congress in February 1865, and its certain ratification by a sufficient number of states, the abolition of slavery was now in sight and the goal of the organization reached.  Frederick Douglass, prophetically, in a response speech the next day said in effect, not so fast.  Here is a portion of his speech:

I do not wish to appear here in any fault-finding spirit, or as an impugner of the motives of those who believe that the time has come for this Society to disband. I am conscious of no suspicion of the purity and excellence of the motives that animate the President of this Society [William Lloyd Garrison], and other gentlemen who are in favor of its disbandment. I take this ground; whether this Constitutional Amendment [the thirteenth] is law or not, whether it has been ratified by a sufficient number of States to make it law or not, I hold that the work of Abolitionists is not done. Even if every State in the Union had ratified that Amendment, while the black man is confronted in the legislation of the South by the word “white,” our work as Abolitionists, as I conceive it, is not done. I took the ground, last night, that the South, by unfriendly legislation, could make our liberty, under that provision, a delusion, a mockery, and a snare, and I hold that ground now. What advantage is a provision like this Amendment to the black man, if the Legislature of any State can to-morrow declare that no black man’s testimony shall be received in a court of law? Where are we then? Any wretch may enter the house of a black man, and commit any violence he pleases; if he happens to do it only in the presence of black persons, he goes unwhipt of justice [“Hear, hear.”] And don’t tell me that those people down there have become so just and honest all at once that they will not pass laws denying to black men the right to testify against white men in the courts of law. Why, our Northern States have done it. Illinois, Indiana and Ohio have done it. Here, in the midst of institutions that have gone forth from old Plymouth Rock, the black, man has been excluded from testifying in the courts of law; and if the Legislature of every Southern State to-morrow pass a law, declaring that no Negro shall testify in any courts of law, they will not violate that provision of the Constitution. Such laws exist now at the South, and they might exist under this provision of the Constitution, that there shall be neither slavery not involuntary servitude in any State of the Union….

Slavery is not abolished until the black man has the ballot. While the Legislatures of the South retain the right to pass laws making any discrimination between black and white, slavery still lives there. [Applause.] As Edmund Quincy once said, “While the word ‘white’ is on the statute-book of Massachusetts, Massachusetts is a slave State. While a black man can be turned out of a car in Massachusetts, Massachusetts is a slave State. While a slave can be taken from old Massachusetts, Massachusetts is a slave State.” That is what I heard Edmund Quincy say twenty-three or twenty-four years ago. I never forget such a thing. Now, while the black man can be denied a vote, while the Legislatures of the South can take from him the right to keep and bear arms, as they can-they would not allow a Negro to walk with a cane where I came from, they would not allow five of them to assemble together the work of the Abolitionists is not finished. Notwithstanding the provision in the Constitution of the United States, that the right to keep and bear arms shall not be abridged, the black man has never had the right either to keep or bear arms; and the Legislatures of the States will still have the power to forbid it, under this Amendment. They can carry on a system of unfriendly legislation, and will they not do it? Have they not got prejudice there to do it with? Think you, that because they are for the moment in the talons and beak of our glorious eagle, instead of the slave being there, as formerly, that they are converted? I hear of the loyalty at Wilmington, the loyalty at South Carolina-what is it worth?

[“Not a straw.”]

Not a straw. I thank my friend for admitting it.

They are loyal while they see 200,000 sable soldiers, with glistening bayonets, walking in their midst. [Applause.] But let the civil power of the South be restored, and the old prejudices and hostility to the Negro will-revive. Aye, the very fact that the Negro has been used to defeat this rebellion and strike down the standards of the Confederacy will be a stimulus to all their hatred, to all their malice, and lead them to legislate with greater stringency towards this class than ever before. [Applause.] The American people are bound by their sense of honor (I hope by their sense of honor, at least, by a just sense of honor), to extend the franchise to the Negro; and I was going to say, that the Abolitionists of the American Anti-Slavery Society were bound to “stand still, and see the salvation of God,” until that work is done. [Applause.] Where shall the black man look for support, my friends, if the American AntiSlavery Society fails him? [“Hear, hear.”] From whence shall we expect a certain sound from the trumpet of freedom, when the old pioneer, when this Society that has survived mobs, and martyrdom, and the combined efforts of priest-craft and state-craft to suppress it, shall all at once subside, on the mere intimation that the Constitution has been amended, so that neither slavery not involuntary servitude shall hereafter be allowed in this land? What did the slaveholders of Richmond say to those who objected to arming the Negro, on the ground that it would make him a freeman? Why, they said, “The argument is absurd. We may make these Negroes fight for us; but while we retain the political power of the South, we can keep them in their subordinate positions.” That was the argument; and they were right. They might have employed the Negro to fight for them, and while they retained in their hands power to exclude him from political rights, they could have reduced him to a condition similar to slavery. They would not call it slavery, but some other name. Slavery has been fruitful in giving itself names. It has been called “the peculiar institution,” “the social system,” and the “impediment,” as it was called by the General conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church. It has been called by a great many names, and it will call itself by yet another name; and you and I and all of us had better wait and see what new form this old monster will assume, in what new skin this old snake will come forth. [Loud applause.]


Published in: on January 19, 2015 at 5:30 am  Comments (2)  
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  1. Ever since Jeremiah asked the Lord why he had singled him out for the dubious honour of being the one clear-sighted man in a Jerusalem raging with self-delusion, and ever since Aeschylus broke the hearts of his spectators and pulled them to their feet applauding with the show-stopping prophecy and death of Cassandra, there has never been a shortage for the role of tragic, unheeded prophet. There are very few catastrophes in history that have not had their far-sighted and articulate forecasters. Perhaps the French Revolution owes its strange glow and almost obsessional attraction in history to being one. One day, the French monarchy, in spite of financial difficulties and – of all things – of a resurgent and increasingly obstreperous nobility, was the most huge, the most admired, the most imitated institution in Europe. The next, it was gone like a dream, and Europe’s greatest power was being managed by an unknown lawyer from Arras or by a pamphleteering abbe’ (Syeyes) and a Corsican artillery officer. But Charles Sarolea predicted not only the coming of the Great War, but even the German strategy and the invasion of Belgium, from the shape of the German military railways; and when that war was (as men deluded themselves) over, at the price of untold millions of people , there was a positive chorus of inspired voices trying to rouse the exhausted Allies from the sleep of dreams into which they were drifting day by day. Charles Spargo,Emma Goldman, even Bertrand Russell, gave exact and terrible accounts of what Lenin’s government was and what it was likely to do. The Austran journalist Heinrich Kanner warned the world that the avalanche of memoirs and historical writings from leading German politicians that had filled the libraries since early 1919 were a pack of lies, and that the war had been decided by Franz Joseph and his circle, with total support from Berlin,at least since 1912. (His pamphlet never seems to have been translated from German – what a surprise, eh?) Leopold Schwarzschild and Edgar Mowrer, among many others, dinned into deaf western ears that, far from representing a real democratic revolution, the Weimar republic had been set up by the ruling classes of imperial Germany purely for the purpose of avoiding a destructive peace settlement – and that they did, and were now planning the next war – or rather, carrying out the last by other means, in a kind of reverse Clausewitz. Tardieu, Foch, even the great Clemenceau himself, could not get it through English and American ears that, without Anglo-Saxon support in place, the whole French territory could be “overrun in a few weeks” (I am quoting.from an aide-memoire submitted to the Versailles Conference in 1919).

    Certainly the great Douglass belongs with this chorus of unheeded prophets. The only thing this speech lacks is the three words Ku, Klux, Klan. In fact, the only thing it does not seem to have foreseen – although it was already a “peculiar southern institution” since before the war – is the regular use of irregular mob violence (lynching) to short-circuit the wheels of politics, which, although they would do everything that Douglass had forecsat, moved too slowly for the unbroken race obsession.

    • A truly magnificent comment Fabio. The role of the unheeded prophet in history awaits a great study!

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