At the Anniversary
of West Indian Emancipation
August 4, 1853 — outdoor celebration, West Indian Emancipation, Flushing, NY
Friends — I can hardly leave this place without raising my voice in unison with those who have spoken here. Indeed, the exercise of this celebration would not appear to me complete, without having [a] woman raise her voice in this great and noble cause; for when has any good cause been effected without her co-operation? We have been told, to-day, that it was a woman that agitated Great Britain to its very centre, before emancipation could be effected in her colonies. Woman must go hand in hand with man in every great and noble cause, if success would be insured.
I love to attend such anniversaries; I think the effect is very beneficial. Many such are celebrated in this country. New England celebrates the anniversary of the landing of the Pilgrim Fathers, and well she may; for when those Pilgrim Fathers left their native shores, it was to obtain that civil and religious freedom which was denied them in the mother country; and in so far as the same freedom is desirable for all, it is perfectly right and proper that their descendants should keep the anniversaries of the landing of their ancestors. Thousands attend these anniversaries, I doubt not, with joyful hearts and grateful memories; and though I am not myself an American by birth, and have never had the pleasure of attending such an anniversary, yet my heart is always with those who do, for they hail a day of freedom. But there are other anniversaries kept in this country, one of which I presume you all love to celebrate; and that is the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. That great and glorious day did not created, but gave to the world a great truth — that all men are born free and equal, and therefore entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. My heart always rejoices in that day, and I shall never forget the emotions I felt when I first witnessed its celebration in this country. It seemed to me as if the sun shone brighter, the birds sang sweeter, the grass grew greener. Everything in nature seemed transformed from deformity to beauty. Ah, were only that great, noble truth of the Declaration of Independence carried out, as it ought to be, there would be no need of our meeting here to-day. Then indeed might we all rejoice when the Fourth of July arrives. But whether it is carried our or not, the truth remains the same. Alas! that it should come up in judgment before this great nation! But though I rejoice when that great day comes round, I cannot help contrasting, as I set here to-day, the event which that commemorates with the one which we are met to-day to commemorate.
All my feeling and principles are republican; I may say I am a republican by nature; but in comparison to the liberation of 800,000 slaves, the Declaration of Independence falls into utter insignificance. It falls short, just as theory falls short of practice. There is almost an immeasurable instance between the two. The one was the utterance of a good truth, that will last forever; the other was a practical application of it. How different the results! the Declaration of Independence — ha sit yet abolished Slavery? But the great act of emancipation of 800,000 human beings has shown to the world that the African race are not only capable of taking care of themselves, but are capable of enjoying peacefully as much liberty and as much freedom as the white men. Thus it has done far more towards the cause of freedom — towards emancipation from all kinds of slavery — than the Declaration of Independence did. For in spite of that Declaration — in sadness and sorrow do I say it — the United States of America are guilty of outrage and recreancy to their own principles in retaining slavery; while Great Britain, without that Declaration, having yet a great deal of oppression and tyranny in her midst, has shown a noble example to the world in emancipating all her chattel slaves.
It is utterly impossible for us, as finite beings, with the utmost stretch of the imagination, to conceive the depth and immensity of the horrors of slavery. I would tat, instead of speaking and listening to-day, we could all sit down in perfect silence, and each and every one of us ask ourselves that is it to be a slave? What is it to emancipate eight hundred thousand slaves? We have the evil among us; we see it daily and hourly before us; we have become accustomed to it; we talk about it; but do we comprehend it — do we realize it — do we feel it? What is it to be a slave? Not to be your own, bodily, mentally, or morally — that is to be a slave. Ay even if slaveholders treated their slaves with the utmost kindness and charity; if I were told they kept them sitting on a sofa all day, and fed them with the best of the land, it is none the less slavery; for what does slavery mean? To work hard, to fare ill, to suffer hardship, that is not slavery; for many of us white men and women have to work hard, have to fare ill have to suffer hardship, and yet we are not slaves. Slavery is, not to belong to yourself — to be robbed of yourself. There is nothing that I so much abhor as that single thing — to be robbed of one’s self. We are our own legitimate masters. Nature has not created masters and slaves; nature has created man free as the air of heaven. The black man and the white man are equally the children of nature. The same mother earth has created us all; the same life pervades all; the same spirit ought to animate all. Slavery deprives us of ourselves. The slave has no power to say, “I will go here, or I will go yonder.” The slave cannot say, “My wife, my husband, or my child.” He does not belong to himself, and of course cannot claim anything whatever as his own. This is the great abomination of slavery, that it deprives a man of the common rights of humanity, stamped upon him by his Maker.
Not being a native of this country, I have probably had some different ideas with regard to the working of slavery from what many abolitionists have. I do not belong to any abolition Society, as my friend by my side said he was compelled to belong to the Garrisonian Society; but with my whole heart, mind and soul, I bless him for having been the great and noble voice of humanity to this country for emancipation. I go for emancipation of all kinds — white and black, man and woman. Humanity’s children are, in my estimation, all one and the same family, inheriting the same earth; therefore there should be no slaves of any kind among them. There are ties that bind man to man far stronger than the ties of nation — than the political and commercial ties — an even stronger than the ties of relationship; and these are the ties of humanity. Humanity, the great mother of all, has thrown around us ties, sympathies and feelings which are more endearing, more effectual, and more noble, than any other than have ever bound man to man.
Our friend who has addressed you to-day has mentioned the fact that the opposers of emancipation are fearful that the South will not trade with the North No greater folly was ever conceived. The South forsake the North! What will they do? Six years ago, I was in Columbia, S.C. A senator, returning from Washington, made a speech there, in which he talked a great deal about Abolitionists and Disunionists of the North. A young lawyer, who boarded at the same hotel where I stopped, came home full of these ideas, and commenced a conversation with me on the subject of slavery; and he was so full, that he could scarcely find time to express his indignation. “We don’t want the North,” said he, “We are independent of the North, and we can afford to dissolve the Union to-day.” I let him go on for some time, for I knew he would run himself out. After he had done so, I told him I did not wish to have the Union dissolved; I would like to stick to you, because you need us. I then asked him, “wherein could you be independent of the North? Who are your teachers and professors? Northern men. Who weaves your cloth and bedecks you? Northern laborers. Who grows much of the food that nourishes you? Northern men.” (Indeed, so greatly impoverished is the land in the South that it is a positive fact, that I once saw a cow held up while she was fed.) “Just remember, my dear Sir,” said I, “that from your head to your feet, you were manufactured at the North; directly or indirectly. From him who first taught you your alphabet, to the professor who gave the finish to your education, and taught you to make black appear white, they were all Northern men. Nevertheless, I don’t want to see the Union dissolved; for as long as we are united, we have an influence over you; indeed, you stand so greatly in need of us that I should be very sorry to leave you.
Mrs. R. here made an appeal in behalf of the principle of refusing to consume slave products, believing it would have a great tendency to abolish Slavery. Not being able to find a market for their products, the slaveholders would have either to go to work to feed their slaves or free them. And as for working, there was an entire inability on the part of the slaveholder. He was a poor, miserable, inactive, lazy, unfortunate creature, and with all heart and soul she pitied him. When I fist stepped on on slave soil, said she, I read the curse of Slavery upon it. A gentleman once asked me in the South, what I thought, on the whole, of South Carolina. I told him: ”I am sorry to say that you are a century, at least, behind in the means of civilization.” He wanted to know why I thought so. I said: “The only civilization you have exists among your slaves: for if industry and the mechanical arts are the great criterion of civilization (and I believe they are), then certainly the slaves are the only civilized ones among you, because they do all the work.” (In Charleston and Columbia, S.C., the slaves are painters, glaziers, carpenters and masons; in fact, all the trades are filled with slaves. The owners cannot do any kind of manual labor, because it is disgraceful, so that everything is done by slaves.) He told me I had to thank my stars for being a woman. I said I always thanked my stars for being a woman, but I wanted to know wherein I had to thank my stars in that particular instance. Said he, “Our State has made provision for may cases, but not for all. For instance — when we catch a good Abolitionist, we give him a coat of tar and feathers.” I told him that as for me, I was an Abolitionist in the fullest sense of the word, and be I a woman or not, said I, you are so exceedingly lazy and inactive here that it would be an act of charity to give you something to do, were it even to give me a coat of tar and feathers. To say that he was enraged would express no idea whatever. Then I said to him, “My dear sire, you have to thank yourself for this altercation; I did not begin it; I knew your weak spot, and did not wish to touch it. You thought that I would be a coward and recreant to my sentiments. I tell you, sir, that if I had never been an Abolitionist before, I would have become one here, and you would have helped to make me one.” Let a Northern man or woman go to the South, and the moment they touch the slave soil, they are looked upon as if they had come prepared to steal Negroes, and they never will let you alone, no matter how silent you may be; they will commence to draw you out and discover what your principles are. And it is a shame to acknowledge it, they find too may cowards form the North, who are recreant to their own principles; and having succeeded so may times with persons of this character, they think they can always succeed. They think that, for the sake of getting into society and being patronised by the higher classes, you will say, “O yes, your institutions are the best that can possibly be for your portion of the Union.”
It has always appeared to me not to be the greatest error and absurdity to suppose that the South is ever going to forsake the North. Where are they go go? It was a sheer political trick, raised for the purpose of making political capital, when our politicians in 1850 raised the cry — which of course the newspapers had to echo that the Union was in danger. There was not a man of sound sense in the South, I venture to say — and there are many such — that believed it for a moment. It was got up by political gamblers of both sections, for the purpose of making capital. If you could only estimate the immense injury that Slavery does, not only to the South, but to the North — in face, the whole world — you would say, “leave us, if you will: we will willingly give you a passport, if you will rid us of this encumbrance.”
Our friend [William Lloyd] Garrison has repeated to us the many blessings resulting from upright actions. Yes, every act brings its own reward or its own punishment. Every good act produces its own corresponding reward, and every bad act its corresponding punishment. How, then, must not only the South but the North be punished in consequence of that great, immeasurable wrong of Slavery? Oh, the shame and outrage that, for one single moment, that great blot should be suffered to remain on the otherwise beautiful escutcheon of this republic!
But permit me to say that the slaves of the South are not the only people that are in bondage. All women are excluded from the enjoyment of that liberty which your Declaration of Independence asserts to be the inalienable right of all. The same right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, that pertains to man, pertains to woman also. For what is life without liberty? Which of you here before me would not willingly risk his or her life, if in danger of being made a slave? Emancipation from every kind of bondage is my principle. I go for the recognition of human rights, without distinction of sect, party, sex, or color.
Source: The National Anti-Slavery Standard, August 13, 1853.
Also: The Liberator, August 19, 1853.