A collection of rousing 19th-century speeches on freedom and humanity.
The eloquent orator Frederick Douglass (c. 1818-1895) delivered eight impressive speeches in Brooklyn, New York, “far from a bastion of abolitionist support,” which, even as late as 1886, had only a small black population and included among its white citizens many who had been slave owners. Editor Hamm (Journalism and New Media Studies/St. Joseph’s Coll.; The New Blue Media: How Michael Moore, MoveOn.org, Jon Stewart and Company Are Transforming Progressive Politics, 2008, etc.) provides helpful introductions and notes and gives illuminating context and perspective by including their coverage in the “virulently proslavery” Brooklyn Eagle. At churches, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and several public events, Douglass repeatedly tackled the question, “What Shall Be Done with the Negro?”, answering it with a call for black equality that included arguments against persisting assumptions about black inferiority. “The question,” he maintained, “is not whether colored men will be likely to reach the presidential chair.” After all, he added, a man “may live quite a tolerable life without ever breathing the air of Washington.” But rather, the question was whether blacks would be accorded political, social, and economic equality. “The term, Negro,” he announced in 1863, “is at this hour the most pregnant word in the English language. The destiny of the nation has the Negro for its pivot, and turns upon the question as to what shall be done with him.” That question informed his speech about Lincoln’s assassination, delivered in 1865, which was as much an attack on President Andrew Johnson for his refusal to grant rights to blacks as it was a eulogy for his friend. Covering one speech, the Eagle defended its claim of black inferiority by asserting, “the abject submission of a race who are content to be enslaved when there is an opportunity to be free, gives the best evidence that they are fulfilling the destiny which Providence marked out for them.”
Proof that Douglass’ speeches, responding to the historical exigencies of his time, amply bear rereading today.