Address on the Twenty-First Anniversary of Emancipation in the District of Columbia
Friends and fellow citizens:
I could have wished that someone from among the younger men of Washington, someone with a mind more fruitful, with a voice more eloquent, with an oratorical ambition more lofty, more active, and more stimulating to high endeavor than mine, had been selected by your Committee of Arrangements, to give suitable utterance to the thoughts, feelings, and purposes, which this 21st anniversary of Emancipation in the District of Colombia is fitted to inspire. That such a one could have been easily found among the aspiring and promising young colored men of Washington, I am happy to know and am proud to affirm. They are the legitimate children of the great act we are met to celebrate. They have been reared in the light of its new born freedom, qualified by its education, and by the elevating spirit of liberty, to speak the wise and grateful words befitting the occasion. The presence of one such, as your orator tonight, would be a more brilliant illustration of the wisdom and beneficence of the act of Emancipation, then any words of mine, however well-chosen and appropriate. I represent the past, they the present. I represent the downfall of slavery, they the glorious triumphs of liberty. I speak of deliverance from bondage, they speak of concessions to liberty and equality. Their mission begins where my mission ends.
Nevertheless, while I would have gladly given place to one of these rising young man, I could not well decline the duty and the honor of appearing here tonight. It may, after all, be well to have something of the past mingled with the present, well that one who has had some share in the conflict should share also in the public joy of the victory.
At the outset, as an old watchman on the walls of liberty, eagerly scanning the social and political horizon, you naturally ask me, What of the night? It is easy to break forth in joy and thanksgiving for Emancipation in the District of Columbia. It is easy to call up the noble sentiments and the startling events which made that grand measure possible. It is easy to trace the footsteps of the negro in the past, marked as they are all the way along with blood. But the present occasion calls for something more. How stands the negro today? What are the relations subsisting between him and the powerful people among whom he lives, moves, and has his being? What is the outlook, and what is his probable future?
You will readily perceive that I have raised more questions than I shall be able for the present to answer. My general response to these inquiries is a mixed one. The sky of the American Negro is dark, but not rayless; it is stormy, but not cheerless. The grand old party of liberty, union, and progress, which has been his reliance and refuge so long, though less cohesive and strong than it once was, is still a power and has a future. I give you notice, that while there is a Democratic party there will be a Republican party. As the war for the Union recedes into the misty shadows of the past, and the Negro is no longer needed to assault forts and stop rebel bullets, he is in some sense, of less importance. Peace with the old master class has been war to the Negro. As the one has risen, the other has fallen. The reaction has been sudden, marked, and violent. It has swept the Negro from all the legislative halls of the Southern States, and from those of the Congress of the United States. It has, in many cases, driven him from the ballot box and the jury box. The situation has much in it for serious thought, but nothing to cause despair. Above all the frowning clouds that lower about our horizon, there is the steady light of stars, and the thick clouds that now obscure them, will in due season pass away.
In fact, they are already passing away. Time and events which have done so much for us in the past, will, I trust, not do less for us in the future. The moral government of the universe is on our side, and cooperates, with all honest efforts, to lift up the downtrodden and oppressed in all lands, whether the oppressed be white or black.
In whatever else the Negro may have been a failure, he has, in one respect, been a marked and brilliant success. He has managed by one means or another to make himself one of the most prominent and interesting figures that now attract and hold the attention of the world.
Go where you will, meet with him. He is alike present in the study of the learned and thoughtful, and in the play house of the gay and thoughtless. We see him pictured at our street corners, and hear him in the songs of our market places. The low and vulgar curse him, the snob and the flunky affect to despise him, the mean and the cowardly assault him, because they know that his friends are few, and that they can abuse him with impunity, and with the applause of the coarse and brutal crowd. But, despite of it all, the Negro remains like iron or granite, cool, strong, imperturbable and cheerful.
Men of all lands and languages make him a subject of profound thought and study. To the statesman and philosopher, he is an object of intense curiosity. Men want to know more of his character, his qualities, his attainments, his mental possibilities, and his probable destiny. Notwithstanding their black faces, the Jubilee singers, with their wild and plaintive music, thrill and charm the most refined and cultivated of the white race, both here and in Europe. Generous and brave men like Andrew Jackson, Benjamin F. Butler, and General Grant, have borne ample testimony to the courage of the negro, to his gallantry, and to his patriotism. Of the books, pamphlets, and speeches concerning him, there is, literally, no end. He is the one inexhaustible topic of conversation at our firesides and in our public halls.
Great, however, as is his advantage at this point, he is not altogether fortunate after all, as to the manner in which his claims are canvassed. His misfortune is that few men are qualified to discuss him candidly and impartially. They either exalt him too high or rate him too low. Americans can consider almost any other question more calmly and fairly than this one. I know of nothing outside of religion which kindles more wrath, causes wider differences, or gives force and effect to fiercer and more irreconcilable antagonisms.
It was so in the time of slavery and it is so now. Then, the cause was interest, now, the cause is pride and prejudice. Then, the cause was property. He was then worth twenty hundred millions to his owner. He is now worth uncounted millions to himself. While a slave there was a mountain of gold on his breast to keep him down--now that he is free there is a mountain of prejudice to hold him down.
Let any man now claim for the Negro, or worse still, let the Negro now claim for himself, any right, privilege or immunity which has hitherto been denied him by law or custom, and he will at once open a fountain of bitterness, and call forth overwhelming wrath.
It is his sad lot to live in a land where all presumptions are arrayed against him, unless we except the presumption of inferiority and worthlessness. If his course is downward, he meets very little resistance, but if upward, his way is disputed at every turn of the road. If he comes in rags and in wretchedness, he answers the public demand for a negro, and provokes no anger, though he may provoke derision, but if he presumes to be a gentleman and a scholar, he is then entirely out of his place. He excites resentment and calls forth stern and bitter opposition. If he offers himself to a builder as a mechanic, to a client as a lawyer, or to a patient as a physician, to a university as a professor, or to a department as a clerk, no matter what may be his ability or his attainments, there is a presumption based upon his color or his previous condition, of incompetency, and if he succeeds at all, he has to do so against this most discouraging presumption.
It is a real calamity, in this country, for any man, guilty or not guilty, to be accused of crime, but it is an incomparably greater calamity for any colored man to be so accused. Justice is often painted with bandaged eyes. She is described in forensic eloquence, as utterly blind to wealth or poverty, high or low, white or black, but a mask of iron, however thick, could never blind American justice, when a black man happens to be on trial. Here, even more than elsewhere, he will find all presumptions of law and evidence against him. It is not so much the business of his enemies to prove him guilty, as it is the business of himself to prove his innocence. The reasonable doubt which is usually interposed to save the life and liberty of a white man charged with crime, seldom has any force or effect when a colored man is accused of crime. Indeed, color is a far better protection to the white criminal, than anything else. In certain parts of our country, when any white man wishes to commit a heinous offence, he wisely resorts to burnt cork and blackens his face and goes forth under the similitude of a Negro. When the deed is done, a little soap and water destroys his identity, and he does unwhipped of justice. Some Negro is at once suspected and brought before the victim of wrong for identification, and there is never much trouble here, for as in the eyes of many white people, all Negros look alike, and as the man arrested and who sits in the dock in irons is black, he is undoubtedly the criminal.
A still greater misfortune to the Negro is that the press, that engine of omnipotent power, usually tries him in advance of the courts, and when once his case decided in the newspapers, it is easy for the jury to bring in its verdict of "guilty as indicted."
In many parts of our common country, the action of courts and juries is entirely too slow for the impetuosity of the people's justice. When the black man is accused, the mob takes the law into its own hands, and whips, shoots, stabs, hangs, or burns the accused, simply upon the allegation or suspicion of crime. Of such proceedings, Southern papers are full. A crime almost unknown to the colored man in the time of slavery seems now, from report, the most common. I do not believe these reports. There are too many reasons for trumping up such charges.
Another feature of the situation is, that this mob violence is seldom rebuked by the press and the pulpit, in its immediate neighborhood. Because the public opinion which sustains and makes possible such outrages, intimidates both press and pulpit.
Besides, nobody expects that those who participate in such mob violence will ever be held answerable to the law, and punished. Of course, judges are not always unjust, nor juries always partial in cases of this class, but I affirm that I have here given you no picture of the fancy, and I have alleged no point incapable of proof, and drawn no line darker or denser than the terrible reality. The situation, my colored fellow citizens is discouraging, but with all its hardships and horror, I am neither desperate nor despairing as to the future.
One ground of hope is found in the fact referred to in the beginning, and that is, the discussion concerning the Negro still goes on.
The country in which we live is happily governed by ideas as well as by laws, and no black man need despair while there is an audible and earnest assertion of justice and right on his behalf. He may be riddled with bullets, or roasted over a slow fire by the mob, but his cause cannot be shot or burned or otherwise destroyed. Like the impalpable ghost of the murdered Hamlet, it is immortal. All talk of its being a dead issue is a mistake. It may for a time be buried, but it is not dead. Tariffs, free trade, civil service, and river and harbor bills, may for a time cover it, but it will rise again, and again, and again, with increased life and vigor. Every year adds to the black man's numbers. Every year adds to his wealth and to his intelligence. These will speak for him.
There is a power in numbers, wealth and intelligence, which can never be despised nor defied. All efforts thus far to diminish the Negro's importance as a man and as a member of the American body politic, have failed. We are approaching a momentous canvass. If I do not misread the signs of the times, he will play an important part in the politics of the nation during the next Presidential campaign, and will play it well.
When that crisis shall come, neither of the great political parties will fail to appreciate the influence of his voice and his vote. It would not be strange or surprising, if even the Democratic party should be seized with an appetite of unusual intensity for these colored votes. From present indications, too, I apprehend that his vote will be employed in such manner as to more fully open the gates of progress, and secure for himself a better position among his fellow countrymen than heretofore.
Without putting my head to the ground, I can even now hear the anxious inquiry as to when this discussion of the Negro will cease. When will he cease to be a bone of contention between the two great parties? Speaking for myself, I can honestly say I wish it to cease. I long to see the Negro utterly out of the whirlpool of angry political debate. No one will rejoice more heartily than I shall when this consummation is reached. I want the whole American people to unite with the sentiment of their greatest captain, U.S. Grant, and say with him on this subject, "Let us have peace." I need it; you need it; the Negro needs it; and every lover of his country should endeavor to withdraw the Negro from this angry gulf. But it is idle, utterly idle to dream of peace anywhere in this world, while any part of the human family are the victims of marked injustice and oppression.
In America, no less than elsewhere, purity must go before tranquility. Nations, no more than individuals, can reverse this fundamental and eternal order of human relations. There is no modern Joshua who can command this resplendent orb of popular discussion to stand still. As in the past, so in the future, it will go on. It may be arrested and imprisoned for a while, but no power can permanently restrain it.
If you wish to suppress it, I counsel you, my fellow citizens, to remove its cause. The voice of popular complaint, whether it is heard in this country or in other countries, does not and cannot rest upon dreams, visions, or illusions of any kind. There must be solid ground for it.
The demand for Negro rights would have ceased long since but for the existence of a sufficient and substantial cause for its continuance.
Fellow citizens, the present hour is full of admonition and warning. I despise threats, and remembering as I do the depths from which I have come, and the forlorn condition of those for whom I speak, I dare not assume before the American people an air of haughtiness, but on the other hand I cannot forget that the Negro is now, and of right ought to be, an American citizen in the fullest sense of the word. This high position, I take it, was not accorded him in sport, mockery or deception. I credit the American people with sincerity.
No matter what the Democratic party may say; no matter what the old master class of the South may say; no matter what the Supreme Court of the United States may say, the fact is beyond question that the loyal American people, in the view of the services of the Negro in the national hour of peril, meant to make him, in good faith and according to the letter and spirit of the Constitution of the United States, a full and complete American citizen.
The amendments to the Constitution of the United States mean this, or they are cruel, scandalous and colossal sham, and deserve to be so branded before the civilized world. What Abraham Lincoln said in respect of the United States is as true of the colored people as of the relations of those States. They cannot remain half slave and half free. You must give them all or take from them all. Until this half-and-half condition is ended, there will be just ground of complaint. You will have an aggrieved class, and this discussion will go on. Until the public schools shall cease to be caste schools in every part of our country, this discussion will go on. Until the colored man's pathway to the American ballot box, North and South, shall be as smooth and as safe as the same is for the white citizen, this discussion will go on. Until the colored man's right to practice at the bar of our courts, and sit upon juries, shall be the universal law and practice of the land, this discussion will go on. Until the courts of the country shall grant the colored man a fair trial and a just verdict, this discussion will go on. Until color shall cease to be a bar to equal participation in the offices and honors of the country, this discussion will go on. Until the trade unions and the workshops of the country shall cease to proscribe the colored man and prevent his children from learning useful trades, this discussion will go on. Until the American people shall make character, and not color, the criterion of respectability, this discussion will go on. Until men like Bishops Payne and Campbell shall cease to be driven from respectable railroad cars at the South, this discussion will go on. In a word, until truth and humanity shall cease to be living ideas, and mankind shall sink back into moral darkness, and the world shall put evil for good, bitter for sweet, and darkness for light, this discussion will go on. Until all humane ideas and civilization shall be banished from the world, this discussion will go on.
There never was a time then this great lesson could be more easily learned than now. Events are transpiring all around us that enforce consideration of the oppressed classes. In one form or another, by one means or another, the ideas of a common humanity against privileged classes, of common rights against special privileges, are now rocking the world. Explosives are heard that rival the earthquake. They are causing despots to tremble, class rule to quail, thrones to shake and oppressive associated wealth to turn pale. It is for America to be wise in time. For the present our institutions are not likely to be shaken by dynamite or daggers. We have free speech and a free press.
"Weapons of war we have cast from the battle." With us there is no apology for violence or crime. Happily, we are in a position to win by peaceful means those victories more renowned than any secured by war.
The gates of reason are still open to us; and, while we may speak and vote, we need not despair.
When the nation was in peril; when the country was rent asunder at the center; when rebel armies were in the field, bold, defiant and victorious; when our recruiting sergeants were marching up and down out streets from early morn till late at night, with drum and fife, with banner and badge, footsore and weary; when the fate of the Republic trembled in the balance, and the hearts of loyal men were failing them for fear; when nearly all hope of subduing the rebellion had vanished, Abraham Lincoln called upon the colored men of this country to reach out their iron arms and clutch with their steel fingers the faltering banner of the Republic; and they rallied, and they rallied, full two hundred thousand strong. Ah! then, my friends, the claims of the Negro found the heart of the nation a little more tender and responsive than now. But I ask Americans to remembers that the arms that were needed then may be needed again; and it is best that they do not convert the cheerful and loyal brows of six millions into a black Ireland.
A nation composed of all classes should be governed by no one class exclusively. All should be included, and none excluded. Thus aggrieved classes would be rendered impossible.
The question is sometimes asked, when, where and by whom the Negro was first suspected of having any rights at all? In answer to this inquiry it has been asserted that William Lloyd Garrison originated the Anti-slavery movement, that until his voice was raised against the American slave system, the whole world was silent. With all respect to those who make this claim I am compelled to dissent from it. I love and venerate the memory of William Lloyd Garrison. I knew him long and well. He was a grand man, a moral hero, a man whose acquaintance and friendship it was a great privilege to enjoy. While liberty has a friend on earth, and slavery an earnest enemy, his name and his works will be held in profound and grateful memory. To him it was given to formulate and thunder against oppression and slavery the testimonies of all ages. He revived, but did not originate.
It is no disparagement to him to affirm that he was preceded by many other good men whom it would be a pleasure to remember on occasions like this. Benjamin Lundy, and humble Quaker, though not the originator of the Anti-slavery movement, was in advance of Mr. Garrison. Walker, a colored man, who appeal against slavery startled the land like a trump of coming judgment, was before either Mr. Garrison or Mr. Lundy.
Emancipation, without delay, was preached by Dr. Hopkins of Rhode Island, long before the voice of either Garrison, Lundy or Walker was heard in the land. John Wesley, a hundred years before, had denounced slavery as the sum of all villainies. Adam Clark had done the same. The Society of Friends had abolished slavery among themselves and had borne testimony against the evil, long before the modern Anti-slavery movement was inaugurated.
In fact, the right of the Negro, as a man and a brother, began to be asserted with the earliest American Colonial history, and I derive hope from the fact, that the discussion still goes on, and the claims of the Negro rise higher and higher as the years roll by. Two hundred years of discussion has abated no jot of its power or its vitality. Behind it we have a great cloud of witness, going back to the beginning of our country and to the very foundation of our government. Our best men have given their voice and their votes on the right side of it, through all our generations.
It has been fashionable of late years to denounce it as a product of Northern growth, a Yankee device for disturbing and disrupting the bonds of the Union, and like, but the facts of history are all the other way. The Anti-Slavery side of the discussion has a Southern rather than a Northern origin.
The first publication in assertion and vindication of any right of the Negro, of which I have any knowledge, was written more than two hundred years ago, by Rev. Morgan Godwyn, a missionary of Virginia and Jamaica. This was only a plea for the right of the Negro to baptism and church membership. The last publication of any considerable note, of which I have any knowledge, is a recent article in the Popular Science Monthly, by Prof. Gilliam. The distance and difference between these two publications, in point of time, gives us a gauge by which we may in good degree measure the progress of the Negro. The book of Godwyn was published in 1690, and the article of Gilliam was published in 1883. The space in time between the two is not greater than the space in morals and enlightenment. The ground taken in respect to the Negro, in the one, is low. The ground taken in respect to the possibilities of the Negro, in the other, is so high as to be somewhat startling, not only to the white man, but also to the black man himself.
The book of Morgan Godwyn is a literary curiosity and an ethical wonder.
I deem myself fortunate in being the owner of a copy of it. I met with it while in White Haven, England, thirty-seven years ago. I was then abroad for safety rather than for health, for at that time there was no place of safety for me anywhere under the American flag or on American soil. An Irish Number 1 is safer here now, than I was then. Our Government then had no tenderness for refugees, however innocent of crime, if their skins happened to be slightly tanned or their hair a trifle woolly. But to return to Dr. Godwyn and his book. He very evidently was not a Negro worshiper, nor what in our day would be called an abolitionist. He proposed no disturbance of the relation of master and slave. On the contrary, he conceded the right of the master to own and control the body of the Negro, but insisted that the soul of the Negro belonged to the Lord. His able reasoning on this point, it is true, left the Negro for himself neither soul nor body. When he claimed his body, he found that that belonged to his earthly master, and when he looked around for his soul, he found that that belonged to his master in Heaven. Nevertheless, the ground taken in this book by Dr. Godwyn was immensely important. It was, in fact, the starting point, the foundation of all the grand concessions yet made to the claims, the character, the manhood and the dignity of the Negro. In the light of his present acknowledged position among men, here and elsewhere, a book to prove the Negro's right to baptism seems ridiculous, but so it did not seem two hundred years ago. Baptism was then a vital and commanding question, one with which the moral and intellectual giants of that day were required to grapple.
The opposition to baptizing and admitting the Negro to membership in the Christian church, was serious, determined and bitter. That ceremony was, in his case, opposed on many grounds, but especially upon three. First, the Negro's unfitness for baptism; secondly, the nature of the ordinance itself; and thirdly, because it would disturb the relation of master and slave. The wily slaveholders of that day were sharp-eyed and keen-scented, and sniffed danger from afar. They saw in this argument of Godwyn the thin edge of the wedge which would sooner or later rend asunder the bonds of slavery. They therefore sought in piety to heaven security for their possessions on earth; in reverence to God contempt for man. They sought in the sacredness of baptism the salvation of slavery.
They contended that this holy ordinance could only be properly administered to free and responsible agents, men who, in all matters of moral conduct, could exercise the sacred right of choice; and this proposition was very easily defended. For, plainly enough, the Negro did not answer that description. The laws of the land did not even know him as a person. He was simply a piece of property, an article of merchandise, marked and branded as such, and no more fitted to be admitted to the fellowship of saints than horses, sheep or swine.
When Chief Justice Taney said that Negroes in those early days had no rights which white men felt bound to respect, he only uttered an historical truth. The trouble was that it was uttered for an evil purpose, and made to serve an evil purpose. The slave was solely answerable for his conduct to his earthly master. To thrust baptism and the church between the slave and his master was a dangerous interference with the absolute authority of the master. The slave-holders were always logical. When they assumed that slavery was right, they easily saw that everything inconsistent with slavery was wrong.
But deeper down than any modification of the master's authority, there was a more controlling motive for opposing baptism. Baptism had a legal as well as a religious significance. By the common law at that time, baptism was made a sufficient basis for a legal claim for emancipation. I am informed by Hon. A. B. Hagner, one of the Judges of the Supreme Court of this District, that there is now an old law in the State of Maryland, reversing the common law at this point.
Had I lived in Maryland before that law was enacted, I should have been baptized if I could have gotten anybody to perform the ceremony.
For in that day of Christian simplicity, honest rules of Biblical interpretation were applied. The Bible was thought to mean just what it said. When a heathen ceased to be a heathen and became a Christian, he could no longer be held as a slave. Within the meaning of the accepted word of God it was the heathen, not the Christian, who was to be bought and sold, and held as a bondman forever.
This fact stood like a roaring lion ready to tear and devour any Negro who sought the ordinance of baptism.
In the eyes of the wise and prudent of his times, Dr. Godwyn was a dangerous man, a disturber of the peace of the church. Like our ever-faithful friend, Dr. Rankin, he was guilty of pressing religion into an improper interference with secular things, and making mischief generally.
In fact, when viewed relatively, low as was the ground assumed by this good man two hundred years ago, he was as far in advance of his times then as Charles Sumner was when he first took his seat in the United States Senate. What baptism and church membership were for the Negro in the days of Godwyn, the ballot and civil rights were for the Negro in, the days of Sumner. Though standing two centuries apart these two men are, nevertheless, conspicuous links in the great chain of causes and events which raised the Negro to his present level of freedom in this and other lands. Here, tonight on the twenty-first anniversary of Emancipation in the District of Columbia, the capital of the grandest Republic of freedom on the earth, I kneel at the grave, amid the dust and shadows of bygone centuries, and offer my gratitude, and the gratitude of six millions of my race, to Morgan Godwyn, as the grand pioneer of Garrison, Lundy, Goodell, Phillips, Henry Wilson, Gerrit Smith, Joshua R. Giddings, Abraham Lincoln, Thaddeus Stevens, and the illustrious host of great men who have since risen to plead the cause of the negro against those who would oppress him.
Fellow-citizens – In view of the history now referred to, the low point at which he started in the race of life on this continent and the many obstacles which had to be surmounted, the Negro has reasons to be proud of his progress, if not of his beginning. He is a brilliant illustration of social and anthropological revolution and evolution.
His progress has been steady, vast and wonderful. No people has ever made greater progress under similar conditions. We may trace his rise from Godwyn contending for his right to baptism, to Garrison with abolitionism, and later on to Gilliam alarmed at the prospect of negro supremacy. His progress is marked with three G's, Godwyn, Garrison, Gilliam. We see him changed from a heathen to a christian by Godwyn, from a slave to a freeman by Garrison, from a serf to a sovereign by Gilliam.
I am not a disciple of Professor Gilliam, and have neither hope nor fear of black supremacy. I have very little interest in his ethics or his arithmetic. It may or it may not come to pass. Sufficient unto the day is both the evil and the good thereof. A hundred years is a little further down the steps of time than I care to look, for good or for evil.
When father Miller proved by the Bible, from whose pages so many things have been proved, that the world would come to an end in 1843, and proved it so clearly that many began to make their robes in which they were to soar aloft above this burning world, he was asked by a doubting Thomas, "But father Miller, what if it does not come?" "Well," said the good old man, "then we shall wait till it does come."
The colored people of the United States should imitate the wisdom of father Miller, and, wait. But we should also work while we wait. For after all, our destiny is largely in our own hands. If we find, we shall have to seek. If we succeed in the race of life, it must be by our own energies, and our own exertions. Others may clear the road, but we must go forward, or be left behind in the race of life.
If we remain poor and dependent, the riches of other men will not avail us. If we are ignorant, the intelligence of other men will do but little for us. If we are foolish, the wisdom of other men will not guide us. If we are wasteful of time and money, the economy of other men will only make our destitution more disgraceful and hurtful. If we are vicious and lawless, the virtues and good behavior of others will not save us from our vices and our crimes.
We are now free, and though we have many of the consequences of our past condition to contend against, by union, effort, cooperation, and by a wise policy in the direction and the employment of our mental, moral, industrial and political powers, it is the faith of my soul, that we can blot out the handwriting of popular prejudice, remove the stumbling-blocks left in our way by slavery, rise to an honorable place in the estimation of our fellow-citizens of all classes, and make a comfortable way for ourselves in the world.
I have referred to the vast and wonderful changes which have taken place in the condition of the colored people of this country. We rejoice in those changes today, and we do well. We are neither wood nor stone, but men. We possess the sentiments common to right-minded men.
But do we know the history of those vast and marvellous changes and the means by which they were brought about? Do we comprehend the philosophy of our progress? Do we ever think of the time, the thought, the labor, the pain, the self-sacrifice, by which they were accomplished? Have we a just and proper conception of the noble zeal, the inflexible firmness, the heroic courage, and other grand qualities of soul, displayed by the reformers and statesmen through whose exertions these changes in our condition have been wrought out and the victory won?
Mr. Williams, in his History of the Negro, tells his readers that it was the dissolution of the Union that abolished slavery. He might as well have told them that Charles Sumner was a slaveholder; that Jeff Davis was an abolitionist; that Abraham Lincoln was disloyal, and that the devil founded the Christian church. Had the Union been dissolved, you and I would not be here this evening. Had the Union been dissolved, the colored people of the South would now be in the hateful chains of slavery. No, no, Mr. Williams, it was not the destruction but the salvation of the Union that saved the slave from slavery and the country to freedom, and the Negro to citizenship.
The abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia was one of the most important events connected with the prosecution of the war for the preservation of the Union, and, as such, is worthy of the marked commemoration we have given it today. It was not only a staggering blow to slavery throughout the country, but a killing blow to the rebellion, and was the beginning of the end to both. It placed the National dignity and the National power on the side of emancipation. It was the first step toward a redeemed and regenerated nation. It imparted a moral and human significance to what at first seemed to the outside world, only a sanguinary war for empire.
This great step in National progress, was not taken without a violent struggle in Congress. It required a large share of moral courage, large faith in the power of truth, and confidence in the enlightenment and loyalty of the people, to support this radical measure.
I need not tell you it was bitterly opposed on various grounds by the Democratic members of Congress. To them it was a measure of flagrant bad faith with the slaveholders of the District; and calculated to alienate the border States, and drive them completely into the Confederate States, and make the restoration of the Union impossible. There was much more force in such arguments then than there was now. The situation was critical. The rebellion was in the fullness of its strength, bold, defiant, victorious, and confident of ultimate success. The great man on horseback had not then become visible along the Western horizon. Sherman had not begun his triumphant march to the sea. But there were moral and intellectual giants in the councils of the Nation at that time. We saw in the Senate Chamber the towering form of the lamented Sumner, the earnest and practical Henry Wilson, the honest and courageous Benjamin F. Wade, the strong and fearless Zachary Chandler-the man who took the unsuccessful General from the head of the Army of the Potomac. In the House we had an array of brilliant men such as Thaddeus Stevens, Owen Lovejoy and A. G. Riddle, the first to advocate in Congress the arming of the Negro in defence of the Union. There, too, was Thomas D. Elliot, Henry Winter Davis, William D. Kelley, Roscoe Conkling, than whom there has appeared in the Senate of the nation no patriot more pure, no orator more brilliant, no friend to liberty and progress more sincere. I speak all the more freely of him since he is now out of politics and in some sense under the shadow of defeat. I cannot forget that these brave men, and others just as worthy of mention, fully comprehended the demands of the hour, and had the courage and the sagacity to meet those demands. They saw that slavery was the root, the sap, the motive, and mainspring of the rebellion, and that the way to kill the rebellion was to destroy its cause.
Among the great names which should never be forgotten on occasions like this, there is one which should never be spoken but with reverence, gratitude and affection, the one man of all the millions of our countrymen to whom we are more indebted for a United Nation and for American liberty than to any other, and that name is Abraham Lincoln, the greatest statesman that ever presided over the destinies of this Republic. The time is too short, his term of office is too recent to permit or to require extended notice of his statesmanship, or of his moral and mental qualities. We all know Abraham Lincoln by heart. In looking back to the many great men of twenty years ago, we find him the tallest figure of them all. His mission was to close up a chasm opened by an earthquake, and he did it. It was his to call back a bleeding, dying and dismembered nation to life, and he did it. It was his to free his country from the crime, curse and disgrace of slavery, and to lift millions to the plane of humanity, and he did it. Never was a statesman surrounded by greater difficulties, and never were difficulties more ably, wisely and firmly met. Friends and fellow-citizens, in conclusion I return to the point from which I started, namely: What is to be the future of the colored people of this country? Some change in their condition seems to be looked for by thoughtful men everywhere; but what that change will be, no one yet has been able with certainty to predict.
Three different solutions to this difficult problem have been given and adopted by different classes of the American people. 1. Colonization in Africa2. Extinction through poverty, disease and death3. Assimilation and unification with the great body of the American people.
Plainly it is a matter about which no man can be very positive. In scanning the social sky he may fall into mistakes as great as those which vexed the souls of Wiggins and Vennor and other weather prophets. Appearances are deceptive. No man can see the end from the beginning.
It is, however, consoling to think that this limitation upon human foresight has helped us in the past and may help us in the future. Could William the Silent have foreseen the misery and ruin he would bring upon his country by taking up the sword against the Spanish Inquisition, he might have thought the sacrifice too great. Had William Lloyd Garrison foreseen that he would be hated, persecuted, mobbed, imprisoned, and drawn through the streets of his beloved Boston with a halter about his neck, even his courage might have quailed, and the native hue of his resolution been sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought. Could Abraham Lincoln have foreseen the immense cost, the terrible hardship, the awful waste of blood and treasure involved in the effort to retake and repossess the forts and arsenals and other property captured by the Confederate States; could he have foreseen the tears of the widows and orphans, and his own warm blood trickling at the bidding of an assassin's bullet, he might have thought the sacrifice too great.
In every great movement men are prepared by preceding events for those which are to appear. We don't even know the evil or the good that may be in store for us. Twenty-five years ago the system of slavery seemed firm. Cotton was king, and the civilized world acknowledged his amplitude. Twenty-five years ago no man could have anticipated that in less than ten years from that time, no master would wield a lash, and no slave would clank a chain in the United States.
Who at that time dreamed that Negroes would ever be seen as we have seen them to-day marching through the streets of this superb city, the Capital of this great Nation, with eagles on their buttons, muskets on their shoulders and swords by their sides, timing their high footsteps to the Star Spangled Banner and the Red, White and Blue? Who at that time dreamed that colored men would ever sit in the House of Representatives and in the Senate of the United States?
With a knowledge of the events of the last score of years, with a knowledge of the sudden and startling changes which have already come to pass, I am not prepared to say what the future will be.
But I will say that I do not look for colonization either in or out of the United States. Africa is too far off, even if we desired to go there, which we do not. The navy of all the world would not be sufficient to remove our natural increase to that far-off country. Removal to any of the territories is out of the question.
We have no business to put ourselves before the bayonets of the white race. We have seen the fate of the Indian. As to extinction, the prospect in that direction has been greatly clouded by the census just taken, in which it is seen that our increase is ten percent greater than that of the white people of the South.
There is but one destiny, it seems to me, left for us, and that is to make ourselves and be made by others a part of the American people in every sense of the word. Assimilation and not isolation is our true policy and our natural destiny. Unification for us is life: separation is death. We cannot afford to set up for ourselves a separate political party, or adopt for ourselves a political creed apart from the rest of our fellow citizens. Our own interests will be subserved by a generous care for the interests of the Nation at large. All the political, social and literary forces around us tend to unification.
I am the more inclined to accept this solution because I have seen the steps already taken in that direction. The American people have their prejudices, but they have other qualities as well. They easily adapt themselves to inevitable conditions and all their tendency is to progress, enlightenment and to the universal.
"It's comin' yet for a' that,
That man to man the warld o'er
Shall brothers be for a' that."