Lift Every Voice: African American Oratory, 1787-1900

By Philip S. Foner; Robert James Branham | Go to book overview

54 IF THERE IS NO STRUGGLE THERE IS NO PROGRESS

Frederick Douglass

In 1833, after years of pressure by antislavery crusaders, the British government passed a bill for the abolition of slavery in the British West Indies, to go into effect on August 1, 1834. Although a system of apprenticeship continued until the end of 1838, limiting for several years the effectiveness of the law, the emancipation of the slaves in the West Indies stimulated the struggle against the institution in this country and was annually celebrated by the abolitionists. On August 3, 1857, the twenty-third anniversary, Frederick Douglass delivered a "West India Emancipation" speech at Canandaigua, New York. Most of the address was devoted to the significance of the British legislation, but the closing portions are of great importance as a presentation of Douglass's philosophy of militant abolitionism.

At first, Douglass, an avid disciple of William Lloyd Garrison, was guided by the concept that "moral suasion" was the chief weapon in the battle to end slavery. But new associations and his studies and thinking caused him to abandon faith in moral suasion and advance the doctrine that African Americans would never get their freedom unless they fought for it even at the cost of their lives. The African American, moreover, had to play a leading role in the fight against slavery rather than serve as a subordinate to white abolitionists. Although the Garrisonians bitterly attacked Douglass for breaking with their doctrines, accusing him of selfishly placing his own interests above those of the antislavery cause, he persisted in presenting his own antislavery philosophy and never more firmly and eloquently than in the concluding section of this 1857 "West India Emancipation" speech. This section, presented below, is taken from the pamphlet Two Speeches by Frederick Douglass, One on West India Emancipation . . . and the Other on the Dred Scott Decision . . . ( Rochester , 1857).

THE GENERAL SENTIMENT of mankind is that a man who will not fight for himself, when he has the means of doing so, is not worth being fought for by others, and this sentiment is just. For a man who does not value freedom for himself will never value it for others, or put himself to any inconvenience to gain it for others. Such a man, the world says, may lie down until he has sense enough to stand up. It is useless and cruel to put a man on his legs, if the next moment his head is to be brought against a curbstone.

A man of that type will never lay the world under any obligation to him,

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