Frederick Douglass’​ Argument: A Slave is a Human Being

Frederick Douglass

The following is an excerpt from Frederick Douglass’ speech, a former slave and leader of the Abolitionist Movement. At times, it is “hard” to read, because it is an honest condemnation — in no uncertain terms — of the moral evil of slavery in America. But Douglas did not condemn America for being America. In other words, he did not hate his country. Rather, he denounced it for its moral shortcomings. Moreover, despite its harsh truth, the speech is an outstanding example of American rhetoric.

Douglass delivered his address mainly to a white audience in Rochester, New York, on 5 July 1852. He argued that slavery was a denial of an obvious truth, a truth that everyone really knows, even slave-holders themselves, namely, that a slave is a human being. However, despite the fact that there was no need to prove his point, Douglas proceeded to support his claim, using several examples from the American institution of slavery itself, all of which presupposed that slaves are human beings:

“Must I undertake to prove that the slave is a man? That point is conceded already. Nobody doubts it. The slaveholders themselves acknowledge it in the enactment of laws for their government. They acknowledge it when they punish disobedience on the part of the slave. There are seventy-two crimes in the State of Virginia, which, if committed by a black man, (no matter how ignorant he be), subject him to the punishment of death; while only two of the same crimes will subject a white man to the like punishment. What is this but the acknowledgement that the slave is a moral, intellectual and responsible being?

“The manhood of the slave is conceded. It is admitted in the fact that Southern statute books are covered with enactments forbidding, under severe fines and penalties, the teaching of the slave to read or to write. When you can point to any such laws, in reference to the beasts of the field, then I may consent to argue the manhood of the slave. When the dogs in your streets, when the fowls of the air, when the cattle on your hills, when the fish of the sea, and the reptiles that crawl, shall be unable to distinguish the slave from a brute, then will I argue with you that the slave is a man!

“For the present, it is enough to affirm the equal manhood of the Negro race. Is it not astonishing that, while we are ploughing, planting and reaping, using all kinds of mechanical tools, erecting houses, constructing bridges, building ships, working in metals of brass, iron, copper, silver and gold; that, while we are reading, writing and cyphering, acting as clerks, merchants and secretaries, having among us lawyers, doctors, ministers, poets, authors, editors, orators and teachers; that, while we are engaged in all manner of enterprises common to other men, digging gold in California, capturing the whale in the Pacific, feeding sheep and cattle on the hill-side, living, moving, acting, thinking, planning, living in families as husbands, wives and children, and, above all, confessing and worshipping the Christian’s God, and looking hopefully for life and immortality beyond the grave, we are called upon to prove that we are men!

“Would you have me argue that man is entitled to liberty? that he is the rightful owner of his own body? You have already declared it. Must I argue the wrongfulness of slavery? Is that a question for Republicans? Is it to be settled by the rules of logic and argumentation, as a matter beset with great difficulty, involving a doubtful application of the principle of justice, hard to be understood? How should I look to-day, in the presence of Americans, dividing, and subdividing a discourse, to show that men have a natural right to freedom? speaking of it relatively, and positively, negatively, and affirmatively. To do so, would be to make myself ridiculous, and to offer an insult to your understanding. — There is not a man beneath the canopy of heaven, that does not know that slavery is wrong for him.”

Frederick Douglass loved America and wanted every slave to become, just as he had, namely, a free human being. He exposed the American hypocrisy of saying, in the words of the Declaration of Independence, that “all men are created equal” and then proceeding to treat black human beings unequally, making them slaves.

Douglas was, in general, an outstanding American and, in particular, an outstanding African-American. May all Americans take to “heart” his teaching that an American, regardless of his or her color, whether it be white or black, is a human being.