“I base my sense of the certain overthrow of slavery, in part, upon the nature of the American Government, the Constitution, the tendencies of the age, and the character of the American people; and this, notwithstanding the important decision of Judge Taney. I know of no soil better adapted to the growth of reform than American soil. I know of no country where the conditions for affecting great changes in the settled order of things, for the development of right ideas of liberty and humanity, are more favorable than here in these United States.”
Speech on the Dred Scott Decision
Frederick Douglass was a leading abolitionist, orator, and statesman. He was born into slavery in Maryland and escaped to New York at the age of 21. He wrote three autobiographies detailing his life in slavery, his escape, and his abolitionist work in the United States and Europe. Douglass traveled extensively, giving anti-slavery speeches and organizing abolitionist efforts wherever he went. In addition to his abolitionist work, he also supported the women’s suffrage movement. Some of his more famous speeches and writings are collected here, and you can learn more about him on the Frederick Douglass Discovery Page.
On the Constitution
As a young man, Frederick Douglass befriended William Lloyd Garrison after he escaped from slavery and admired Garrison’s abolitionist work. A prominent figure in the North, Garrison was among the most radical abolitionists of the time, using the tagline, “No Union with Slaveholders,” and calling for the separation of free states from slave states. Garrison understood the Constitution as law that protected and promoted slavery and saw no possibility for abolition under the Constitution. Later in life, Douglass turned away from Garrison’s brand of abolitionism and viewed the Constitution as a tool that could be used to abolish slavery. The two speeches here, delivered nearly 30 years apart, show how Douglass eventually came to hold opposite beliefs about the Constitution than his friend and mentor.
Douglass would write three autobiographies over the course of his lifetime. The first, here, was written when he was just 28 years old. Much of the Narrative is about his experiences as a child and young man as a slave, his escape, and his first experience with freedom in the North. Douglass details his escape in Chapter XI.
Perhaps Douglass’ most famous speech, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” is a searing criticism of white America’s hypocritical celebration of America’s independence. White Americans were living the universal truths espoused in the Declaration while denying those same rights to black Americans held in slavery. Douglass calls on white Americans to truly start living up to the principles in the Declaration by ending slavery and guaranteeing life, liberty, and property for all Americans regardless of color.
In the Dred Scott v. Sandford decision, Chief Justice Taney ruled that black Americans could never be citizens. He asserted that the “all men were created equal” refrain from the Declaration was never intended to apply to black people in the United States. Frederick Douglass was among the many abolitionists and Republicans outraged with the decision and spoke strongly against it.
In a speech on the history of slave rebellion and liberation, Douglass uttered what would be one of his most famous phrases: “if there is no struggle, there is no progress.” He calls for enslaved people everywhere – especially in the United States – to fight the way slaves in the West Indies did to secure their freedom.
Frederick Douglass’ Narrative: Myth of the Happy Slave
Heroes and Villains: The Responsibilities of Frederick Douglass
Bill of Rights Institute