The whip-scarred millions…

“The whip-scarred millions” is one of many powerful phrases coined and used by Frederick Douglass in the impassioned speeches and essays that were part of his intense antislavery efforts. A social reformer, orator, writer and statesman, Douglass escaped from slavery and became a leader of the abolitionist movement. A man known for his dazzling oratory and powerful writing style, he stood as a living contradiction to the many slaveholders’ arguments claiming that slaves did not have the intellectual capacity to function as full and independent citizens.

Douglass settled in New Bedford, Massachussetts where he joined several organizations, including a black church, and regularly attended abolitionist meetings. He subscribed to William Lloyd Garrison’s weekly journal The Liberator, and in 1841 heard Garrison speak at a meeting of the Bristol Anti-Slavery Society. At one of these meetings, Douglass was unexpectedly asked to speak.

After he told his story, he was encouraged to become an anti-slavery lecturer. Douglass was inspired by Garrison and later stated that “no face and form ever impressed me with such sentiments [of the hatred of slavery] as did those of William Lloyd Garrison.” Garrison was likewise impressed with Douglass and wrote of him in The Liberator. Several days later, Douglass delivered his first speech at the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society’s annual convention in Nantucket. Then 23 years old, Douglass conquered his nervousness and gave an eloquent speech about his rough life as a slave.

Born a slave, Douglass did not have a formal birth record showing his date of birth. In successive autobiographies, he gave more precise estimates of when he was born, his final estimate being 1817. He adopted February 14 as his birthday because his mother Harriet Bailey used to call him her “little valentine”.

His direct and passionate way of expressing himself comes through in this essay he published in Douglass’ Monthly in which he tries to draw the abolitionist movement back to its core purpose, the freeing of the slaves.  This and other essays can be found in the Accessible Archives African American Newspapers Collection.

The True Issue

Published in Douglass’ Monthly January 1859

It is enough to make a man’s blood run cold now-o’-days to read the so-called anti-slavery papers of our country. The heartlessness displayed in dealing with the sin and crime which is eating out the very heart of all that is precious and worth struggling for, is absolutely shocking. While humanity, justice, and freedom are thawing the icy heart of Russia into life, and causing, even there, the iron hand of despotism to relax its terrible grasp upon the enslaved peasantry—while the “age and body of our time” would seem to cry aloud and spare not, against all forms of oppression—we of the United States are buried in stone-dead indifference to the only true and vital issue which freedom has any right to make with slavery.We read of many issues with slavery just now. One is that slavery shall not commit any further aggressions upon the North; another, that slavery shall not have slaveholding Cuba added to her territory; another,that slavery shall not be established in Kansas; another, that the Dred Scott decision is not binding upon Congress; another, that the African slave trade shall not be re-opened; another, that the South shall not dissolve the Union, in case the Rupublican party shall elect its candidate to the Presidency in 1860. Shame, we gay, everlasting shame upon all these miserable “shams.” Following them the North has nearly lost sight of the only true and vital issue which can be made with slavery. What is that issue?It is not, certainly, shall we humble the slave power? It is not, shall we give the broad Territories of the South-West to free white labor?—not whether the Dred Scott decision shall be adopted in whole or in part? not whether freedom and slavery shall live in peace side by side? but the great and all-commanding question, and the only question which should concern all earnest lovers of their country and of mankind, is, shall the four millions slaves, now robbed of all their rights,and degraded to a level with brute beast, under the very droppings of the sanctuaries of religion and government, be restored to freedom and to progress? This, we take it, is the thing of all others to be kept before the American people—the thing of all others to be contended for. The true war cry is the complete and certain abolition of slavery. Anything in the way of anti-slavery, whether in theory or practice, which does not have this end in view, is clearly deceptive, false, and delusive—a “sham.”

The whip-scarred millions, now toiling in bondage, have claims upon us, more powerful and telling, mere authoritative and imperative,backed up by all the ties of nature, and nature’s God, than any of the miserable appeals made to as in behalf of “free white labor. “That sort of labor is, thank Heaven! already free. It can take care of itself. It has the ballot box and the sword, and needs no special protection. But black labor is in chains, under the” merciless lash, sold on the auction block, crushed in spirit, and bleeding at heart Upon its back rides an insolent and blood-thirsty aristocracy, and upon its heaving breast stands the cold, clammy, and blood-stained walls of the American Church, in which a hypocritical clergy mock God with sepulchral incantations from Sabbath to Sabbath, calling it divine worship. Me thinks the very devils must grin, as these long robed divines perform their divine services, with their hearts crammed with hatred to the slave, and alive with affectionate interest in the salvation of the master.

Abolitionists! return to your principles! Come back, and do your first work over again. Make the slave first, midst, and last Follow no longer the partial and side issues; strike for the abolition of slavery. William H.Seward has told us only what common sense has told us, that when this nation shall WILL the abolition of slavery, the WAY will be provided for its abolition. Our business is most plainly to stick to those doctrines and measures,and to labor in the promulgation of those facts and arguments, which tend directly and certainly to bring this nation, North and South, to favor the complete and certain abolition of slavery.

While primarily known for his fight for emancipation, Douglass was a vocal supporter of full equal rights for women. At a conference on Women’s Rights, he said that he could not accept the right to vote himself as a black man if woman could not also claim that right. Douglass projected that the world would be a better place if women were involved in the political sphere. “In this denial of the right to participate in government, not merely the degradation of woman and the perpetuation of a great injustice happens, but the maiming and repudiation of one-half of the moral and intellectual power of the government of the world.

All images included in blog posts are from either Accessible Archives collections or out of copyright public sources unless otherwise noted. Common sources include the Library of Congress, The Flickr Commons, Wikimedia Commons, and other public archives.

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