Frederick Douglass Primary Source eText

Primary Source

(American Civil War: Primary Sources)

Harriet Tubman. (Reproduced by permission of The Granger Collection.) Harriet Tubman. Published by Gale Cengage (Reproduced by permission of The Granger Collection.)
Abolotionist William Lloyd Garrison. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress.) Abolotionist William Lloyd Garrison. Published by Gale Cengage (Courtesy of the Library of Congress.)

Excerpt from "The American Apocalypse"
Speech delivered in Rochester, New York, on June 16, 1861

An abolitionist argues that a Union
with slavery is not worth saving

"For the statesman of this hour to permit any settlement of the present war between slavery and freedom, which will leave untouched and undestroyed the relation of master and slave, would not only be a great crime, but a great mistake, the bitter fruit of which would poison the life blood of unborn generations."

When the Civil War began in 1861, President Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865) and many other people in the North claimed that the conflict was not about slavery. Instead, they said that the North was fighting in order to preserve the United States as one nation. "My paramount [primary] aim in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy slavery," Lincoln stated. "If I could save the Union without freeing any slaves, I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that."

Lincoln chose preserving the Union as his primary war aim partly for political reasons. He did not want to risk losing the support of the four "border" states—Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri—that allowed slavery but remained loyal to the United States. Another reason that people claimed the war was not about slavery was widespread racism. Even in the North, many white people believed that they were superior to blacks. Therefore, they did not feel strongly about ending slavery.

In reality, the dispute between the North and the South involved a number of different issues, including the question of how much power should be granted to the individual states and how much should be held by the federal government. But slavery was the one issue upon which the two sides could not compromise. When the Southern states seceded from (left) the Union, they made it clear that their main goal was to defend their way of life, which depended on the "peculiar institution" of slavery. For this reason, Northern abolitionists (people who worked to put an end to slavery) and free blacks argued that the real issue behind the war was slavery. They did not believe that Lincoln could preserve the Union without destroying slavery. They wanted Northern political leaders to make abolishing slavery the main purpose of the Civil War.

Frederick Douglass (c. 1818–1895) was one of the leaders in the debate over the North's war aims. Douglass had escaped from slavery in 1838. Over the next few years, he became a prominent member of the abolitionist movement. He wrote many books and articles, and spoke about his experiences as a slave throughout the North and in Europe. "He stood before packed auditoriums and testified [declared] as to what it was like to be a slave in America," Louis P. Masur wrote in The Real War Will Never Get in the Books: Selections from Writers during the Civil War. "He stood before huge congregations and pleaded for equality and justice for the black race."

As soon as the war started, Douglass began criticizing Lincoln's war policies. He pressured the president to make emancipation (granting freedom from slavery or oppression) the North's main priority in the war. In one editorial, Douglass argued that by fighting about secession rather than slavery, "we strike at the effect, and leave the cause unharmed." The following excerpt comes from one of many speeches Douglass made shortly after the start of the Civil War. He outlines some of the negative effects slavery had on the basic principles of the country, and argues that the Union is not worth saving if it allows slavery.

Things to remember while reading Frederick Douglass's "American Apocalypse" speech:

  • At the time Douglass became famous as a writer and speaker, many white people believed that black people were inferior. They created a stereotype (an overly simplified concept or belief about a group of people) of black people as uneducated and unable to express intelligent thoughts or opinions. But when they were exposed to the speeches and writings of black people like Frederick Douglass, many whites were forced to admit that those beliefs were wrong.
  • Before the Civil War started, supporters of slavery in the Southern states took many steps to ensure that the institution would continue to exist in the United States. For example, they pushed to extend slavery to new states and territories in the West. In this way, they hoped to gain proslavery representatives in the U.S. Congress so that no new antislavery laws would be passed. Many Southern states also banned (prohibited) the sale of written materials that opposed slavery, such as the famous novel Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811–1896). Douglass mentions some of these Southern tactics (methods) in his speech. He argues that these measures are inconsistent with the values set forth in the Constitution. He claims that the Southerners will erode the basic freedoms of all Americans if they are not stopped. "Freedom of the speech, of the press, of education, of labor, of locomotion, and indeed all kinds of freedom, are felt to be a standing menace [threat] to slavery," he explains. Since Douglass believed that slavery was poisoning the country, he felt that the only way to save the Union was to abolish slavery.

Excerpt from "The American Apocalypse" speech by Frederick Douglass

Slavery, like all other gross and powerful forms of wrong which appear directly to human pride and selfishness, when once admitted into the framework of society, has the ability and tendency to beget a character in the whole network of society surrounding it, favorable to its continuance. The very law of its existence is growth and dominion. Natural and harmonious relations easily repose in their own rectitude, while all such as are false and unnatural are conscious of their own weakness, and must seek strength from without. Hence the explanation of the uneasy, restless, eager anxiety of slaveholders. Our history shows that from the formation of this Government, until the attempt now making to break it up, this class of men have been constantly pushing schemes for the safety and supremacy of their own class system. They have had marvelous success. They have completely destroyed freedom in the slave States, and were doing their best to accomplish the same in the free States. He is a very imperfect reasoner who attributes the steady rise and ascendancy of slavery to anything else than the nature of slavery itself. Truth may repose upon its inherent strength, but a falsehood rests for support upon external props. Slavery is the most stupendous of all lies, and depends for existence upon a favorable adjustment of all its surroundings. Freedom of the speech, of the press, of education, of labo

Outspoken black leader Frederick Douglass. Outspoken black leader Frederick Douglass. Published by Gale Cengage
r, of locomotion, and indeed all kinds of freedom, are felt to be a standing menace to slavery. Hence, the friends of slavery are bounded by the necessity of their system to do just what the history of the country shows they have done—that is, to seek to subvert all liberty, and to prevent all the safeguards of human rights. They could not do otherwise. It was the controlling law of their situation.

Now, if these views be sound, and are borne out by the whole history of American slavery, then for the statesman of this hour to permit any settlement of the present war between slavery and freedom, which will leave untouched and undestroyed the relation of master and slave, would not only be a great crime, but a great mistake, the bitter fruit of which would poison the life blood of unborn generations. No grander opportunity was ever given to any nation to signalize, either its justice and humanity, or its intelligence and statesmanship, than is now given to the loyal American people. We are brought to a point in our National career where two roads meet and divert. It is the critical moment for us. The destiny of the mightiest Republic in the modern world hangs upon the decision of that hour. If our Government shall have the wisdom to see, and the nerve to act, we are safe. If it fails, we perish, and go to our own place with those nations of antiquity long blotted from the maps of the world. I have only one voice, and that is neither loud nor strong. I speak to but few, and have little influence; but whatever I am or may be, I may, at such a time as this, in the name of justice, liberty and humanity, and in that of the permanent security and welfare of the whole nation, urge all men, and especially the Government, to the abolition of slavery. Not a slave should be left a slave in the returning footprints of the American army gone to put down this slaveholding rebellion. Sound policy, not less than humanity, demands the instant liberation of every slave in the rebel States.

What happened next . . .

The North's war aims gradually changed to include freeing the slaves as well as restoring the Union. Although the arguments made by Douglass and other abolitionists helped make this change possible, other factors were probably more important. For example, Lincoln and other Northern leaders came to see the practical, military benefits that they could gain through emancipation. The Confederate Army used slaves to perform hard labor during the war. The slaves built forts and dug trenches, transported artillery and unloaded shipments of arms, and set up army camps and acted as cooks and servants for the soldiers. Slave labor gave the South an advantage by enabling more white men to join the fight. Northern leaders began to realize that freeing the slaves would help the Union win the war.

Once the Civil War began, thousands of slaves took the opportunity to escape from the South. They came into Union Army camps and served as laborers, scouts, and spies for the Northern war effort. Union officials developed a policy that allowed the army to take away any Southern property that was used in the Confederate war effort as "contraband of war." Since slaves were considered property in the South, escaped slaves were allowed to remain in the North. In August 1861, the U.S. Congress passed the first of two Confiscation Acts, which made the contraband policy into law. President Lincoln finally freed the slaves on January 1, 1863, with his Emancipation Proclamation.

Frederick Douglass remained outspoken during the remainder of the Civil War. Once freeing the slaves became a Northern war aim, he argued that black men should be allowed to join the Union Army and fight for the liberation of their race. After the Union Army accepted black soldiers in 1862, Douglass took a leading role in convincing free blacks in the North to volunteer. In fact, two of his sons served in the famous Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts regiment. When black soldiers faced discrimination in the army, Douglass helped them get paid the same wages as white soldiers of the same rank. After the war ended, he continued fighting for blacks to receive equal rights in American society. "In many ways [Douglass] was the conscience of the nation," according to William C. Davis, Brian C. Pohanka, and Don Troiani in Civil War Journal: The Leaders. "He kept before the country the idea that this was a war, not just to bring the nation back together, but it was a war to end slavery, to bring equality to black people, and to make them part of American society."

Did you know . . .

  • Learning to read and write gave Douglass the means to escape slavery. As a boy, he lived on a Maryland plantation owned by Hugh Auld. Auld's wife taught Douglass to read from the Bible. "From that moment I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom," he recalled. "It was just what I wanted and I got it at a time when I least expected it." Later, Douglass tricked the white children of the plantation into sharing their books and homework assignments with him. Most Southern whites made every effort to prevent slaves from obtaining an education. They believed that uneducated slaves would calmly accept their condition. They worried that slaves who learned to read would gain a greater awareness of the world around them and become dissatisfied with their lives. Douglass eventually turned his writing and speaking ability into a career as a prominent abolitionist. Throughout his life, he always maintained that other black men and women could achieve great things if they were given education and opportunity.
  • After escaping from slavery in 1838, Douglass became interested in the growing abolitionist movement. In 1841, he went to hear famous abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison (1805–1879) speak in Nantucket, Massachusetts. When Garrison learned that there was a fugitive slave in the audience, he asked Douglass to say a few words. Douglass kept the audience on the edge of their seats for two hours telling stories about his life as a slave. He became an overnight sensation in the antislavery movement. "The public had itching ears to hear a colored man speak and particularly a slave," one abolitionist stated.
  • As Douglass became famous as an abolitionist writer and speaker, his life became more dangerous. He was still a fugitive slave. His former master knew where he was and could send a slave catcher after him at any time. To avoid returning to slavery, Douglass went to England—where slavery was outlawed—in 1845. While he was there, his friends in the United States arranged to purchase him from his owner. He thus returned to the United States two years later as a free man.

For Further Reading

Blight, David W. Frederick Douglass' Civil War: Keeping Faith in Jubilee. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989.

Friedheim, William. Freedom's Unfinished Revolution: An Inquiry into the Civil War and Reconstruction. New York: New Press, 1996.

Harding, Vincent. There Is a River: The Black Struggle for Freedom in America. New York: Harcourt, 1981.

Huggins, Nathan. Slave and Citizen: The Life of Frederick Douglass. Boston: Little, Brown, 1980.

McFeely, William S. Frederick Douglass. New York: Norton, 1991.

McPherson, James M. The Negro's Civil War: How American Negroes Felt and Acted During the War for the Union. New York: Pantheon, 1965. Reprint, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1982.