Frederick Douglass Primary Source

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(American Civil War: Primary Sources)

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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...

(The entire section is 2,732 words.)