Frederick Douglass in Photo by George Francis Schreiber. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.
The s brought new concerns for the community of abolitionists with which Frederick Douglass had aligned himself. The Fugitive Slave Act attempted to oblige citizens in free states to return slaves to their masters. It criminalized the efforts of those who participated in the Underground Railroad. Slaves headed north now had to run all the way to Canada in order to reach a jurisdiction that would not return them to slave states.
Douglass himself was free, but activities to assist fleeing slaves that he and other abolitionists participated in had become much more dangerous.
Douglass, who was a fierce opponent of Clay both personally and politically, felt that this system would only serve to prolong slavery and to make northerners more complacent. Douglass had always read widely and during this time he seems to have been especially interested in law and ethnology. Law, especially constitutional law, was a possible route to arguments against the growing web of legislation that attempted to make slavery legal under the United States Constitution.
Ethnology became of interest as he was already using understanding of culture, especially the culture of slavery, in his speeches to raise the consciousness of people in free states.
But the work of some ethnologists was being used in arguments in the United States Congress to support the continuation of slavery. He was deeply disappointed. Douglass described the views of a of ethnologists on the subject of race. This was at a particularly dark moment in the study of human beings. Many ethnologists in Europe and the Americas sought a scientific basis for discrimination against large groups of people. It is the province of prejudice to blind; and scientific writers, not less than others, write to please, as well as to instruct, and even unconsciously to themselves, sometimes, sacrifice what is true to what is popular.
Fashion is not confined to dress; but extends to philosophy as well—and it is fashionable now, in our land, to exaggerate the differences between the negro and the European. If, for instance, a phrenologist, or naturalist undertakes to represent in portraits, the differences between the two races—the negro and the European—he will invariably present the highest type of the European, and the lowest type of the negro. The European face is drawn in harmony with the highest ideas of beauty, dignity and intellect. Features regular and brow after the Websterian mold.
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The negro, on the other hand, appears with features distorted, lips exaggerated; forehead depressed—and the whole expression of the countenance made to harmonize with the popular idea of negro imbecility and degradation. Photographs in the Carol M. This was the study of human beings with the goal of imperialism. A race is a subspecies in biology, but it was not clear exactly what the ethnologists meant by the word or how they would prove the existence of race among human beings.
Some saw northern Africans as similar to Europeans, while others did not. Many argued for separate lines of descent for the different races they described. But many were in agreement on one thing, sub-Saharan Africans were primitive and inferior.
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Sometimes it can be useful to understand arguments that you disagree with. Douglass, in a way, was in the business of disagreement, and so understanding the ideas that perpetuated slavery gave him ideas about how to counter those ideas. Douglass was trained as a preacher and so he tackled this argument as a preacher first of all, asserting that the Bible described the creation of a unity of humanity, not races, and that Genesis should be understood to present a unity of mankind. This theological argument would reach many in his audience.
But agreeing on a common origin would not convince some that all humans had equal abilities. In his gut Douglass knew ethnologists who asserted the poor intellect of Africans were mistaken. If Africans were incapable of being educated, then Frederick Douglass himself would have been impossible.
Douglass knew other examples of educated African Americans and African Europeans. Smith had obtained his degree in medicine at the University of Glasgow in Scotland. Abolitionists in Pennsylvania had founded a school in Philadelphia to train African Americans to be teachers in The African Institute, which was renamed the Institute of Colored Youth inwould have been well known to Douglass.
Today it is Cheney University. I know a little about this college because two of my great-grandparents were graduates.
Frederick douglass: “i am a man”
It was established to help poor students seeking an education, men and women, Black and white. It was the first fully co-educational and integrated school of higher learning in the United States. Students who could not afford the tuition could teach courses to defray tuition once they qualified to teach. It is not surprising, then, that this college produced the first African American professor in the United States, Charles Lewis Reason. Highly educated African Americans were still unusual inbut Douglass had a growing network of colleagues who were disproof of claims that Africans were incapable of learning.
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Some scholars pointed to such things as head size and stature as evidence for the superiority of Europeans, claiming that larger people with larger brains were superior. Interestingly Douglass hit upon an important idea about this, the product of his travels to Ireland in The Irish were considered a separate race by some at this time.
Douglass met with common laborers and was struck with the effects of poor diet and hard labor on their bodies and features. He noticed that Irish Americans in Indiana had changed in one generation. The children of the Irish who had fled the potato famines were now growing up larger than their parents due to an improved diet.
Nutrition, work circumstances, and education, Douglass argued in this speech, changed the physical characteristics that the ethnologists were claiming were static, evidence of race, and evidence of inferiority s In this realization Douglass was ahead of his time.
At the beginning of the 20th century anthropologist Franz Boas would use this same argument against the idea of race as used in anthropology. Boas took on anthropologists in Europe and the Americas with a wealth of information on the changes in physiology of many different peoples as a result of changes in nutrition as well as evidence that so-called inferior races could succeed in higher education in western countries. Douglass did not have as much data at hand as Boas, but his observations were correct.
Full text available via Intenet Archive. His evidence of this was his faith. This is an important speech as it built the foundation for arguments that he would continue to use through the Civil War and its aftermath. It is a sad comment on American history that a man with the intellect of Douglass needed to repeatedly proclaim himself a human being.
But he did so for the sake of many others who faced the same prejudice but were not in a position to argue for themselves.
The governments of southern states, he feared, would keep African Americans oppressed even after the abolition of slavery, because the population of African Americans in some states was so high that it was feared that Blacks would rule if they had the vote. Fear, Douglass realized, was one of the forces of oppression. Dred Scott. Published in Century MagazineJune Four years after this speech came a tipping point.
A slave named Dred Scott sued for his freedom in It was a complicated case as Scott had been taken to the free state of Illinois, then the free territory of Wisconsin and left on his own, where he married. Sent for by his master, he went to Missouri and attempted to buy his freedom there after his master died.
Also, Scott may have been unaware of his rights in those states. This case went to the Supreme Court. The inferiority of African Americans, enslaved or free, had now become part of constitutional law. For Douglass, the Dred Scott decision, handed down by slave-holding judges, bared the hypocrisy of slaveholders for all to see.
2. natural law
Some abolitionists at this point felt defeated and considered whether the South should be allowed to leave the Union, as had already been suggested, so that the North could build a free society. But Douglass would have white of that. In one point of view, we the abolitionists and colored people, should meet this decision, uncalled for and monstrous as it appears, in a cheerful spirit. His understanding of inequality based in the culture Frederick oppression became even more important at the end of the Civil War as slaves were finally given their freedom.
Douglass correctly predicted, on numerous occasions, that the culture of slave ownership would become the seeking of the oppression of freed slaves unless great efforts were made to give freed slaves their rights. In his speeches following the war he seems most prophetic, presaging the 20th century Civil Rights Movement. Human rights stand upon a common basis; and by all the reason that they are supported, maintained and defended, for one variety of the human family, they are supported, maintained and defended for all the human family; girl all mankind have the same wants, arising out of a common nature.
Well done, Stephanie! Yes, thanks for your commnet. So he did not talk guy write about any of this until after the abolition of slavery. This blog is governed by the general rules of respectful civil discourse. You are fully responsible for everything that you post. The content of all comments is released into the public domain unless clearly stated otherwise. The Library of Congress does not control the content posted. Nevertheless, the Library of Congress may monitor any user-generated content as it chooses and reserves the right to remove content for any reason whatever, without consent.
Gratuitous links to sites are viewed as spam and may result in removed comments. We further reserve the right, in our sole discretion, to remove a user's privilege to post content on the Library site. Read our Comment and Posting Policy. Stephanie Hall February 15, at am Yes, thanks for your commnet.
Thank you for posting this!