Friday, April 15, 2022

Frederick Douglass on Free Speech in Wartime

Frederick Douglass gave a speech at Cooper Union in New York City on February 6, 1863,  and published the text in March in his own abolitionist newspaper Douglass' Monthly.

It is, among other things, a magnificent defense of free speech in the middle of America's most costly war (to this day), when the Union cause in that war remained very precarious. It was written by a man who as an enslaved youth had taught himself to read in Maryland, before escaping North in 1838.

The speech was titled "The Proclamation and a Negro Army." Its context is the new light of Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, which coincided with increased Copperhead agitation against the president, the war and the anti-slavery movement. 

Douglass said:

"Parties have to some extent changed sides on the subject of free speech. The men who would a few years ago mob and hang Abolitionists for exercising the sacred right of free thought and speech, have all at once become the most urgent for the largest liberty of speech. And I must say, detestable as are the motives that have brought them to the defense of free speech, I think they have the right in the controversy. I do not know where I would limit the simple utterance of opinion. If any one is base enough to spit upon the grave of his mother, or to shout for Jefferson Davis, let him, and do not lock him up for it. ...

"Fortunately for mankind, error is a bad reasoner. It can fight better than it can reason. ... Such is my confidence in the potency of truth, in the power of reason, I hold that had the right of free discussion been preserved during the last thirty years, had the Northern parties and politicians been half so diligent in protecting this high constitutional right, from the first ruthlessly struck down all over the South, as they have been in framing laws for the recapture of poor, toil-worn and foot-sore slaves, we should now have no Slavery to breed Rebellion, nor war, black with dismal terror, to drench our land with blood, and fill our dwellings with sorrow and mourning. Slavery would have fallen as it fell in the West Indies, as it has fallen in the Free States, as it has fallen in Russia, and elsewhere, and as it will fall everywhere, when men can assail it with the weapons of reason and the facts of experience."


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