Frederick Douglass’s “Plea for Freedom of Speech in Boston”

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Introduction by Kurt Lash

On December three, 1860, a gaggle of abolitionists, together with Frederick Douglass, gathered at a public assembly corridor in Boston, Massachusetts, to debate “How Can American Slavery be Abolished?” Scheduled to coincide with the one-year anniversary of John Brown’s dying (what abolitionists known as the “martyrdom” of John Brown), the assembly happened solely a month after the election of the Republican Abraham Lincoln. The nation was coming aside: South Carolina had declared its intention to secede from the Union and it appeared that different southern states would do the identical.  Congress started contemplating emergency measures, together with a constitutional modification defending slavery, hoping to persuade the southern states to stay within the Union. Northern public opinion, already deeply divided over the problem of abolition, grew to become a tinderbox of explosive feelings as either side more and more advocated the usage of power in help of their place.   

It was within the midst of this cauldron of public debate that Boston abolitionists determined to carry their occasion, one ostensibly about ending slavery but additionally one celebrating the violent abolitionist John Brown. Not surprisingly, the assembly attracted members of the general public who had been against the abolitionist agenda.  In actual fact, the assembly was overwhelmed by a mob looking for to disrupt the occasion and forestall Frederick Douglass and the opposite abolitionists from talking. Opponents crammed the corridor, shouted down the abolitionists, and mounted the stage. Abolitionist efforts to retake management of the occasion led to confrontation and chaos.  Police, who had achieved nothing to guard the assembly, ultimately intervened and cleared the corridor. Nobody was (critically) injured, however the anti-abolitionists achieved their objective: The occasion was utterly disrupted and the scheduled dialogue of slavery by no means happened. Newspapers across the nation reported on the close to riot, with headlines within the New York Tribune blaring, “Freedom of Speech Violated in Boston . . . Police Powerless.”

A couple of days later, Frederick Douglass delivered a beforehand scheduled lecture at Boston’s Music Corridor.  On the finish of his ready remarks, Douglass added a brief assertion relating to the elemental significance of freedom of speech and the accountability of officers to guard free expression from the mob.  It is among the most necessary statements of free expression in American historical past—significantly in gentle of the life and expertise of the person who delivered the assertion. It is usually startlingly well timed. As Douglass declared, “[l]iberty is meaningless the place the proper to utter one’s ideas and opinions has ceased to exist.”  His assertion is introduced under in full:

 

“A Plea For Freedom of Speech in Boston”

Frederick Douglass

December 9, 1860

Boston is a good metropolis and Music Corridor has a fame virtually as in depth as that of Boston. Nowhere greater than right here have the ideas of human freedom been expounded. However for the circumstances already talked about, it will appear virtually presumption for me to say something right here about these ideas. And but, even right here, in Boston, the ethical environment is darkish and heavy. The ideas of human liberty, even I accurately apprehended, discover however restricted help on this hour a trial. The world strikes slowly, and Boston is very like the world. We thought the precept of free speech was an completed reality. Right here, if nowhere else, we thought the proper of the folks to assemble and to precise their opinion was safe. Dr. Channing had defended the proper, Mr. Garrison had virtually asserted the proper, and Theodore Parker had maintained it with steadiness and constancy to the final.

However right here we’re to-day contending for what we thought we gained years in the past. The mortifying and disgraceful reality stares us within the face, that although Faneuil Corridor and Bunker Hill Monument stand, freedom of speech is struck down. No prolonged element of details is required. They’re already infamous; much more so than shall be wished ten years therefore.

The world is aware of that final Monday a gathering assembled to debate the query: “How Shall Slavery Be Abolished?” The world additionally is aware of that that assembly was invaded, insulted, captured by a mob of gents, and thereafter damaged up and dispersed by the order of the mayor, who refused to guard it, although known as upon to take action. If this had been a mere outbreak of ardour and prejudice among the many baser kind, maddened by rum and hounded on by some wily politician to serve some fast objective, – a mere distinctive affair, – it may be allowed to relaxation with what has already been stated. However the leaders of the mob had been gents. They had been males who pleasure themselves upon their respect for regulation and order.

These gents introduced their respect for the regulation with them and proclaimed it loudly whereas within the very act of breaking the regulation. Theirs was the regulation of slavery. The regulation of free speech and the regulation for the safety of public conferences they trampled beneath foot, whereas they tremendously magnified the regulation of slavery.

The scene was an instructive one. Males seldom see such a mixing of the gentleman with the rowdy, as was proven on that event. It proved that human nature may be very a lot the identical, whether or not in tarpaulin or broadcloth. Nonetheless, when gents strategy us within the character of lawless and deserted loafers, – assuming for the second their manners and tempers, – they’ve themselves guilty if they’re estimated under their high quality.

No proper was deemed by the fathers of the Authorities extra sacred than the proper of speech. It was of their eyes, as within the eyes of all considerate males, the good ethical renovator of society and authorities. Daniel Webster known as it a homebred proper, a hearth privilege. Liberty is meaningless the place the proper to utter one’s ideas and opinions has ceased to exist. That, of all rights, is the dread of tyrants. It’s the proper which they to start with strike down. They know its energy. Thrones, dominions, principalities, and powers, based in injustice and unsuitable, are certain to tremble, if males are allowed to cause of righteousness, temperance, and of a judgment to return of their presence. Slavery can not tolerate free speech. 5 years of its train would banish the public sale block and break each chain within the South. They’ll have none of it there, for they’ve the facility. However shall it’s so right here?

Even right here in Boston, and among the many buddies of freedom, we hear two voices: one denouncing the mob that broke up our assembly on Monday as a base and cowardly outrage; and one other, deprecating and regretting the holding of such a gathering, by such males, at such a time. We’re informed that the assembly was ill-timed, and the events to it unwise.

Why, what’s the matter with us? Are we going to palliate and excuse a palpable and flagrant outrage on the proper of speech, by implying that solely a specific description of individuals ought to train that proper? Are we, at such a time, when a terrific precept has been struck down, to quench the ethical indignation which the deed excites, by casting reflections upon these on whose individuals the outrage has been dedicated? After all of the arguments for liberty to which Boston has listened for greater than 1 / 4 of a century, has she but to study that the time to say a proper is the time when the proper itself is known as in query, and that the boys of all others to say it are the boys to whom the proper has been denied?

It could be no vindication of the proper of speech to show that sure gents of nice distinction, eminent for his or her studying and talent, are allowed to freely categorical their opinions on all topics – together with the topic of slavery. Such a vindication would wish, itself, to be vindicated. It could add insult to harm. Not even an old style abolition assembly may vindicate that proper in Boston simply now. There might be no proper of speech the place any man, nonetheless lifted up, or nonetheless humble, nonetheless younger, or nonetheless outdated, is overawed by power, and compelled to suppress his trustworthy sentiments.

Equally clear is the proper to listen to. To suppress free speech is a double unsuitable. It violates the rights of the hearer in addition to these of the speaker. It’s simply as legal to rob a person of his proper to talk and listen to as it will be to rob him of his cash. I’ve little doubt that Boston will vindicate this proper. However so as to take action, there should be no concessions to the enemy. When a person is allowed to talk as a result of he’s wealthy and highly effective, it aggravates the crime of denying the proper to the poor and humble.

The precept should relaxation upon its personal correct foundation. And till the proper is accorded to the humblest as freely as to probably the most exalted citizen, the federal government of Boston is however an empty identify, and its freedom a mockery. A person’s proper to talk doesn’t rely upon the place he was born or upon his shade. The straightforward high quality of manhood is the strong foundation of the proper – and there let it relaxation eternally.

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