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From The Slave's Appeal to Great Britain by Frederick Douglass.

The Slave’s Appeal to Great Britain

Frederick Douglass, the writer of "The Slave's Appeal,” was himself born and "raised" in slavery, and served his cruel taskmaster as a slave till bordering on man estate, when, sighing for liberty, and to be freed from his bonds, he "ran away with himself." Once in the free States, the fugitive was sheltered and succored by certain friends of the slave, who at the same time offered him the means of education. He has for many years been one of the most able, eloquent, and uncompromising opponents of slavery, both at home and abroad, denouncing it, in withering terms, from the platform and through the press; in his own newspaper—the funds to start which were liberally supplied by friends in Scotland, who also purchased his freedom.

Hear, I beseech you, my humble appeal, and grant this my most earnest request. I know your power, I know your justice, and, better still, I know your mercy, and with the more confidence I, in my imperfect speech, venture to appeal to you. Your benevolent sons and daughters, at great sacrifice of time, labour, and treasure, more than a quarter of a century ago, under the inspiration of an enlightened Christianity, removed the yoke of cruel bondage from the long bowed down necks of right-minded thousands of my race in your West India Islands; and later, a few of them, in their generosity, unasked, with silver and gold ransomed me from him who claimed me as his slave in the United States, and bade me speak in the cause of the dumb millions of my countrymen still in slavery.

I am now fulfilling my appointed mission in making, on the slave's behalf, this appeal to you. I am grateful for your benevolence, zealous for your honour, but chiefly now I am concerned lest in the present tremendous crisis of American affairs you should be led to adopt a policy which may defeat the now proposed emancipation of my people, and forge new fetters of slavery for unborn generations of their posterity.

You are now more than ever urged, both from within and from without your borders, to recognise the independence of the so-called Confederate States of America. I beseech and implore you, resist this urgency. You have nobly resisted it thus long. You can, and I ardently hope you will, resist it still longer. The proclamation of emancipation by President Lincoln will become operative on the 1st day of January, 1863. The hopes of millions, long meted out and trodden down, now rise with every advancing hour.

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Oh! I pray you, by all your highest and holiest memories, blast not the budding hopes of these millions, by lending your countenance and extending your honoured and potent hand to the blood-stained fingers of the impious slave-holding Confederate States of America. For the honour of the British name, which has hitherto only carried light and joy to the slave and rebuke and dismay to the slaveholder, do not in this great emergency be persuaded to abandon and contradict that policy of justice and mercy to the negro which has made your character revered and your name illustrious throughout the civilised world. Your enemies have ever been compelled to respect the sincerity of your philanthropy.

Would you retain this respect, welcome not those brazen human fleshmongers—those brokers in the bodies and souls of men who have dared to knock at your doors for admission into the family of nations. Their pretended government is but a foul, haggard, and blighting conspiracy, against the sacred rights of mankind, and does not deserve the name of government. Its foundation is laid in the impudent and heaven insulting dogma that man may rightfully hold property in man, and flog him to toil like a beast of burden. Have no fellowship, I pray you, with these merciless menstealers, but rather with whips of scorpions scourge them beyond the beneficent range of national brotherhood.

You long ago fixed the burning brand of your reprobation upon the guilty brow of the whole slave system. Your philanthropy, religion, and law, your noblest sons, living and dead, have taught the world to loathe and abhor slavery as the vilest of all modern abominations. You have sacrificed millions of pounds and thousands of lives to arrest and put an end to the piratical slave traffic on the coast of Africa; and will you now, when the light of your best teachings is finding its way to the darkest corners of the earth, and men are beginning to adopt and practically carry out your benevolent ideas—will you now in such a time, utterly dishonour your high example and long-cherished principles? Can you at the bidding or importunity of those negro-driving lords of the lash, Mason and Morehead, whose wealth is composed of the wages of sable labourers, which they have kept back by fraud and force, take upon you and your children the dreadful responsibility of arresting the arm now outstretched to break the chains of the American slave?

Ah! but I know the plea—the North as well as the South has wronged the negro. But must you, because the loyal States have been guilty of complicity with slavery, espouse the cause of those who are still more guilty? Must you, while you reprobate the guilty agent, embrace in the aims of your friendship the still more guilty principal? Will you lash the loyal States for their want of a genuine detestation of slavery, and yet, in open day, form an alliance with a band of conspirators and thieves,—who have undertaken to destroy the loyal government in order to make slavery perpetual and universal on this continent?

Will you stand in the way of a righteous measure because it is urged by wrong motives? Will you prevent the slave from getting his due because necessity, and not a sense of moral obligation, impels the payment? Oh, Great Britain, again let me implore you by all things high and sacred, fling away all false and selfish reasoning, and bear aloft higher than ever that standard of justice and humanity which has justly exalted you to the head of civilised nations.

That the loyal States have grievously wronged the black man, slave and free, is, alas! too true.


That these States even now, for—the sake of an empty peace (for there can be none other while slavery continues), might be induced to receive the rebels, slavery and all, back into the Union,cannot well be disproved, and that their immeasurable blood-guiltiness is drawing down upon them the fierce judgments they now suffer, is a most solemn and instructive truth for your contemplation, as well as for ours. There is no more exemption for nations than for individuals from the just retribution due to flagrant and persistent transgression.

For the time being, America is the blazing illustration of this solemn truth. But yesterday she sat as a queen among the nations of the earth, knowing no sorrow and fearing none. She killed some of her prophets, and stoned those who were sent unto her, and pointed to her great prosperity as a proof of her honesty. But now the evil day is upon her; and she is making one grand effort through blood and tears, through fire and death, to return to the ways of righteousness and peace. In the name of the slave, whose fate, for weal or for woe, trembles in the balance, and for the sake of a woe-smitten country, now struggling to save itself by doing right, I entreat you to beware what you do concerning us.

Can it be doubted that the hope, so persistently kept alive by such organs of British public opinion as the London Times, and by such eminent statesmen as Mr. Gladstone, that the recognition of the independence of the Confederate States by Great Britain is only a question of time, is one grand source of the strength and pertinacity of our slaveholders' rebellion? Your early concession of belligerent rights to the rebels—the adoption of a policy of neutrality between the two—the oft-repeated assertion in high places that the rebels can never be subdued—the ill-concealed exultation sometimes witnessed over disasters to our arms the prompt action of your Government in the Trent affair, happily settled by a ready and friendly compliance with your demand, although it was coupled with an irritating menace—with much else which it can do no good, and might do harm to mention here, have evidently served the bad purpose of keeping life and spirit in this horrible rebellion.

I have no hesitation in saying that if you, Great Britain, had, at the outset of this terrible war, sternly frowned upon the conspirators, and given your earnest and unanimous sympathy and moral support to the loyal cause, to-day might have seen America enjoying security and peace, and you would not have been the sufferer that in all your commercial and manufacturing interests you now are. The misfortune is, that your rebukes of the North have been consulted into approval of the South. Your good opinion of the slaveholders has been construed as a renunciation of your former abhorrence of slavery, and you have thus kept these Confederate slaveholders in countenance from the beginning of the war.

But I will not deal in the language of recrimination; there has been far too much of this already on both sides. Nor will I argue the questions of difference between us. I can only appeal and entreat. Nevertheless, I will say that the issue between the North and South is seldom fairly stated in Great Britain by those who take the Southern side. The Federal Government is held to be fighting for interests entirely apart from any connection with the welfare of the four million slaves of the South. Theoretically the statement has a show of truth, but practically it is entirely false. This sophistry found its way, where little expected, into the speech of Mr. Gladstone at Newcastle-upon-Tyne, when he argued that the interests of the negro were likely to be better cared for under the Southern Confederacy than in the old Union.

An intelligent and truthful answer to the question: Why did the South rebel against the Federal Government? will exhibit the unsoundness of that pretence. The whole history of the rebellion will show that the slaveholding rebels revolted, not because of any violation of the constitution, or any proposed violation of it, but from pure and simple opposition to the constitution itself, and because in their judgment that constitution does not sufficiently guard and protect slavery.

This fast serious objection to the Federal constitution dates back to 1780 and was raised in the "Virginia Convention met to ratify that constitution.

Patrick Henry, one of the leaders of the rebellion for severing the colonies from the British Crown, declared himself against the constitution, on the ground, as he said, that it gave power to the Federal Government to abolish slavery in all the States, and with a strong anti-slavery sentiment that power would surely be exercised. The answer to this objection by Mr. Madison is significant of the state of public opinion concerning that time, and shows that the objection of Mr. Henry could not be met by positive refutation, for he simply said he hoped no one would refuse to vote for the constitution upon an objection so discreditable to Virginia. The constitution was too anti slavery for Mr. Henry. The moral sentiment which he anticipated three-quarters of a century ago asserted itself in the election of Mr. Lincoln two years since.

Near the close of his inglorious administration Mr. Buchanan proposed several amendments to the constitution, giving full and explicit guarantees for the better protection of slavery. The proposition, as embodied by him, happily for the interests of freedom and humanity, found but little favour North or South the former evidently opposed to the measure, and the latter, believing it impossible to carry it,proceeded with the rebellion.

In this simple brief statement may be clearly discerned the real cause of the rebellion. Wanting a slaveholding constitution, the Southern States have undertaken to make one, and establish it upon the ruins of the one under which slavery can be discouraged, crippled, and abolished. The war, therefore, for maintaining the old against the new constitution, even though no proclamation of emancipation had been issued by the loyal Government, under the old constitution, is essentially an anti-slavery war, and should command the ardent support of good men in all countries.

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What though our timid administration at Washington, shrinking from the logical result of their own natural position, did, at the first, refuse to recognise the real character of the war, and vainly attempted to conciliate, by walking backward to cast a mantle over the revolting origin of the rebellion? What though they instructed their foreign agents to conceal the moral deformity of the rebels? You could not fail to know that tho primal causes of this war rested in slavery, and a determination on the part of the rebels to make that stupendous crime and curse all controlling and perpetual in America. But I will not weary you with argument. The case is plain. The North is fighting on the side of liberty,.and civilisation, and the South for slavery and barbarism.

You are suffering in your commerce and in your manufactures. Industry languishes, and the children of your suffering poor cry aloud for bread. God pity them! The calamity is great. But would any interference bring relief to these sufferers? You have shared with the American slaveholders the blood-stained products of slave-labour, preferring Carolina slave to India free, making Manchester a party to the slaveholding spirit of America. What else could have come of this but participation with us in a common retribution? Must the world stand still, humanity make no progress, and slavery stand for ever, lest your cotton-mills stop, and your poor cry for bread? You are unable to obtain your usual supply of American cotton.

Would this be made better by plunging yourselves into the hardships, expenses, and horrors of a war, which would in any event feed the fires of our national hate for a century to come, and just in the present time of need greatly diminish your American supply of corn? Can any thinking man doubt that intervention would be an aggravation rather than a mitigation of the evils under which your poor labourers mourn? It is insisted that you ought, from considerations of humanity to both sections, to intervene and at once put an end to our civil strife. Ah, but there is the rub. Could you end it?

Never was there a greater delusion. The United States, though wounded and bleeding, is yet powerful. Heavy as have been her losses in life and treasure, her weakness offers no temptation to foreign assault or dictation. But I will not dwell upon this view of the subject.

The lesson of our civil war to you is the cultivation of cotton by free labour. It tells you that you should base your industry and prosperity on the natural foundations of justice and liberty. These are permanent-all else transient. A house built upon the sand can as well resist the winds and floods as slavery can resist enlightenment and progress. The moral laws of the universe must be suspended, or slavery will in the end go down. Look, therefore, to India, where your laws have carried liberty.

Look to the West Indies, where your philanthropy has planted Christianity. Your resources are great and ample. You have the islands to the west of you, India to the east of you, and Africa to the south of you. Intervene there, not with swords and guns and other warlike implements, but by means of peaceful industry, and thus convert calamity into prosperity, and a curse into a blessing. I fully believe in the general rectitude of the British heart concerning slavery. The poorest of all the sufferers in Lancashire would hardly be willing even to purchase life itself by replunging a liberated slave into hopeless slavery. Much less will they do so when another door is open for relief. Abraham would even have skin his son, but that the angel pointed out a more appropriate sacrifice. You have a far better alternative than war with us.

But I will not weary you. The case is before you. No excuses, however plausible; no distance of time, however remote; no line of conduct, however excellent, will erase the deep stain upon your honour and truth, if, at this hour of dreadful trial, you interpose in a manner to defeat the emancipation of the American slaves. If at any time you could have intervened honourably in American affairs it was when the -Federal Government was vainly endeavouring to put down the rebellion without hurting slavery. That gloomy period ended on the 22nd September, 1862. From that day our war has been invested with a sanctity which will smite as with death even the mailed hands of Britain, if outstretched to arrest it. Let this conflict go on; there is no doubt of the final result; and though it is a dreadful scourge, it will make justice, humanity, and liberty, permanently possible in this country.

Frederick Douglass.

Rochester, N.Y., U.S., November, 1862

Douglass, Frederick. “The Slave's Appeal to Great Britain.” The Sydney Morning Herald, 9 Feb. 1863,

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