Roundtable

Frederick Douglass Gives a Commencement Address

Read the abolitionist’s 1854 speech at Western Reserve College.

By Frederick Douglass

Thursday, June 03, 2021

Writing desk, attributed to William Howard, c. 1870. Minneapolis Institute of Art, Driscoll Art Accessions Endowment Fund, John and Ruth Huss Fund for Decorative Arts, Fred R. Salisbury II Fund, and Deborah Davenport and Stewart Stender Endowment for American Folk Art.

Most graduation advice—whether given in boom times or moments of crisis—depicts a future replete with untrammeled ground and endless unknowns. And if you take a look at commencement addresses from the past, you’ll see a glimpse of what people in power told privileged young people to believe in and sketches of what the future could be, which we can now consider next to the reality of what came next. Lapham’s Quarterly is revisiting the history of giving advice to graduates and others in the process of acquiring knowledge or skills.


Western Reserve College was founded in 1826 in Hudson, Ohio, and took its name from the surrounding land: a territory south of Lake Erie and west of the Appalachian Mountains. New England farmers moved into the region shortly after the American Revolution, and their dislike of slavery helped ensure that Ohio entered the Union as a free state. The founders of Western Reserve brought New England academics to their students, adopting the same entrance exams as Yale and nearly the same curriculum. The college’s many literary societies gathered annually during commencement week to hear an address from a speaker of their choosing. In 1854 Frederick Douglass was the invited speaker. It had been nearly a decade since the publication of Douglass’ first autobiography, recounting his enslaved years in Maryland and his escape to the North. The book’s popularity and Douglass’ work on the North Star newspaper in Rochester made him the best-known Black abolitionist in the United States and Europe.

Douglass had never spoken at a college commencement ceremony, nor had he received any formal schooling. For his topic, he chose ethnography, the academic study of cultural differences. The field had grown in popularity in antebellum America as a forerunner of scientific racism. Scholars were using phrenology and other pseudoscientific methods to argue that physical differences between races were fixed—in fact, that Africans and Caucasians were members of different species. In his speech, titled “The Claims of the Negro, Ethnologically Considered,” Douglass drew on biblical, linguistic, and cultural evidence to argue that race was largely an environmental adaptation. In 1861, a few weeks before the attack on Fort Sumter, the vice president of the new Confederate States of America declared that its government was founded on an idea he believed was scientific fact: “the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man.” Douglass encouraged Black men to enlist as soldiers during the Civil War, telling a group of potential recruits that “the speediest and best possible way open to us to manhood, equal rights, and elevation is that we enter this service.”


Frederick Douglass, 1856.

This occasion is one of no ordinary interest for many reasons, and the honor you have done me in selecting me as your speaker is as grateful to my heart as it is novel in the history of American collegiate or literary institutions. There is felt to be a principle in the matter, placing it far above egotism or personal vanity a principle which gives to this occasion a general, and I had almost said a universal, interest. I engage today, for the first time, in the exercises of any college commencement. It is a new chapter in my humble experience. The usual course, I believe, is to call to the platform men of age and distinction, eminent for eloquence, mental ability, and scholarly attainments—men whose high culture, severe training, great experience, large observation, and peculiar aptitude for teaching qualify them to instruct even the already well instructed and to impart a glow, a luster to the acquirements of those who are passing from the halls of learning. To no such high endeavor as this is your humble speaker fitted; and it was with much distrust and hesitation that he accepted the invitation, so kindly and perseveringly given, to occupy a portion of your attention here today.

I express the hope that this acknowledgment, and my unaffected and honest confession of inaptitude, will awaken a sentiment of generous indulgence toward the scattered thoughts I have been able to fling together, with a view to presenting them as my humble contribution to these commencement exercises.

Interesting to me as this occasion is, it is still more interesting to you, especially to such of you who (not wholly unlike the gallant ship newly launched, full-rigged and amply fitted, about to quit the placid waters of the harbor for the boisterous waves of the sea) are entering upon the active duties and measureless responsibilities incident to the great voyage of life. Before such the ocean of mind lies outspread, studded with difficulties and perils. Thoughts, theories, ideas, and systems so various and so opposite, and leading to such diverse results, suggest the wisdom of the utmost precaution, and the most careful survey, at the start. A false light, a defective chart, an imperfect compass, may cause one to drift in endless bewilderment or to be landed at last amid sharp, destructive rocks. On the other hand, guided by wisdom, manned with truth, fidelity, and industry, the haven of peace, devoutly wished for by all, may be reached in safety by all. The compensation of the preacher is full when assured that his words have saved even one from error and from ruin. My joy shall be full if I shall be able to give a right direction to any one mind, touching the question now to be considered.

The relation subsisting between the white and black people of this country is the vital question of the age. In the solution of this question, the scholars of America will have to take an important and controlling part. This is the moral battlefield to which their country and their God now call them. In the eye of both, the neutral scholar is an ignoble man. The lukewarm and the cowardly will be rejected by earnest men on either side of the controversy. The cunning man who avoids it, to gain the favor of both parties, will be rewarded with scorn. The timid man who shrinks from it, for fear of offending either party, will be despised. To the lawyer, the preacher, the politician, and to the man of letters, there is no neutral ground. He that is not for us is against us. Wherever else I may be required to speak with bated breath, here, at least, I may speak with freedom the thought nearest my heart. This liberty is implied by the call I have received to be here, and yet I hope to present the subject so that no man can reasonably say that an outrage has been committed or that I have abused the privilege with which you have honored me. I shall aim to discuss the claims of the negro, general and special, in a manner, though not scientific, still sufficiently clear and definite to enable my hearers to form an intelligent judgment respecting them.

The first general claim which may here be set up respects the manhood of the negro. This is an elementary claim, simple enough but not without question. It is fiercely opposed. There are three ways to answer this denial. One is by ridicule, a second is by denunciation, and a third is by argument. I hardly know under which of these modes my answer today will fall. I feel myself somewhat on trial; and that this is just the point where there is hesitation, if not serious doubt. I cannot, however, argue; I must assert. To know whether a negro is a man, it must first be known what constitutes a man. It is not necessary, in order to establish the manhood of anyone making the claim, to prove that such a one equals Clay in eloquence or Webster and Calhoun in logical force and directness; for, tried by such standards of mental power as these, it is apprehended that very few could claim the high designation of man.1

Yet something like this folly is seen in the arguments directed against the humanity of the negro. His faculties and powers, uneducated and unimproved, have been contrasted with those of the highest cultivation; and the world has then been called upon to behold the immense and amazing difference between the man admitted and the man disputed. The fact that these intellects, so powerful and so controlling, are almost if not quite as exceptional to the general rule of humanity in one direction as the specimen negroes are in the other is quite overlooked.

Three tintypes, c. 1856.

Man is distinguished from all other animals by the possession of certain definite faculties and powers. He is the only two-handed animal on the earth—the only one that laughs and nearly the only one that weeps. Men instinctively distinguish between men and brutes. Common sense itself is scarcely needed to detect the absence of manhood in a monkey or to recognize its presence in a negro. Away, therefore, with all the scientific moonshine that would connect men with monkeys; that would have the world believe that humanity, instead of resting on its own characteristic pedestal—gloriously independent—is a sort of sliding scale, making one extreme brother to the orangutan, the other to angels, and all the rest intermediates! Tried by all the usual and all the unusual tests, whether mental, moral, physical, or psychological, the negro is a man—considering him as possessing knowledge, or needing knowledge, his elevation or his degradation, his virtues, or his vices—whichever road you take, you reach the same conclusion: the negro is a man. His good and his bad, his innocence and his guilt, his joys and his sorrows, proclaim his manhood in speech that all mankind readily understands.

The first claim conceded and settled, let us attend to the second, which is beset with some difficulties, giving rise to many opinions different from my own and which I propose to combat.

There was a time when, if you established the point that a particular being is a man, it was considered that such a being, of course, had a common ancestry with the rest of mankind. But it is not so now. This is an age of science, and science is favorable to division.

It is somewhat remarkable that, at a time when knowledge is so generally diffused, when the geography of the world is so well understood—when time and space, in the intercourse of nations, are almost annihilated; when oceans have become bridges, the earth a magnificent hall, the hollow sky a dome under which a common humanity can meet in friendly conclave when nationalities are being swallowed up and the ends of the earth brought together—I say it is remarkable, nay, strange that there should arise a phalanx of learned men speaking in the name of science to forbid the magnificent reunion of mankind in one brotherhood. A mortifying proof is here given that the moral growth of a nation or an age does not always keep pace with the increase of knowledge and suggests the necessity of means to increase human love with human learning.

The proposition to which I allude, and which I mean next to assert, is this: that what is technically called the negro race is a part of the human family and descended from a common ancestry with the rest of mankind. The discussion of this point opens a comprehensive field of inquiry. It involves the question of the unity of the human race. Much has and can be said on both sides of that question.

Looking out upon the surface of the globe with its varieties of climate, soil, and formations, its elevations and depressions, its rivers, lakes, oceans, islands, continents, and the vast and striking differences which mark and diversify its multitudinous inhabitants, the question has been raised—and pressed with increasing ardor and pertinacity, especially in modern times: Can all these various tribes, nations, tongues, kindred, so widely separated and so strangely dissimilar, have descended from a common ancestry? That is the question, and it has been answered variously by men of learning. Different modes of reasoning have been adopted, but the conclusions reached may be divided into two—the one yes, and the other no. Which of these answers is most in accordance with facts, with reason, with the welfare of the world, and reflects the most glory upon the wisdom, power, and goodness of the author of all existence is the question for consideration with us. On which side is the weight of the argument, rather than which side is absolutely proved?

 

A moment’s reflection must impress all that few questions have more important and solemn bearings than the one now under consideration. It is connected with eternal as well as with terrestrial interests. It covers the earth and reaches heaven. The unity of the human race—the brotherhood of man—the reciprocal duties of all to each, and of each to all, are too plainly taught in the Bible to admit of cavil. The credit of the Bible is at stake—and if it be too much to say that it must stand or fall by the decision of this question, it is proper to say that the value of that sacred book, as a record of the early history of mankind, must be materially affected by the decision of the question. For myself I can say: my reason, not less than my feeling and my faith, welcomes with joy the declaration of the inspired apostle, “that God has made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell upon all the face of the earth.” One seventh of the population of this country is of negro descent. The black and the white—the negro and the European—these constitute the American people, and, in all the likelihoods of the case, they will ever remain the principal inhabitants of the United States in some form or other. The European population are greatly ascendant in numbers, wealth, and power. They are the rulers of the country—the masters. The Africans are the slaves—the proscribed portion of the people—and precisely in proportion as the truth of human brotherhood gets recognition will be the freedom and elevation of persons of African descent. This question is at the bottom of the whole controversy now going on between the slaveholders on the one hand and the abolitionists on the other. It is the same old question which has divided the selfish from the philanthropic part of mankind in all ages. It is the question whether the rights, privileges, and immunities enjoyed by some ought not to be shared and enjoyed by all.

When men oppress their fellow men, the oppressor finds in the character of the oppressed a full justification for his oppression. Ignorance and depravity, and the inability to rise from degradation to civilization and respectability, are the most usual allegations against the oppressed. The evils most fostered by slavery and oppression are precisely those which slaveholders and oppressors would transfer from their system to the inherent character of their victims. Thus the very crimes of slavery become slavery’s best defense. Let it be once granted that the human race is of multitudinous origin, naturally different in moral, physical, and intellectual capacities, and at once you make plausible a demand for classes, grades, and conditions, for different methods of culture, different moral, political, and religious institutions, and a chance is left for slavery as a necessary institution.

The lawyers tell us that the credit of a witness is always in order. Ignorance, malice, or prejudice may disqualify a witness, and why not an author? Now, the disposition everywhere evident to separate the negro race from every intelligent nation and tribe in Africa may fairly be regarded as one proof that they have staked out the ground beforehand and that they have aimed to construct a theory in support of a foregone conclusion.

The fact that Egypt was one of the earliest abodes of learning and civilization is as firmly established as are the everlasting hills, defying with a calm front the boasted mechanical and architectural skill of the nineteenth century—smiling serenely on the assaults and the mutations of time, there she stands in overshadowing grandeur, riveting the eye and the mind of the modern world upon her in silent and dreamy wonder. Greece and Rome—and through them Europe and America—have received their civilization from the ancient Egyptians. This fact is not denied by anybody. But Egypt is in Africa. Pity that it had not been in Europe or in Asia or, better still, in America! Another unhappy circumstance is that the ancient Egyptians were not white people but were, undoubtedly, just about as dark in complexion as many in this country who are considered genuine negroes; and that is not all, their hair was far from being of that graceful lankness which adorns the fair Anglo Saxon head.


1 Kentucky senator Henry Clay served as secretary of state during the John Quincy Adams administration, after ensuring Adams’ victory in the 1824 presidential election. The Massachusetts lawyer and politician Daniel Webster also served as a secretary of state and senator during his long career. Pro-secession politician John C. Calhoun’s many roles in government included vice president, secretary of state, and South Carolina senator. Together this trio was known as the Great Triumvirate for their ubiquitous presence in the giant political debates of the early nineteenth century—and for finalizing compromises with the South over slavery that preserved an anti-abolition status quo in national politics for decades.

 

Read the other entries in our series: Lewis H. Lapham, Virginia Gildersleeve, Kurt Vonnegut, Qohelet, and Quintilian.