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Speech by William Wells Brown, Delivered at the Concert Rooms, Store Street, London, England, 27 September 1849

From: Ripley, C. Peter, et al., eds. The Black Abolitionist Papers, Vol. I: The British Isles, 1830-1865, Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1985. Used by permission of the publisher. Originally published in Liberator (Boston, Mass.), 2 November 1849.

Sir, I wish to make a remark or two in seconding the resolution which is now before the meeting. I am really glad that this meeting has produced this discussion, for I think it will all do good; in fact, I know it will, for the cause of truth. Reference has been made to slavery having been carried to America by the sanction of this country. Now, that is an argument generally used in America by slaveholders themselves. (Hear, hear.) Go to the United States; talk to slaveholders about the disgrace of slavery being found in a professedly Christian republic, and they will immediately reply, "England imposed it upon us; Great Britain was the cause of it, for she established slavery in America, and we are only reaping the fruits of her act." Now, gentlemen, I would reply to our friend here, as I have replied to Americans again and again-If you have followed England in the bad example of the institution of slavery, now follow her in the good example of the abolition of slavery. (Cheers.) Some remarks were also made by that gentleman respecting the Americans having abolished the slave trade. It is true that they did pass a law, but not in 1808, that the slave trade should be abolished: they passed a law in 1788 that they would only continue the slave trade for twenty years longer, and at the end of that period there should not be any more slaves imported into the United States. They said, "We will rob Africa of her sons and daughters for twenty years longer, and then stop." (Hear and laughter.) But why did they determine that the slave trade should be put an end to? The honorable gentleman has not told you that. Why, it was to give to Virginia, Kentucky and Maryland a monopoly in the trade of raising slaves to supply the Southern market. (Cheers.) That was the reason, and the only reason, why they abolished the foreign slave trade in America. They allowed the foreign slave trade to be carried on for twenty years from that time, and during the whole of that period made those who were engaged in the internal slave traffic pay a duty of ten dollars for every slave brought into the country, the whole of the money going into the exchequer of the United States. The Government said, "We will have a tariff of so much per head upon God's children that are stolen from Africa, and the revenue derived therefrom shall be the support of the republican institutions of the United States." (Hear, hear.) Do the Americans claim credit for an act like that? Claim credit for abolishing the foreign slave trade, in order that they might make a lucrative domestic slave trade! (Cheers.) Why, ladies and gentlemen, only a few years since, 40,000 slaves were carried out of the single State of Virginia, in one year, and driven off to the far South, to supply the market there. Claim credit for abolishing the slave trade! Claim credit for husbands torn from their wives, and children from their parents! Claim credit for herds of human beings carried off in coffle gangs, and to be worked to death in the rice and cotton fields! That is the character of the domestic slave trade now carried on, even in the capital of America. No, no; the people of the United States can claim no credit on that score. They can find no apology in the fact of slavery being a domestic institution. A pretty "domestic institution," truly! (Hear, hear.) Why, in 1847, only two years since, a woman and her daughter were sold in the very capital of America, in the very city of Washington, by the U.S. marshal, on the 3d day of July, the day before the national anniversary of the glorious Declaration of Independence, by which all men were declared free and equal, and the product of the sale of these immortal beings was put into the treasury of the United States. That is one specimen among many of the working of the "domestic institution" of America. (Cheers.) It dooms me, for example, to be a slave as soon as I shall touch any part of the United States. (Hear, hear.) Yes, Sir, it is indeed domestic enough; it is domesticated all over the country; it extends from one end of America to the other, and is as domesticated as is the Constitution of the United States itself; it is just as domesticated as is the territory over which the United States Government have jurisdiction. Wherever the Constitution proclaims a bit of soil to belong to the United States, there it dooms me to be a slave the moment I set my foot upon it; and all the 20,000 or 30,000 of my brethren who have made their escape from the Southern States, and taken refuge in Canada or the Northern States, are in the same condition. And yet this American slavery is apologized for as a "domestic institution"! I am glad that our eloquent friend, Mr. Thompson, has impressed the fact upon your minds, that slavery is a national institution, and that the guilt of maintaining it is national guilt. I am anxious that that circumstance should be understood, and that Englishmen should know, that the slave is just as much a slave in the city of Boston; of which this gentleman is just as much a citizen as he is in Charleston, South Carolina: he is just as much a slave in any of the Eastern States as he is in the Southern States. If I am protected in my person in the city of Boston, and if I have been protected there for the last two or three years, and the slaveholder has not been able to catch me and carry me back again into slavery, I am not at all indebted for that privilege to the Constitution of the United States, but I owe it entirely to that public sentiment which my friend Mr. Thompson, at the peril of his life, so nobly helped to create in America. (Loud cheers.) I am indebted to the anti-slavery sentiment, and that alone, when I am in Boston itself, for the personal protection I enjoy. I cannot look at the Constitution or laws of America as a protection to me; in fact, I have no Constitution, and no country. I cannot, like the eloquent gentleman who last addressed you, say - "I am bound to stand up in favor of America." (Hear.) I would to God that I could; but how can I! America has disfranchised me, driven me off, and declared that I am not a citizen, and never shall be, upon the soil of the United States. Can I, then, gentlemen, stand up for such a country as that? Can I have any thing to say in favor of a country that makes me a chattel, that renders me a saleable commodity, that converts me into a piece of property? Can I say any thing in favor of a country, or its institutions, that will give me up to the slaveholder, if he can only find out where I am, in any part of America? Why I am more free here tonight, in monarchical England, than I should be in my own republican country! Whatever our friend from Boston may do, I would that I could say with him, "I must, in honor, stand up in favor of America." And yet I love America as much as he does. I admire her enterprising and industrious people quite as ardently as he can; but I hate her hideous institution, which has robbed me of a dear mother, which has plundered me of a beloved sister and three dear brothers, and which institution has doomed them to suffer, as they are now suffering, in chains and slavery. Whatever else there may be to admire in the condition of America, at all events, I hate that portion of her Constitution. I hate, I fervently hate, those laws and institutions of America, which consign three millions of my brethren and sisters to chains for life. Talk about going to the slaveholders with money! Talk about recognizing their right to property in human beings! What! property in man! property in God's children! I will not acknowledge that any man has a right to hold me as property, till he can show his right to supersede the prerogative of that Creator whose alone I am. (Cheers.) Just read the letter which you will find in the preface to my narrative, where my own master has very kindly offered to sell me to myself for half price. (Laughter.) He imagines that the anti-slavery movement has depreciated his property in me, and therefore he offers to take half price for his runaway property. (Renewed laughter.) My answer to him was, that he should never receive a single dollar from me, or any one else in my behalf, with my consent. (Cheers.) I said so, because I am not willing to acknowledge the right of property in man under any circumstances. I believe that the same God who made the slaveholder made the slave (hear, hear) and that the one is just as free as the other.

Before resuming my seat, I would say to our friend from Boston, as I said to another gentleman a short time before I left America, who talked in a similar manner about the slave States, and the good treatment the slaves received, and so forth. At the close of a meeting, that gentleman rose, and requested permission to ask me some simple questions, which were as follows: Had I not enough to eat when I was in slavery? Was I not well clothed while in the Southern States? Was I ever whipped? and so forth. I saw that he only wanted a peg on which to hang a pro-slavery speech, but I answered his questions in the affirmative. He immediately rose and made a speech, in which he endeavored to make his audience believe that I had run away from a very good place indeed. (Laughter.) He asked them if they did not know hundreds and thousands of poor people in America and England, who would be willing to go into the State of Missouri and there fill the situation I had run away from. (Cries of Oh, Oh!) A portion of the assembly for a moment really thought his plea for slavery was a good one. I saw that the meeting was anxious to break up, in consequence of the lateness of the hour, and therefore that it would not do for me to reply at any length, and I accordingly rose and made a single remark in answer to this pro-slavery speech. I said, the gentleman has praised up the situation I left, and made it appear quite another thing to what it ever appeared to me when I was there; but however that may be, I have to inform him that that situation is still vacant, and as far as [I] have any thing voluntary to do with it, it shall remain so; but, nevertheless, if that gentleman likes to go into Missouri and fill it, I will give him a recommendation to my old master, and I doubt not that he would receive him with open arms, and give him enough to eat, enough to wear, and flog him when ever he thought he required it. (Loud cheers and laughter.) So I say to our friend from Boston, to-night, if he is so charmed with slavery, he shall have the same recommendation to my old master. (Loud cheers.)

Titles by William Wells Brown