Address of the Colored National Convention to the People of the United States, 1853
In 1830, free black leaders throughout the North met in the first of many national conventions. The movement they began continued through the antebellum period, into the Civil War and early period of Reconstruction, and resumed again in the late nineteenth century. Free black Northerners, largely denied access to the mechanisms of formal politics, instead organized themselves into conventions, where they debated the problems they confronted, considered options for their remedy, and addressed a broader public with their concerns. Written appeals to the citizens of the United States were staples of the proceedings produced and published by black conventions. The most powerful of these appeared in minutes of the 1853 national convention. Penned largely by Frederick Douglass, the work represents a master of rhetoric at the height of his game. Douglass’s gift was not so much his originality as his ability to concisely and vibrantly express the moral outrage – the moral outrage due a nation which lauded itself on its commitment to freedom while denying liberty to people of African descent. Marshaling potent moral claims and facts drawn from American history, the address exhibited a tension which characterized much of the antebellum black protest tradition – an aggressive demand for redress through appeal to the nation’s most cherished principles.
We are Americans, and as Americans, we would speak to Americans. We address you not as aliens nor as exiles, humbly asking to be permitted to dwell among you in peace; but we address you as American citizens asserting their rights on their own native soil. . . .
Notwithstanding the impositions and deprivations which have fettered us- notwithstanding the disabilities and liabilities, pending and impending- notwithstanding the cunning, cruel, and scandalous efforts to blot out that right, we declare that we are, and of right we ought to be American Citizens. We claim this right, and we claim all the rights and privileges, and duties which, properly, attach to it. . . .
By birth, we are American citizens; by the principles of the Declaration of Independence, we are American citizens; within the meaning of the United States Constitution, we are American citizens; by the facts of history, and the admissions of American statesmen, we are American citizens; by the hardships and trials endured; by the courage and fidelity displayed by our ancestors in defining the liberties and in achieving the independence of our land, we are American citizens. . . .
As a people, we feel ourselves to be not only deeply injured, but grossly misunderstood. . . . What stone has been left unturned to degrade us? What hand has refused to fan the flame of popular prejudice against us? What American artist has not caricatured us? What wit has not laughed at us in our wretchedness? What songster has not made merry over our depressed spirits? What press has not ridiculed and contemned us? . . .
Now, what is the motive for ignoring and discouraging our improvement in this country? The answer is ready. The intelligent and upright free man of color is an unanswerable argument in favor of liberty, and a killing condemnation of American slavery. It is easily seen that, in proportion to the progress of the free man of color, in knowledge, temperance, industry, and rightousness, in just that proportion will he endanger the stability of slavery; hence, all the powers of slavery are exerted to prevent the elevation of the free people of color.
The force of fifteen hundred million dollars is arrayed against us; hence, the press, the pulpit, and the platform, against all the natural promptings of uncontaminated manhood, point their deadly missiles of ridicule, scorn and contempt at us; and bid us, on pain of being pierced through and through, to remain in our degradation.
Source: Proceedings of the Colored National Convention Held in Rochester, July 6th, 7th, and 8th 1853 (Rochester, N.Y.: Printed at the Office of Frederick Douglass’ Paper, 1853).