H105, American History I

Henry Highland Garnet, speech before the National Negro Convention, Buffalo NY (August 1843).

Brethren and Fellow-Citizens: Your brethren of the North, East, and West have been accustomed to meet together in National Conventions, to sympathize with each other, and to weep over your unhappy condition.  In these meetings we have addressed all classes of the free, but we have never, until this time, sent a word of consolation and advice to you.  We have been contented in sitting still and mourning over your sorrows, earnestly hoping that before this day your sacred liberties would have been restored.  But, we have hoped in vain.  Years have rolled on, and tens of thousands have been borne on streams of blood and tears, to the shores of eternity.  While you have been oppressed, we have also been partakers with you; nor can we be free while you are enslaved.  We, therefore, write to you as being bound with you.

Many of you are bound to us, not only by the ties of a common humanity, but we are connected by the more tender relations of parents, wives, husbands, children, brothers, and sisters, and friends.  As such we most affectionately address you.

Slavery has fixed a deep gulf between you and us, and while it shuts out from you the relief and consolation which your friends would willingly render, it afflicts and persecutes you with a fierceness which we might not expect to see in the fiends of hell.  But still the Almighty Father of mercies has left to us a glimmering ray of hope, which shines out like a lone star in a cloudy sky.  Mankind are becoming wiser, and better — the oppressor’s power is fading, and you, every day, are becoming better informed, and more numerous.  Your grievances, brethren, are many.  We shall not attempt, in this short address, to present to the world all the dark catalogue of this nation’s sins, which have been committed upon an innocent people.  Nor is it indeed necessary, for you feel them from day to day, and all the civilized world look upon them with amazement.

Two hundred and twenty-seven years ago, the first of our injured race were brought to the shores of America.  They came not with glad spirits to select their homes in the New World.  They came not with their own consent, to find an unmolested enjoyment of the blessings of this fruitful soil.  The first dealings they had with men calling themselves Christians, exhibited to them the worst features of corrupt and sordid hearts:  and convinced them that no cruelty is too great, no villainy and no robbery too abhorrent for even enlightened men to perform, when influenced by avarice and lust.  Neither did they come flying upon the wings of Liberty, to a land of freedom.  But they came with broken hearts, from their beloved native land, and were doomed to unrequited toil and deep degradation.  Nor did the evil of their bondage end at their emancipation by death.  Succeeding generations inherited their chains, and millions have come from eternity into time, and have returned again to the world of spirits, cursed and ruined by American slavery.

The propagators of the system, or their immediate ancestors, very soon discovered its growing evil, and its tremendous wickedness, and secret promises were made to destroy it.  The gross inconsistency of a people holding slaves, who had themselves “ferried o’er the wave” for freedom’s sake, was too apparent to be entirely overlooked.  The voice of Freedom cried, “Emancipate your slaves.”  Humanity supplicated with tears for the deliverance of their children of Africa.  Wisdom urged her solemn plea.  The bleeding captive pleaded his innocence, and pointed to Christianity who stood weeping at the cross.  Jehovah frowned upon the nefarious institution, and thunderbolts — red with vengeance, struggled to leap forth to blast the guilty wretches who maintained it.  But all was vain.  Slavery had stretched its dark wings of death over the land, the Church stood silently by — the priests prophesied falsely, and the people loved to have it so.  Its throne is established, and now it reigns triumphant.

Nearly three millions of your fellow-citizens are prohibited by law and public opinion (which in this country is stronger than law) from reading the Book of Life.  Your intellect has been destroyed as much as possible, and every ray of light they have attempted to shut out from your minds.  The oppressors themselves have become involved in the ruin.  They have become weak, sensual, and rapacious — they have cursed you — they have cursed themselves — they have cursed the earth which they have trod.

The colonists threw the blame upon England.  They said that the mother country entailed the evil upon them, and that they would rid themselves of it if they could.  The world thought they were sincere, and the philanthropic pitied them.  But time soon tested their sincerity.  In a few years the colonists grew strong, and severed themselves from the British Government.  Their independence was declared, and they took their station among the sovereign powers of the earth.  The declaration was a glorious document.  Sages admired it, and the patriotic of every nation reverenced the God-like sentiments which it contained.  When the power of Government returned to their hands, did they emancipate the slaves?  No; they rather added new links to our chains.  Were they ignorant of the principles of Liberty?  Certainly they were not.  The sentiments of their revolutionary orators fell in burning eloquence upon their hearts, and with one voice they cried, Liberty or Death.  Oh what a sentence was that.  It ran from soul to soul like electric fire, and nerved the arm of thousands to fight in the holy cause of Freedom.  Among the diversity of opinions that are entertained in regard to physical resistance, there are but a few found to gainsay that stern declaration.  We are among those who do not.  Slavery!  How much misery is comprehended in that single word.  What mind is there that does not shrink from its direful effects?  Unless the image of God be obliterated from the soul, all men cherish the love of Liberty.  The nice discerning political economist does not regard the sacred right more than the untutored African who roams in the wilds of Congo.  Nor has the one more right to the full enjoyment of his freedom than the other.  In every man’s mind the good seeds of liberty are planted, and he who brings his fellow down so low, as to make him contented with a condition of slavery, commits the highest crime against God and man.  Brethren, your oppressors aim to do this.  They endeavor to make you as much like brutes as possible.  When they have blinded the eyes of your mind — when they have embittered the sweet waters of life — when they have shut out the light which shines from the word of God — then, and not till then, has American slavery done its perfect work.


Brethren, the time has come when you must act for yourselves.  It is an old and true saying that, “if hereditary bondmen would be free, they must themselves strike the blow.”  You can plead your own cause, and do the work of emancipation better than any others.  The nations of the old world are moving in the great cause of universal freedom, and some of them at least will, ere long, do you justice.  The combined powers of Europe have placed their broad seal of disapprobation upon the African slave-trade.  But in the slave-holding parts of the United States, the trade is as brisk as ever.  They buy and sell you as though you were brute beasts.  The North has done much — her opinion of slavery in the abstract is known.  But in regard to the South, we adopt the opinion of the New York Evangelist — “ We have advanced so far, that the cause apparently waits for a more effectual door to be thrown open than has been yet.”  We are about to point you to that more effectual door.  Look around you, and behold the bosoms of your loving wives heaving with untold agonies!  Hear the cries of your poor children!  Remember the stripes your fathers bore.  Think of the torture and disgrace of your noble mothers.  Think of your wretched sisters, loving virtue and purity, as they are driven into concubinage and are exposed to the unbridled lusts of incarnate devils.  Think of the undying glory that hangs around the ancient name of Africa: — and forget not that you are native-born American citizens, and as such, you are justly entitled to all the rights that are granted to the freest.  Think how many tears you have poured out upon the soil which you have cultivated with unrequited toil and enriched with your blood; and then go to your lordly enslavers and tell them plainly, that you are determined to be free.  Appeal to their sense of justice, and tell them that they have no more right to oppress you, than you have to enslave them.  Enter at them to remove the grievous burdens which they have imposed upon you, and to remunerate you for your labor.  Promise them renewed diligence in the cultivation of the soil, if they will render to you an equivalent for your services.  Point them to the increase of happiness and prosperity in the British West-Indies since the Act of Emancipation.

Tell them in language which they cannot misunderstand, of the exceeding sinfulness of slavery, and of a future judgment, and of the righteous retributions of an indignant God.  Inform them that all you desire is freedom, and that nothing else will suffice.  Do this, and for ever after cease to toil for the heartless tyrants, who give you no other reward but stripes and abuse.  If they then commence the work of death, they, and not you, will be responsible for the sequences.  You had far better all die — die immediately, than live slaves, and entail your wretchedness upon your posterity.  If you would be free in this generation, here is your only hope.  However much you and all of us may desire it, there is not much hope of redemption without the shedding of blood.  If you must bleed, let it all come at once — rather die freemen, than live to be the slaves....

Fellow-men! patient sufferers! behold your dearest rights crushed to the earth!  See your sons murdered, and your wives, mothers and sisters doomed to prostitution.  In the name of the merciful God, and by all that life is worth let it no longer be a debatable question, whether it is better to choose Liberty or death....

Brethren, arise, arise!  Strike for your lives and liberties.  Now is the day and the hour.  Let every slave throughout the land do this, and the days of slavery are numbered.  You cannot be more oppressed than you have been — you cannot suffer greater cruelties than you have already.  Rather die freemen than live to be slaves.  Remember that you are FOUR MILLIONS!

It is in your power so to torment the God-cursed slave-holders, that they will be glad to let you go free.  If the scale was turned, and black men were the masters and white men the slaves, every destructive agent and element would be employed to lay the oppressor low.  Danger and death would hang over their heads day and night.  Yes, the tyrants would meet with plagues more terrible than those of Pharaoh.  But you are a patient people.  You act as though you were made for the special use of these devils.  You act as though your daughters were born to pamper the lusts of your masters and overseers.  And worse than all, you tamely submit while your lords tear your wives from your embraces and defile them before your eyes.  In the name of God, we ask, are you men?  Where is the blood of your fathers?  Has it all run out of your veins?  Awake, awake; millions of voices are calling you!  Your dead fathers speak to you from their graves.  Heaven, as with a voice of thunder, calls on you to arise from the dust.

Let your motto be resistance! resistance! resistance!  No oppressed people have ever secured their liberty without resistance.  What kind of resistance you had better make, you must decide by the circumstances that surround you, and according to the suggestion of expediency.  Brethren, adieu!  Trust in the living God.  Labor for the peace of the human race, and remember that you are FOUR MILLIONS.