Getting What We Pay For

The year is 1857. Speaking to the American Abolition Society, Frederick Douglass has to admit that the noose of slavery seems to be tightening its grip on the American regime.

Despite many grim setbacks for the cause of freedom, Douglass is far from daunted: “I have come to the conclusion that from no work would I rather go to meet my Eternal Father, than from the work of breaking the fetters from the limbs of his suffering children.”

Not only is Douglass ready to work, but he is eager to celebrate the twenty-third anniversary of emancipation in the British West Indies.

How could the freedom of others gladden Douglass so much, when more than two decades have failed to extend similar hopes to his fellow Americans held in bondage?

For Douglass, the liberation of British slaves is a “great deed” that belongs “to the lovers of Liberty and of mankind the world over. It is one of those glorious emanations of Christianity, which, like the sun in the Heavens, takes no cognizance of national lines or geographical boundaries, but pours its golden floods of living light upon all.”

Going further, Douglass finds in British emancipation a source of hope for American abolitionists, if they heed its lessons.

To begin with, that event is proof that neither men nor nations “live by bread alone.” “They are not saved by art, but by honesty. Not by the gilded splendors of wealth, but by the hidden treasure of manly virtue.”

British abolition was not the product of “that self-interest” which, according to the “profanity” of some theorists, “governs the world.” Rather, it was the result of “the pure, single-eyed spirit of benevolence.”

“It was not commerce, but conscience” that guided the hand of freedom; “not considerations of climate and productions of the earth, but the heavenly teachings of Christianity, which every where teaches that God is our Father, and man, however degraded, is our brother.”

Hope, however, is not passivity. Douglass concludes by noting that “Power concedes nothing without a demand.” “Find out just what any people will quietly submit to, and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them.”

“Men may not get all they pay for in this world,” he reminds us, “but they must certainly pay for all they get.”

“If we ever get free from the oppressions and wrongs heaped upon us,” he might say to us here and now, “we must pay for their removal.”

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