The Claims of the Negro, Ethnologically Considered

The text is an address before the literary societies of Western Reserve College at commencement on July 12, 1854.
Frederick Douglass
Grade Level

This text is part of the Teaching Hard History Text Library and aligns with Key Concept 8.

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. A respectable public journal, published in Richmond, Va., bases its whole defence of the slave system upon a denial of the negro’s manhood. 

“The white peasant is free, and if he is a man of will and intellect, can rise in the scale of society; or at least his offspring may. He is not deprived by law of those ‘inalienable rights,’ ‘liberty and the pursuit of happiness,’ by the use of it. But here is the essence of slavery -- that we do declare the negro destitute of these powers. We bind him by law to the condition of the laboring peasant for ever, without his consent, and we bind his posterity after him. Now, the true question is, have we a right to do this? If we have not, all discussions about his comfortable situation, and the actual condition of free laborers elsewhere, are quite beside the point. If the negro has the same right to his liberty and the pursuit of his own happiness that the White man has, then we commit the greatest wrong and robbery to hold him a slave -- an act at which the sentiment of justice must revolt in every heart -- and negro slavery is an institution which that sentiment must sooner or later blot from the face of the earth.”--Richmond Examiner. 

After stating the question thus, the  Examine r boldly asserts that the negro has no such right--BECAUSE HE IS NOT A MAN! 

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 to-day 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 negro is a man, it must first be known what constitutes a man. Here, as well as elsewhere, I take it, that the “coat must be cut according to the cloth.” It is not necessary, in order to establish the manhood of any one making the claim, to prove that such an 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. 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. 

Man is distinguished from all other animals, by the possession of certain definite faculties and powers, as well as by physical organization and proportions. 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. His speech, his reason, his power to acquire and to retain knowledge, his heaven-erected face, his habitudes, his hopes, his fears, his aspirations, his prophecies, plant between him and the brute creation, a distinction as eternal as it is palpable. 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 ourang-ou-tang, and the other to angels, and all the rest intermediates!

Tried by all the usual, and all the unusual tests, whether mental, moral, physical, or psycological, 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 practically and readily understand. 

This text is in the public domain. Retrieved from http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?ammem/rbaapc:@field(DOCID+@lit(rbaapc07900div2)).
Text Dependent Questions
  1. Question
    What justification for slavery is Douglass refuting in this speech excerpt?
    He is refuting the notion that enslaved people are not human, here listed as lacking “manhood.”
  2. Question
    How does Douglass see humanity in relation to animals?
    He dismisses as “scientific moonshine” that people are fellow animals. He says humanity is “gloriously independent” of others, belonging on its own unique “pedestal.”
  3. Question
    What is Douglass’ argument against those who believe enslaved people are less intelligent than white people?
    Enslaved persons' humanity cannot be based on a comparison to some of the greatest thinkers of the time (i.e., Calhoun, Webster and Clay). Additionally, enslaved people have been kept from education, further making the comparison unfair, not reflective of their abilities.
  4. Question
    What does Douglass say are the human characteristics or features that unite all races?
    Being “two-handed,” laughing, crying; possessing common sense, speech and reasoning; acquiring and retaining knowledge; having religion; having habits, hopes, fears, aspirations, prophecies; being good or bad; having joys and sorrows.
  5. Question
    How does the treatment of enslaved people, as described by Douglass, show how some members of American society represent and express their power over others?
    Answers will vary: Stripping enslaved people (and other African Americans) of their status of human justifies inhuman treatment. This perpetuates the system of slavery, as enslaved people cannot emerge out of it, as a “white peasant” may, since they do not possess the same rights. One could infer that Douglass also believes that denying the humanity of African Americans invalidates their human characteristics (i.e., sadness, joy, etc.).
Reveal Answers