Frederick Douglass's "Plea for Freedom of Speech in Boston"

Introduction by Kurt Lash

On December 3, 1860, a group of abolitionists, including Frederick Douglass, gathered at a public meeting hall in Boston, Massachusetts, to discuss “How Can American Slavery be Abolished?” Scheduled to coincide with the one-year anniversary of John Brown’s death (what abolitionists referred to as the “martyrdom” of John Brown), the meeting took place only a month after the election of the Republican Abraham Lincoln. The country was coming apart: South Carolina had declared its intention to secede from the Union and it appeared that other southern states would do the same.  Congress began considering emergency measures, including a constitutional amendment protecting slavery, hoping to convince the southern states to remain in the Union. Northern public opinion, already deeply divided over the issue of abolition, became a tinderbox of explosive emotions as each side increasingly advocated the use of force in support of their position.   

It was in the midst of this cauldron of public debate that Boston abolitionists decided to hold their event, one ostensibly about ending slavery but also one celebrating the violent abolitionist John Brown. Not surprisingly, the meeting attracted members of the public who were opposed to the abolitionist agenda.  In fact, the meeting was overwhelmed by a mob seeking to disrupt the event and prevent Frederick Douglass and the other abolitionists from speaking. Opponents filled the hall, shouted down the abolitionists, and mounted the stage. Abolitionist efforts to retake control of the event led to confrontation and chaos.  Police, who had done nothing to protect the meeting, eventually intervened and cleared the hall. No one was (seriously) injured, but the anti-abolitionists achieved their goal: The event was completely disrupted and the scheduled discussion of slavery never took place. Newspapers around the country reported on the near riot, with headlines in the New York Tribune blaring, “Freedom of Speech Violated in Boston . . . Police Powerless.”

A few days later, Frederick Douglass delivered a previously scheduled lecture at Boston’s Music Hall.  At the end of his prepared remarks, Douglass added a short statement regarding the fundamental importance of freedom of speech and the responsibility of officials to protect free expression from the mob.  It is one of the most important statements of free expression in American history—particularly in light of the life and experience of the man who delivered the statement. It is also startlingly timely. As Douglass declared, “[l]iberty is meaningless where the right to utter one’s thoughts and opinions has ceased to exist.”  His statement is presented below in full:

“A Plea For Freedom of Speech in Boston”

Frederick Douglass

December 9, 1860

Boston is a great city and Music Hall has a fame almost as extensive as that of Boston. Nowhere more than here have the principles of human freedom been expounded. But for the circumstances already mentioned, it would seem almost presumption for me to say anything here about those principles. And yet, even here, in Boston, the moral atmosphere is dark and heavy. The principles of human liberty, even I correctly apprehended, find but limited support in this hour a trial. The world moves slowly, and Boston is much like the world. We thought the principle of free speech was an accomplished fact. Here, if nowhere else, we thought the right of the people to assemble and to express their opinion was secure. Dr. Channing had defended the right, Mr. Garrison had practically asserted the right, and Theodore Parker had maintained it with steadiness and fidelity to the last.

But here we are to-day contending for what we thought we gained years ago. The mortifying and disgraceful fact stares us in the face, that though Faneuil Hall and Bunker Hill Monument stand, freedom of speech is struck down. No lengthy detail of facts is needed. They are already notorious; far more so than will be wished ten years hence.

The world knows that last Monday a meeting assembled to discuss the question: “How Shall Slavery Be Abolished?” The world also knows that that meeting was invaded, insulted, captured by a mob of gentlemen, and thereafter broken up and dispersed by the order of the mayor, who refused to protect it, though called upon to do so. If this had been a mere outbreak of passion and prejudice among the baser sort, maddened by rum and hounded on by some wily politician to serve some immediate purpose, – a mere exceptional affair, – it might be allowed to rest with what has already been said. But the leaders of the mob were gentlemen. They were men who pride themselves upon their respect for law and order.

These gentlemen brought their respect for the law with them and proclaimed it loudly while in the very act of breaking the law. Theirs was the law of slavery. The law of free speech and the law for the protection of public meetings they trampled under foot, while they greatly magnified the law of slavery.

The scene was an instructive one. Men seldom see such a blending of the gentleman with the rowdy, as was shown on that occasion. It proved that human nature is very much the same, whether in tarpaulin or broadcloth. Nevertheless, when gentlemen approach us in the character of lawless and abandoned loafers, – assuming for the moment their manners and tempers, – they have themselves to blame if they are estimated below their quality.

No right was deemed by the fathers of the Government more sacred than the right of speech. It was in their eyes, as in the eyes of all thoughtful men, the great moral renovator of society and government. Daniel Webster called it a homebred right, a fireside privilege. Liberty is meaningless where the right to utter one’s thoughts and opinions has ceased to exist. That, of all rights, is the dread of tyrants. It is the right which they first of all strike down. They know its power. Thrones, dominions, principalities, and powers, founded in injustice and wrong, are sure to tremble, if men are allowed to reason of righteousness, temperance, and of a judgment to come in their presence. Slavery cannot tolerate free speech. Five years of its exercise would banish the auction block and break every chain in the South. They will have none of it there, for they have the power. But shall it be so here?

Even here in Boston, and among the friends of freedom, we hear two voices: one denouncing the mob that broke up our meeting on Monday as a base and cowardly outrage; and another, deprecating and regretting the holding of such a meeting, by such men, at such a time. We are told that the meeting was ill-timed, and the parties to it unwise.

Why, what is the matter with us? Are we going to palliate and excuse a palpable and flagrant outrage on the right of speech, by implying that only a particular description of persons should exercise that right? Are we, at such a time, when a great principle has been struck down, to quench the moral indignation which the deed excites, by casting reflections upon those on whose persons the outrage has been committed? After all the arguments for liberty to which Boston has listened for more than a quarter of a century, has she yet to learn that the time to assert a right is the time when the right itself is called in question, and that the men of all others to assert it are the men to whom the right has been denied?

It would be no vindication of the right of speech to prove that certain gentlemen of great distinction, eminent for their learning and ability, are allowed to freely express their opinions on all subjects – including the subject of slavery. Such a vindication would need, itself, to be vindicated. It would add insult to injury. Not even an old-fashioned abolition meeting could vindicate that right in Boston just now. There can be no right of speech where any man, however lifted up, or however humble, however young, or however old, is overawed by force, and compelled to suppress his honest sentiments.

Equally clear is the right to hear. To suppress free speech is a double wrong. It violates the rights of the hearer as well as those of the speaker. It is just as criminal to rob a man of his right to speak and hear as it would be to rob him of his money. I have no doubt that Boston will vindicate this right. But in order to do so, there must be no concessions to the enemy. When a man is allowed to speak because he is rich and powerful, it aggravates the crime of denying the right to the poor and humble.

The principle must rest upon its own proper basis. And until the right is accorded to the humblest as freely as to the most exalted citizen, the government of Boston is but an empty name, and its freedom a mockery. A man’s right to speak does not depend upon where he was born or upon his color. The simple quality of manhood is the solid basis of the right – and there let it rest forever.