Frederick Douglass’ address in New Haven, October 25, 1888

“Despite his age, Douglass campaigned vigorously for Benjamin Harrison during the 1888 presidential campaign. After weeks spent in Indiana and Michigan, Douglass arrived in New Haven, Connecticut, for a major address on 25 October 1888. There was so much excitement in the city that crowds gathered at the railroad station to witness Douglass’s arrival. After a reception at the rooms of the Republican League, Douglass was escorted to the Hyperion Theatre by local Republican clubs and bands. Upon entering the hall, Douglass received a standing ovation from the large audience. After songs by the Colored Glee Club and the Young Men’s Republican Glee Club, Hugh Dailey introduced the Reverend Albert P. Miller, of the Dixwell Avenue Congregational Church, who presided over the meeting. Miller delivered a short address introducing Douglass. Charles S. Morris of Kentucky, and the Reverend Mahlon Van Horne of Newport, Rhode Island, followed Douglass with speeches, and the meeting adjourned. The applause was deafening for two minutes after Mr. Douglass ceased speaking.”
-Excerpt courtesy of the New Haven Palladium, 26 October 1888, and the New Haven Daily Morning Journal and Courier, the Frederick Douglass Papers, Digital Edition, “Parties Are To Be Judged By Their Fruits, An Address Delivered in New Haven, Connecticut,” by Frederick Douglass, 1888

-Image courtesy of the New Haven Daily Morning Journal and Courier, 25 October 1888

“The Hyperion in days of yore was the largest and finest opera house in New Haven, Connecticut. Situated in Chapel Street, opposite Yale University, with a seating capacity of 2,200, it catered to the university and society crowd. Consequently when the news spread over the city that Frederick Douglass, the colored orator, was scheduled to speak there in the Harrison presidential campaign, enthusiasm knew no bounds. The meeting was preceded by a brass band and torch light procession and the Hyperion was packed and crowded to its utmost seating and standing capacity. The preliminaries were soon disposed of. Mr. Willis Bonner, the president of the colored Republican club, introduced Rev. A. P. Miller, the chairman of the meeting, who introduced the distinguished white and colored speakers.

That night Frederick Douglass had a difficult task set out for him. He was sandwiched in between one of the most brilliant scholars and one of the most magnetic orators in the colored race. He was preceded as a speaker by Hon. E. D. Bassett, formerly principal of the Institute for Colored Youth in Philadelphia, and former U. S. Minister to Hayti. He was followed by Charles Satchell Morris, who later rose in the ministry, pastored the Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York City, and is now pastor in Norfolk, Va. But even on such a trying a occasion, the ‘Grand Old Man’ loomed up as an oratorical colossus.

Every eye was riveted upon the stage when Frederick Douglass was announced. The audience saw an unusually tall and well proportioned man rise slowly from his seat on the platform, step forward and face it. With his lion-like face, crowned with waving gray hair, adorned with an iron-gray beard of medium growth, illumined by flashing eyes and set upon a magnificent physique, he was both a distinguished and picturesque-looking man. He impressed the audience by his personality before he uttered a single word.

His voice was low, deep, and heavy. He spoke slowly, calmly and deliberately. His movements on the platform were dignified and graceful. In a word, his attitude, bearing, gestures and manner of speaking indicated a gentleman who was perfectly calm and self-possessed, upon a platform upon which some of the world’s greatest actors and singers had appeared and before a vast audience, four-fifths of which was white.

In his style and manner of speaking he was a gentleman conversing with a perfectly well modulated and controlled voice, who now and then rose to an impassioned outburst of eloquence. He calmly and dispassionately discussed the race question in all of its phases and aspects. He was lucid and clear in his presenting of his facts and data, and logical and cogent in his reasoning. But he by no means gave a dry discussion of a hackneyed theme. That discussion was enlivened by anecdote, illustration, wit and humor. Douglass’ observations upon men and affairs were keen and penetrating. His reflections showed that he was thoughtful and prudent. In a word, he seemed to have some of that worldly wisdom which made Solomon and Lord Bacon famous. His fundamental thought was that the colored brother was made out of the same clay as the rest of mankind.

But what impressed the audience most was the fact that Douglass had some tremendous force or power which he was holding in reserve and which he had not yet let out. And it was not disappointed. The outburst of eloquence, which lifted the audience off its feet and threw it into pandemonium, finally came. Douglass began that outburst by telling the audience that it was the brawn and muscle of black men, who toiled in the sun, and bled under the lash, which for two centuries and a half had built up the wealth and prosperity of the Southland. His eye flashed, his face lighted up, his voice rose and swelled like the notes of an organ and rang out in stentorian tones over the audience, he moved more rapidly about the platform and his gestures grew more animated, as he rose to his grand climax.

He said: ‘During the trying days of the Civil War, we gave your sons food to eat when they were hungry and water to drink when they were thirsty, we led them through the forests when they had lost their way and we binded up their wounds when they were wounded.’ Then, stepping to the front of the platform with head thrown back, outstretched his arms and voice that rang out like a clarion, Douglass said: ‘And when Abraham Lincoln sent forth his call for volunteers, we came, we came two hundred thousand strong.’

Then the pent up and long suppressed enthusiasm of the audience released itself. Men and women rose to their feet and cheered and applauded the ‘Old Man Eloquent’ again and again. It were as though he had calmly and deliberately warmed the hearts of his hearers and then uncorked the bottle, when the contents were about to effervesce.

In that address Frederick Douglass told of the conversation that he had with Abraham Lincoln, when Lincoln expressed great interest in and sympathy for the colored people. He said that he knew what to do with regard to every nationality except the Negro.

Douglass replied, ‘Give us our freedom and the same protection of the law as you give the other nationalities and we will do for ourselves.’

The audience did not rush out of the Hyperion, as it usually did after a three-hour sitting, but many lingered long to catch one last fleeting glimpse or grasp the hand of the noted orator.”
-Excerpt from Champion Magazine, “Douglass as an Orator,” by William H. Ferris, 1917, courtesy of, “Blacks at Harvard: A Documentary History of African-American Experience At Harvard and Radcliffe,” by Werner Sollors, Caldwell Titcomb, Thomas A. Underwood, Randall Kennedy, NYU Press, 1993

-Image courtesy the Boston Globe files, published most recently in the article, “Frederick Douglass — gone, yes, but not forgotten,” by Roy Greene, 2017

“I feel highly gratified by the presence of such a large audience, and I see in it the element of victory. On November 6, we shall be called upon to exercise the highest function allowed to man; the right to elect a president. It is the right by which we are allowed to perpetuate our institutions. A failure to elect a president in harmony with our ideas would tend to disarrange our form of government, and possibly plunge this country into a vortex of anarchy.

All elections are important, but some are more important than others. There are times when parties are so evenly balanced and so evenly matched in the excellence of their candidates that it matters little what candidate is elected. Such an election is not pending now. It was not so when the country demanded for president that tall rail-splitter of the west. (Applause) It was not so when the country demanded that peerless commander, General Grant. (Applause)

It is not so now. Disguise it as we may, we’re confronted today with two opposite ideas. Two ideas, one born of slavery, of class dominion, of the necessity of labor; the other born of liberty, of the respectability of labor. (Applause)

The form of the conflict has changed. The battle was once a battle of bullets. Next November the ballot will decide the battle, and may God speed the right…

I consented to participate in this campaign with some hesitation. Not because I did not agree with the policy of the party, and not because I did not know that the Democratic party was as rotten as ever. I am not as young as I once was, and it requires strength to travel and speak every night in the week, and then partake of a collation at midnight…

I have no abuse for the Democratic candidates. It is a source of satisfaction that except a few innocent lies, the canvass has been conducted cleanly and decorously. We are Americans and we have the dignity of our nation to uphold, therefore we reject all those personalities, which were so prominent four years ago. The American people know the character and standing of Benjamin Harrison and they know the character and standing of Grover Cleveland.

The president of a country should be more than a successful politician. He should be a man who has a spotless character; who is possessed of a character that is the admiration of all men; who can be pointed to as an example of good and power; who can be respected by the lowest and the highest. Such a man was Lincoln. (Applause) Such a man we shall have in the person of Benjamin Harrison. (Great applause) …

Parties are to be judged by the old rule, by their fruits. Judge a party by what it has been. Judge it by its antecedents. When Moses wanted to know God, he showed him all that had gone before. The past is the parent of the present. Every wheel leaves its print upon the soil, so every party leaves behind it something by which we may judge. It is not pleasant for Democrats to have us refer to the past. They say, dead issues. The Republicans like to have their past referred to, for there is nothing in it that we are ashamed of. Democrats cannot say so much…

The Democratic party has always been on the wrong side of everything. That party said that the negro could not be civilized and made men of in God’s world. Well, we have made men of them in this world and we are proud of them. They said you can never put down the rebellion, reconstruct the States or pay the national debt, but we have done all these things. (Applause) You will never make soldiers of the negroes, they said, but we did make soldiers of them…

Men of New England, when you came to the battle fields of the South, the black men were your friends. They furnished guides to your soldiers who escaped from the dungeons of Andersonville and Salisbury. They fed the boys in blue and fought for the freedom of this country. When Abraham Lincoln called for help to hold aloft the banner of the Union, the black men answered full 200,000 strong.

The Republican party emancipated the negro and made all men equal. I am here to ask you to stand by your pledge that all men shall be free and equal and see the law executed, and the first step in that direction is to place in the presidential chair Benjamin Harrison of Indiana. (Immense applause.)”
-Excerpt of, “Parties are to be Judged by their Fruits,” by Frederick Douglass, an address delivered at the Hyperion Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut, on October 25, 1888. (top) Image courtesy of the New York Public Library Digital Collection, “Portrait of Frederick Douglass, abolitionist, journalist, and social reformer,” photographer unknown, 1880 (approximate)

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