Governor-Elect Deval Patrick reads the words of Frederick Douglass at
the Bicentennial Celebration of the African Meeting House.
December 6, 2006
for Free Speech in Boston," 1860
An anti-slavery meeting commemorating John Brown was held
at Tremont Temple and disrupted by a mob of Boston "gentlemen." The
audience removed themselves to the African Meeting House where the
Boston Police held back the mob while Douglass delivered his address. A
week thereafter, Douglass gave an address his audience at Boston’s Music
Hall on the issue of free speech. Below are excerpts from Douglass’
original speech as read by Governor-Elect Deval Patrick.
BOSTON is a great city …. Nowhere more than here have the principles of
human freedom been expounded. …. 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...
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...
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
…. 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 …. 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. …. 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
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…. 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?
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? … 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(to) question, and that the men …
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 …
is … empty…, 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.