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The Museum of African American History is dedicated to preserving, conserving and accurately interpreting the contributions of African Americans in New England from the colonial period through the 19th century.

 

 

Governor-Elect Deval Patrick reads the words of Frederick Douglass at the Bicentennial Celebration of the African Meeting House. December 6, 2006

"A Plea 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 slavery.     

      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?

       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? … 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.