It is perhaps fitting, before we take leave of Douglass, to give some estimate of the remarkable oratory which gave him his hold upon the past generation. For, while his labors as editor and in other directions were of great value to the cause of freedom, it is upon his genius as an orator that his fame must ultimately rest.
While Douglass's color put him in a class by himself among great orators, and although his slave past threw around him an element of romance that added charm to his eloquence, these were mere incidental elements of distinction. The North was full of fugitive slaves, and more than one had passionately proclaimed his wrongs. There were several colored orators who stood high in the councils of the abolitionists and did good service for the cause of humanity.
Douglass possessed, in large measure, the physical equipment most impressive in an orator. He was a man of magnificent figure, tall, strong, his head crowned with a mass of hair which made a striking element of his appearance. He had deep-set and flashing eyes, a firm, well-moulded chin, a countenance somewhat severe in repose, but capable of a wide range of expression. His voice was rich and melodious, and of great carrying power. One writer, who knew him in the early days of his connection with the abolitionists, says of him, in Johnson's _Sketches of Lynn_:
"He was not then the polished orator he has since become, but even at that early date he gave promise of the grand part he was to play in the conflict which was to end in the destruction of the system that had so long cursed his race.... He was more than six feet in height; and his majestic form, as he rose to speak, straight as an arrow, muscular yet lithe and graceful, his flashing eye, and more than all his voice, that rivalled Webster's in its richness and in the depth and sonorousness of its cadences, made up such an ideal of an orator as the listeners never forgot. And they never forgot his burning words, his pathos, nor the rich play of his humor."
The poet William Howitt said of him on his departure from England in 1847, "He has appeared in this country before the most accomplished audiences, who were surprised, not only at his talent, but at his extraordinary information."
In Ireland he was introduced as "the black O'Connell,"--a high compliment; for O'Connell was at that time the idol of the Irish people. In Scotland they called him the "black Douglass [Douglas]," after his prototype in _The Lady of the Lake_, because of his fìre and vigor. In Rochester he was called the "swarthy Ajax," from his indignant denunciation and defiance of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, which came like a flash of lightning to blast the hopes of the anti-slavery people.
Douglass possessed in unusual degree the faculty of swaying his audience, sometimes against their maturer judgment. There is something in the argument from first principles which, if presented with force and eloquence, never fails to appeal to those who are not blinded by self-interest or deep-seated prejudice. Douglass's argument was that of the Declaration of Independence,--"that _all_ men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That, to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the _consent of the governed_." The writer may be pardoned for this quotation; for there are times when we seem to forget that now and here, no less than in ancient Rome, "eternal vigilance is the price of liberty." Douglass brushed aside all sophistries about Constitutional guarantees, and vested rights, and inferior races, and, having postulated the right of men to be free, maintained that negroes were men, and offered himself as a proof of his assertion,--an argument that few had the temerity to deny. If it were answered that he was only half a negro, he would reply that slavery made no such distinction, and as a still more irrefutable argument would point to his friend, Samuel R. Ward, who often accompanied him on the platform,--an eloquent and effective orator, of whom Wendell Phillips said that "he was so black that, if he would shut his eyes, one could not see him." It was difficult for an auditor to avoid assent to such arguments, presented with all the force and fire of genius, relieved by a ready wit, a contagious humor, and a tear-compelling power rarely excelled.
"As a speaker," says one of his contemporaries, "he has few equals. It is not declamation, but oratory, power of description. He watches the tide of discussion, and dashes into it at once with all the tact of the forum or the bar. He has art, argument, sarcasm, pathos,--all that first-rate men show in their master efforts."
His readiness was admirably illustrated in the running debate with Captain Rynders, a ward politician and gambler of New York, who led a gang of roughs with the intention of breaking up the meeting of the American Anti-slavery Society in New York City, May 7, 1850. The newspapers had announced the proposed meeting in language calculated to excite riot. Rynders packed the meeting with rowdies, and himself occupied a seat on the platform. Some remark by Mr. Garrison, the first speaker, provoked a demonstration of hostility. When this was finally quelled by a promise to permit one of the Rynders party to reply, Mr. Garrison finished his speech. He was followed by a prosy individual, who branded the negro as brother to the monkey. Douglass, perceiving that the speaker was wearying even his own friends, intervened at an opportune moment, captured the audience by a timely display of wit, and then improved the occasion by a long and effective speech. When Douglass offered himself as a refutation of the last speaker's argument, Rynders replied that Douglass was half white. Douglass thereupon greeted Rynders as his half-brother, and made this expression the catchword of his speech. When Rynders interrupted from time to time, he was silenced with a laugh. He appears to have been a somewhat philosophic scoundrel, with an appreciation of humor that permitted the meeting to proceed to an orderly close. Douglass's speech was the feature of the evening. "That gifted man," said Garrison, in whose _Life and Times_ a graphic description of this famous meeting is given, "effectually put to shame his assailants by his wit and eloquence."
A speech delivered by Douglass at Concord, New Hampshire, is thus described by another writer: "He gradually let out the outraged humanity that was laboring in him, in indignant and terrible speech.... There was great oratory in his speech, but more of dignity and earnestness than what we call eloquence. He was an insurgent slave, taking hold on the rights of speech, and charging on his tyrants the bondage of his race."
In Holland's biography of Douglass extracts are given from letters of distinguished contemporaries who knew the orator. Colonel T.W. Higginson writes thus: "I have hardly heard his equal, in grasp upon an audience, in dramatic presentation, in striking at the pith of an ethical question, and in single [signal] illustrations and examples." Another writes, in reference to the impromptu speech delivered at the meeting at Rochester on the death of Lincoln: "I have heard Webster and Clay in their best moments, Channing and Beecher in their highest inspirations. I never heard truer eloquence. I never saw profounder impression."
The published speeches of Douglass, of which examples may be found scattered throughout his various autobiographies, reveal something of the powers thus characterized, though, like other printed speeches, they lose by being put in type. But one can easily imagine their effect upon a sympathetic or receptive audience, when delivered with flashing eye and deep-toned resonant voice by a man whose complexion and past history gave him the highest right to describe and denounce the iniquities of slavery and contend for the rights of a race. In later years, when brighter days had dawned for his people, and age had dimmed the recollection of his sufferings and tempered his animosities, he became more charitable to his old enemies; but in the vigor of his manhood, with the memory of his wrongs and those of his race fresh upon him, he possessed that indispensable quality of the true reformer: he went straight to the root of the evil, and made no admissions and no compromises. Slavery for him was conceived in greed, born in sin, cradled in shame, and worthy of utter and relentless condemnation. He had the quality of directness and simplicity. When Collins would have turned the abolition influence to the support of a communistic scheme, Douglass opposed it vehemently. Slavery was the evil they were fighting, and their cause would be rendered still more unpopular if they ran after strange gods.
When Garrison pleaded for the rights of man, when Phillips with golden eloquence preached the doctrine of humanity and progress, men approved and applauded. When Parker painted the moral baseness of the times, men acquiesced shamefacedly. When Channing preached the gospel of love, they wished the dream might become a reality. But, when Douglass told the story of his wrongs and those of his brethren in bondage, they felt that here indeed was slavery embodied, here was an argument for freedom that could not be gainsaid, that the race that could produce in slavery such a man as Frederick Douglass must surely be worthy of freedom.
What Douglass's platform utterances in later years lacked of the vehemence and fire of his earlier speeches, they made up in wisdom and mature judgment. There is a note of exultation in his speeches just after the war. Jehovah had triumphed, his people were free. He had seen the Red Sea of blood open and let them pass, and engulf the enemy who pursued them.
Among the most noteworthy of Douglass's later addresses were the oration at the unveiling of the Freedmen's Monument to Abraham Lincoln in Washington in 1876, which may be found in his _Life and Times_; the address on Decoration Day, New York, 1878; his eulogy on Wendell Phillips, printed in Austin's _Life and Times of Wendell Phillips_; and the speech on the death of Garrison, June, 1879. He lectured in the Parker Fraternity Course in Boston, delivered numerous addresses to gatherings of colored men, spoke at public dinners and woman suffrage meetings, and retained his hold upon the interest of the public down to the very day of his death.