The World’s Famous Orations, Vol 4

Author: Henry Peter Brougham  | Date: 1838


On Emancipation for the Negro*

I knew that this abominable law of our evil nature was not confined to different races, contrasted hues, and strange features, but prevailed also between white man and white—for I never yet knew any one hate me but those whom I had served, and those who had done me some grievous injustice. Why then should I expect other feelings to burn within the planter’s bosom, and govern his conduct toward the unhappy beings who had suffered so much and so long at his hands? But, on the part of the slaves, I was not without some anxiety when I considered the corrupting effects of that degrading system under which they had for ages groaned, and recognized the truth of the saying in the first and the earliest of profane poets, that "the day which makes a man a slave robs him of half his value. "

I might well think that the West Indian slave offered no exception to this maxim, that the habit of compulsory labor might have incapacitated him from voluntary exertion; that overmuch toil might have made all work his aversion; that never having been accustomed to provide for his own wants, while all his supplies were furnished by others, he might prove unwilling or unfit to work for himself, the ordinary inducements to industry never having operated on his mind.

Let us now see the results of their sudden tho partial liberation, and how far those fears have been realized; for upon this must entirely depend the solution of the present question—whether or not it is safe now to complete the emancipation, which, if it only be safe, we have not the shadow of right any longer to withhold.

Well, then, let us see. The first of August came, the object of so much anxiety and so many predictions—that day so joyously expected by the poor slaves, as sorely dreaded by their hard taskmasters; and surely, if there ever was a picture interesting, even fascinating, to look upon, if there ever was a passage in a people’s history that redounded to their eternal honor, if ever triumphant answer was given to all the scandalous calumnies for ages heaped upon an oppressed race, as if to justify the wrongs done them—that picture, and that passage, and that answer were exhibited in the uniform history of that auspicious day all over the islands of theWestern Sea. Instead of the horizon being lit up with the lurid fires of rebellion, kindled by a sense of natural tho lawless revenge, and the just resistance to intolerable oppression, the whole of that widespread scene was mildly illuminated with joy, contentment, peace, and good will toward men.

No civilized nation, no people of the most refined character, could have displayed, after gaining a sudden and signal victory, more forbearance, more delicacy, in the enjoyment of their triumph, than these poor untutored slaves did upon the great consummation of all their wishes which they had just attained. Not a gesture or a look was seen to scare the eye; not a sound or a breath from the negro’s lips was heard to grate on the ear of the planter. All was joy, congratulation, and hope. Everywhere were to be seen groups of these harmless folks assembled to talk over their good fortunes, to communicate their mutual feelings of happiness, to speculate on their future prospects. Finding that they were now free in name, they hoped soon to taste the reality of liberty. Feeling their fetters loosened, they looked forward to the day which would see them fall off, and the degrading marks which they left be effaced from their limbs.

But all this was accomplished with not a whisper that could give offense to the master by reminding him of the change. This delicate, calm, tranquil joy was alone to be marked on that day over all the chain of the Antilles.Amusements there were none to be seen on that day—not even their simple pastimes by which they had been wont to beguile the hard hours of bondage, and which reminded that innocent people of the happy land of their forefathers, whence they had been torn by the hands of Christian and civilized men. The day was kept sacred as the festival of their liberation, for the negroes are an eminently pious race. Every church was crowded from early dawn with devout and earnest worshipers. Five or six times in the course of that memorable Friday were all those churches filled and emptied in succession by multitudes who came, not to give mouth-worship or eye-worship, but to render humble and hearty thanks to God for their freedom at length bestowed. In countries where the bounty of nature provokes the passions, where the fuel of intemperance is scattered with a profuse hand, I speak the fact when I tell that not one negro was seen in a state of intoxication. Three hundred and forty thousand slaves in Jamaica were at once set free on that day, and the peaceful festivity of those simple men was disturbed only on a single estate, in one parish, by the irregular conduct of three or four persons, who were immediately kept in order, and tranquillity was in one hour restored.

But the termination of slavery was to be an end of all labor; no man would work unless compelled, much less would any one work for hire. The cart-whip was to resound no more, and nomore could exertion be obtained from the indolent African. The prediction is found to have been ridiculously false; the negro peasantry is as industrious as our own, and wages furnish more effectual stimulus than the scourge.

Oh, but, said the men of colonial experience—the true practical men—this may do for some kinds of produce. Cotton may be planted, coffee may be picked, indigo may be manufactured—all these kinds of work the negro may probably be got to do; but at least the cane will cease to grow, the cane piece can no longer be hoed, nor the plant be hewn down, nor the juice boiled, and sugar will utterly cease out of the land.

Now let the man of experience stand forward, —the practical man, the inhabitant of the colonies,—I require that he now come forth with his prediction, and I meet him with the fact; let him but appear, and I answer for him, we shall hear him prophesy no more. Put to silence by the past, which even these confident men have not the courage to deny, they will at length abandon this untenable ground.

Twice as much sugar by the hour was found, on my noble friend’s inquiry, to be made since the apprenticeship, as under the slave system, and of a far better quality; and one planter on a vast scale has said that with twenty free laborers he could do the work of a hundred slaves.

But linger not on the islands where the gift of freedom has been but half bestowed. Lookat Antigua and Bermuda, where the wisdom and the virtue have been displayed of at once giving complete emancipation. To Montserrat the same appeal might have been made, but for the folly of the upper House, which threw out the bill passed in the Assembly by the representatives of the planters. But in Antigua and in Bermuda, where for the last three years and a half there has not even been an apprentice—where all have been made at once as free as the peasantry of this country—the produce has increased, not diminished, and increased notwithstanding the accidents of bad seasons, droughts, and fires.

Whether we look to the noble-minded colonies which have at once freed their slaves, or to those who will still retain them in a middle and half-free condition, I have shown that the industry of the negro is undeniable, and that it is constant and productive in proportion as he is the director of its application and the master of its recompense. But I have gone a great deal further—I have demonstrated, by a reference to the same experience, the same unquestioned facts, that a more quiet, peaceful, inoffensive, innocent race is not to be found on the face of this earth than the Africans, not while dwelling in their own happy country, and enjoying freedom in a natural state under their own palm-trees and by their native streams, but after they have been torn away from it, enslaved, and their nature perverted in your Christian land, barbarized bythe policy of civilized states; their whole character disfigured, if it were possible to disfigure it; all their feelings corrupted, if you could have corrupted them. Every effort has been made to spoil the poor African, every source of wicked ingenuity exhausted to deprave his nature, all the incentives of misconduct placed around him by the fiend-like artifice of Christian civilized men, and his excellent nature has triumphed over all your arts; your unnatural culture has failed to make it bear the poisonous fruit that might well have been expected from such abominable husbandry, tho enslaved and tormented, degraded and debased, as far as human industry could effect its purpose of making him bloodthirsty and savage, his gentle spirit has prevailed and preserved, in spite of all your prophecies, aye, and of all your efforts, unbroken tranquillity over the whole Caribbean chain!

My lords, I can not better prove the absolute necessity of putting an immediate end to the state of apprenticeship than by showing what the victims of it are daily fated to endure. The punishments inflicted are of monstrous severity. The law is wickedly harsh; its execution is committed to hands that exasperate that cruelty. For the vague, undefined, undefinable offense of insolence, thirty-nine lashes; the same number for carrying a knife in the pocket; for cutting the shoot of a cane-plant, fifty lashes, or three months’ imprisonment in that most loathsome of all dungeons, a West Indian jail.

There seems to have prevailed at all times among the lawgivers of the slave colonies a feeling of which I grieve to say those of the mother country have partaken: that there is something in the nature of a slave, something in the disposition of the African race, something in the habits of those hapless victims of our crimes, our cruelties, and frauds, which requires a peculiar harshness of treatment from their rulers, and makes what in other men’s cases we call justice and mercy cruelty to society, and injustice to the law in theirs, inducing us to visit with the extremity of rigor in the African what, if done by our own tribes, would be slightly visited, or not at all, as tho there were in the negro nature something so obdurate that no punishment with which they can be punished would be too severe.

If some capricious despot were, in the career of ordinary tyranny, to tax his pampered fancy to produce something more monstrous, more unnatural than himself; were he to graft the thorn upon the vine, or place the dove among vultures to be reared, much as we might marvel at this freak of a perverted appetite, we should marvel still more if we saw tyranny, even its own measure of proverbial unreasonableness, and complain because the grape was not gathered from the thorn, or because the dove so trained had a thirst for blood. Yet this is the unnatural caprice, this the injustice, the gross, the foul, the outrageous, the monstrous, the incredibleinjustice of which we are daily and hourly guilty toward the whole of the ill-fated African race.

My lords, we fill up the measure of this injustice by executing laws wickedly conceived, in a yet more atrocious spirit of cruelty. Our whole punishments smell of blood. Let the treadmill stop, from the weary limbs and exhausted frames of the sufferers no longer having the power to press it down the requisite number of turns in a minute, the lash instantly resounds through the mansion of woe! Let the stone spread out to be broken not crumble fast enough beneath the arms already scarred, flayed, and wealed by the whip, again the scourge tears afresh the half-healed flesh!

I hasten to a close. There remains little to add. It is, my lords, with a view to prevent such enormities as I have feebly pictured before you, to correct the administration of justice, to secure the comforts of the negroes, to restrain the cruelty of the tormentors, to amend the discipline of the prisons, to arm the governors with local authority over the police; it is with those views that I have formed the first five of the resolutions now upon your table, intending they should take effect during the very short interval of a few months which must elapse before the sixth shall give complete liberty to the slave.

From the instant that glad sound is wafted across the ocean, what a blessed change begins; what an enchanting prospect unfolds itself! The African, placed on the same footing with othermen, becomes in reality our fellow citizen—to our feelings, as well as in his own nature, our equal, our brother. No difference of origin or color can now prevail to keep the two castes apart. The negro, master of his own labor—only induced to lend his assistance if you make it his interest to help you, yet that aid being absolutely necessary to preserve your existence —becomes an essential portion of the community, nay, the very portion upon which the whole must lean for support.

So now the fulness of time is come for at length discharging our duty to the African captive. I have demonstrated to you that everything is ordered—every previous step taken—all safe, by experience shown to be safe, for the long-desired consummation. The time has come, the trial has been made, the hour is striking; you have no longer a pretext for hesitation, or faltering, or delay. The slave has shown, by four years’ blameless behavior and devotion to the pursuits of peaceful industry, that he is as fit for his freedom as any English peasant, aye, or any lord whom I now address.

I demand his rights; I demand his liberty without stint. In the name of justice and of law, in the name of reason, in the name of God, who has given you no right to work injustice. I demand that your brother be no longer trampled upon as your slave! I make my appeal to the Commons, who represent the free people of England, and I require at their hands theperformance of that condition for which they paid so enormous a price—that condition which all their constituents are in breathless anxiety to see fulfilled! I appeal to this House! Hereditary judges of the first tribunal in the world, to you I appeal for justice! Patrons of all the arts that humanize mankind, under your protection I place humanity herself! To the merciful sovereign of a free people, I call aloud for mercy to the hundreds of thousands for whom half a million of her Christian sisters have cried out; I ask their cry may not have risen in vain. But, first, I turn my eye to the Throne of all justice, and, devoutly humbling myself before Him who is of purer eyes than to behold such vast iniquities, I implore that the curse hovering over the head of the unjust and the oppressor be averted from us, that your hearts may be tuned to mercy, and that over all the earth His will may at length be done!

*Delivered in the House of Lords in February, 1838, in support of resolutions for the immediate abolition of slavery. Abridged.

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Chicago: Henry Peter Brougham, The World’s Famous Orations, Vol 4 in The World’s Famous Orations, ed. William Jennings Bryan (New York: Funk and Wagnalls, December, 1906), 140–150. Original Sources, accessed May 26, 2024,

MLA: Brougham, Henry Peter. The World’s Famous Orations, Vol 4, in The World’s Famous Orations, edited by William Jennings Bryan, Vol. The World#8217;s Famous Orations, New York, Funk and Wagnalls, December, 1906, pp. 140–150. Original Sources. 26 May. 2024.

Harvard: Brougham, HP, The World’s Famous Orations, Vol 4. cited in December, 1906, The World’s Famous Orations, ed. , Funk and Wagnalls, New York, pp.140–150. Original Sources, retrieved 26 May 2024, from