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[69]

Crispus Attucks (1858).

Speech delivered at the Festival commemorative of the Boston Massacre, in Faneuil Hall, March 5, 1858.

Ladies and gentlemen: I am very glad to stand here in an hour when we come together to do honor to one of the first martyrs in our Revolution. I think we sometimes tell the story of what he did with too little appreciation of how much it takes to make the first move in the cold streets of a revolutionary epoch. It is a very easy thing to sit down and read the history; it is a very easy thing to imagine what we would have done,--it is a very different thing to strike the first blow. It is a very hard thing to spring out of the ranks of common, every-day life — submission to law, recognition of established government--.and lift the first musket. The man or the dozen men who do it, deserve great, pre-eminent, indisputable places in the history of the Revolution. It is an easy thing to fight when the blood is hot; but this man whose memory we commemorate to-night stepped out of common life, every-day quiet, and lifted his arm among the very first against the government. It is only pre-eminent courage that can do this. To-day, in yonder capital of Paris, the whole government rests on a thin film of ice. A hundred men in arms in the streets would break it; that hundred men cannot be found,--a hundred men willing to risk their lives, with a cold, unmoved populace behind [70] them. Those five men who were killed on that eventful night of the 5th of March, of whom Crispus Attucks was the leader,--they never have had their fair share of fame.

Our friend Theodore Parker said the Revolution was not born so early. I think him wrong there; it was. Emerson said the first gun heard round the world was that of Lexington. Who set the example of guns? Who taught the British soldier that he might be defeated? Who dared first to look into his eyes? Those five men! The 5th of March was the baptism of blood. The 5th of March was what made the Revolution something beside talk. Revolution always begins with the populace, never with the leaders. They argue, they resolve, they organize; it is the populace that, like the edge of the cloud, shows the lightning first. This was the lightning. I hail the 5th of March as the baptism of the Revolution into forcible resistance; without that it would have been simply a discussion of rights. I place, therefore, this Crispus Attucks in the foremost rank of the men that dared. When we talk of courage, he rises, with his dark face, in his clothes of the laborer, his head uncovered, his arm raised above him defying bayonets,--the emblem of Revolutionary violence in its dawn; and when the proper symbols are placed around the base of the statue of Washington, one corner will be filled by the colored man defying the British muskets. [Applause.]

I think it is right that we should come here and remember Crispus Attucks. It is right, because every colored man has but one thing to remember in life, and that is slavery. All races are one--they are a unit. The white race is a unit, the Caucasian race is a unit, the black race is a unit--one. There is only one great, terrible fact in regard to the colored race [71] at the present moment,--it is that millions of it wear the chain; there is nothing for the rest of the race decent to do but to devote themselves to the breaking of that chain. [Applause.] All literature, all wealth, all patriotism, all religion, should gravitate toward emancipation. I value the triumphs of the literary genius of Dumas solely as an argument thrown into the scale of the great balance, whether the colored man is worthy of liberty. Genius is worth nothing else now with the colored man, except as helping that argument. I would have you, as your friend Dr. Rock suggested, thrifty, eloquent, industrious, successful, rich, able, only as an argument that the colored race has a right to a place side by side and equal with the white. I wish I could impress this truth on every colored man. His race to-day is on trial. The world says it merits only chains. The best thing he can do with his life, with his genius, with his wealth, with his character, is to throw them into the scale of the argument, and make pro-slavery prejudice kick the beam.

I want to say another thing. I do not believe in the argument which my learned and eloquent friend Theodore Parker has stated in regard even to the courage of colored blood. It is a hazardous thing to dare to differ with so profound a scholar, with so careful a thinker as Theodore Parker; but I cannot accept his argument and for this reason,--he says the Caucasian race, each man of it, would kill twenty men and enslave twenty more rather than be a slave ;. and thence he deduces that the colored race, which suffers slavery here, is not emphatically distinguished for courage. I take issue on that statement. There is no race in the world that has not been enslaved at one period. This very Saxon blood we boast, was enslaved for five centuries in Europe. We were slaves,--we white [72] people. This very English blood of ours — Saxon — was the peculiar mark of slavery for five or six hundred years. The Slavonic race, of which we are a branch, is enslaved by millions to-day in Russia. The French race has been enslaved for centuries. Then add this fact,--no race, not one, ever vindicated its freedom from slavery by the sword; we did not win freedom by the sword; we did not resist, we Saxons. If you go to the catalogue of races that have actually abolished slavery by the sword, the colored race is the only one that has ever yet afforded an instance, and that is St. Domingo. [Applause.] This white race of ours did not vindicate its title to liberty by the sword. The villeins of England, who were slaves, did not get their own liberty; it was gotten for them. They did not even rise in insurrection,--they were quiet; and if in 1200 or 1300 of the Christian era, a black man had landed on the soil of England and said: “This white race does n't deserve freedom; don't you see the villeins scattered through Kent, Northumberland, and Sussex? Why don't they rise and cut their masters' throats?” --the Theodore Parkers of that age would have been like the Dr. Rocks of this,--they could not have answered. The only race in history that ever took the sword into their hands, and cut their chains, is the black race of St. Domingo. Let that fact go for what it is worth. The villeinage of France and England wore out by the progress of commerce, by the growth of free cities, by the education of the people, by the advancement of Christianity. So I think the slavery of the blacks will wear out. I think, therefore, that the simple and limited experiment of three centuries of black slavery is not basis enough for the argument. No; the black man may well scorn it, and say, “I summon before the jury, Africa, with her savage millions, that has maintained [73] her independence for two or three thousand years; I summon Egypt with the arts; I summon St. Domingo with the sword,--and I choose to be tried in the great company of the millions, not alone!” And in that company, he may claim to have shown as much courage as any other race — full as much.

I, therefore, will never try the argument with the single illustration of American slavery. No; and yet if I did, I should be proud to have the same color with Margaret Garner ; for I know of no prouder name in the history of the nineteenth century than of that heroic mother, standing alone, defying the Democracy of thirty-one States, rising in the instinctive love of a mother superior to the low Christianity of the present age, and writing her religion and her heroism in the bloody right hand that gave her infant back to God for safe keeping. [Loud applause.] Any man might well be proud to share the color of that mother whose grave some future Plutarch or Tacitus will find, when he calls up the heroism of the nineteenth century.

My friend Mr. Nell has gathered together, in a small volume, instances enough of the heroism of colored blood, and the share it took in our Revolution, and yet he has not told half the story. I commend his book to the care and patronage of every man who loves the colored race. And not only to buy it,--that is not enough. If there is any young man who has any literary ambition, let him fill up the sketch; let him complete the picture; let him go sounding along the untrodden fields of Revolutionary anecdote, and gather up every fact touching the share his race took in that struggle. Why, the wealthiest family in Boston,--that of the Lawrences,--in their own family history,

1 A colored woman who threw her child into the Ohio River rather than to live it carried into slavery. [74] record the fact that the father of Abbot Lawrence was the captain of a company made up entirely of colored men; and when once, in the fierce and hot valor of a forgetful moment, he rushed too far into the ranks of the enemy, and was alone, ready to be made a prisoner, he looked back to his ranks of colored men, and they charged through two lines of the enemy, rescued their captain, and made it possible for the Lawrences to exist. [Applause.] They ought to be grateful — yes, that whole wealthy family ought to be grateful to colored courage that it saved their own father from a Jersey ship-of-war, and enabled him to take his share in the Revolutionary struggle, and to be buried in the old homestead at Groton. And doubtless, if your literary zeal shall follow up the path your friend Nell has opened, you will find scarcely any name on the whole roll of Revolutionary fame that does not owe more or less to colored courage and co-operation. I commend it to your care. Never forget the part your race took in the great struggle; cherish, preserve, illustrate it. Compel the white man to write your names, not as they have written them in Connecticut, at the bottom of the rest, with a line between, negro-pew fashion, but make them write them on the same marble and in the same line. The time will yet come when we will, as Caleb Cushing says, drag this Massachusetts Legislature at our heels, and they shall pay for a monument to Attucks. [Loud cheers, and cries of “Good.” ] It will be but the magnanimous atonement for the Injury and forgetfulness of so many years. They owe it to him, and they shall yet pay it. You and I, faithful to our trust, will see to it. Our fathers were honest and grateful enough to bury him from beneath these very walls. John Hancock did himself the honor, from his own balcony in Beacon Street, to give that [75] banner to colored men, recognizing them as citizens and as soldiers. The time shall come when the flavor of that good deed shall perfume Beacon Street, and make it worthier [cheers],--I always thought that I had a pride in being born in it; now I know the reason. [Renewed cheering.]

Yes, like “Old Mortality,” we come here to-night to make the monument plainer, to scrape off the moss that has gathered over it. It is only “the beginning of the end.” The time shall come, if you, young men, do your duty, when the part your ancestors played, when the laurels they won, when the deeds they performed in our Revolutionary era, shall be raked up from forgetfulness. I will tell you how. Do you know how great. grandfathers get remembered? I will tell you. The world is very forgetful,--Republics are proverbially ungrateful. You must not expect that the white men will wake up and do you justice. Oh, no! I will tell you how it is to be done. We are very fond of finding reasons for things and explaining them away. If we see a boy very bright, with great genius, we are fond of saying, “Well, we knew his father and mother, and they were very bright people.” Or, if we see a grand-. son very famous, we say, “Well, he comes of a good stock; we remember his grandfather, he could do this thing or the other!” When Theodore Parker came into the city of Boston, and made the boldest pulpit in the city, men said, “It is all right. This is the blood that fired the first musket at Lexington, and it is only cropping out in a new place.” Now, some of you colored men, Boston colored men, go you. to-morrow and show your valor in the field, valor in life, valor in education, valor in making money, valor in making your mark in the world,--and instantly the papers will begin to say, “Oh, yes; they have always been a brave, gallant people! [76] Was there not an Attucks in 1870? By the by, let us build him a monument.” You must remind us by instances. You must not come to us and argue; that is not the way to convince us. The common people do not stop to argue. You must convince us by a life. We want another Attucks; and I will conclude by showing you that you have another Attucks.1 Here is a letter from Mr. Higginson, excusing himself for not coming; and with this, which is a very excellent speech in itself, I will finish mine.

1 An allusion to the fact stated in Mr. Higginson's letter, “that the very first man to enter the court-house door, in the attempt to rescue Anthony Burns, was not, as has been commonly supposed, a white man, but a colored man.”

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