At thirteen, escaped slave Frederick Douglass bought a schoolbook, ‘The Columbian Orator’, for fifty cents. It nurtured gifts of understanding and eloquence that brought Douglass to prominence as America’s leading anti-slavery campaigner, and among his favourite passages were speeches by great British statesmen of his day.
I MET there one of Sheridan’s mighty speeches, on the subject of Catholic Emancipation, Lord Chatham’s speech on the American War, and speeches by the great William Pitt, and by Fox.* These were all choice documents to me, and I read them over and over again, with an interest ever increasing, because it was ever gaining in intelligence; for the more I read them the better I understood them.
The reading of these speeches added much to my limited stock of language, and enabled me to give tongue to many interesting thoughts which had often flashed through my mind and died away for want of words in which to give them utterance.
The mighty power and heart-searching directness of truth penetrating the heart of a slave-holder, compelling him to yield up his earthly interests to the claims of eternal justice, were finely illustrated in the dialogue;** and from the speeches of Sheridan I got a bold and powerful denunciation of oppression and a most brilliant vindication of the rights of man.
* Richard Sheridan (1751-1816) is remembered both as a long-serving MP and also as a playwright, author of ‘The Rivals’ and ‘The School for Scandal’. Lord Chatham is William Pitt the Elder, Prime Minister from 1766 to 1768; his son William Pitt the Younger (1759-1806), twice Prime Minister, is also mentioned here by Douglass. Charles James Fox (1749-1806) was a British Foreign Secretary, and an eccentric of the highest order.
** This ‘dialogue’ was a fictionalised exchange between a slave and his master, after the slave attempted to run away. The master is persuaded to release his slave when he realises that however benevolent he may be, his benevolence is forced on his people, and not freely sought.