Address on the Anniversary of West Indian Emancipation, at Flushing, Long Island, N.Y.
An address on August 4, 1853, by Ernestine Rose, noted Jewish abolitionist. Digitized by the Antislavery Literature Project.
Abolitionist, women’s rights advocate, and free-thinker Ernestine Rose was born in Poland in 1810. The daughter of a rabbi, Rose began to question the patriarchal nature of the Jewish faith at a young age, eventually openly avowing free thought and atheism. Perhaps unsurprisingly given this radical rebellion against her family’s teachings, Rose left home at 17, subsequently traveling extensively throughout the United Kingdom and Europe. During the 1830s, she became a follower of social reformer Robert Owen, marrying fellow Owenite William Rose in 1836, and emigrating with him to the United States.
Rose continued her fearless advocacy for controversial causes after her arrival in America. She toured the country throughout the 1840s and 1850s, making speeches in favor of religious freedom, educational reform, women’s rights, and abolitionism. Powerfully committed to transforming women’s legal status in American society, Rose was instrumental in securing the passage of married women’s property laws in New York in the late 1840s. Heavily involved in America’s abolitionist and feminist movements of the antebellum era, in 1869, Rose permanently relocated to the United Kingdom. She fought for women’s rights and female suffrage in that country until her death in 1892.
In addition to her persistent campaigning on behalf of female enfranchisement, Rose also dedicated significant energy, throughout her career as a public activist, to questions of slavery and racial equality. Unafraid of controversy, she embraced the American abolitionist movement soon after her arrival in the United States, and became a powerful speaker on behalf of the cause. One of Rose’s most powerful abolitionist speeches was the address she gave in Flushing, Long Island in 1853, in honor of the anniversary of the emancipation of the enslaved in the British West Indies. On August 1, 1834, more than 30,000 enslaved women, men, and children were emancipated in the West Indies, and abolitionists in the United States and the United Kingdom began celebrating the anniversary of this “independence day” soon thereafter. New York, however, had not held an event commemorating emancipation until the August 4, 1853 rally at which Rose delivered her address. Lacking the same levels of antislavery activity and organization found in cities such as Boston and Philadelphia, the New York City Anti-Slavery Society had essentially become inactive by 1840. This is not to say that abolitionists were not active, either New York City or New York state. In 1850, for example, Rose herself was one of a group of abolitionists beset by a mob at an antislavery event in New York. Rose was thus very keenly aware of the response she was likely to get from New York audiences when she accepted a speaking engagement commemorating the emancipation anniversary in August 1853.
The 1853 anniversary of West Indian emancipation was, by design, a rather grand occasion. The event featured singing by an African-American choir, an invocation by African-American minister the Reverend Dr. Campbell, and speeches by Liberator editor William Lloyd Garrison, and African-American abolitionists Thomas Van Renssalaer and V.W. Wilkins. Beginning at approximately 1:00 in the afternoon and lasting until 5:30 that evening, the event drew an impressive crowd of approximately 600 people. Derided by more conservative newspapers such as the New-York Herald as an abject failure in its attempts to publicize and popularize the antislavery cause, abolitionists themselves regarded the event as a success, as it both drew large crowds and sparked lively discussion throughout the New York print media.
Regarded with suspicion, if not downright opposition, by many New Yorkers, the abolitionists who organized, participated in, and attended the 1853 emancipation anniversary remained undaunted by the hostility which their event generated. Rose was certainly a thoroughly seasoned activist, having faced heckling, angry crowds throughout her career as an orator. In addition to having been mobbed by anti-abolitionists in 1850, she had also been mobbed by theological students after making a speech advocating free thought at the Hartford Bible Convention in June 1853. In her speech at the emancipation anniversary, Rose also related the incident of a proslavery Southern man telling her that she was fortunate to be a woman, otherwise she would have been tarred and feathered for her public advocacy of immediate emancipation. Rose made light of this incident in her speech, but the risk of experiencing violence at the hands of proslavery advocates was all too real for abolitionists during this era. (This, of course, was something which Rose’s fellow speaker Garrison knew all too well, having nearly been killed by an outraged mob in Boston during the 1830s.)
The organizers of the 1853 anniversary event made a wise choice when they selected Rose to be one of its speakers. Rose was a remarkably witty and engaging orator who, despite the solemnity of the subjects which she addressed, nonetheless frequently inspired laughter in her audience with her clever mockery of proslavery advocates, and her merciless deconstruction of the absurdities of proslavery ideology. In addition to her rhetorical flair and seemingly effortless capacity to connect with her audience, Rose also demonstrated considerable skill in constructing speeches which were at once both intellectually complex and emotionally resonant. Throughout her 1853 emancipation speech, she carefully positioned herself as an immigrant and relative newcomer to America, who was unable to comprehend the many injustices that existed in a nation which claimed to be the freest and most democratic society in the world. She pointedly drew her audience’s attention to the hypocrisy of Americans celebrating their emancipation from the United Kingdom on the Fourth of July, as the United Kingdom (which had abolished slavery in its colonies decades before) was actually more dedicated to the principles of liberty than the slavery-riddled United States.
Clearly hoping to reach both those already convinced of slavery’s evils, and those skeptical about abolitionism’s merits, Rose attacked slavery from many different angles in her speech. Her appeals ranged from the radical to the conservative, as Rose sought to appeal to a diverse group of constituents. Throughout her speech, Rose made comparisons between the emancipation of the enslaved, and the liberation of free women. “I go for emancipation of all kinds,” Rose asserted boldly, “white and black, man and woman.” Much like the enslaved, Rose argued, free women “are excluded from the enjoyment of the liberty which your Declaration of Independence asserts to be the inalienable right of all.” Rose advocated racial, as well as gender, equality in her speech. “The black man and the white man,” Rose maintained, “are equally the children of nature.” In addition to insisting on the fundamental equality of African Americans and whites, Rose argued that any free American of sense and feeling ought to oppose slavery out of sympathy for the enslaved. For the enslaved not only suffered the physical stresses of hard work and the constant threat (and sadly, all too often the reality) of violence, Rose maintained, but also suffered profoundly on an emotional and psychological level. For the enslaved, Rose insisted to her audience, “[s]lavery is not to belong to yourself—to be robbed of yourself.”
In addition to making bold assertions about racial equality, powerful appeals on behalf of the enslaved, and consistently linking the causes of women’s rights and emancipation, Rose also made more conservative arguments against the peculiar institution in her speech. She insisted that free people needed to support emancipation, in part, because slavery was killing white Americans’ work ethic. What inducement could there possibly be, Rose demanded of her audience, for white men (particularly white men in the South) to labor diligently as long as slavery existed? Rose also sought to allay her audience’s fears that supporting emancipation would necessarily lead to civil war. The South would never dare to secede from the Union, Rose scoffed, because the region was both economically and culturally dependent on the North. The idea of civil war and secession, Rose noted confidently, had been manufactured by “political gamblers of both sections, for the purpose of making capital.” Blending radical appeals with conservative ones—humor with pathos—gentle persuasion with impassioned entreaties—Rose sought to encourage her American audience to follow the great example of the British, so that Americans could, one day, make good on its claim of being a truly free and democratic society.
- Holly M. Kent
SUGGESTED FURTHER READING
Paula B. Dorress-Worters, Mistress of Herself: Speeches and Letters of Ernestine Rose, Early Women’s Rights Leader (New York: Feminist Press, 2008).
Carol A. Kolmerten, The American Life of Ernestine L. Rose (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1999).
Morris U. Schappes, “Ernestine L. Rose: Her Address on the Anniversary of West Indian Emancipation” The Journal of Negro History 34:3 (July 1949): 344-355.