Proceedings of the Civil Rights Mass-Meeting... Speeches

Frederick DOUGLASS   |   Robert G INGERSOLL

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"THIS DECISION HAS INFLICTED A HEAVY CALAMITY UPON SEVEN MILLIONS OF PEOPLE OF THIS COUNTRY, AND LEFT THEM NAKED AND DEFENCELESS [SIC] AGAINST… MALIGNANT, VULGAR AND PITILESS PREJUDICE": EXCEEDINGLY RARE FIRST EDITION OF FREDERICK DOUGLASS' FIERY SPEECH AT THE 1883 CIVIL RIGHTS MASS-MEETING, DELIVERED ONE WEEK AFTER THE SUPREME COURT RULING IN THE CIVIL RIGHTS CASES DECIMATED THE 14TH AMENDMENT—"SOON JIM CROW WOULD MARCH THROUGH AN OPEN DOOR; NIGHT HAD FALLEN"

DOUGLASS, Frederick, Hon., INGERSOLL, Robert G. Proceedings of the Civil Rights Mass-Meeting Held at Lincoln Hall, October 22, 1883. Speeches of Hon. Frederick Douglass, and Robert G. Ingersoll. Washington, D.C.: C.P. Farrell, 1883. Slim octavo, original tan printed wrappers, early stitching; pp. 53. (1). Housed in a custom clamshell box.

Rare first edition of the Proceedings of the Civil Rights Mass-Meeting, featuring the first publication of Frederick Douglass' fiery speech delivered a week after the Court decision in United States v. Stanley, known as the Civil Rights Cases, eviscerated the 14th Amendment. Standing before thousands, Douglass proclaimed the Court ruling—"a blow struck at human progress… as if someone were stamping on the graves of our mothers"—complete with Robert Ingersoll's famed speech that called the ruling a violation of the U.S. Constitution.

"On October 15, 1883 the Supreme Court handed down a decision that 'came upon the country like a clap of thunder from a clear sky'" (McFeeley, Frederick Douglass, 317). That ruling in United States v. Stanley, known as the Civil Rights Cases, devastated Frederick Douglass, who recognized it as a moral and legal betrayal. "'The surrender of the national capital to Jefferson Davis in time of war,' he asserted, 'could hardly have caused greater shock.'" To Douglass' biographer, the Court's decision "eviscerated one of the greatest achievements of Reconstruction." It upended the 14th Amendment's equal-protection clause by viewing it as applicable "only to states and not to individual acts of discrimination by a person or a business establishment. The decision meant, therefore, that discriminatory acts by private persons or entities were beyond the safeguards of the 14th Amendment or federal jurisdiction; a person wronged had redress only to state courts. The Court further declared unconstitutional the Civil Rights Act of 1875… Soon Jim Crow would march through an open door; night had fallen" (Blight, Frederick Douglass, 646-48).

A week after the Court's decision, on October 22, "a standing-room-only mass protest meeting was held in Washington." With thousands packed into Lincoln Hall, Douglass rose in barely restrained fury to deliver the keynote speech printed here. "The cause which has brought us here to-night," he declared, is "a blow stuck at human progress… few events in our national history have surpassed it in magnitude, importance and significance." Douglass pointedly "invoked the Dred Scott case, Bleeding Kansas, the Fugitive Slave Act, to give weight to the moment's anxiety. The Court's action 'makes us feel,' he declared, 'as if someone were stamping on the graves of our mothers'" (Blight, 647). Quoting from the 14th Amendment, he attacked the Court's ruling which, in his words, "suddenly and unexpectedly decided that the law intended to secure to colored people the civil rights guaranteed to them… is unconstitutional and void… this decision has inflicted a heavy calamity upon seven millions of people of this country, and left them naked and defenceless [sic] against the action of a malignant, vulgar and pitiless prejudice. It presents the United States before the world as a Nation utterly destitute of power to protect the rights of its own citizens upon its own soil… In the name of common sense, I ask, what right have we to call ourselves a Nation, in view of this decision, and this utter destitution of power.'' The Court's ruling was so crucial to Douglass that he devoted a chapter to it in the revised 1892 version of his third autobiography, Life and Times, which contained a reprinting of this speech.

On the podium with Douglass that October day was his friend, the white abolitionist and attorney Robert Ingersoll. In his speech Ingersoll closely referenced the 13th and 14th Amendments, as well as relevant Court decisions. "He who makes discrimination between citizens on account of color, violates the Constitution of the United States," Ingersoll declared. He particularly objected to the Court's complaint of a slippery slope of legislation on "all rights of life, liberty and property." To that Ingersoll answered: "The legislation will stop when and where the discriminations on account of race, color or previous condition of servitude stop… All this will stop when the discriminations stop!" The ruling in the 1883 Civil Rights Cases effectively legalized nearly another century of racist violence, death and apartheid. It "mandated the withdrawal of the federal government from civil rights enforcement. That withdrawal would not be reversed until after WWII" and the subsequent adoption of the 1964 Civil Rights Act (Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court, 149). Without rare errata slip.

Interior quite fresh with mild scattered edge-wear mainly to front wrapper and rear leaf not affecting text. Only three copies have appeared at auction in over 100 years. An exceptional very good copy of one of Douglass' most passionate and deeply felt speeches.

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