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Frederick Douglass, the Accurate "Without Struggle/No Freedom" Quote

A research memo by Chip Berlet

This is probably the most famous quote by abolitionist orator Frederick Douglass:

"If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation…want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightening. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters…. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will."

--Frederick Douglass
"The Significance of Emancipation in the West Indies."
Speech, Canandaigua, New York, August 3, 1857

Many versions in print and online use the word "deprecate" but in the pamphlet edited by Douglass himself in 1857 (the last version of this text to appear in print under his stewardship) Douglass uses the word "depreciate."

See a fascimile pdf of the original pamhlet here. See page 22.

There are many versions of this Frederick Douglass quote circulating on the web, with conflicts over the accurate text and date. I did some library research and found the latest {print} scholarship has the full quote in context as follows:

"Let me give you a word of the philosophy of reform. The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims, have been born of earnest struggle. The conflict has been exciting, agitating, all-absorbing, and for the time being, putting all other tumults to silence. It must do this or it does nothing. If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightening. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters."

"This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress. In the light of these ideas, Negroes will be hunted at the North, and held and flogged at the South so long as they submit to those devilish outrages, and make no resistance, either moral or physical. Men may not get all they pay for in this world; but they must certainly pay for all they get. If we ever get free from the oppressions and wrongs heaped upon us, we must pay for their removal. We must do this by labor, by suffering, by sacrifice, and if needs be, by our lives and the lives of others."

--Frederick Douglass, 1857

Source: Douglass, Frederick. [1857] (1985). "The Significance of Emancipation in the West Indies." Speech, Canandaigua, New York, August 3, 1857; collected in pamphlet by author. In The Frederick Douglass Papers. Series One: Speeches, Debates, and Interviews. Volume 3: 1855-63. Edited by John W. Blassingame. New Haven: Yale University Press, p. 204.

There apparently was an earlier version of this quote in an 1849 letter by Douglass:

"If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without demand. It never did and it never will."

Source: Douglass, Frederick. [1849] (1991) Letter to an abolitionist associate. In Organizing For Social Change: A Mandate For Activity In The 1990s. Edited by K. Bobo, J. Kendall, and S. Max. Washington, D.C.: Seven Locks Press.

Many versions of these quotes use the word "deprecate" but clearly Douglass uses the word "depreciate," as in 'lower the value of.'

The full title of the pamphlet produced by Douglass is: "Two Speeches, By Frederick Douglass: One on West India Emancipation, Delivered at Canandaigua, Aug. 4th, and the Other on the Dred Scott Decision, Delivered in New York, on the Occasion of the Anniversary of the American Abolition Society, May, 1857." It was published in Rochester, New York in 1857.

Note that Douglass himself later misdated this speech as being on August 4, 1857, using that date for his pamphlet reprint. That incorrect date is cited in Foner, Life and Writings, 2: 426-39.

In another section of the speech, Douglass complained that in America the great question always seems to be "will it pay?" Quoting from Revelation 14:6, Douglass admonishes:

"…if such a people as ours had heard the beloved disciple of the Lord, exclaiming in the rapture of the apocalyptic vision, "And I saw another angel fly in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting gospel to preach to them that dwell on the earth, and to every nation, kindred, tongue, and people;" they, instead of answering, Amen Glory to God in the Highest, would have responded,--but brother John, will it pay? Can money be made out of it? Will it make the rich richer, and the strong stronger? How will it effect property? In the eyes of such people, there is no God but wealth; no right and wrong but profit and loss….[Our] national morality and religion have reached a depth of baseness than which there is no lower deep."

Frederick Douglass, 1857
Source: The Frederick Douglass Papers, p. 197.

 
 

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Democracy is not a specific set of institutions but a process that requires dissent.
- - -
Democracy is a process that assumes the majority of people, 
over time, given enough accurate information,
the ability to participate in a free and open public debate,
and to vote without intimidation,
reach constructive decisions that benefit the whole of society, and 
preserve liberty, protect our freedoms, extend equality,
and thus defend democracy itself. 

_________________________



_________________________

Democracy is not a specific set of institutions but a process that requires dissent.
- - -
Democracy is a process that assumes the majority of people, 
over time, given enough accurate information,
the ability to participate in a free and open public debate,
and to vote without intimidation,
reach constructive decisions that benefit the whole of society, and 
preserve liberty, protect our freedoms, extend equality,
and thus defend democracy itself. 

_________________________

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