December 3, 1861 – Frederick Douglass Delivers His “Lecture on Pictures” in Boston

On this day in history, Frederick Douglas, who loved photography and was the most photographed American of his century, delivered a lecture connecting picture-making to a faith in progress.

Always conscious of the pernicious effects of stereotypes and caricatures about African-Americans, he praised the ability of photographs to show the truth: “Men of all conditions may see themselves as others see them.” He averred:

It is evident that the great cheapness and universality of pictures must exert a powerful, though silent, influence upon the ideas and sentiment of present and future generations.”

He also lauded the ability of man to create, to having developed this ability for making pictures. Like other inventions, though, he warned, it can be used for good or evil. And then he began to discuss the Civil War.

For Douglass, these ideas were all connected. Photography could show the inherent humanity of those considered to be nothing but property. And it could demonstrate the importance of progress and invention that are hampered by “anchoring the ship of state to the dull dead mass of slavery…”

He lamented that “We seem a little more concerned for the safety of slavery than for the safety of the Republic.” He noted that [at that time] black men were denied “the honor of bearing arms against the slaveholding rebels for the preservation of the Government.” But, he asked, if black men go to the battlefield even as body servants [as was then allowed], shall they be going for a government that recognizes their manhood, or not?

He implored man to “enlarge the boundaries of his own existence” by cultivating his intellect, by “creating, unfolding, expanding, renewing, changing perpetually…”:

It is natural, when the demand for bread and clothing and shelter has been complied with, man should begin to think and reason. When this is done, let all the subtle enemies of the welfare of man, in the protean shapes of oppression, superstition, priestcraft, and slavery – plainly read their doom.”

Slavery, superstition, and oppression, he observed, give way to barbarism, and impede progress, as well as justice, liberty, and brotherly kindness.

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass

You can read the entirety of his speech in the excellent book Picturing Frederick Douglass: An Illustrated Biography of the Nineteenth Century’s Most Photographed American by John Stauffer, Zoe Trodd, and Celeste-Marie Bernier, published by Liveright Publishing Corporation, a division of W.W. Norton & Company, 2015.


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