HENRY HIGHLAND GARNET’S “ADDRESS TO THE SLAVES’” AND ITS COLORED CONVENTIONS ORIGINS
THE ADDRESS IN CONTEXT
Garnet’s “Address to the Slaves” seems radical when read in isolation, but it is important to remember that Garnet intended “Address” to be a public statement backed by the 1843 Colored Convention itself—not an individual publication or sentiment. His words were meant to be a public assertion of the convention’s intentions, a manifesto, and a vehicle for forging a sustainable national Black movement.
Although we commonly think of Garnet’s “Address” as a radical statement—a feeling reinforced by the strong debate about it at the 1843 Convention—his sentiments reflect discussions from previous conventions. Garnet’s address came shortly after state conventions in New York and Pennsylvania which offered similarly pitched addresses to free Black citizens and white voters. We might think of Garnet’s address as the crescendo of a line of thinking that was already well in the works. Rather than a uniquely radical text, it makes an argument that is grounded in a larger debate about the best ways to advance a national Black agenda.
“Address to the Slaves” was also not the first convention to address enslaved communities. White abolitionists Gerrit Smith and William Lloyd Garrison had delivered addresses to slaves within the previous year which were printed on behalf of the New York and New England Antislavery Societies.
Below, the assertions made in the 1840 New York State Convention are examined alongside those of Garnet’s address.
1840 New York Colored Convention
Laws based on “complexional cast” are in violation of the principles of divine law.
Such laws are in conflict with the state constitution.
Excluding Blacks from representation is repugnant to democracy and denies the declaration that “all men are created equal.”
The exclusion Black men from elective franchise undermines New York’s stance on the subject of slavery.
Slavery is an offense against God and will invoke divine retribution.
Slavery is incompatible with the national constitution.
It is a crime against one’s children to bestow upon them the condition of slavery.
Slaves should demand their freedom. If violence ensues, blame lies at the feet of slaveholders.
While neither list is exhaustive of the arguments of either document, what becomes apparent is that Garnet, in some ways, was taking the arguments that were being played out locally and extending them to the national stage. If Garnet’s address were radical, it was so in that it extended the already contentious precepts made about free Blacks of New York and used them to include slaves as rights-bearing citizens. “Forget not that you are native born American Citizens,” Garnet tells them, “and as such, you are justly entitled to all the rights granted to the freest.”
Written by Jake Alspaugh, graduate student of English, University of Delaware.
 Convention of the Colored Inhabitants of the State of New York (1840: Albany, NY), “Convention of the Colored Inhabitants of the State of New York, August 18-20, 1840,” ColoredConventions.org, accessed May 12, 2016, https://omeka.coloredconventions.org/items/show/230; State Convention of the Colored Freemen of Pennsylvania (1841: Pittsburgh, PA), “Proceedings of the State Convention of the Colored Freemen of Pennsylvania, Held in Pittsburgh, on the 23d, 24th and 25th of August, 1841, for the Purpose of Considering their Condition, and the Means of Its Improvement. (Copy 2),” ColoredConventions.org, accessed May 12, 2016, omeka.coloredconventions.org/items/show/240.
 For an excellent book-length analysis of these three addresses, see Stanley Harrold’s The Rise of Aggressive Abolitionism: Addresses to the Slaves.