(1850) John S. Rock, “Address to the Citizens of New Jersey”

John H. Rock, Harper's Weekly, February 25, 1865, p. 124
Courtesy Library of Congress (94502940)

Philadelphia Dentist John S. Rock would eventually become a medical doctor and attorney who in 1865 would become the first African American lawyer to argue a case before the United States Supreme Court.  In 1850, however, he was also an abolitionist and civil rights activist.  In that year 25 year old Rock gave a speech in neighboring New Jersey where he called upon the state’s white residents to treat the “disfranchised portion of the legal tax-payers” of the state fairly by extending to them the right to vote.  His oration appears below.

Citizens, in addressing you in favor of a disfranchised portion of the legal tax-payers of New Jersey, I feel, from the success our enterprise has already been crowned with, that intelligence, humanity and justice, may be styled characteristics of the citizens of this State

Knowing, then, that I am speaking to an intelligent and human people, who believe that noble sentiment set forth in the Declaration of Independence, that “all men are created free and equal,” etc. I take the liberty of speaking freely to you, being one of the disfranchised, and I do not believe your hearts are so callous as not to listen to the voice of the oppressed.

Although the above Declaration declares that “all men are created free and equal,” those noble words, in their common acceptation, do not and cannot apply to the disfranchised people I am now speaking of, because, indirectly, you deny the disfranchised are men. You say that all men are created free and equal and at the same time, you deny that equality, which is nothing more nor less than denying our manhood. If we are not free and equal, (according to the Declaration of Independence), we are not men, because “all men are created free and equal.”

We confess there is something about this we never could understand. We are denied our rights as men, at the same time are taxed in common with yourselves, and obliged to support the government in her denunciations. If we are not men, why are we dealt with as such when we do not pay our taxes, or when we infringe the laws? Whenever we become delinquent in the one, or a transgressor in the other, there is then no question about our manhood; we are treated as men, to all intents and purposes. If we are men, when our taxes are due, and men when we transgress the laws, we are men when our taxes are not due, and when we do not transgress the laws.

There are many reasons why colored men should be enfranchised. We have been reared in this State, and are acquainted with her institutions. Our fidelity to this country has never been questioned. We have done nothing to cause our disfranchisement; on the contrary, we have done all a people could do to entitle them to be enfranchised.

It is said, “there is not sufficient intelligence amongst us to warrant the restoration of those rights,” and that we are not sufficiently acquainted with the government, etc.; but they do not say we do not have sufficient intelligence and knowledge of the government, to warrant us to pay our taxes, because we cannot thoroughly understand how the money goes!

If we, who have always been with you, do not understand something of the regulations of this country, how miserably ignorant are the thousands of voters who arrive in this country annually, who know nothing of this government, and but little of any government! There is no just plea, and apology for you to shut every avenue to elevation, and then complain of degradation; what else can be expected, while we are looked upon as things, and treated worse than unthinking animals?

In the Revolution, Colored soldiers fought side by side with you in your struggles for liberty; and there is not a battle-field from Maine to Georgia, which has not been crimsoned by our blood, and whitened by our bones. In 1814, a bill passed the Legislature of New York, accepting the services of 2,000 colored volunteers. In the battle on Lake Erie, Commodore Perry’s fleet was manned chiefly by colored seamen. Many black sailors served under Commodore McDonough when he conquered Lake Champlain. Many were in the battles of Plattsburgh and Sackett’s Harbor. Gen. Jackson called out colored troops from Louisiana and Alabama, and in solemn proclamation attested to their fidelity and courage. But some of our enemies say we “had better go to Africa.” We ask, Why? They say, we “cannot rise in this country, the prejudices are too strong to overcome”; that we had better be “kings among beggars, than beggars among kings,” As neither of the positions is enviable, we will not quarrel about the beggarly or kingly conditions, We think these titular philanthropists who try to make the people believe we can never rise in this country, and that money must be raised, by appropriation or otherwise, to expatriate us, would do well to hold their peace and give their extra change to the poor, emigrate to the country of their forefathers as quickly as possible, and take their incendiary reports along with them…

Africa is urged upon us as the country of our forefathers! If this is good sophistry-and we think it will pass-then it follows that all men must go to the country of their forefathers: in this case, the blacks will go to Africa, and the whites to Europe; and where will the mixed races go? We suppose, in such an event, they would occupy the inter-medium-that is, the Mediterranean Sea! What would become of the Indians? Would they go to the country of their forefathers? If so, where is it?

This sophistry is not designed to aggrandize any but the descendants of the European nations: Africa is the country for the Africans, their descendants and mongrels of various colors; Asia the country of the Asiatics; the East Indies the place for Malays; Patagonia the country for the Indian; and any place the white man chooses to go. HIS country!…