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Biography of Samuel Ringgold Ward

Samuel Ringgold Ward was born in the State of Maryland about the year 1817. His parents fled from slavery to New York, earning Samuel, in his infancy. His early education was received in connection with the African Free School, of that city, which was then taught by a gentleman of Scotch descent, Mr. C. C. Andrew. General, Lafayette, on September 10, 1824, paid this school a visit, and placing his hands on the heads of all the boys present, gave them a hearty '''God Bless You."

Ward took early to public speaking, and very soon became a lecturer of the anti-Slavery cause. In fact, so eminent had he become by reason of his oratorical powers, that for two years he was pastor of the White Congregational Church of South Butler, Wayne County, New York. He was quite heavily built, six feet tall, of the blackest skin, so black that as Wendell Phillips observed, ''when he shut his eyes you 'could not see him." He gave up the pastorate of the white congregation because of the increase of his lecturing work. For a while he was a joint editor of the "True American," published at Cortland, N. Y. A little later, he established and published the "Impartial Citizen," at Syracuse, N. Y. During that most exciting period, following the enforcement of the "Fugitive Slave Act," upon his return to Syracuse, from lecturing tours, great excitement prevailed with respect to the efforts of slave captors in securing a certain fugitive confined in the jail, and returning him to slavery. Ward was with those who stormed the jail, secured the fugitive, and rushed him to Canada.

Several of the leaders were arrested, including Gerritt Smith, and it was thought advisable for Ward himself to flee into Canada. He went to Canada, expecting to return shortly, after the commotion had subsided. But he remained there for two years, and interested himself in the improvement of the condition of his people there. After two years residence he took the claims of his people, and made a trip to England, where he placed them before the assembled benevolences of that country at the May anniversaries of 1853. He remained there for two years, lecturing and preaching, where he achieved both fame and fortune. The noted British clergyman. Dr. John Campbell, wrote in the British "Banner'' ''Mr. Ward, since his arrival in England has been most severely tested, tested beyond every ether man of color that ever came to these shores. He has been called to speak in all sorts of meetings, upon all sorts of subjects, under every variety of circumstances, side by side with the first men of the time, and in no case has he failed to acquit himself with honor. With intellectual I power and rhetorical ability of a very high order, he has not merely sustained the first impressions he produced, but materially added to them."'

While in England he put forth, in book form, ''The Autobiography of a Fugitive Negro," which embraced not only the facts about his own life, but an exact statement of the slave question in America. It was among the very ablest expositions of the relation of the races in this country. Towards the end of his most pleasing stay in England, an admiring friend gave him a farm situated in the Island of Jamaica, and to this he went upon leaving Great Britain. He resided in Kingston where he pastored a church, with great success, for several years, he died there in 1867 without ever having returned to America. Fitting, in this connection, it is to quote from one of his speeches in his earlier life, in America. He said: "It is among the most pleasing of one's anticipations of the happiness of the future state that eternity will be enjoyed in such excellent association. For is it not an earnest of God's favor to the anti-slavery cause that he calls into labor and sacrifice gifts so sound, talent so exalted, intellects so cultivated, piety so Christ like?"

Reverting back to earlier scenes. When the Liberty Party National Convention was in session, which nominated James Birney, of Buffalo, for the Presidency, in 1843, Ward was one of the leaders in that convention. Editor Torrey of the Albany Weekly "Patriot," himself an early martyr to the slave's cause, gives the following description of Ward in action:

"And here comes Ward, Samuel E. Ward, the young (he is only 26) reasoning political giant. My calm judgment is that he possesses the most commanding intellect among the people of color in the United States. Few men of any color or clime can compare with him. He is now vindicating the supremacy of the law of God over all human laws, with the clearness of allusion and figure that mark the great educated intellect. Yet he speaks now on the spur of the moment, on a resolve he never saw or heard till an hour since. His voice is very powerful, it's clear ringing sounds fills the great tent, holds the audience rapt and echoes around the squares. The resolve which was offered by Rev. John Pierpont, grandfather of J. Pierpont Morgan, was against the moral right of others to aid in returning escaped slaves to their claimants. In fact, this is the same black orator whose mere presence at the Free Soil Convention almost drove the barn burners, the originators of the Free Soil Convention crazy; and yet whose eloquence during its sessions so electrified the crowd that they broke down the platform in crowding around to hear him."

There were two wings of the "Abolitionists," the Garrisoning and the Smithsonian's, the voters and the non-voters; Garrison was the natural leader of one wing that believed that the Constitution was for Slavery. Frederick Douglass was attached to this wing. The Smithsonian's, headed by Gerritt Smith, believed that the Constitution, rightly interpreted, was against Slavery. With this wing Samuel E. Ward was identified. A memorable debate took place between Douglass and Ward with respect to this matter. Ward submitted the challenge through his paper, 'The Impartial Citizen,' which was 'to take place at any county seat in the State of New York at such time as you may name.' The debate took place in Minerva Hall, New York City, on Friday, May 18, 1849. It was a never-to-be-forgotten occasion. All of the leading citizens, white and colored, were present, and while it began in the afternoon, it lasted well on to mid-night. Just a few sentences of the dialogue between these two great giants, both born on the soil of Maryland, will give a faint idea of this memorable occasion:

''Mr. Ward: My view is that the Constitution does not require the federal government to do aught for slavery. There has been more legislation for slavery than for all other interests: agriculture, education, everything else. If the Constitution did not make every man's house his castle I would say, 'Make a bonfire of the Constitution.' The substitute tells you the Constitution ought to be submitted to legal rules of interpretation, and when so subjected is found to be against slavery. We take the Constitution in its plain, common sense, obvious meaning. Now I almost the words of the Declaration are enacted in the Constitution, to be found in the Fifth Amendment. Truth' in the Declaration and 'Good' in the Constitution are one. As to the law of 1793, the very terms of the Constitution are hostile to the idea of slavery. No 'service or labor' can be 'due' from a slave. The plain language of the Constitution is against slavery. Wheaton III, page 5, in a decision of the supreme court, tells you that the meaning of the Constitution is to be found in its letter.'

"Mr. Ward referred to Judge Harrington of Vermont who told the claimant of a slave that he must bring a bill of sale from Almighty God before he could substantiate his title. Ward, continuing:

"Our friends say, take the broad and open ground to the dissolution of the Union. Then they will respect you. "Well, maybe it will do good. But I have not heard that our friends have yet had much effect upon the South; that they have frightened the chivalry very much. "We are asked what should be done while we are securing a proper interpretation of the Constitution. But I ask them how they will dissolve the Union? And I wait their pleasure for a reply. They infer that the Constitution is so and so, is so pro-slavery, because Washington and other slave-holders made it. The only question is, what sort of a Constitution did they frame? What does it say? What are its terms? Not a word has been brought forward here to show that the Constitution authorizes the recovery of fugitives. It is all about the character of those who made the Constitution.'

'Mr. Douglass wished to know if the executive council called the society together, and a large majority abandoned their principles if it was not the society who abandoned principles.

"Mr. Ward: No, sir. Those who remain true to principle are the society, be they few or be they many. It is principle, not numbers or the action of numbers, which is the test.

"Mr. Douglass: But you have added on 19 principles.

"Mr. Ward: And so have I added on 19 pounds of flesh since I was sick; but I am Sam Ward still. Our position is, Are you true to the slave? That is our test. Judge Jay going for Whigs does not compromise us."

One of the most exciting meetings held by the anti-slavery cause was In the Broadway Tabernacle, Broadway and Worth Street, New York, in 1850. A number of rioters, under the leadership of one Isaiah Rynders, a political healer of Tammany, had assembled and interfered with the progress of the meeting. A Dr. Grant, a member of that band had gotten the floor and had delivered a speech denying the humanity of the Negro. Douglass followed him, and in closing, called Ward to the platform. As Ward approached, Rynders himself, standing near, said:

''Well this is the original nigger," while others of his rowdies groaned and jeered. But Ward was soon master of the situation. Very soon the utmost silence and attention prevailed. He said:

"My friends, hear me for my cause and be silent that you may hear me. I, too, have read medicine, and studied dead men's bones, as well as Dr. Grant. I have often heard of the magnanimity of Captain Rynders but the half has never been told me. I agree with Frederick Douglass; it makes no odds if the chin protrudes or the forehead retires. I don't come here to find fault with Capt. Rynders, but he is a Democrat, a friend of Jefferson, who wrote the Declaration of Independence, and says that every man is born free and equal and has the inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. All I ask of Americans is that they should stick to that, to their own doctrine. As to the learned theory that we have heard, I think Dr. Grant once discussed his doctrine with one John Smith. I made up my opinion at the time about both speakers. Euclid was a black man, had the eliptical head, the protruding jaw, and if he was not a man, then there are no men, white or black. I might quote Mr. Alexander Everett, who says we derived our knowledge from the Romans, they from the Greeks, they from the Jews, and, lastly they from the Egyptians. Now, the Egyptians were blacks. Herodotus, the father of history, says so, and he could not lie. He knew black from white.

"I am but a poor specimen of a Negro, there are more than fifty people here who may remember me as a little boy running about the streets of New York fifteen years ago. I have often been called a nigger, and some have tried to make me believe it; and the only consolation that has been offered me for being called nigger was that when I die and go to heaven, I shall be white. But, if I cannot go to heaven as black as God made me, let me go down to hell and dwell with the Devil forever. The gentleman who denies our humanity has examined us scientifically; but I know something of anatomy. I kept school in New York and New Jersey and had among my scholars from the unmitigated jet black down to the nicest dissolving hue; and I have found white men as niggerish as black men; and have seen white boys with retreating foreheads and projecting jaws, heads that if you knocked here (tapping his own forehead) all day as a writer says you would find no-body at home.

"One word about natural instincts, because the 'Herald' speaks of spirits black, white and gray, as if he saw them. I never pretended to see or speak of them if they are contrary to instinct; but have you a Bible here? In Acts xiiil, you will find whites and blacks in close propinquity.

There was a number of prophets in the church at Antioch, and one of them was Simeon, who was called Niger. that is the Latin word for a black man. If that which they have told us is instinct, be instinct, tell me why such an instinct is only known in America? It is an instinct of American origin, a Yankee invention; something like primeval hams, and wooden nutmegs. I am going to speak this evening to colored people on their rights and duties; and if they don't behave better than some white men, why it will be time for me to give up my argument."

An eminent and prominent witness observes, with respect to this most eloquent and cutting effort of Ward, he went on with a noble voice; his speech was such a strain of unpremeditated eloquence as I never heard excelled before or since. His every look and gesture was eloquence."

In after years, in making a comparison, Frederick Douglass says of Samuel Ringgold Ward: "I have known but one other black man to be compared with (Robert Brown) Elliott, and that was Samuel R. Ward, who like Elliott, died in the midst of his years."

The late Rev. Dr. Crummell, in his eulogy of his friend. Dr. Garnett, also mentions the name of Ward in making a comparison. He says:

"Foremost among these were four men who have attained celebrity, and whose names cannot die in the remembrance of the black race in this country, nor in the annals of the republic. There was the fiery and impulsive Remond, as true and gallant a knight as ever, with unsheathed sword, rushed into the thickest of a battle fray, and did right noble service. There was our celebrated neighbor, then a youthful recruit, but now 'the old man eloquent,' of Anacostia who some of our young graduates seem to think a mere bagatelle, but of whom a scholar and divine of my own Church, told me the other day that he was the only man in America who reminded him, in his eloquence, of the great Prime Minister of England, William Ewart Gladstone. There was Samuel R. Ward, that mighty master of speech, that giant of intellect, called in his day, the ablest thinker on his legs,' whom Charles T. Torry declared was only second in his day to Daniel Webster in logical power. And last, but by no means least, was Henry Highland Garnett. More restrained and less fiery and monotonous than Remond; not so ponderous as Douglass; inferior in cast-iron logic to Ward; there was a salience, a variety, an intellectual incidity and above all a brilliancy and glowing fire in our friend's eloquence which gave him his special and peculiar place. He united the sparkling keenness of Tristam Burgess to the glow and exuberance of Henry Clay."

 Maryland Biographies | Maryland AHGP

Source: Gazetteer of Maryland, by Henry Gannett, Washington, Government Printing Office, 1904.


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