What America Owes Frederick Douglass
He said black people had three tools: their voice, their pen and their vote. Today all three are under threat.
by David W. Blight | November 5 2018 |
In the introduction to Frederick Douglass’s second autobiography, “My Bondage and My Freedom,” published in 1855, his friend James McCune Smith wrote that if a stranger landed in the United States and sought out its most prominent men by using newspapers and telegraph messages, he would discover Douglass. Born a slave in Maryland, Douglass had escaped to the North to become a renowned abolitionist orator and writer. He was, Smith said, the sort of person people would ask, “‘Tell me your thought!’ And somehow or other, revolution seemed to follow in his wake.”
When he started his career, Douglass eschewed politics in favor of changing hearts and minds through moral suasion. But in the decade before the Civil War, he had become a thorough going political abolitionist, a believer that slavery could be destroyed only through power politics.
At the end of the memoir, Douglass admitted that he had, until recently, fought only with “pen and tongue.” But now, in the roiling crises over slavery in the 1850s — fugitive slave rescues, violent clashes in Kansas over slavery’s expansion and a nation enthralled by the antislavery novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” — the author announced his new “disposition.” He had discovered the force of politics in a republic dominated by slavery. He wished to add his own story to the nation’s “blood-written history” as clouds of “wrathful thunder and lightning” hovered over the land. Then he gave voice to his life’s work. He would, as long as “heaven” gave him the ability to speak and to write, fight for abolition and the beginning of black equality with “my voice, my pen, or my vote.”
So much of Douglass’s life echoes down through American history, but especially this week, perhaps nothing more so than those words. All those Americans voting across our country right now, and especially those whose votes are thwarted by people who still refuse to accept historical verdicts a century and a half old, owe Douglass a nod of recognition.
In 1866-67, the United States had no obvious path ahead in the wake of the Civil War. A people — North and South, black and white, still mourning 700,000 dead (2% of the U.S population) — faced elections without clearly defined rules about who could vote. Nearly four million former slaves, many living in physical hardship and under the threat of terror and violence in the South, did not yet know what “freedom” would mean, nor what kind of civil and political rights they might exercise.
Americans ached to be put back together in some new, reimagined way. Hundreds of thousands had fled their homes during the war. The nation’s politics was shredded into blood-born hatreds and seemingly hopeless polarization. Its national and state governments had to be remade. Racism, fear and hope all marched together as traumatized soldiers from both sides made their way home to farms in a thriving Northern economy but an utterly devastated South.
The party in power in Washington was led by a group of visionaries, the “radical” Republicans who had championed the cause of emancipation during the war and believed in an interventionist federal government as a means of fashioning a second American republic out of the destruction of the first. They imagined at least the beginning of a revolution in racial equality. The war was over, but everything still seemed at stake in the struggle over Reconstruction. Whether free exercise of voice, pen and vote would really be protected for all remained to be seen.
The president was Andrew Johnson, a Tennessean who had been invited onto Abraham Lincoln’s ticket in 1864 because he had been the sole senator from a Confederate state who did not secede with it. Johnson’s support of the Union notwithstanding, he was a staunch proponent of states’ rights, a virulent white supremacist and a believer in limited federal government. Johnson grudgingly accepted the end of slavery but denounced the extension of civil and political liberty to black Americans. His spirit lives on today, in more subtle ways, in the voter suppression practices of the Republican Party and in the desire to revoke birthright citizenship.
As Johnson and the radical Republicans locked horns over fundamentally different visions of Reconstruction in the winter of 1866, Frederick Douglass led a delegation of 12 black leaders to the White House. Hoping for an honest hearing of their hopes and grievances,— they received a barrage of vitriol from an angry racist president who hoped to thwart any revision of the Constitution that would guarantee rights for blacks. Johnson and his anxious conservative followers desired an America that was largely pre-1861, a society many Northerners believed had been buried by the sacrifices at Antietam, Fort Wagner and Gettysburg.
Douglass led off the encounter by respectfully informing the president that they had come to ask for “equality before the law,” and to be “fully enfranchised throughout the land.” “Extend us the ballot,” Douglass pleaded, “with which to save ourselves.”
Johnson interrupted and for the next 40 minutes harangued and insulted his guests. He was willing to be their “Moses,” he declared. His “feelings” had always been with blacks. “I have owned slaves, and bought slaves, but I never sold one,” he assured the delegation. He did not like being “arraigned” by one — Douglass — “who could get up handsomely rounded periods and deal in rhetoric.” If his guests pursued their goals of equality it would cause “race war,” and he insisted that the only good solution was for blacks to leave the country. As Douglass looked at him in disgust, Johnson asserted that in his relationship with blacks, “I have been their slave instead of their being mine.”
Johnson then made a fierce defense of states’ rights. The federal government could not force a state to follow its dictates, the president claimed. The “law” and majorities must be obeyed. As if he had not offended Douglass and his colleagues enough, Johnson then maintained that the truest victim of slavery and the war was the poor, non-slaveholding Southern white: “The colored man and his master combined to keep him in slavery.”
As this disastrous meeting came to an end, Douglass did manage one direct claim to Johnson’s face. “The very thing Your Excellency would avoid” — a race war — “in the Southern states can only be avoided by the very measure that we propose,” i.e., black suffrage, Douglass said. As the delegation walked out, the president was overheard saying: “Those damned sons of bitches thought they had me in a trap. I know that damned Douglass; he’s just like any niĝĝer, and would sooner cut a white man’s throat than not.”
In the wake of this worst-ever meeting between black leaders and an American president, Douglass did what he so frequently did in the middle of crises — he went to his desk, wrote a remarkable speech and took it out on the road. From Brooklyn to St. Louis, Douglass, who called his speech “Sources of Danger to the Republic,” skewered Johnson as an “unmitigated calamity” of a president under whom, for now, the nation “must stagger.” A constant refrain in this and other postwar speeches was his claim that “slavery is not abolished until the black man has the ballot.”
Douglass left a timeless maxim for republics in times of crisis: “Our government may at some time be in the hands of a bad man. When in the hands of a good man it is all well enough.” But “we ought to have our government so shaped that even when in the hands of a bad man we shall be safe.” Politics, he insisted, mattered as much as the air he breathed.
Douglass’s words echo on today. Are our institutions adequate to the challenges presented by a president animated by a combination of authoritarianism and ignorance? Is the right to vote really safe and free? Are our political parties disintegrating? Is our free press robust enough to withstand the attacks upon it and the technology revolutionizing the dissemination of information?
At this moment in our history we too are tested by the same question Douglass posed about bad men and government (in 1866). And the only weapons most of us have in this historical moment are those Douglass named: our voice, our pen and our vote.