The Nation’s Problem

Frederick Douglass



RELEASE from the cares of office enabled Douglass to give his thoughts more fully than had recently been possible to such questions as, how his brethren are prospering at the South; what they have a right to ask from the national Government for their more complete protection and education; which party is doing them the best service; and what steps ought to be taken for their relief by individuals outside of politics.

In the address which he made on April 16, 1886, in memory of the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia, he mentioned the significant fact that the occasion was celebrated for the first time by the colored people in two rival gatherings. His own hope that negroes would be better treated after they had ceased to help the Republican party rule at the South, had been sadly disappointed. “Their condition seems no better and not much worse than under previous administrations. Lynch law, violence, and murder have gone on about the same as formerly, and without the least show of federal interference or popular rebuke.” . . . “There have also been the usual number of outrages committed against the civil rights of colored citizens on highways and byways, by land and by water; and the courts of the country, under the decision of the Supreme Court of the United States, have shown the same disposition to punish the innocent and shield the guilty, as during the presidency of Mr. Arthur.” . . . “The truth is that neither the Republican party nor the Democratic party has yet complied with the solemn oath taken by their respective representatives to support the Constitution and execute the laws enacted under its provisions.” . . . “Has any of our Republican presidents since Grant earnestly endeavored to establish justice in the South?”

Referring to the charge that “Negroes are by nature the criminal class of America,” he said:

“I admit the charge, but deny that nature, race, or color has anything to do with the fact. Any other race, with the same antecedents and the same conditions, would show a similar thieving propensity. The American people have this lesson to learn, that where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob, and degrade them, neither persons nor property would be safe.” . . . “While I hold now, as I held years ago, that the South is the natural home of the colored race, and that there must the destiny of that race be mainly worked out, I still believe that means can be and ought to be adopted, to assist in the emigration of such of their number as may wish to change their residence to parts of the country, where their civil and political rights are better protected than at present they can be at the South.”

He had no sympathy with those colored men who wished to take an independent position in politics. “The Republican party is not perfect; it is cautious even to the point of timidity; but it is the best friend we have.”

He took the same ground on revisiting Boston, where, on Saturday, May 22, two days after delivering the John Brown lecture in the Music Hall, he was the guest of those leading Republicans who compose the Massachusetts Club. The dinner was at Young’s Hotel, and he said:

“I have so seldom dined in my life, that I am at a loss to know how to make an after-dinner speech. I have heard say that such speeches should be witty; and I am no wit. I have heard say that they should be short. I never made a short speech in my life with which I was satisfied; and I don’t know that I ever made a long speech with which anybody else was satisfied.”

After expressing his wonder at finding himself in such company, and hearing no one say “Douglass, get out,” he continued thus:

“I am sometimes asked ’How are your people getting along at the South?’ I am at a loss sometimes to know to whom they refer. Who are my people at the South? I am in a position to speak more impartially, perhaps, than any man in this room as regards the merits of the two races, for I occupy a middle position.” . . . “It would be as appropriate to ask, ’How are the white people of the South getting along?’ as to ask how the colored people are getting along. The two should go together: one cannot get along without the other.” . . . “Men ask me if I don’t think that the condition of the freedmen is hopeless. I tell them ’Never!’ I have seen too much progress.”

After referring to what had been suffered by his people and also by himself, he said, “Now, I look around in vain for anybody to insult me.” He was, however, very desirous that much more stress should be laid, in the campaign of 1888, on the duty of the nation toward the freedman, than was actually the case. He deeply regretted the decision against the constitutionality of the Civil Rights Bill, and said: “I am one of those who pray to my God every day for a Supreme Court of the United States that shall be as true to liberty as ever Judge Taney was to slavery.”

On Monday evening, May 24, he spoke at the Woman Suffrage meeting in Tremont Temple, and began with the words, “It is a long time since it was my privilege to address a convention of reformers in Boston.” After referring to the opposition, which had been made to the speaking of women in public, he said:

“In bearing this cross, and maintaining this conflict, woman has risen in grandeur and glory, like the rainbow above the storm. In securing the right to think and speak, the right to use her voice and her pen, she has secured the means of victory in all other right directions; for speech is the lever that moves the world.” He rejoiced in her attainment of a higher education and larger opportunities for supporting herself; and he held that “There is not one reason, not one consideration of justice and expediency, upon which man can claim the right to vote, which does not equally apply to woman.” . . . “If the law takes no thought of sex when it accuses her of crime, why should it take thought of sex when it bestows its privileges?” . . . “If man could represent woman, it follows that woman could represent man, but no opponent of woman suffrage would admit that woman could represent him in the government.” . . . “Believing, as I firmly do believe, that human nature as a whole, contains more good than evil, I am willing to trust the whole, rather than a part, in the conduct of human affairs.” . . . “What could be more absurd upon the face of it, than to pretend that to put woman on a plane of political equality with man, is to degrade her, when the whole argument for making man the exclusive possessor of the ballot is based upon his superiority to woman? Does the possession of the suffrage degrade man? If not, it will not degrade woman.” He also remarked that if those people, who say women do not wish to vote, really felt sure of it, they would not take so much pains to prevent them from having the opportunity; and he also showed that two other objections, namely, that wives would quarrel with their husbands about politics, and that wives would merely follow their husbands, really answer each other. In conclusion, he urged that the suffrage would be “a vast advantage to woman herself. Her dignity and importance, as a member of society, would be greatly augmented. She would be brought into responsible and honorable relations with the government; her citizenship would be full and complete; and instead of being merely a subject, she would be a sovereign. And now I ask, what right have I, what right have you, what right has anybody who believes in government of the people, by the people and for the people, to deny to woman this full and complete citizenship? What right have I, what right have you, what right has anybody thus to humiliate one-half of the human family?”

Douglass now made up his mind to carry out purposes formed long ago, and visit not only France and Italy, but Egypt. Shortly before he left, he came to Boston as the guest of the Wendell Phillips Club, who gave him a dinner at the Revere House on Saturday evening, September 11, 1886. Among the other guests were those veteran Abolitionists, Dr. Bowditch, Oliver Johnson, and James M. Buffum; and there, too, was the Democratic Mayor of Boston, in company with Judge Ruffin, Lewis Hayden, and other leading colored men. The chief guest opened his speech thus:

“If I have done anything for the colored people, it is in a great measure due to my having had the good-fortune, when I escaped from slavery, to become acquainted with William Lloyd Garrison, and with Wendell Phillips, and with our friend Oliver Johnson, and with Dr. Bowditch. The home of Dr. Bowditch, I may say, gave me the first shelter I received in this city. I have often been asked where I got my education. I have answered, from the Massachusetts Abolition University, Mr. Garrison, president.”

He went on to say:

“I have been grieved at one thing, and I think we should set our faces against it. We are imitating the extravagancies of the white people among whom we are: and it is going on at a fearful rate. I meet with colored men on all sides smoking and sometimes drinking. That is not the way to rise in the world. For my own part, I neither smoke, nor chew tobacco nor take snuff, nor drink whiskey; and I should be delighted if I could make the same statement with regard to my whole people.”

In conclusion, he said:

“I shall take this demonstration of your club with me abroad and if I have occasion to speak in England, (I am not going as an advocate,) I shall remember your injunction to extend your sympathy to all men oppressed; and I shall not hesitate to declare my own entire sympathy with that grand old man, Mr. Gladstone, in his endeavors to remove the reproach of oppression from England and to extend the desired liberty to Ireland.”

“My year’s trip abroad,” as he calls it in an unpublished lecture, led him, after looking once more a the Tower of London and Westminster Abbey, to France, where impatience at the way his baggage was treated “made me for the moment a free-trader.” He spent two months in Paris, “a city of taste and terrors, of heroes and horrors, of beauty, barricades, and bottles.” He was shocked at the non-observance of Sunday; but he never met a single drunken or disorderly person on that day, which fact he attributes to the national character. No building impressed him so deeply as the church whose bell was the signal for the massacre of Saint Bartholomew; and nothing gave him such pleasure as that utter absence of color-prejudice, which had surprised Dr. Bowditch more than fifty years ago. This Douglass says is “in part, because the negro has never been seen there as a degraded slave, but often as a gentleman and a scholar.” He visited the grave of “a man whose great heart was broad enough to take in the whole world, and who, in my estimation ranks among the greatest of the human race,” Victor Hugo. He praises the fine appearance of the law-makers, as well as the courtesy with which the members of that Senate treat each other. He was also pleased to see the horses driven without check-rein or blinders. He often heard Father Hyacinthe, and “was deeply impressed by his character and preaching,” although he could not “understand all his words.”

He was much struck by the relics, at Avignon, of the time when “Religion stood no such nonsense as what we call free thought.” . . . “A difference of religion, in the days of this old palace, was sufficient to justify the utmost cruelty; and difference of color to-day, in some quarters, is about the same thing. But light has dawned upon the papal palace of Avignon.” . . . “It is no longer the home of saints, but the home of soldiers.” . . . “Martial law has taken the place of ecclesiastical law; and there is no doubt as to which is the more merciful of the two.” So, on reaching Rome, he found it “neither pleasant to the eye nor to the thought,” to meet “the vacant, bare-legged, grimy monks, who have taken a vow neither to work nor to wash;” and he was much more interested in the ruins of the past than in the ecclesiastical splendors of the present. Not one of the beautiful objects in Genoa held him so long as an old violin, that with which Paganini had played on the hearts of thousands as never man had played before. It was precious to Douglass, because it had been “the favorite instrument of the most famous musical genius of his time,” and, “though silent and motionless now, could once, under the wonderful touch and skill of its master, fill the largest halls of Europe with a concord of sweet sounds, and cause even the dull hearts of courts, kings, and princes, to own their kinship to common mortals.”

Egypt was a disappointment in some respects. He had to admit that her temples and pyramids were not built by negro kings; and it took him two weeks to recover from the terrible strain of climbing to the great pyramid’s top. The grandeur of the prospect went far to repay him, however; especially the view over “the silent, solemn, measureless desert.” He had already felt, in travelling along the Suez canal, “such a deep sense of unearthly silence, such a sense of vast, profound, unbroken sameness and solitude,” as enabled him to understand how it was that Moses and the prophets, John, the Baptist, Paul, and Mahomet thought God peculiarly near them in the desert, and became founders of new religions.

He also visited Athens, and had pleasant meetings with his old friends in England and their children, before returning to Washington, where we find him on February 12, 1888, the seventy-ninth anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln, telling how “he went up before his Maker with four millions of broken fetters in his arms.” Of himself, he spoke thus:

“I came down here from the North; I was not born in the North; but I went North on a mission some fifty years ago. It was not healthy for me to come down here for some twenty-five years after I went North.” In going on to describe his first interview with Lincoln he said: “I was a little disturbed, and a great deal agitated; but there was no real cause for trepidation or for alarm. I was going to see a great man.” . . . “I have noticed that the higher we go up, in the gradations of humanity and moral greatness, the further we get from prejudices.”

Soon afterward, on Saturday, March 31, he spoke before the International Council of Women, who had set that day apart in order to hear from the pioneers in their cause. A portion of this speech has been already quoted. Other passages run thus:

“One year ago I stood on the Pincio in Rome, and witnessed the unveiling of the statue of Galileo. It was an imposing sight. At no time before had Rome been free enough to permit such a statue to be placed within her walls. It is now there, not with the approval of the Vatican. No priest took part in the ceremonies. It was all the work of laymen. One or two priests passed the statue with averted eyes, but the great truths of the solar system were not angry at the sight, and the same will be true when woman shall be clothed, as she will yet be, with all the rights of American citizenship.” . . . “Whatever the future may have in store for us, one thing is certain–this new revolution in human thought will never go backward. When a great truth once gets abroad in the world, no power on earth can imprison it, or prescribe its limits, or suppress it. It is bound to go on till it becomes the thought of the world. Such a truth is woman’s right to equal liberty with man. She was born with it. It was hers before she comprehended it. It is inscribed upon all the powers and faculties of her soul, and no custom, law, or usage can ever destroy it. Now that it has got fairly fixed in the minds of the few, it is bound to become fixed in the minds of the many, and be supported at last by a great cloud of witnesses, which no man can number and no power can withstand.”

On Monday evening, May 28, he spoke before the New England Woman Suffrage Association, in Tremont Temple, Boston, where he argued that the question, why woman is forbidden to vote, is not answered by pleading that the suffrage is not a right but a privilege. In conclusion, he said that “If the whole is greater than a part, if the sense and sum of human goodness in man and woman combined is greater than that of either alone and separate, then the government that excludes women from all participation in its creation, administration, and perpetuation maims itself.” His zeal in this cause has not carried him so far as to approve of the formation of separate suffrage associations by colored women. He holds that real reforms must keep themselves above the color-line.

Earlier in 1888, he had made a journey through the South, and had been escorted into Charleston by a company of soldiers whose name was brighter than their complexion, the Douglass Light Infantry. Soon after returning, he wrote to one of the leaders in a movement for encouraging emigration of colored people to the North-west, a letter which is dated April 10, and runs thus:

“I have long hesitated to give my endorsement to any movement looking to the removal of considerable numbers of the colored people of the South, to the North and West. I have felt that it was better that they should endure, and patiently wait for better conditions of existence where they are, than to take the chance of seeking them in the cold North, or in Africa, or elsewhere. I had hoped that the relations subsisting between the former slaves and the old master class would gradually improve; but while I believed this, and still have some such weak faith, I have of late seen enough, heard enough, and learned enough of the condition of these people in South Carolina and Georgia, to make me welcome any movement which will take them out of the wretched condition in which I now know them to be. While I shall continue to labor for increased justice to those who stay in the South, I give you my hearty ’God-speed’ in your emigration scheme. I believe you are doing a good work.”

Ten days later, at the emancipation celebration in Washington, he spoke thus, in answer to the charge that the negro is a failure as a citizen and is in every way doing badly:

“I admit that the negro, and especially the plantation negro, the tiller of the soil, has made little progress from the barbarism of slavery to the civilization of freedom; that he is in a deplorable condition since his emancipation; and that he is physically worse off in many respects as a freeman than he was when a slave. But I contend that the fault was not his, but the fault is with his heartless accusers. The explanation is easily given; he is the victim of a cunningly devised swindle–one which paralyzes his energies, suppresses his ambition, blasts his hope, and leaves him crushed and helpless. In fact, though he is nominally free, he is still actually a slave. I here and now denounce his so-called emancipation as practically a stupendous fraud;–a fraud upon him, a fraud upon the country, a fraud upon the world, and a reproach upon the American people. It was not so meant by the great-hearted Abraham Lincoln. It was not so meant by the Republican party; but whether so meant or not, I contend that this so-called emancipation is practically a lie of the worst kind, keeping the word of promise to the ear and breaking it to the heart. Do you ask a more particular answer to the question, why the negro of the plantation has made so little progress, why his cupboard is empty, why he flutters in rags, why his children run naked, and his wife is barefooted and hides herself behind the hut when a stranger is passing? I will tell you. It is because the husband and father is systematically and almost universally cheated out of his hard earnings. The same class that once extorted his labor under the lash, now extorts his labor by a mean, sneaking, and fraudulent device, which is more effective than the lash. That device is the trucking system, a system which never permits him to see or save a dollar of his hard earnings. He struggles from year to year, but like a man in a morass, the more he struggles, the deeper he sinks. The highest wages paid him are eight dollars a month, and this he receives only in orders on a store, which, in many cases, is owned by his employer. This scrip has a purchasing power on that one store, and that one store only. A blind man can see that by this arrangement the laborer is bound hand and foot, and is completely in the power of his employer. He can charge the poor fellow just what he pleases and give him what kind of goods he pleases, and he does both. His victim cannot go to another store and buy, and this the storekeeper knows. The only security the wretched negro has under this arrangement is the conscience of the storekeeper–a conscience educated in the school of slavery, where the idea prevailed in theory and practice that the negro had no rights which white men were bound to respect, an arrangement in which everything in the way of food or clothing, whether tainted meat or damaged cloth, is deemed good enough for the negro. For these he is often made to pay a double price. But this is not all, or the worst result of the system. It puts it out of the power of the negro to save anything of what he earns. If a man gets an honest dollar for his day’s work, he has a motive for laying it by and saving it for future emergency. It will be as good for use in the future, and perhaps better a year hence than now; but this miserable scrip has in no sense the quality of a dollar. It is only good at one store and for a limited period. Thus the man who has it is tempted to get rid of it as soon as possible. It may be out of date before he knows it, or the storekeeper may move away and it may be left worthless on his hands.” . . . “In England, to her credit let it be spoken, this trucking system is abolished by law. It is a penal offense there; and it should be here. It should be made a crime to pay any man for his honest labor in any other than lawful money.”

Copious quotations are then given from the tenant laws of the South; and the orator proceeds thus:

“Now let us sum up some of the points in the situation of the freedman. You will have seen how he is paid for his labor–how a full-grown man gets only eight dollars a month, out of which he must feed, clothe, and educate his children. You have seen how even this sum is reduced by means of an infamous truck system of payment. You have seen how easily he may be charged with a price one-third higher than the value of the goods that he buys. You have seen how easily he may be compelled to receive the poorest and most worthless commodities at the highest prices. You have seen how he is never allowed to see, save, or handle a dollar. You have seen how impossible for him to accumulate money or property. You have seen how completely he is chained to the locality in which he lives. You have seen, therefore, that having no money, he cannot travel or go anywhere to better his condition. You have seen by these laws that, even on the premises which he rents, he can own nothing, possess nothing, but what must belong to the landlord. You have seen that he cannot sell a sheep, a pig, a goat, or even a chicken, without the consent of the landlord, whose claim to all he has is superior and paramount to all other claims whatsoever. You have seen that he works for the landlord rather than for himself. You have seen all this and more; and I ask again, in view of it all, how in the name of human reason could the negro be expected to make progress, or rise higher in the scale of morals, manners, religion, and civilization than he has done during the twenty years of his so-called freedom? Shame! Eternal shame on those writers and speakers who taunt, denounce, and disparage the negro, because he is today found in poverty, rags, and wretchedness!”

It is further complained that our National Government allows him to be disfranchised, while “His color exposes him to be treated as a criminal;” and that by this neglect, as well as by the decision of 1883, he is “swindled of his citizenship.” The best remedy would have been to make Logan or Conkling President; but, as neither was living, and there was no probability of the nomination of Judge Harlan, the only member of the Supreme Court who thought the Civil Rights Bill constitutional, the preference of Douglass in April, 1888, was for Senator Sherman.

He was present at the convention which nominated Harrison and Morton, that June; and soon after he made an address to his brethren, in which he remonstrated earnestly against joining the newly-organized “colored Democratic party.” The leaders in that movement asserted that “The Republican party has failed to protect negro suffrage at the South;” and Douglass replied that:

“It is not true that the Republican party has not endeavored to protect the negro in his right to vote. The whole moral power of the party has been, from first to last, on the side of justice to the negro; and it has only been baffled, in its efforts to protect the negro in his vote, by the Democratic party.”

Of another argument, brought up by the black Democrats, the black Republican spoke thus:

“Suppose it be granted that Mr. Cleveland is a just man, and desires to protect colored citizens in the exercise of their constitutional rights. What is he, and what is any man in the Presidential chair, without the support of his party? As against his party, he is only as a feather against a whirlwind. In the hands of his party, Mr. Cleveland is as clay in the hands of the potter.”

The address is long enough to occupy about ten pages of this volume, but it does not make the slightest allusion to a question which, as Douglass said in another of his campaign speeches “has been the leading topic, and undoubtedly will continue to be the leading topic of this canvass.” This, of course, is the tariff; and when he does take it up, he makes no attempt to prove that colored people have any large share in the protected industries. He does maintain that the tariff keeps all wages up; and he says:

“Suppose the American manufacturers do derive larger gains than any other class, suppose protection does support manufacturing monopolies in America, is it not obvious that free trade will build up similar monopolies abroad?” . . . “Let the American people turn their attention to raising cotton, cattle, and grain for Europe, and how long do you think it would be before the manufacturers of Europe would put up the prices of all their articles?”

What is the exclusive topic of one address is, however, the main theme of the other. Both insist on the duty of electing a Republican President, in order to restore suffrage to the freedman. One speech dates his disfranchisement from 1877, but the other says of Georgia that “Under the shot-gun rule, the Democrats carried the State against Grant and Colfax,” who were candidates in 1868. Both addresses consider the character of the parties more important than that of the candidates; but it is said, on the basis of personal knowledge of President Harrison:

“He embodies and illustrates the highest and best elements of American character.” . . . “During the last few weeks, Mr. Harrison has surprised those of his countrymen, who did not as I did, know him, by the fertility of his mind, the breadth and comprehensiveness of his statesmanship. His more than half a hundred speeches stand like a wall of granite, and utterly defy assault.”

Perhaps the most important contribution made by Douglass to this campaign was a letter, written in October, to oppose one of the best nominations made that year by either party for Congress, that of Colonel T. W. Higginson. His brilliant services, not only as a speaker but as a soldier, to the slave, only brought out a declaration that his “election, considering his antecedents, would be much more detrimental to our cause than would be the election of an old-time pro-slavery Democrat.” . . . “Of course, if I had a thousand votes, I would give them all to General Banks, the nominee of the Republican party.”

Before writing thus, he had been obliged, by previous engagements, to decline an invitation to deliver an oration in Faneuil Hall, on November 13, the day when the monument to Crispus Attucks was unveiled on Boston Common. In this letter, written on October 5, 1888, he says he is “happy in the thought, that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is about to commemorate an act of heroism in a race seldom credited with heroic qualities.” He did speak at the celebration in Philadelphia, on December 6, of the fifty-fifth anniversary of the settlement of Rev. Dr. Furness; he was able to compare his recollections with Whittier’s on the poet’s birthday, December 17; and he contributed to the “Cosmopolitan,” for August, 1889, a paper entitled “Reminiscences,” and forming part of a series about “The Great Agitation.”

The last speech which Douglass has published, so far as I know, and certainly one of the most important, was delivered in Washington on April 16, 1889, at the invitation of the Bethel Literary and Historical Society, which, as he says, “comprises the most cultivated class of our people.” He begins by saying:

“At no period since the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia, have the moral, social, and political surroundings of the colored people of this country been more solemn and foreboding than they are this day.” . . . “Nature has given me a buoyant disposition.” . . . “No man can see the silver lining of a black cloud more joyfully than I. But he is a more hopeful man than I am, who will tell you that the rights and liberties of the colored people in this country have passed beyond the danger-line.” . . . “It is an ominous fact, that at no time in the history of the conflict between slavery and freedom in this country, has the character of the negro, as a man, been made the subject of a fiercer and more serious discussion in all the avenues of debate, than during the past and present year.” . . . “When the negro was a slave, he was almost as completely outside of the nation’s thought, as he was outside of the nation’s law and the nation’s religion. But now all is changed. His freedom makes him discussed on every hand. The platform, the pulpit, the press, and the legislative hall regard him, and struggle with him, as a great and difficult problem, one that requires almost divine wisdom to solve. Men are praying over it. It is always a dangerous symptom when men pray to know what is their duty.”

Douglass then protests against representing his race as a cause of discord:

“I deny and utterly scout the idea, that there is now, properly speaking, any such thing as a negro problem before the American people. It is not the negro, educated or illiterate, intelligent or ignorant, who is on trial, or whose qualities are giving trouble to the nation.” . . . “The real question, the all-commanding question, is whether American justice, American liberty, American civilization, American law, and American Christianity can be made to include and protect, alike and forever, all American citizens.” . . . “It is whether this great nation shall conquer its prejudices, rise to the dignity of its professions, and proceed in the sublime course of truth and liberty marked out for itself during the late war, or shall swing back to its ancient moorings of slavery and barbarism. The trouble is that the colored people have still to contend against ’a fierce and formidable foe,’ the ghost of a by-gone, dead and buried institution.

“One thing which they ought to do, in order to hold their own against this enemy, is to give up cultivating what they call ’race pride,’ a sentiment too much like that which is ’the lion in the way’ of our progress.” . . . “Do we not know that every argument we make, and every pretension we set up in favor of race pride, is giving the enemy a stick to break our own heads?” . . . “You will, perhaps, think this criticism uncalled for. My answer is that truth is never uncalled for.” . . . “In some of our colored public journals I have seen myself charged with a lack of race pride. I am not ashamed of that charge. I have no apology or vindication to offer. If fifty years of uncompromising devotion to the cause of the colored man in this country does not vindicate me, I am content to live without vindication. While I have no more reason to be proud of one race than another, I dare to say, and I fear no contradiction, that there is no other man in the United States prouder than myself of any great achievement, mental or mechanical, of which any colored man or woman is the author. This not because I am a colored man, but because I am a man; and because color is a misfortune, and is treated as a crime by the American people.”

He also protests against the preference shown by the colored people for dwelling by themselves, and carrying on separate churches, schools, benevolent and literary societies:

“There are buildings which will hold a few, but which will break down under the weight of a crowd. The ice of the river may be strong enough to bear a man, but would break through under the weight of an elephant. The ice under us in this country is very thin, and is made very weak by the warm fogs of prejudice.” . . . “Our policy should be to unite with the great mass of the American people in all their activities, and resolve to fall or flourish with our common country. We cannot afford to draw the color-line in politics, trade, education, manners, religion, fashion, or civilization. Especially we cannot afford to draw the color-line in politics. No folly could be greater. A party acting on that basis would be not merely a misfortune, but a dire calamity to our people.”

It is admitted that the terror excited among the blacks by Cleveland’s election “turned out to be groundless;” but it is complained that after the inauguration,

“He said no word and did no act, expressed no desire to arrest the hand of violence, to stay the effusion of innocent blood, or to vindicate in any manner the negro’s constitutional right to vote.” . . . “Well, now the American people have returned the Republican party to power; and the question is, what will it do?” . . . “For a dozen years and more the Republican party has seemed in a measure paralyzed in the presence of high-handed fraud and brutal violence toward its newly-made citizens. The question now is, will it regain its former health, activity, and power? Will it be as true to its friends in the South as the Democratic party has been to its friends in that section, or will it sacrifice its friends to conciliate its enemies?” . . . “Not only the negro but all honest men, north and south, must hold the Republican party in contempt, if it fails to do its whole duty at this point. The Republican party has made the colored man free; and the Republican party must make him secure in his freedom, or abandon its pretensions.

“It was once said by Abraham Lincoln that this Republic could not long endure half slave and half free; and the same may be said with even more truth of the black citizens of this country. They cannot remain half slave and half free. They must be one thing or the other. And this brings me to consider the alternative now presented between slavery and freedom in this country. From my outlook, I am free to affirm that I see nothing for the negro of the South but a condition of absolute freedom, or of absolute slavery. I see no half-way place for him. One or the other of these conditions is to solve the so-called negro problem. There are forces at work in both of these directions, and for the present that which aims at the re-enslavement of the negro seems to have the advantage. Let it be remembered that the labor of the negro is his only capital. Take this from him, and he dies from starvation. The present mode of obtaining his labor in the South gives the old master-class a complete mastery over him. I showed this in my last annual celebration address, and I need not go into it here. The payment of the negro by orders on stores, where the storekeeper controls price, quality, and quantity, and is subject to no competition, so that the negro must buy there and nowhere else–an arrangement by which the negro never has a dollar to lay by, and can be kept in debt to his employer, year in and year out–puts him completely at the mercy of the old master-class. He who could say to the negro, when a slave, you shall work for me or be whipped to death, can now say to him with equal emphasis, you shall work for me, or I will starve you to death.

This is the plain, matter-of-fact, and unexaggerated condition of the plantation negro in the Southern States to-day.”

He is further wronged, it is said, by being prevented from emigrating as well as from keeping weapons in his cabin. If he becomes a criminal, “The law puts him on the auction block and sells him to the highest bidder.” . . . “No adequate means of education has been provided for him; his vote avails him nothing; he, of all men is easiest convicted of crime; he does not see or receive a dollar in payment of wages; and, by the opinion of the Supreme Court, the Fourteenth Amendment affords him no protection.”

But the nation is stronger than the oppressors. “They may rob the negro of his vote to-day, but the negro will have his vote to-morrow. The spirit of the age is with him.” . . . “If the Republican party shall fail to carry out this purpose, God will raise up another party that will be faithful.”

“There is still another ground for hope for the freedom of the Southern States. It is that the good citizens of these States cannot afford and will not consent always, to lag far behind the old free States in all the elements of civilization.” . . . “They have rich resources to be developed, and they want both men and money to develop them and enhance their prosperity. The wise and loyal people in these States know very well that they can never be prosperous, that they can never have their share of emigration, from at home or abroad, while they are known and distinguished for intolerance, fraud, violence, and lynch law. They know that while this character attaches to them, capital will hold aloof from them, and population will shun them, as it would shun a land blasted by pestilence.” . . . “They know that industrious and enterprising men, searching for homes, will turn their backs upon the South, and make their way to the West and North, where they can hold and express their opinions without fear of the bowie-knife and shot-gun of the assassin. Thus the self-interest of the people of these States will yet teach them justice, humanity, and civilization.” . . . “The spirit of justice, liberty, and fair play is abroad in the land.” . . . “It has an agent in every bar of railroad iron, a servant in every electric wire, a missionary in every traveller.” . . . “States, parties, and leaders must, and will in the end, adjust themselves to this overwhelming and irresistible tendency.”

These last words indicate the true solution of a problem, which we know to be both difficult and urgent. Its importance is manifest, even in the comparatively simple form in which it meets us at the North. Here at least, there is no conceivable reason why all colored people should not be treated according to the merits of each individual. It is not only the plain duty, but also the interest of us all, to have every colored man take the place for which he is best fitted by education, character, ability, manners, and culture. If others insist on keeping him in any lower and poorer place, it is not only his injury, but our universal loss. Yet which of our white congregations would take a colored pastor? How many of our New England villages would like to have colored postmasters, or doctors, or lawyers, or teachers in the public schools? A very slight difference in complexion suffices to keep a young man from getting a place as policeman, or fireman, or conductor, even on the horse cars. The trades-unions are closed against him, and so are many of our stores; while those which admit him are obliged to refuse him promotion on account of the unwillingness of white men to serve under him. Colored girls find dressmakers who would employ them to be “as scarce as hens’ teeth.” It is hard for them to get places behind counters or in factories: and there is some prejudice against them as domestic servants. One poor girl in Iowa, who had been highly educated, could get no employment except in a drudgery under which she speedily died. Rich people who wish to hire suitable houses in Boston find the color-line drawn against them. A candidate for office in the capital city of Kansas found seven-eights of the white Republicans desert him, because his skin was darker than theirs; and a Philadelphia writer on this subject, Mr. A. K. McClure, declares that such prejudice was much stronger in his own State, in 1886, than in South Carolina. The recent refusal of the Episcopal Convention to recognize negro ministers as equal to their brethren, has called out far too little protest in Northern churches; and there are frequent instances of denial of civil rights in our Western cities. We see, however, that there has been great improvement throughout the North during the last fifty years.

May we not hope, that there has been some improvement in the South also, and that Charles Dudley Warner is right in saying that “There is generally good-will” toward the negro, “desire that he shall be educated and become thrifty.” The South has not yet wholly ceased to be unjust. Many freedmen are lynched, or sentenced to excessively long terms of suffering under the atrocious system of farming out convicts. Laborers continue to be swindled, travellers to be molested, and ballot-boxes to be kept out of reach. The extent to which these abuses prevail is often exaggerated, however; the condition of the freedmen has, I think, on the whole, improved greatly since they were emancipated; and I believe that many of their white neighbors and employers would say, with Mr. Grady, “We want to bar them from no avenue in which their feet are fitted to tread.” The sincerity of such language is proved by the fact, stated by Dr. Haygood as well as by the National Bureau of Education, that every southern State now provides as liberally for educating colored children as white. The schools are separate; and this gives employment to thousands of colored teachers. The South will undoubtedly continue to educate and elevate the freedman; for he will always form so large and so necessary a part of her population, that he cannot safely be left in ignorance. Her need of skilled labor is increasing rapidly; and even the field-hand would be much more valuable if he could be taught to treat animals more kindly, remember orders more faithfully, and abstain entirely from pilfering. The health of the white people requires that the negro cabin be kept clean; and the maintenance of chastity there is necessary for the protection of woman throughout the land. The need of making the black man more intelligent and conscientious has already been so far recognized by the South, that she has remodelled her entire school system for his benefit; and her desire to make him more valuable as a member of the community, cannot long permit him to be lynched or otherwise maltreated. Her memory of the misrule of the carpet-baggers will grow fainter; and she will finally be able to see that even the illiterate voter is not so dangerous a citizen in a republic as the man who has not this reason to interest himself in its welfare. The South may be much slower than we could wish in reaching these conclusions; but no others will be found permanently satisfactory to her; and it is by no means certain that her pace will be quickened by a display of federal bayonets.

This is substantially the view “of many thoughtful colored men, who care more for race than for party, and more for country than for race.” These last words are quoted from a letter, in the “Boston Post” of August 17, 1889, by Mr. Archibald H. Grimké, who is confident that the old regime under which his brethren now suffer at the South, “is crumbling under the action of new moral ideas,” and “new industrial forces.” These are creating “a nobler public opinion;” and “The New South is in very truth the Œdipus who is destined to solve the southern riddle.” Both the New South and the Old are determined not to let outsiders interfere, nor to suffer “a return of negro domination.” “Between the existing order and that terrible disorder, no sane man would hesitate to choose the existing order with all its evils. For myself, I would prefer the existing order a thousand times, to that swarm and saturnalia of fools and scamps which the appalling ignorance and poverty of the blacks made possible fifteen years ago.”

The first duty of the North is to purify herself from those prejudices which now encourage oppression at the South. The need of industrial education among the freedmen is still so great that institutions which furnish it deserve liberal endowments, not only from rich individuals but from the Government, though we need not think of offering charity to States which have doubled their school funds since 1880. The interests of the colored laborer should be considered in revising the tariff. The only way of solving the color-problem is by the cordial co-operation of all classes and races at the South. Any attempt to set race against race will injure the blacks even more than the whites. They have interests enough in common to insure the ultimate elevation of the negro to the high place necessary for the common welfare.

An opportunity to study the negro character from a new standpoint was given to Douglass, as he was appointed Minister to a country in which he has always felt deep interest. As he wrote to his friend, Dr. Bowditch, on July 4, 1889, “With many misgivings, I accepted the mission to Hayti. I distrusted my qualifications for the office; but coming to me as it did, unasked, unsought, and unexpected, and with the earnest wish of the President that I would accept it in the interest of the peace, welfare, and prosperity of Hayti, I felt I could not decline it. I shall leave a comfortable house and a healthy climate, and shall probably have to occupy trying positions; but I go forth hopefully.” . . . “Hayti is but a child in national life, and though she may often stumble and fall, I predict that she will yet grow strong and bright.”

Just as he was about to leave Washington, he wrote a letter which was read in the Tremont Temple, Boston, at the Reunion of the Abolitionists, on Monday, September 23, to celebrate Lincoln’s first proclamation of emancipation. “You meet” he says, “in Boston, at a time still critical if not alarming. Slavery has left behind it a spirit that still delights in human blood. Outrage, murder, and assassination are the inheritance of the freed men and women of the South. Neither our government nor our civilization seems able to stop the flow of blood. As in the time of slavery, the Church is silent.”

The sensational stories, set afloat soon after, about the unwillingness of naval officers to take a colored passenger, are proved to be false by the testimony of Secretary Tracy and Mr. Walter Blaine, as well as of Douglass himself in a letter from Port au Prince. He arrived there, on October 8th, after a smooth passage, which was made very pleasant for his companions by his animated accounts of his early life. On being asked why he left his comfortable home for a benighted and turbulent country, he said: “I am tired of having Hayti thrown in my face: I am going now to see for myself.” Four days after landing, he was able so far to carry out his plans as to take possession of the Villa Tivoli, which, according to the “New York Evening Post” is “an unpretentious residence on the heights overlooking the lower town and the bay, and like all these villas, even the best of them, rather dilapidated, and enclosed by a jungle of tropical growth aflame with gorgeous blossoms; palms shading the avenue between the gateway and the wide veranda, before which is a little fountain, the soothing fall of whose water is suggestive of coolness and shade.” The Haytian Minister at Washington, Mr. Preston, says that the rumors which have been circulating about the unwillingness of the rulers of the black republic to receive Douglass cordially had no foundation, except in the disappointment of certain New York merchants, who had tried in vain to hire him to act as their agent in pressing claims upon the Haytian Government. I have heard that they offered him heavy bribes, soon after his appointment; but he answered, that all proposals, for his undertaking any kind of business in Hayti, must be sent to him through the State Department.

The new President, Hyppolite, said in his inaugural address, that “Hayti ought to be proud of the sympathy with this administration, which has been shown so abundantly by the United States,” and that “The greatest proof of regard which that country has given us, is unquestionably her sending to Port au Prince, as Minister Resident and Consul General, Hon. Frederick Douglass, that illustrious champion of all men of African descent, himself one of the most remarkable scions of that race whose representatives in America we are proud to be.”

While spending his vacation in this country, last summer, Mr. Douglass told me that he had found everything in Hayti delightful, except the climate; and on September 10, he sent me the following letter:


“In answer to your question in respect of my relations with the government of Hayti and whether they were cordial or otherwise, I have to state that, while the office of United States Minister Resident and Consul General to Hayti was vacant, and prior to my nomination to that position by President Harrison, an honor accorded to me without any solicitation on my part or on that of my friends, the policy of sending a colored citizen to represent our country at that important post was seriously discussed, and such appointment condemned in the columns
of certain papers published in New York City and elsewhere. After I was appointed, the subject was continued and discussed with even more emphasis and bitterness. Notwithstanding the fact that Hayti is known as the ’Black Republic’ and that her people are of the African race, it was contended that she did not want a colored representative in her capital in the high quality of Minister Resident and Consul General of the United States, but that she very much preferred to have a white man sent to her in that quality. As for me, personally, it was contended that I was especially objectionable; and that I was so, not only on account of my color, but on account also of my political opinions. It was given out that I had at one time (that is twenty years ago) favored the annexation of Santo Domingo to the United States, a measure to which Hayti was strenuously opposed, and that the latter would be likely to resent the presence in her capital of a Minister who had supported a policy which she deemed offensive and dangerous. It made no difference to these writers, that annexation had ceased to be a living question, and that it had long since been abandoned both by the Government of the United States and by Santo Domingo. It was found to be a convenient circumstance by which to stir up bad feeling in Hayti against me, and it was no fault of theirs if it did not succeed. Some of these papers went so far as to intimate very unpatriotically, that I was especially sent to Hayti for the purpose of advancing some scheme of annexation, not only of Santo Domingo but of Hayti. They were not troubled in these utterances by the absurdity of the pretence, that color would be an objection to me in a black or colored republic. They took no note that, at the time I favored the annexation of Santo Domingo, it was only because that country was supposed to desire it. They could not see that being herself pretty deeply colored, and her citizens considerably under the ban on account of color in the United States, Hayti would naturally be pleased to see one of her own complexion honored by the appointment to the Haytian Mission. All that they seemed to aim at, or to desire, was to create the impression that a white man, and not a colored man, was the proper description of man to be sent to Hayti. It was amusing to witness the high professions of respect on the part of these journals for the feelings and preferences of Hayti, professions that struck me, considering their source, to be too vehement to be sincere, and too unusual to be ascribed to nature. There was ample room to suspect a motive for this opposition less creditable and generous than any wholesome concern for either the interest or the feelings of Hayti. Quite a flood of light fell upon the whole subject, when it was said that the New York merchants were unanimously opposed to sending a colored representative of the United States to Hayti. It at once became plain that an American and not a Haytian motive was at the bottom of this color opposition.

“But whatever may have been the motive, whether it arose from my color, my character, or my known record as a public man, the opposition was spirited, vigorous, persistent, and mischievous; for nothing was said against me that was not reproduced and repeated in Hayti. A people less generous and intelligent than those who control affairs there might have been made to feel that the United States had designedly insulted them by sending me to their country. But, fortunately, they did not so think or act. Having, however, predicted that I would be unacceptable to the people and Government of Hayti, it was perhaps natural that these prophets of evil should endeavor to create the impression that their predictions had been realized. Hence it was said in the same papers, that I was having a hard time in Hayti, that I had been ’snubbed’ by that Government, that I was about to resign, and much else of the same sort. Undue advantage was taken after my arrival in Hayti, of the fact that some delay occurred in my presentation to President Hyppolite. The facts in the case will explain all this. I arrived in Hayti on the 8th of October, 1889. At that time the country was just emerging from one of the most exciting revolutions which had occurred there in many years. The government of General Solomon had been overthrown the year before; and there had succeeded to it the government of General Légitime, which was never recognized by the United States. This government had lasted but a few months, when its President was driven from power and banished from the country. The city of Port au Prince was under martial law; and sixteen thousand troops were in its streets. The Government I found there was simple titular and provisional; but a convention to frame a new constitution was in progress in the neighboring city of Gonaïves. This convention was charged with the duty of electing a President of the Republic and thus inaugurating a permanent government. This they did by electing General Florvil Hyppolite President for a term of seven years. Even after this election, the necessary delay in receiving my letter of credence hindered my prompt presentation to the newly elected President, to whom I was subsequently accredited. During the interim between my arrival in Hayti and my presentation to President Hyppolite, Mr. Thompson, my predecessor, who had long before sent in his letter of resignation (which had been accepted by our Government), and who, as I had supposed, had previously to my arrival departed from Hayti, as he had requested permission to do, still remained, and for a time, in view of the fact that I had not presented my letter of credence, nor been formally received by the Government, allowed himself to be considered as the then present representative of the United States Government, notwithstanding my presence in the Haytian capital and my assumption there of the duties and control of the United States Legation. This circumstance, no doubt, gave rise to the rumor in the United States of unpleasant relations between myself and the Government of Hayti. The delay in my reception was just long enough to be used in New York, with all proper exaggeration, to create the impression that my relations with the Haytian Government were not cordial, and to justify the conclusion to which those papers had already come, that a white man should have been sent to Hayti in my stead. Happily, this embarrassment did not last long. As soon as my letter of credence arrived, I was duly presented to His Excellency, President Hyppolite, and from that time onward my relations with the Haytian Government were entirely cordial, and no respect due to my person or to my country was ever afterward withheld by the Government or by the people of Hayti.

Shortly before sending the above letter, Douglass visited a camp-meeting near Baltimore, on Sunday, September 7, and made a speech in which, after referring to the time when “The American eagle laid bad eggs,” he said:

“Our American friends are apt, when they want to say anything against us, to remark: ’Look at Hayti; these negroes cannot govern themselves there; why here?’ There is something about Hayti which we have to deplore, and so there is about the United States. Let us go back 100 years and look at Hayti, and we find it surrounded by slavery and the whole Caribbean Sea reddened by the curse. The negro was a slave everywhere, under every nation in the islands of the West Indies. But in the midst of that slavery, in the midst of that doom and despair, they had the manhood to rise from the dust and shake off the fetters and drive out the men who tyrannized them. Since then Napoleon, with his 30,000 invaders and troops from England, have tried to throw them back; but, with the help of ’Yellow Jack,’ they have held their ground. These degraded, stupid negroes were able not only to assert their liberty, but to organize a government which they have carried on for eighty-seven years. They have sent their Ministers to all Christian lands, and Hayti has never been known to break a treaty. Some of the papers said, not long since: ’Send a white man as Minister to Hayti, for the people of that country would resent a negro.’ Well, there is always a demand made for a white man, when there is $5000 attached to the office. I have been shown every courtesy and I have not the slightest reason to complain. I believe the press has become reconciled to my presence in the office, except those that have a candidate for it, and they give out that I am going to resign. At them I fling the old adage, ’Few die, and none resign,’ and that I am going back about Oct. 1.”

In speaking at the Abolitionist Reunion in Boston, on September 22, 1890, Douglass said:

“A word about Hayti. We are not to judge her by the height which the Anglo-Saxon has reached. We are to judge by the depths from which she has come. We are to look at the relation she sustained to the outside world, and the outside world sustained to her. One hundred years ago every civilized nation was slave-holding. Yet these negroes, ignorant, downtrodden, had the manhood to arise and drive off their masters and assert their liberty. Her government is not so unsteady as we think.”

He also, that morning, defended our pension system, which had been criticised by a previous speaker; and he added: “The Abolitionists were right in their attitude to the Church. Slavery and the Church were side by side: the Church was at peace with slavery: men were sold to build churches, women sold to pay missionaries, and children sold to buy Bibles. We did right to oppose it.”

The great event of the occasion was his speech that evening, in Tremont Temple. The immense audience greeted him with round after round of applause. Then followed a general laugh, as he held up a big packet of manuscript and dropped it, with the words: “All my thunder has been stolen by the friends who have already spoken; so I lay this thunderbolt aside.” He then insisted that “There is no race problem before the country, but only a political one, the question whether a Republican has any right to exist south of Mason and Dixon’s line.” There is still a great deal of prejudice, even in the North, against colored people; but he has found out that the only way to cure it, is to treat them kindly. This he proved by the fact that at Pittsfield, New Hampshire, forty-eight years before, Mrs. Norris had been helped, by doing him a kindness, to shake off her prejudice against his color and his views so thoroughly as to be the first to shake hands with him after his lecture. It had been said, by the clergyman who preceded him, that it was not the Garrisonians who abolished slavery, nor the Republicans either, but Almighty God. “The good Lord had had a chance for a long time before the abolition. I believe that there is a moral government; and that God reigns. I am no pessimist; I give thanks to the good Lord, and also to the good men through whom He has worked. Prominent among them was Garrison, and scarcely less so was Phillips. It was they and their associates who made Abraham Lincoln and the Republican party possible. What abolished slavery was the moral sentiment which had been created, not by the pulpit, but by the Garrisonian platform. The churches did not do much to abolish slavery; but they did much to keep the agitation down.” He saw no danger of negro supremacy at the South, nor any cause of alarm to the white people “who have a thousand years of civilization piled up in their three-story heads.” “I am just as white myself as I am black; and I am not afraid of the negro getting the upper hand in me.” Finally he rose to a power of pathos, which carried away the whole audience, as he said, in pleading for the Blair and Lodge bills, “If you build the negro a church on every hill, and a schoolhouse in every valley, and endow them all for a hundred years, you will not make up for the wrongs you have done him. Who is it that asks for protection at the polls and for equal education? The men who came forth to clutch with iron fingers your faltering flag, and shed their blood for you, who protected the women and children of the South during the war, who have tilled your soil with their horny hands, and watered it with their tears!”

Four weeks later he made an address to the Bethel Literary and Historical Association, in Washington, and, after asserting the right of colored men to vote and marry as they choose, closed with noble words which we may accept as his farewell before departing once more to Hayti, on December 7:

“I have no doubt whatever of the future. I know there are times in the history of all reforms, when the future looks dark.” . . . “I, for one, have gone through all this. I have had fifty years of it, and yet I have not lost either heart or hope.” . . . “I have seen dark hours in my life, and I have seen the darkness gradually disappearing, and the light gradually increasing. One by one, I have seen obstacles removed, errors corrected, prejudices softened, proscriptions relinquished, and my people advancing in all the elements that make up the sum of general welfare. And I remember that God reigns in eternity, and that, whatever delays, disappointments, and discouragements may come, truth, justice, liberty, and humanity will ultimately prevail.” is a project of the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University

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