On Making Our Race Life Count in the Life of the Nation
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In the Bible one finds over and over again the words “a peculiar people.” Reference is made to the Jews as “a peculiar people;”—a people differing in thought and temperament and mode of life from others by whom they were surrounded. Now the race to which Americans of African lineage belong is often described as “a peculiar people,” having had, as we know, a peculiar history. They differ in color and in appearance, and in a very large degree their temperament and thought differ from that of the people about them. Now the Jews because they were different from the people by whom they were surrounded, because of their peculiar religious bent, were able to give to the world the doctrine of the unity and Fatherhood of God, and Christianity, the finest flower of Jewry. It is then, I think, not too much to hope that the very qualities which make the Negro different from the peoples by whom he is surrounded will enable him, in the fullness of time, to make a peculiar contribution to the nation of which he forma a part.
What that contribution is to be no man could now tell, but we must keep in mind that the race is made of individuals and
Every man God made
Is different, has some deed to do,
Some work to work. Be undismayed.
Though thine be humble, do it, too.
As with an individual, so with a race. When you and I and all the other individuals that go to make up our race shall have learned to do well our own peculiar work, we shall be able to determine the bent of the race. It must fall upon you and me, who have had opportunity to work out in some measure our own individual problems, to give direction to the race. It is for us, therefore, to bring to the enrichment of our lives, as individuals, every quality which we are capable of cultivating.
There is in the New Testament a passage which I like to refer to and to think of; it reads something like this: “He that overcometh shall be clothed in white rainment.” The expression “He that overcometh” occurs several times in the New Testament. I am anxious that the Tuskegee students shall get the idea firmly fixed in their minds that there are definite rewards coming to the individual or to the race that overcomes obstacles and succeeds in spite of seemingly insurmountable difficulties. The palms of victory are not for the race that merely complains and frets and rails. I do not mean to say that there Is not a place for race loyalty and enthusiasm. There is a proper and vital place for protests against the wrongs that are inflicted without cause or reason. Every race, like every individual, should be swift to protest against injustice and wrongs, but no race must be content with mere powers. Every race must show to the world by tangible, visible, indisputable evidence that it can do more than merely call attention to the wrongs inflicted upon it. The reward of life is for those who choose the good where evil calls out on every hand. That reward is moral character. The more temptations resisted—the more difficult the struggle—the more robust the character. The wholly innocent person is much less praiseworthy than is he who has faced temptation and has come out of it unscarred. The virtues of foresight and thrift and frugality, brought bravely to the front, will bring large material possessions which if properly used will refine and enrich life.
I am constrained to refer once more to that “peculiar people,” the Jews,—a race that has been handicapped in very much the same way as the colored people. Their opportunities have been limited in many directions. In Russia to-day they are in many cases debarred from schools and from entrance into the professions. And, notwithstanding the barriers in this country, one of the most noted banking firms in the United States is composed of Jews. Members of a despised race, they made up their minds that in spite of difficulties they would not stop to complain, but would compel recognition by making a real contribution to the country of which they formed a part. The Japanese race is a convincing example of the respect which the world gives to a race that can put brains and commercial activity into the development of the resources of a country. What material difficulties the thrifty Hollanders have had to overcome in the development of their country! But the battle against water and wind has developed not only a country, but an energetic, thrifty people. The Netherlands have literally been made by these sturdy Hollanders, who because they overcame are looked upon as a great and happy people.
There is, then, opportunity for the colored people to enrich the material life of their adopted country by doing what their hands find to do, minor duties though they be, so well that nobody else of any race can do them better. This is the aim that the Tuskegee student should keep steadily before him. If he remembers that all service, however lowly, is true service, an important step will have been taken in the solution of what we term “the race problem.”
For it must be remembered that no individual of any race can contribute to the solution of any general problem until he has first worked out his own peculiar problem. Some months ago I met a former schoolmate whom I had not seen for a number of years. I was naturally interested to hear about his progress, and began to question him. I asked him where he lived, and he said he had no abiding-place, in fact he had lived in a half dozen places since we parted. IN answer to other questions, I found that he had no special trade, no special business, no bank account. I asked then what he had been doing in the intervening years, and he answered he had been travelling about over the country, doing his best to solve the race problem. That man should rather have been at work at the solution of his own individual problem. An individual circumstanced as he was could not solve anybody’s problem. It is important to have one’s own dooryard clean before calling attention to the imperfection in the neighbor’s yard. Each Negro can put much into the life of his race by making his own individual life present a model in purity and patience, in industry and courage, in showing the world how to get strength out of difficulties. The late President Garfield once said that no person ever drowned, no matter how many times he was thrown overboard, who was worth saving, and that remark, with a few modifications, might be applied to a race. No race is ever lost that is worth saving, and no race need be lost that wants to save itself. The world is full of little people who through lack of wisdom and patience and perseverance merely add to the world’s burdens. The despised Negro has the chance to show to the world that charity which suffereth long and is kind and which never faileth. In the face of discouragements and difficulties the Negro must ever remember that nobody can degrade him. Nobody can degrade a big race or a big man. Nobody can degrade a single member of any race. The individual himself is the only one who can inflict that punishment. Frederick Douglass was on one occasion compelled to ride for several hours in a portion of a freight car. A friend went into the freight car to console him and said to him that he hated to see a man of his intelligence in so humiliating a position. “I am ashamed that they have thus degraded you.” But Douglass, straightening himself up in his seat, looked the friend in the face and said, “They cannot degrade Frederick Douglass.” And so they cannot degrade a single individual who does not want to be degraded. Injustice cannot work harm upon the oppressed without injuring the oppressor. The Negro people must live the precepts taught by the Christ. They must go on multiplying, day by day, deeds of worthiness, piling them up mountain high. And just as you and I, as individuals, are called upon to serve the race of which we are a part, so let us as a race recognize the fact that we are part of a great nation which we are bound to serve-1906
EARLY PROBLEMS OF FREEDOMThe close of the Civil War left many of the agencies of emancipation without a cause. The anti-slavery publications, the state and national anti-slavery societies, “vigilance committees,” and the vast Underground Railroad system, saw their purpose accomplished in the terms of peace. The American Anti-slavery society, which had been the longest in existence, and which, under the leader ship of William Lloyd Garrison, had done more for freedom than any other single agency, was now ready to wind up its offairs. When a proposition was made for its dissolution, Frederick Douglass opposed it, giving his reasons in these words: “I felt that the work of the society was not done, that it had not fulfilled its mission, which was not merely to emancipate but to elevate the enslaved class…that the Negro still had a cause and that he needed my pen and voice to plead for it.”
In taking this position, he showed that he had a clear and far-reaching comprehension of the many and serious problems and obligations that would in time result from the enforced emancipation of his people. He clearly foresaw that these problems were of a kind which had never before come within the range and scope of our national experience, and that if the country were to make the most of the good results of the war, and minimize its evils, the machinery of liberation and destruction must somehow be converted to the service of peace and construction. Two great questions had been settled, that the United States was to remain an indivisible nation, and that slavery was henceforth impossible in this nation.
The problems growing out of these achievements are still difficult. Before the Civil War, the people of the United States might have been classified as non-slave-holding and slave-holding white people; enslaved and free Negroes. Now, two of these classes, the slave-holders and the enslaved Negroes, disappeared and in the latter’s stead, a new element was injected into the population, the freedmen, 4,000,000 souls, utterly destitute, without learning, without experience, and without traditions; dependent for their guidance, and almost for bare existence, upon the direction and good-will of the older elements. If, after the war, the South and the North could have united to repair the damages and solve the problems the conflict had left behind it, the history of the colored people in America, as well as their present condition, might have been different from what it is.
In facing the problems of reconstruction, the people of the North had no precedents and little knowledge of the Negro’s character to guide them. The men who had the responsibility of providing for the present and future, of rehabilitating the South on the basis of freedom, were trained to treat every question, social and political, from the standpoint of party politics. But reconstruction needed the services of the sociologist more than of the party leader. There were but a few in public life capable of treating these matters in a non-partisan, a non-sectional, and a scientific spirit. Men could not so quickly overcome the animosities engendered by the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln, who alone seemed to have a spirit large enough to be the President of all the people, even to the least of them, was gone, and there was none in the public service to take his place. While others acted in the spirit of war, he acted in the spirit of peace. In managing large questions, he had a wonderful insight into the things that would aggravate conditions and a fine courage in avoiding them, until they had spent their force with as little harm as possible. His penetrative powers, the contagion of his kindly spirit, his unswerving love for what was just, were needed quite as much after as before and during the civil strife. Had Mr. Lincoln lived, his clear vision, it is safe to say, would have avoided many of the evils to which the country since fallen heir. As it was,, however much the white people in slavery’s former domain may have suffered, the Negro has borne the brunt of every mistake of the period of Reconstruction.
The Southern people had lost (so it seemed at the time at least) everything that was worth having and fighting for,—their “cause,” their property in slaves, their prestige, and their political supremacy. Their homes were devastated and their plantations ravaged by the conquering Yankees. Their task was not to build up what had been destroyed, but to begin anew. It is asking too much to expect that they could have faced these conditions with a cheerful spirit. The slaves, as property, were now free, and this freedom was regarded as a punishment visited upon their former masters.
Free labor was new, and apart from this there was none of it to take the place of that of the liberated slaves. Furthermore, the white people had little or no faith in their possible usefulness. They feared that the Negro as a free man would not work, would not honor his contracts, and would use his liberty to commit all sorts of crimes against society. They could not, at once, rid themselves of the feeling that physical compulsion was the only way to keep the Negro within the bounds of law and labor. Carl Schurz, who, under the authority of the President, made a very thorough and statesman-like investigation of conditions, issued an official report of his findings, and it is clear from this paper that, if the Southern people could have overcome their fears of Negro freedom, the work of reconstruction would have been greatly simplified. They, however, were in no frame of mind to accept and honor any program for reconstruction emanating from the Negro and what was best to be done for him and with him.
Between the North and South, stood the ex-slave, free, and that was all. His situation was anomalous. As Mr. Douglass aptly says, “He was free from individual masters, but the slave of society.” Yet, because of his long service to the country, either as a slave or a freeman, he deserved more than he could possibly have been paid in terms of law, defining and defending his rights. He was without power, and, as Mr. Douglass in describing him, said, “a man without force, is without the essential dignity of human nature.”
In this almost totally helpless condition, the North expected too much of him and the ex-masters too little. It required more than the shock of four years of internecine war to change the solidarity of slavery into a society of organized self-helpfulness. A people who had been so long enslaved could not help being slavish in habits and instincts. They had little family life, no society, no institution except the church, a rudimentary conception of common interests, and very few traditions and ideals. No race ever came into the domain of freedom, independence, and democracy so little furnished with the elements of self-protection and self-determining purpose, as did the emancipated slaves forty years ago. Yet there were everywhere in the South important exceptions to this condition of race helplessness. Many free colored people, especially in the cities, were not hopelessly behind in the procession of progress. They fully understood the meaning of the war and its results. When the last gun was fired and they saw emancipation as a reality, their joy was unbounded. In many of the Southern cities, thousands of them gathered in the open streets and commons, where they shouted and prayed with full hearts, voidint in songs of jubilee and thanksgiving their gratitude for their great deliverance. There has been nothing like these demonstrations in the history of American liberty. No one who saw them could have any doubt whatever as to the Negro’s appreciation of his freedom. It is a notable fact that in none of them was ever heard a word of hatred or revenge toward those who had been responsible for their long enslavement. Their gratitude was too great to leave room for resentment. God, Lincoln, and Freedom formed a mysterious trinity in the new awakening of these emancipated people.
All this was perfectly natural and hopeful, so far as it went, but it was not long before exultation gave way to the consciousness that this dearly bought liberty was a serious thing. The Negro capacity for happiness was large, but he could not live and sustain himself by this alone. Owning nothing, he had no place to live. Having nothing, he could get nothing. In addition to the ex-slaves, who were still fastened to the places where slavery left them and freedom found them, a great multitude, known as refugees, after emancipation made their way into the Union lines. When the war closed these were still with the Union army and dependent upon it for rations. It soon became apparent to those in authority, that something must be done in a large way by the Federal government itself to provide for this unorganized horde. To meet this serious condition, Congress, in the spring of 1865, passed an act establishing the “Freedmen’s Bureau for the Relief of Freedmen and Refugees.” Its main provisions were as follows:
The Bureau was to have supervision and management of abandoned lands.
It was to look after all subjects relating to refugees and freedmen.
It was to be under the control of a commission appointed by the President and to continue in its labors for one year after the close of the war.
The Secretary of War was given authority to issue provisions, clothing, and fuel for the immediate and temporary needs of freedmen and their wives and children.
The War Department was to set apart for the use of loyal refugees and freedmen abandoned lands under the control of the United States Army and assign to such freedmen, not more than forty acres of land, and to protect such persons in the possession of such land for at least three years at an annual rent, not to exceed six per cent. upon the appraised value of the land. At the end of that time, the tenant was allowed to purchase it and receive therefor from the government a certificate of purchase.
In addition to these provisions, the Freedmen’s Bureau was intended to be a “friendly intermediary” between the ex-masters and ex-slaves. Nothing could have been done more surely to smooth the way for a kindly relationship between the two parties in question, if such a relationship had been possible. General O.O. Howard was the first commissioner of that Bureau. He had made a record as a soldier in the Union Army, but, better still, he was a man of humane impulses, without sectional bias, and of exalted Christian character. The value of his services in the work of Reconstruction can be easily seen by a glance at some of his reports made to Congress in 1865-1870.
In these five years of work on the part of the Bureau to bring order out of chaos, there had been established over 4,000 schools, employing 9,000 teachers and giving instruction to about a quarter of a million pupils of all ages. In 1870 the school attendance in the old slave-states amounted to nearly eighty per cent. of the enrollment. The demand for learning on the part of the colored people, as shown by the Bureau’s work, was amazing, and afforded a gratifying evidence of their sense of responsibility as freedmen. The Negroes themselves made a good showing of what they were able to do by their own efforts in creating the means for their instruction. They sustained over 1300 schools and built over 500 school buildings, contributing more than $200,000 out of their earnings to further the cause of education.
The value of the Freedmen’s Bureau in thus stimulating an interest in this important subject and in developing a serious sense of responsibility on the part of the freedmen cannot well be overestimated. Carl Schurz in his report says:
“The Freedmen’s Bureau would have been an institution of the greatest value, under competent leadership, had its organization, to some extent, been invaded by mentally and morally unfit persons…Nothing was needed at this time so much as an acknowledged authority, standing guard between the master and the ex-slave, commanding and possessing the confidence and respect of both, to aid the emancipated black man to make the best possible use of his unaccustomed freedom, and to aid the white man to whom free Negro labor was a well-nigh incurable idea, in meeting the difficulties, partly real and partly conjured up by the white man’s prejudiced imagination.”
The lack of fit men, in sufficient numbers, to continue the good work inaugurated by the Freedmen’s Bureau was the cause, in great part, of the failure of Reconstruction methods of helpfulness. There were employed men of partisan spirit whose vision was clouded by political aspirations, and thus the future well-being of both races in the South was not kept paramount. The cause of most of the evils that inn a few years followed and overwhelmed the colored people in the South, was lack of men strong in character, patriotism, justice, and understanding for the work in hand. This is true, in spite of the fact that there were those who were equal to the occasion, but who alone had not the power to perform the tasks set for them. No greater injury has been done the colored people of this country than that which resulted from putting them into a position of political antagonism to their former masters.
But the purposes of this biography do not require a full statement of the causes that led to the overthrow of the temporary supremacy held by the freedmen and their Northern allies. A careful reading of the history of the Southern states since the adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States in 1865, must convince the impartial reader that the Negroes were less the instigators than the victims of the mistakes of Reconstruction. Many of those who played the false role of friends and leaders left the freedmen to bear the brunt of the punishment which they have since suffered patiently, heroically, and alone. The Negroes of the South during the Reconstruction period were always amenable to wise direction. Those who were on hand to guide them, easily won their favor. There seems to be no reason to doubt that, had it been offered, the freedmen would have followed the leadership of the best elements in the South as willingly, if not more willingly, than that which they did accept.
The difficulty was that the Southern people could not in a day, or in a decade change their inborn conviction that emancipation was forced upon them as a punishment. They accepted this punishment in a spirit in which injured pride, the sense of loss of property, loss of “cause,” and revenge were elements. But with all these losses and defeats, the imperious temper of the Southern people suffered no impairment, and they were in no mood to take hold of the work of Reconstruction in the spirit of the victorious North.
The South hesitated to act, and the ex-slave had no power to do so. As a result, the responsibility for movements for the protection of the Negroes fell to the North. It sought to accomplish this object by giving freedmen all the rights of citizenship. Under the presuppositions upon which our government was founded, this step was logical, even though it may have been, and indeed seems to have been, at that time unwise.
What has been said in the foregoing pages indicates what may be called the new field of labor for Frederick Douglass after emancipation. When the great war came to an end and the object for which he had so long labored was indeed an accomplished fact, he confessed that this great joy was somewhat tinged with a feeling of sadness. He said, “I felt that I had reached the end of the noblest part of my life.” He was still in his prime, and all his faculties were clear and ready for action. He had no occupation, no business, no profession. His training and associations, during the previous thirty years, had unfitted him for manual labor, and he had no fortune that would enable him to live without exertion of some kind. But thoughts and feelings of this sort were soon swept aside by new interests and anxieties of the most absorbing character.
In the first place, fresh evidences of his popularity began to manifest themselves. His struggle for emancipation had been so conspicuous, his eloquence so stirring, and his participation in all the great questions of the day so earnest and compelling that his vogue continued as before.
In the great diversity of distinguished men and women who figured in the history of the quarter of a century immediately preceding the Civil War, Frederick Douglass was in the fullest sense of the word, a “self-made man.” All kinds of persons were interested in him. His authority on every matter that concerned the Negro, North of South, was seldom questioned. His leadership, up to this time, was not often disputed. The American people manifested greater desire to hear him than ever before and invitations to lecture began to pour in upon him from colleges, lyceums, literary societies, and churches. It is scarcely too much to say that he was one of the most popular men on the lecture platform, and at a time when such illustrious personages as Henry Ward Beecher, Wendell Phillips, Theodore Tilton, Anna Dickinson, and Mary A Livermore gave to the American lyceum its highest distinction. His themes were no longer anti-slavery in character. His new lectures bore such titles as, “Selfmade Men,” “The Races of Men,” William, the Silent,” “John Brown,” etc., all of which showed a wide reading, and a mastery of the art of eloquence. In addition to these lectures, he was called upon from every direction for informal talks on an almost endless variety of subjects.
But whatever might be the theme or the occasion, he could not get away from the Negro problem. As he said, “I never rise to speak before any American audience, without a feeling that my failure or success will bring harm or benefit to my whole race.” When the all important question of reconstruction came to be considered, Mr. Douglass was found to be fully conversant with the progress of events, prepared to say his word, and play his part. While other men were uncertain, confused, and timid, Douglass’s stand was bold, direct, and fearless. When it was time for him to speak and act, his words attracted wide attention and many persons in and out of Congress were willing to follow his leading. He had always been frank, honorable, and resourceful on the question of just treatment for his race and he was so far in advance of most of the men who had it in their power to make and unmake the laws, that it would have been a decided misfortune for the colored people to have been without his guidance. He had a wide acquaintance amongst men in public life. No other Negro in this country, at the time, knew political leaders in and out of Congress so intimately. His qualities of prudence and sagacity, as well as his great personal charm, made him welcome in the councils of his party. He was the soul of honor. Being thus gifted, Douglass was able to be as much for his people in a personal as in a public capacity. He had a way of getting close to the men in power and of reaching their hearts and enlisting their sympathies for the objects in whose service he was engaged. This was most fortunate. His race was without official connection with the government, without experience, and with no clearly defined status as citizens. If ever the colored people needed a strong man capable in every way to represent them, it was now, when the was over and the question, what to do with the free Negro, must be answered in definite terms of law and governmental policy. Aside from his commanding abilities, and his personal attractiveness to men, Mr. Douglass had lived through the very experiences that fitted him to know and feel what the Negro needed and ought to have. He had been a slave, a fugitive slave, and a freedman, at a time, too, when Negro freedom was most despaired of. No white man could appreciate, as he could and did, the sweetness of the terms, Freedom and Liberty. One of his earliest utterances on this subject indicates hi feeling at this period. “I saw no chance,” he said, “of bettering the condition of the freedman, until he should cease to be merely a freedman and should become a citizen, and that there was no safety for him or for anybody else in America, outside of the American government.”
At the time when Mr. Douglass publicly took this position, he was far more radical than some of the most ardent of his anti-slavery associates. This declaration was then regarded as a challenge to the sense of justice of the American people. Many earnest friends of the Negro thought it was asking too much, even though the race deserved the franchise. Others argued that the Negro was unfit for the suffrage and that it would aggravate the already strained relations between the two races in the South. Opposition was expected by Mr. Douglass and he was ready to meet it. No one understood better than he that his people had no training for citizenship, but he was accustomed to say that “if the Negro knows enough to fight for his country, he knows enough to vote; if he knows enough to pay taxes to support the government, he knows enough to vote; if he knows as much when sober as an Irishman knows when he is drunk, he knows enough to vote.” He anticipated the evils that would follow the enfranchisement of the ex-slaves, but insisted that such evils would be temporary and that the good would be permanent. He further insisted that it was worth all the suffering endured by his race to have that principle established; that the right of suffrage would be an incentive to arouse the latent energies of the Negro to become worthy of full citizenship, and that such impulse was imperatively needed. He always declared that political equality was a widely different thing from social equality. He vigorously protested that the right of suffrage did not mean Negro domination in the slave states, if the best white people would wisely assume the leadership of the blacks. He believed in the domination of the fittest, and insisted that the white people of the South, because of their superiority in intelligence and in all the forces that make for supremacy, were in no danger of being overwhelmed by the new voters. He believed in the rule of the competent and that in the long run intelligent supremacy would be tempered with justice and the true spirit of democracy. He believed that those who were strong enough, either to help the ex-slave to get upon his feet or to crush him in his efforts to rise, would choose the more generous course.
At any rate, he deemed the time ripe to claim for the freedman full citizenship and equality before the law. When the question came forward for discussion, the people of the North were filled with enthusiasm over the results of the war and for the great objects they believed to have been achieved by it. It was the occasion to make a hero of every one who had taken part in the civil contest on the side of the Union. Even the Negro, for the first time, became the recipient of more than respectful consideration. The people of the North were as proud of his freedom as he was himself. If to give the negro the franchise, and laws to protect him in the exercise of it as a citizen, would make more lasting the results of the war, the North was now in a mood to grant it to him, since it seemed to add to the significance of the great struggle which had just been so victoriously concluded. Douglass took advantage of this condition of things to advocate suffrage for his people. By speech and print and personal appeals to the leaders of public opinion, he urged this cause upon them in and out of season. There was no lack of evidence that it was gaining in every direction. The number of those who thought the suffrage ought to be granted, because it was right; those who thought it a good thing from a partisan standpoint, and those who thought the results of the war would be lost unless the Negro were given the privilege, increased rapidly.
What Douglass calls one of the first steps in the direction of popular favor for universal suffrage, was an interview that he had with President Johnson on the 7th of March, 1866. He headed a delegation of prominent colored men, including George T. Downing, Lewis H. Douglass, William E. Matthews, John Jones, John F. Cook, Joseph E. Otis, A.W. Ross, William Whipper, John M. Brown, and Alexander Dunlop. The visit of these black men to the President for the purpose of urging upon the government the policy of the franchise for the freedmen, attracted the attention of the entire nation. Nothing better could have been devised to being the whole question before the people and obtain a hearing for it.
The delegation soon found that Mr. Johnson was not in sympathy with their plans for Negro enfranchisement. The president had evidently anticipated their purpose in calling upon him and he was fully prepared to answer their arguments. He spoke to them at great length and left no ground for them to doubt his position in the matter. He also gave them no opportunity to reply. On returning from the White House, his colleagues empowered Mr. Douglass to prepare an address to the public, to be printed simultaneously with Mr. Johnson’s address to them. Mr. Douglass’s paper was in the form of a reply to the President’s arguments against the suffrage proposition, and was as follows:
Mr. President:—In consideration of a delicate sense of propriety as well as of your own repeated intimations of indisposition to discuss or listen to a reply to the views and opinions you were pleased to express to us in your elaborate speech to-day, the undersigned would respectfully take this method of replying thereto;
Believing as we do that the views and opinions you expressed in that address are entirely unsound and prejudicial to the highest interest of our race, as well as to our country as well as to our country at large, we cannot do other than expose the same and, as far as may be in our power, arrest their dangerous influence. It is not necessary at this time to call attention to more than two or three features of your remarkable address. The first point to which we feel especially bound to take exceptions, is your attempt to found a policy opposed to your enfranchisement, upon the alleged ground of an existing hostility on the part of the former slaves to the poor white people of the South. We admit the existence of this hostility, and hold that it is entirely reciprocal. But you obviously commit an error by drawing an argument from an incident of slavery, and making it a basis for a policy adapted to a state of freedom. The hostility between the whites and blacks of the South is easily explained. It has its root and sap in the relation of slavery, and was incited on both sides by the cunning of the slave-masters. These masters secured their ascendancy over both the poor whites and blacks by putting enmity between them.
They divided both to conquer each. There was no earthly reason why the blacks should not hate and dread the poor whites when in a state of slavery, for it was from this class that their masters received their slave-catchers and slave-drivers and overseers. They were the men called in upon all occasions by the masters whenever any fiendish outrage was to be committed upon the slaves. Now, sir, you cannot but perceive that, the cause of this his hatred removed, the effect must be removed also. Slavery is abolished. The cause of this antagonism is removed, and you must see that it altogether illogical to legislate from slave-holding and slave-driving premises for a people, whom you have repeatedly declared it your purpose to maintain in freedom.
Besides, if it were true, as you allege, that the hostility of the blacks toward the whites must necessarily project itself into a state of freedom, and that this enmity between the two races is even more intense in a state of freedom than in a state of slavery, in the name of Heaven, we reverently ask, how can you, in view of your proffered desire to promote the welfare of the black man, deprive him of all means of defense, and clothe him, whom you regard as his enemy, in the panoply of apolitical power? Can it be that you recommend a policy which would arm the strong and cast down the defenseless? Can you, by any possibility of reasoning, regard this as just, fair, or wise? Experience proves that those are most abused who can be abused with the greatest impunity. Men are whipped oftenest who are whipped easiest. Peace between races is not to be secured by degrading one race and exalting another, by giving power to one and withholding from another, but by maintaining a state of equal justice between all classes. First pure, then peaceable.
On the colonization theory you were pleased to broach, very much could be said. It is impossible to suppose, in view of the usefulness of the black man in time of peace as a laborer in the South and in time of war as a soldier in the North, and a growing respect for his rights among the people and his increasing adaptation to a high state of civilization in his native land, that there can ever come a time when he can be removed from this country without a terrible shock to its prosperity and peace. Besides, the worst enemy of the nation could not cast upon its fair name a greater infamy than to admit that Negroes could be tolerated among them in a state of the most degrading slavery and oppression, and must be cast away, driven to exile, for no other cause than having been freed from their chains.
When the question reached Congress, the Negro was not lacking in friends who were willing to go the full length of the Frederick Douglass program of Reconstruction. The first step taken was a report made to the Senate by a committee having the subject in charge. This report in effect provided that the whole matter of franchise be left to the option of the several states concerned. Mr. Douglass believed he saw in this proposition the continued political enslavement of his people, and he was on his guard. The following communication written and sent to the Senate by the delegation which had visited President Johnson speaks for itself.:
To the Honorable, the Senate of the United States:—The undersigned, being a delegation representing the colored people of the several states and now sojourning in Washington, charged with the duty to look after the best interests of the recently emancipated, would most respectfully, but earnestly, pray your honorable body to favor no amendment of the Constitution of the United States which will grant any one or all of the states of the Union to disfranchise any class of citizens on the ground of race or color, for any consideration whatever. They would further respectfully represent that the Constitution as adopted by the Fathers of this Republic in 1789 evidently contemplated the result which has now happened, to wit, the abolition of slavery. The men who framed it, and those who adopted it, framed and adopted it for the people, and the whole people, colored men being at the time legal voters in most of the states. In that instrument as it now stands, there is not a sentence or a syllable conveying any shadow of right or authority by which any state may make color or race a disqualification for the exercise of the right of suffrage, and the undersigned will regard as a real calamity the introduction of any words expressly or by implication, giving any state or states such power; and we respectfully submit that if the amendment now pending before your honorable body shall be adopted, it will enable any state to deprive any class of citizens of the elective franchise, notwithstanding it was obviously framed with a view to affect the question of Negro suffrage only.
For these and other reasons the undersigned respectfully pray that the amendment to the Constitution recently passed by the House and now before your body, not be adopted. And as in duty bound, etc.
In addition to this letter addressed to the United States Senate, Mr. Douglass and his associates saw and argued the matter with every member of that body who would grant them an audience. The “Option Measure” was defeated and to a considerable extent through Mr. Douglass’s influence. By this time the question of Negro suffrage had become a leading issue. For the purpose of obtaining the sense of the country on this subject, there was arranged what was known at the time as the “National Loyalists’ Convention,” to be held at Philadelphia in September, 1866. It was made up of delegates from all parts of the Union, including many influential men in and out of public life. Rochester elected Mr. Douglass as its sole representative, which was a great tribute to him, giving new recognition to the Negro race. The entire country was quick to take notice of the city’s action, in so important a gathering, and there was not only objection but open opposition to Mr. Douglass’s taking a seat in the convention. Some of the leading delegates united in an effort to persuade him not to go.
Speaking of the situation, Mr. Douglass says that at Harrisburg, there was attached to his train cars loaded with representatives from some of the western states.
When my presence became known to these gentlemen, he continues, a consultation was immediately held among them upon the question of what was best to be done with me. It seems strange, in view of all the progress which had been made, that such a question should arise. But the circumstances of the times made me the Jonah of the Republican ship, and responsible for the contrary winds and misbehaving weather. I was duly waited upon by a committee of my brother delegates to represent to me the undesirableness of my attendance upon the National Loyalists’ Convention. The spokesman of these sub-delegates was a gentleman from New Orleans…He began by telling me that he knew my history and my works and that he entertained no very slight degree of respect for me; that both himself and the gentlemen who sent him, as well as those who accompanied him, regarded me with admiration; that there was not among them the remotest objection to sitting in the convention with me, but their personal wishes in the matter they felt should be set aside for the sake of our common cause; that whether I should or should not go in the convention was purely a matter of expediency; that I must know that there was a very strong and bitter prejudice against my race in the North as well as in the South and that the cry of social and political equality would not fail to be raised against the Republican party if I should attend this loyal National convention…I listened very attentively to the address, uttering no word during its delivery; but when it was finished, I said to the speaker and the committee, with all the emphasis I could throw into my voice and manner, “Gentlemen, with all respect, you might as well ask me to put a loaded pistol to my head and blow my brains out, as to ask me to keep out of this convention to which I have been duly elected. Then, gentlemen, what would you gain by the exclusion? Would not the charge of cowardice, certain to be brought against you, prove more damaging than that of amalgamation; would you not be branded all over the land as dastardly hypocrites, professing principles which you have no wish or intention of carrying out? As a matter of policy or expediency, you will be wise to let me in. Everybody knows that I have been duly elected as a delegate by the city of Rochester. This fact has been broadly announced and commented upon all over the country. If I am not admitted, the public will ask, ’where is Douglass? Why is he not seen in the convention?’ and you would find that inquiry more difficult to answer than any charge brought against you for favoring political or social equality; but ignoring the question of policy altogether and looking at it as one of right and wrong, I am bound to go into that convention; not to do so would be to contradict the principles and practice of my life.”
The delegates withdrew from the car in which Mr. Douglass was riding without accomplishing their purpose. It was soon made evident to him that his argument had not changed the prejudices of his visitors. When he reached Philadelphia and learned of the plans of the convention, he easily detected a concerted scheme to ignore him altogether. “I was,” he says, “the ugly and deformed child of the family and to be kept out of sight as much as possible, while there was company in the house.”
It had been arranged that the delegates should assemble at Independence Hall and from there march in a body through the streets to the building where the convention was to be held. Mr. Douglass was present at Independence Hall at the appointed time, but he at once realized the situation. Only a few of the delegates, like General B.F. Butler, had the courage to even greet him. He was not only snubbed generally, but it was hinted to him that if he attempted to walk in the procession through the streets of a city where but a few years ago Negroes had been assaulted and their houses and schools burned down, he would be jeered at, insulted, and perhaps mobbed. It required no little courage to act in the face of these conditions, but Douglass never wavered. He was strong enough not to falter even at the desertion of men whom he had a right to regard as his friends.
When the procession was formed, the delegates were to march two abreast. By this arrangement, the man who would have the hardihood to walk beside the only Negro in line would be an easy mark for scorn and contempt if not bodily attack. It was believed that no white man, under these conditions, would dare to march with Douglass. One delegate after another, those who had formerly taken counsel with him, passed him by. But to use his own words: “There was one man present who was broad enough to take in the whole situation and brave enough to meet the duty of the hour; one who was neither afraid nor ashamed to own me as a man and a brother. One man of the purest Caucasian type, a poet, a scholar, brilliant as a writer, eloquent as a speaker, and holding a high influential position, the editor of a weekly journal having the largest circulation of any weekly paper in the state of New York, and that man was Theodore Tilton. He came to me in my isolation, seized me by the hand in a most brotherly way, and proposed to walk with me in the procession.”
The delegates marching through the streets of Philadelphia met with a great ovation, and Mr. Douglass was singled out for special marks of favor. Along the entire way he was loudly cheered, applauded, and congratulated by the multitude. Those who had misjudged the sentiments of the Philadelphians were ashamed of themselves when they saw that he was apparently the most popular man in the procession. A very pleasing incident occurred on the line of march that day which served to call special attention to him. AS his eyes caught a glimpse of a beautiful young woman among the spectators, he was seen suddenly to leave his place and fervently greet her. She was a member of the Auld family, and Mr. Douglass, recognizing her at once, paid her homage publicly. It appears that she had come to Philadelphia from her home in Baltimore when she heard that the ex-slave was to be there and walk in the procession as one of the great men of the occasion, and had been following the line for over an hour with the hope of catching a view of the man who, but for his desire for freedom, might still have been a servant in her family. The newspapers made much of the incident, and described it as one of the most dramatic features of the day.
By the time the marchers had reached the hall, the fear of Mr. Douglass’s presence, as a delegate, had given way to a feeling of respect, pride, and comradeship. He threw off all restraint, and went into to win from this body a resolution in favor of the franchise for his people. He delivered one of those powerful and convincing addresses that he was well able to make when aroused. As a result, he quite captured and controlled the sentiment of the convention in favor of his resolution, and when it adjourned Mr. Douglass was congratulated for having achieved a personal triumph that was remarkable for its completeness.
After the adoption of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, there was some curious speculation as to what place Frederick Douglass would take in this larger world of citizenship that he had helped to create. A number of his friends and admirers thought that he had led his people so successfully out of the wilderness of slavery that he should now put himself into a position where he could guide them further in the proper use of their rights and privileges as citizens of the republic. Many urged that the South was the right place for one of his power and standing. No colored man in this country had such training for large responsibilities as Mr. Douglass had had, during the previous thirty years of service. It was also feared that, without such leadership as he could bring to the South, small men, of mere political training and of partisan methods and ambitions, would assume the direction of the newly-made citizens, and, by their selfishness and greed, bring down upon these poor people more miseries than could be cured in many generations. Everything seemed to invite Frederick Douglass to these new duties and new responsibilities. It was pointed out to him how easily he could have become a pioneer by being elected to the House of Representatives, or even to the Senate, from some of the reconstructed states of the South.
He thought long and seriously over the project, but finally concluded not to change his habitation for the sake of gaining political power. He expressed his conclusions on the matter as follows:
That I did not yield to this temptation was not entirely due to my age, but the idea did not entirely square well with my better judgment and sense of propriety. The thought of going to live among a people in order to gain their votes and acquire official honors was repugnant to my sense of self-respect, and I had not lived long enough in the political atmosphere of Washington to have this feeling blunted so as to make me indifferent to its suggestions…I had small faith in my aptitude as a politician, and could not hope to cope with rival aspirants. My life and labors in the North had in a measure unfitted me for such work, and I could not have readily adapted myself to that peculiar oratory found to be most effective with the newly enfranchised class. Upon the whole, I have never regretted that I did not enter the arena of Congressional honors to which I was invited. Outside of mere personal considerations, I saw, or thought I saw, that, in the nature of the case, the scepter of power had passed from the old slave-states to the free and loyal states, and that hereafter, at least for some time to come, the loyal North, with its advanced civilization, must dictate the policy and control of the destiny of the republic. I had an audience ready made in the free-states, one which the labors of thirty years had prepared for me, and before this audience the freedmen needed an advocate as much as they needed a member in Congress. I think that in this I was right, for thus far our colored members in Congress have not largely made themselves felt in the legislation of this country, and I have little reason to think that I could have done better than they – 1907