Introduction

Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) and other black leaders met with President Andrew Johnson in the White House on February 7, 1866, in an effort to persuade Johnson that his approach to restoration was causing untold damage to the freedmen in the South and to the hopes for national reconciliation on the basis of freedom. Douglass and the others in this meeting pressed Johnson to support a union of poor whites and freedmen into a “party . . . among the poor.” This new party, they hoped, would be able to win elections under the restored Southern constitutions and govern it toward protection for freedmen and the dismantling of the Southern slave-based oligarchy. This coalition would require that the vote be extended to freedmen. In response, Johnson expressed great skepticism about such a prospect and about extending the vote to freedmen. He was loath to require that states extend the vote to blacks. Black civil rights, Johnson held, came at the expense of poor southern whites and the latter were the true victims of the late war. “The Negro will vote with the late master, whom he does not hate,” Johnson predicted, “rather than with the non-slaveholding white, whom he does hate.”

After President Johnson made clear that he would not be argued out of this opinion, the delegation thanked Johnson for the audience and departed. Afterwards, Douglass wrote the following open letter for publication in the newspapers.


Source: University of Rochester Frederick Douglass Project, a collaboration of the Department of Rare Books, Special Collections, and Preservation at the University of Rochester and The Frederick Douglass Institute at West Chester University of Pennsylvania. https://goo.gl/c7J5j8.


Mr. President: . . . Believing as we do that the views and opinions you expressed in that address1 are entirely unsound and prejudicial to the highest interest of our race as well as 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:

  1. The first point to which we feel especially bound to take exception is your attempt to found a policy opposed to our enfranchisement, upon the alleged ground of an existing hostility on the part of the former slaves toward 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 a state 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 . . . . has its root and sap in the relation of slavery, and was incited on both sides by the cunning of the slave masters. Those masters secured their ascendency over both the poor whites and the 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, slave-drivers, and overseers. They were the men called in upon all occasions by the masters when any fiendish outrage was to be committed upon the slave. Now . . . the cause of this hatred removed, the effect must be removed also. Slavery is abolished. The cause of antagonism is removed, and you must see that it is altogether illogical . . . to legislate from slave-holding and slave-driving premises for a people whom you have repeatedly declared your purpose to maintain in freedom.
  2. Besides, even if it were true, as you allege, that the hostility of the blacks toward the poor 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 professed 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 political power? Can it be that you would recommend a policy which would arm the strong and cast down the defenseless? . . . Experience proves that those are oftenest 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 race and withholding it from another; but by maintaining a state of equal justice between all classes. . . .
  3. 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 at the North, and the growing respect for his rights among the people, and his increasing adaptation to a high state of civilization in this his native land, 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 suppose that Negroes could be tolerated among them in a state of the most degrading slavery and oppression, and must be cast away, driven into exile, for no other cause than having been freed from their chains.

Study Questions

A. Why did President Johnson think that a party uniting poor white Southerners and freedmen would be impossible? What does Frederick Douglass think the foundation for a permanent peace among whites and blacks in the South must be? How did Douglass respond to President Johnson’s views? Why does Douglass oppose colonization? What ultimately is Douglass’s vision for a multi-racial American South? What are the obstacles to that vision?

B. Does this document show President Johnson’s actual Reconstruction policy to correspond to or differ from the policy he presented in this first annual address to Congress? Does the argument Douglass makes about the foundations for a permanent peace support a position of general amnesty for the Southerners as put forward later by Carl Schurz? How does Douglass’s position compare with the position of President Lincoln in his letter to General Nathaniel Banks?

Footnotes

  1. Douglass refers to the off-the-cuff lecture Johnson had given, privately, to the delegation who met with him on February 7th to ask for his support of voting rights for freedmen.