December 1866–January 1867 The Civil War

Reconstruction, and an Appeal to Impartial Suffrage

A former slave urges Congress to grant black Americans the vote.
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Born into slavery in Maryland in 1818, Frederick Douglass taught himself to read, escaped to the North, and became active in anti-slavery circles, gaining recognition as an eloquent lecturer. In 1845, his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself, became a best seller, propelling him to international prominence. He founded several abolitionist publications, continued to lecture widely, and occasionally advised President Lincoln. By the mid-19th century, he ranked among the most eminent of Americans.

After the war, he remained an advocate for civil rights, and in 1865, when the American Anti-Slavery Society considered disbanding because slavery had at last been outlawed, Douglass asserted, “Slavery is not abolished until the black man has the ballot.”

In a pair of Atlantic articles in 1866 and ’67, Douglass addressed members of the 39th session of Congress, urging them to give black Americans the right to vote. Three years later, the Fifteenth Amendment, prohibiting voter discrimination on the basis of race or color, would be passed by the 40th Congress.

—Sage Stossel
A portrait of Frederick Douglass made in 1876, the same year the former slave would help unveil the Freedmen’s Monument in Washington, D.C. (George Kendall Warren/National Portrait Gallery)

Whether the tremendous war so heroically fought and so victoriously ended shall pass into history a miserable failure, barren of permanent results … or whether, on the other hand, we shall, as the rightful reward of victory over treason, have a solid nation, entirely delivered from all contradictions and social antagonisms, based upon loyalty, liberty, and equality, must be determined one way or the other by the present session of Congress …

The arm of the Federal government is long, but it is far too short to protect the rights of individuals in the interior of distant States. They must have the power to protect themselves, or they will go unprotected, spite of all the laws the Federal government can put upon the national statute-book.

Slavery, like all other great systems of wrong, founded in the depths of human selfishness, and existing for ages, has not neglected its own conservation. It has steadily exerted an influence upon all around it favorable to its own continuance. And to-day it is so strong that it could exist, not only without law, but even against law. Custom, manners, morals, religion, are all on its side everywhere in the South; and when you add the ignorance and servility of the ex-slave to the intelligence and accustomed authority of the master, you have the conditions, not out of which slavery will again grow, but under which it is impossible for the Federal government to wholly destroy it, unless the Federal government be armed with despotic power, to blot out State authority, and to station a Federal officer at every cross-road. This, of course, cannot be done, and ought not even if it could. The true way and the easiest way is to make our government entirely consistent with itself, and give to every loyal citizen the elective franchise,—a right and power which will be ever present, and will form a wall of fire for his protection …

[The people] demand such a reconstruction as shall put an end to the present anarchical state of things in the late rebellious States,—where frightful murders and wholesale massacres are perpetrated in the very presence of Federal soldiers. This horrible business they require shall cease. They want a reconstruction such as will protect loyal men, black and white, in their persons and property; such a one as will cause Northern industry, Northern capital, and Northern civilization to flow into the South, and make a man from New England as much at home in Carolina as elsewhere in the Republic. No Chinese wall can now be tolerated. The South must be opened to the light of law and liberty, and this session of Congress is relied upon to accomplish this important work …

This great measure is sought as earnestly by loyal white men as by loyal blacks, and is needed alike by both. Let sound political prescience but take the place of an unreasoning prejudice, and this will be done …

For better or for worse, (as in some of the old marriage ceremonies,) the negroes are evidently a permanent part of the American population. They are too numerous and useful to be colonized, and too enduring and self-perpetuating to disappear by natural causes. Here they are, four millions of them, and, for weal or for woe, here they must remain. Their history is parallel to that of the country; but while the history of the latter has been cheerful and bright with blessing, theirs has been heavy and dark with agonies and curses … They now stand before Congress and the country, not complaining of the past, but simply asking for a better future … It is true that they came to the relief of the country at the hour of its extremest need. It is true that, in many of the rebellious States, they were almost the only reliable friends the nation had throughout the whole tremendous war. It is true that, notwithstanding their alleged ignorance, they were wiser than their masters, and knew enough to be loyal, while those masters only knew enough to be rebels and traitors. It is true that they fought side by side in the loyal cause with our gallant and patriotic white soldiers, and that, but for their help,—divided as the loyal States were,—the Rebels might have succeeded in breaking up the Union, thereby entailing border wars and troubles of unknown duration and incalculable calamity. All this and more is true of these loyal negroes … These facts speak to the better dispositions of the human heart; but they seem of little weight with the opponents of impartial suffrage.

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