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.