Frederick Douglass And The Lincoln Tradition

by Denise Henderson

Printed in The American Almanac, June 8, 1992.


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On August 25, 1892, Colored People's Day was proclaimed at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, held in honor of the 400th anniversary of Columbus's discovery of America. The very idea of a separate day for colored people was a throwback to the time before President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863.

The main speaker of the day was 74-year-old Frederick Douglass. He had been organized into participating in the special day by his favorite grandson, Joseph Douglass, a classical violinist, and his friend, Will Marion Cook, also a classical violinist, a virtuoso who had traveled to Europe and had been a student of Johannes Brahms's collaborator, Joseph Joachim.

The two violinists began the program with classical music. Then, Frederick Douglass, himself an amateur violinist, got up to speak from a prepared text, ``The Race Problem in America.'' Halfway through the speech, however, Douglass put down his prepared text to respond to white hecklers in the audience.

``Men talk of the Negro problem,'' Douglass said extemporaneously. ``There is no Negro problem. The problem is whether the American people have loyalty enough, honor enough, patriotism enough, to live up to their own Constitution.... We Negroes love our country. We fought for it. We ask only that we be treated as well as those who fought against it.''

Douglass's impromptu speech brought the house down.


Freeing the Slaves

Frederick Douglass was of the generation which had fought to make the Constitution a reality for 4 million slaves in the southern United States. He had advised President Lincoln in 1862 to free the slaves in Washington, D.C., and was one of the strongest advocates for creating black military units to fight for the Union in the Civil War. As he fought against slavery, he also realized that what he was fighting was an economic system directly opposed to the American System on which the country had been founded.

Douglass spent his life fighting for the United States to live up to the promises of the Constitution, which had originally called for an end to the importation of slaves from Africa, leading to the gradual abolition of slavery. After Lincoln's assassination, Douglass continued the fight for the constitutionally guaranteed rights of black citizens.


Douglass's Autobiography

Yet, from 1892 to 1962, his final and most complete autobiography, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, was unavailable to the general public. It is an eloquent statement of what slavery is, and why economic justice must prevail in a society. It demonstrates to the reader that each individual needs an inner-directed, internal sense of freedom to conquer slavery. Douglass also makes clear that such internal freedom can only be achieved through a desire to learn, and a commitment to study. Finally, he invites the reader to see what slavery is as an economic system.

Now, in 1992, The Life and Times is again out of print. Unfortunately, a new biography has been published, William S. McFeely's Frederick Douglass, which is a not-so-subtle, not-so-sophisticated racist diatribe against Douglass. Were American schoolchildren to read Douglass's autobiography, instead of revisionist textbooks or biographies, they would discover a new hero, a man who put his life on the line for his ideas, and who never stopped educating himself.

Douglass's association in his later years with the Henry Carey wing of the Republican Party also makes clear why the debased McFeely biography is preferred today by the political establishment, over the self-conscious testimony of Frederick Douglass, as can be seen in excerpts from The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (New York: Collier Books, 1962).


Moral Responsibility

When Douglass was 25 years old, and still a slave, he was transferred from the family of Hugh Auld to the family of Thomas Auld. As a slave, Douglass was not supposed to think that the fruits of his labor were his own, or that he had any right to them. But the hunger he experienced ``for the first time in seven years,'' led him to rationalize his right as a slave to steal from his master. ``...|After much reflection I reasoned myself into the conviction that there was no other way to do, and that after all there was no wrong in it,'' he explains.

``Considering that my labor and person were the property of Master Thomas and that I was deprived of the necessaries of life--necessaries obtained by my own labor--it was easy to deduce the right to supply myself with what was my own. It was simply appropriating what was my own to the use of my master, since the health and strength derived from such food were exerted in his service. To be sure, this was stealing, according to the law and gospel I heard from the pulpit, but I had begun to attach less importance to what dropped from that quarter on such points....

``It was necessary that the right to steal from others should be established, and this could only rest upon a wider range of generalization than that which supposed the right to steal from my master.... I will state the case as I laid it out in my mind. `I am,' I thought, `not only the slave of Master Thomas, but I am the slave of society at large. Society at large has bound itself, in form and in fact, to assist Master Thomas in robbing me of my rightful liberty, and of the just reward of my labor; therefore, whatever rights I have against Master Thomas I have equally against those confederated with him in robbing me of liberty. As society has marked me out as privileged plunder, on the principle of self-preservation, I am justified in plundering in turn. Since each slave belongs to all, all must therefore belong to each.'|...

``The morality of free society could have no application to slave society. Slaveholders made it almost impossible for the slave to commit any crime.... If he stole, he but took his own; if he killed his master, he only imitated the heroes of the revolution. Slaveholders I held to be individually and collectively responsible for all the evils which grew out of the horrid relation, and I believed they would be so held in the sight of God. To make a man a slave was to rob him of moral responsibility. Freedom of choice is the essence of all accountability.''


Northern vs. Southern Economy

Douglass also describes how impressed he was by the difference between labor in the North and the South, after he had escaped from slavery in Baltimore, and settled in New Bedford, Mass.

``Living in Baltimore as I had done for many years ... I had no proper idea of the wealth, refinement, enterprise, and high civilization of [the Northern section] of the country.... I came naturally to the conclusion that poverty must be the general condition of the people of the free states. A white man holding no slaves in the country from which I came, was usually an ignorant and poverty-stricken man.... Hence I supposed that since the non-slaveholders at the South were, as a class, ignorant, poor, and degraded, the non-slaveholders at the North must be in a similar condition. New Bedford, therefore, which at that time was in proportion to its population, really the richest city in the Union, took me greatly by surprise, in the evidences it gave of its solid wealth and grandeur. I found that even the laboring classes lived in better houses, that their houses were more elegantly furnished and were more abundantly supplied with conveniences and comforts, than the houses of many who owned slaves on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. This was true not only of the white people of that city....

``I was not long in finding the cause of the difference, in these respects, between the people of the North and South. It was the superiority of educated mind over mere brute force.... On the wharves of New Bedford I received my first light. I saw there industry without bustle, labor without noise, toil--honest, earnest and exhaustive--without the whip. There was no loud singing or hallooing, as at the wharves of southern ports when ships were loading or unloading, no loud cursing or quarreling; everything went on as smoothly as well-oiled machinery. One of the first incidents which impressed me with the superior mental character of labor in the North over that of the South, was the manner of loading and unloading vessels. In a southern port twenty or thirty hands would be employed to do what five or six men, with the help of on ox, would do at the wharf in New Bedford. Main strength--human muscle--unassisted by intelligent skill, was slavery's method of labor. With a capital of about sixty dollars in the shape of a good-natured old ox attached to the end of a stout rope, New Bedford did the work of ten or twelve thousand dollars, represented in the bones and muscles of slaves, and did it far better. In a word, I found everything managed with a much more scrupulous regard to economy, both of men and things, time and strength, than in the country from which I had come. Instead of going a hundred yards to the spring, the maidservant had a well or pump at her elbow. The wood used for fuel was kept dry and snugly piled away from winter. Here were sinks, drains, self-shutting gates, pounding-barrels, washing-machines, wringing machines, and a hundred other contrivances for saving time and money.''


The Abolitionists

Frederick Douglass soon became the leading black spokesman for the abolitionists, and toured the Northeast to speak out against slavery. Over time, however, he began to disagree with the methods of William Lloyd Garrison, who favored abstention from voting and a decoupling of North from South--a ``balkanization'' of the United States. In his autobiography, Douglass writes:

``I was then a faithful disciple of Wm. Lloyd Garrison, and fully committed to his doctrine touching the pro-slavery character of the Constitution of the United States, also the non-voting principle of which he was the known and distinguished advocate. With him, I held it to be the first duty of the non-slaveholding states to dissolve the union with the slaveholding states, and hence my cry, like his, was `No union with slaveholders.' With these views I went into western New York, and during the first four years of my labors there I advocated them with pen and tongue to the best of my ability. After a time, a careful reconsideration of the subject convinced me that there was no necessity for dissolving the union between the northern and southern states, that to seek this dissolution was no part of my duty as an abolitionist, that to abstain from voting was to refuse to exercise a legitimate and powerful means for abolishing slavery, and that the Constitution of the United States not only contained no guarantees in favor of slavery, but, on the contrary, was in its letter and spirit an antislavery instrument, demanding the abolition of slavery as a condition of its own existence as the supreme law of the land....

``My new circumstances [as a newspaper editor] compelled me to re-think the whole subject, and to study with some care not only the just and proper rules of legal interpretation, but the origin, design, nature, rights, powers, and duties of civil governments, and also the relations which human beings sustain to it. By such a course of thought and reading I was conducted to the conclusion that the Constitution of the United States--inaugurated to `form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty'--could not well have been designed at the same time to maintain and perpetuate a system of rapine and murder like slavery, especially as not one word can be found in the Constitution to authorize such a belief. Then, again, if the declared purposes of an instrument are to government the meaning of all its parts and details, as they clearly should, the Constitution of our country is our warrant for the abolition of slavery in every state of the Union.''

Douglass also had a run-in with another abolitionist, Harriet Beecher Stowe. Although he refrained from any direct criticism of Mrs. Stowe, the incident described below makes it clear that Mrs. Stowe was all talk and no action. At her request, Douglass wrote a letter (excerpted below) in which he outlined a plan for a mechanics' school for blacks to be built in the North for which she could raise funds in England. He thought the time had come for blacks to become tradesmen. Rather than focusing on classical education, his plan focused on making the black community economically self-sufficient. But when Mrs. Stowe returned from England, she told him only that she had ``reconsidered.''

``Denied the means of learning useful trades, we are pressed into the narrowest limits to obtain a livelihood.... Even these employments are rapidly passing away out of our hands....

``We must become mechanics; we must build as well as live in houses; we must make as well as use furniture; we must construct bridges as well as pass over them, before we can properly live or be respected by our fellow men. We need mechanics as well as ministers. We need workers in iron, clay, and leather.... At present we are, in the northern states, unknown as mechanics. We give no proof of genius or skill at the county, state, or national fairs. We are unknown at any of the great exhibitions of the industry of our fellow-citizens, and being unknown, we are unconsidered....

``The most telling, the most killing refutation of slavery is the presentation of an industrious, enterprising, thrifty, and intelligent free black population. Such a population I believe would rise in the northern states under the fostering care of such a college as that supposed.''

Then, wrote Douglass,
``While Mrs. Stowe was abroad she was so persistently and vigorously attacked for receiving money for her own private use, that the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher felt called upon to ... reply to it in the columns of the New York Independent.... After her return to this country I called again on Mrs. Stowe, and was much disappointed to learn from her that she had reconsidered her plan for the industrial school.... Her change of purpose was a great disappointment, and placed me in an awkward position before the colored people of this country, as well as to friends abroad, to whom I had given assurances that the money would be appropriated in the manner I have described.''


Lincoln and Douglass

Frederick Douglass wrote in his autobiography of Abraham Lincoln, not with the words of a fanatic abolitionist, but with the calm, deliberate words of a statesman, comprehensive enough to take in the welfare of the whole country.

``As a measure of agitation, the repeal of the Missouri Compromise ... was perhaps the most effective. It was that which brought Abraham Lincoln into prominence, and into conflict with Stephen A. Douglas ... and compelled the western states to take a deeper interest than they ever had done before in the whole question. Pregnant words were now spoken on the side of freedom, words which went straight to the heart of the nation. It was Mr. Lincoln who told the American people at this crisis that the `Union could not long endure half slave and half free; that they must be all one or the other, and that the public mind could find no resting place but in the belief in the ultimate extinction of slavery.'

``No wonder the friends of freedom saw Lincoln as the standard bearer of all the moral and political forces which could be united and wielded against slave power. In a few simple words he had embodied the words and the character of the man most fit to lead and guide the country, amid the perils that were present and yet to come.

``The South also recognized Lincoln as the natural leader of the rising political sentiment of the country against slavery, and it was equally quick in its efforts to counteract and destroy his influence....''

In mid-1863, after the Emancipation Proclamation had been announced, President Lincoln called Frederick Douglass to the White House to confer with him, where Douglass was pleasantly surprised to discover that the President had not released the Proclamation as a wartime measure, and in fact was concerned that not enough slaves knew they had been freed. Douglass wrote:

``It was when General Grant was fighting his way through the Wilderness to Richmond ... that President Lincoln did me the honor to invite me to the Executive Mansion for a conference on the situation.... The main subject on which he wished to confer with me was as to the means most desirable to be employed outside the army to induce the slaves in the rebel states to come within the federal lines. The increasing opposition to the war, in the North, and the mad cry against it, because it was being made an abolition war, alarmed Mr. Lincoln, and made him apprehensive that a peace might be forced upon him which would leave still in slavery all who had not come within our lines. What he wanted was to make his proclamation as effective as possible in the event of such a peace. He said, in a regretful tone, `The slaves are not coming so rapidly and so numerously to us as I had hoped.' I replied that the slaveholders knew how to keep such things from their slaves, and probably very few knew of his proclamation. `Well,' he said, `I want you to set about devising some means of making them acquainted with it, and for bringing them into our lines.' He spoke with great earnestness and much solicitude.... He said he was being accused of protracting the war beyond its legitimate object and of failing to make peace when he might have done so to advantage. He was afraid of what might come of all these complaints, but was persuaded that no solid and lasting peace could come short of absolute submission on the part of the rebels, and he was not for giving them rest by futile conferences with unauthorized persons, at Niagara Falls, or elsewhere. He saw the danger of premature peace, and, like a thoughtful and sagacious man as he was, wished to provide means of rendering such consummation as harmless as possible. I was the more impressed by this benevolent consideration because he before said, in answer to the peace clamor, that his object was to save the Union, and to do so with or without slavery. What he said on this day showed a deeper moral conviction against slavery than I had ever seen before in anything spoken or written by him. I listened with the deepest interest and profoundest satisfaction, and, at his suggestion, agreed to undertake the organizing of a band of scouts, composed of colored men, whose business should be ... to go into the rebel states, beyond the lines of our armies, and carry the news of emancipation, and urge the slaves to come within our boundaries....

``I refer to this conversation because I think that, on Mr. Lincoln's part, it is evidence conclusive that the proclamation, so far at least as he was concerned, was not effected merely as a `necessity.'|''


List of Links To: Other Writings and Speeches by Frederick Douglass, On-Line.

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The preceding article is a rough version of the article that appeared in The American Almanac. It is made available here with the permission of The New Federalist Newspaper. Any use of, or quotations from, this article must attribute them to The New Federalist, and The American Almanac.


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