Frederick Douglass Essay, Research Paper
Abolition stopped Frederick Douglass dead in his tracks and forced him
to reinvent himself. He learned the hard central truth about abolition.
Once he learned what that truth was, he was compelled to tell it in
his speeches and writings even if it meant giving away the most secret
truth about himself. From then on, he accepted abolition for what it
was and rode the fates.
The truth he learned about abolition was that it was a white
enterprise. It was a fight between whites. Blacks joined abolition
only on sufferance. They also joined at their own risks. For a long
time, Douglass, a man of pride and artfulness, denied this fact.
For years there had been disagreements among many abolitionists.
Everyone had their own beliefs towards abolition. There was especially
great bitterness between Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison, dating
from the early 1850’s when Douglass had repudiated Garrisonian
Disunionism. Garrisonians supported the idea of disunion. Disunion
would have relieved the North of responsibility for the sin of slavery.
It would have also ended the North’s obligation to enforce the
fugitive slave law, and encourage a greater exodus of fugitive slaves
from the South. (161,162 Perry) Douglass did not support this idea
because it would not result in the complete abolition of slavery.
Blacks deserved just as much freedom as whites. He believed that the
South had committed treason, and the Union must rebel by force if
necessary. Astonished by Garrison’s thoughts, Douglass realized that
abolition was truly a war between whites. Garrison, and many others,
had failed to see the slaves as human beings.
Were blacks then supposed to be irretrievably black in a white world
? Where is the freedom and hope if all great things are privilege only
to the whites? Douglass resolved never again to risk himself to
betrayal. Troubled, Douglass did not lose faith in his beliefs of
abolishing slavery. However, he did reinvent his thinking.
Douglass eventually made his way with what amounted to the applied
ideas of Alexis de Tocqueville and Fancis Grund, both of which were
writing at the time when Douglass realized the truth about abolition.
Grund and Tocqueville celebrated the “new man,” the “self-made” men who
were breaking through old restraints. These restraints included
monopolized privileges, restricted franchises, and the basic refusal of
the main chance of equal opportunity. The blacks were confronted by
the most vicious and deadly restraints any “new man” had been compelled
to face in the United States. This was horrendous, but it was not
Douglass decided that the separation between whites was an advantage
to his cause. He could then make allies with one of the disputants in
the fight and exploit the alliance to yield guarantees of access to the
devices of power and mobility the “new man” had historically sought.
In conclusion, he and his allies would not share any common causes
except that “your enemy is my enemy.” Influenced by Grund’s and
Tocqueville’s beliefs, this was Douglass’ new political strategy and
William Garrison continued to hounded Douglass. He once said, “I
regard him as thoroughly base and selfish….He reveals himself more
and more to me as destitute of every principle of honor, ungrateful to
the last degree….He is not worthy of respect, confidence, or
countenance.” (Garrison Papers)
But in 1862, during wartime, Douglass was ready to bury their
differences and implement his new political strategy.
“Every man who is ready to work for the overthrow of slavery, whether a
voter or non-voter, a Garrisonian or a Gerrit Smith man, black or white,
is both clansman and kinsman of ours. Whatever political or personal
differences, which have in other days divided and distracted us, a
common object and a common emergency makes us for the time at least,
forget those differences. No class of men are doing more according to
their numbers, to conduct this great war to the Emancipation of the
slaves than Mr. Garrison and the American Anti-Slavery Society.”
(Frederick Douglass, Monthly of March 1862).
Raising the free black regiments for service in the Union Army was a
policy intended to give blacks a sturdy claim on the state and prove
that they were citizens of the United States. Frederick Douglass was
extremely active, and his own sons were the first recruits from New
York. In March 1863, he published the stirring Men of Color, To Arms!
“Liberty won by white men would lack half its luster. “Who would be
free themselves must strike the blow,” proclaimed Douglass. “The
chance is now given you to end in a day the bondage of centuries, and
to rise in one bound from social degradation to the plane of common
equality with all other varieties of men….Action! action! not
criticism, is the plain duty of this hour.” Soon, two black regiments
After learning the truth about abolition, Douglass never deceived
himself by thinking that the blacks were anything but the nation’s
foster children, taken into the “family” as a result of accident and
necessity. Although they were not of the nation, they were in the
nation. They, the black race, were citizens of the United States, and
they were on equal terms. The laws of the national state guaranteed
that. By 1870, Douglass and his allies had made considerable progress.
Most of the measures they had originally advocated had been adopted:
the immediate and universal abolition of slavery, the enlistment of
black soldiers, the creation of a Freedmen’s Bureau, and most
importantly, the incorporation of the black man’s civil and political
equality into the law of the land (Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and
But the next decade proved to be a very frustrating one for Douglass
and many of his supporters. Many of the achievements of the Civil War
and Reconstruction were not concrete. It became expedient for northern
political and business interests to conciliate southern whites, and an
end to federal enforcement of black equality in the South was the price
of conciliation. Frederick Douglass declared that “as the war for the
Union recedes into the misty shadows of the past, and the Negro is not
longer needed to assault forts and stop rebel bullets, he is . . . of
less importance. Peace with the old master class has been war to the
Negro. As the one has risen, the other has fallen.” The
Reconstruction guarantees of the national state were broken.
The ugly truth was now exposed. Abolition was a war between whites,
and blacks joined only on sufferance. Douglass knew this early on,
but now everyone knew. It may sound depressing, but Douglass, and many
others like him, did build the foundation for later equality movements
by Martin Luther King. Today, we are still working up to the ideals of