Frederick Douglass’ Dream for Equality
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.Order now
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 insurmountable.
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 social goal.
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 were
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 Fifteenth amendments).
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 Douglass’ crusade.
The Frederick Douglass Papers Volumes I-V
Editor: John Blassingame, Yale University Press 1985
Radical Abolition, Anarchy and the Government of God in Antislavery Thought
Lewis Perry, Cornell University 1973
William Lloyd Garrison and the Humanitarian Reformers
Editor: Oscar Handlin, Little Brown and Company, 1955