Echoes of Reconstruction: Challenges for Frederick Douglass Post-War: Black Equality & the Memory of Lee

Frederick Douglass, 1877

ECW welcomes back Patrick Young, author of The Reconstruction Era blog

I sometimes hear comedians joke that Black History Month, celebrated annually in February, is during the shortest month of the year. Rather than being emblematic of a slight, February was chosen by the outstanding African American historian Carter Woodson back in 1924. Originally a week-long celebration of African American history and culture, it later grew to a month-long observance. Black communities had long celebrated the births of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass in February, and Woodson both honored these two men and built on existing celebrations in Black communities around the country. In 21st Century America, nearly every part of our United States observes Black History Month, and in schools, the image of Frederick Douglass is ubiquitous.

Frederick Douglass believed he was born in February 1818 on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. He told his story of his life under slavery in books, articles, and speeches for decades after he escaped to New Bedford, Mass. in 1838. His life as a slave, his flight to freedom, and his abolitionist career are among the best-known life stories of any American of the 19th Century.

Douglass’s agitation for Emancipation during the Civil War, his advocacy for the enlistment of Black men as soldiers, his relationship with Lincoln, and his struggle for government recognition of the need to protect Black escapees from slavery who came into Union lines, are likely well-known to readers of this website. What may be less known, are the roles played by Douglass after the Civil War ended.

I want to look at two of Douglass’s interactions with white power structures after the war because they illustrate what he, and less well-placed African Americans were up against even after Emancipation. I won’t try to give a biography, for that you need to read David Blight’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom. I just want to recount a few incidents, and recall a little of what Douglass said after the war to show you where he was situated during Reconstruction. I have provided links in the text to more in-depth discussions, including access to primary sources.

The first incident shows how difficult achieving equality, or even being treated civilly, would be for Douglass. On February 7, 1866 Frederick Douglass led a delegation of 13 representatives of the National Convention of Colored Men to the White House to meet with President Andrew Johnson. Douglass and his colleagues hoped that the president would endorse extending the vote to blacks. Johnson had been looked at by many Black leaders with hope six months earlier, but over time his statements showed that while he supported the ending of slavery, the president’s views on Black civil rights were suspect. Douglass addressed Johnson in the words of a supplicant, saying:

Mr. President, we are not here to enlighten you, sir, as to your duties as the Chief Magistrate of this Republic, but to show our respect, and to present in brief the claims of our race to your favorable consideration. In the order of Divine Providence you are placed in a position where you have the power to save or destroy us, to bless or blast us. I mean our whole race. Your noble and humane predecessor placed in our hands the sword to assist in saving the nation, and we do hope that you, his able successor, will favorably regard the placing in our hands the ballot with which to save ourselves. We shall submit no argument on that point. The fact that we are the subjects of Government, and subject to taxation, subject to volunteer in the service of the country, subject to being drafted, subject to bear the burdens of the State, makes it not improper that we should ask to share in the privileges of this condition.

Johnson first insulted Douglass, a well-known speaker and writer, and responded that giving the black man the vote would ignite a race war of extermination. Johnson said:

I am free to say to you that I do not like to be arraigned by some who can get up handsomely rounded periods and deal in rhetoric, and talk about abstract ideas of liberty, who never perilled life, liberty, or property. This kind of theoretical, hollow, unpractical friendship amounts to but very little. While I say that I am a friend of the colored man, I do not want to adopt a policy that I believe will end in a contest between the races, which if persisted in will result in the extermination of one or the other. God forbid that I should be engaged in such a work!

Johnson told the Black men that only the white legislators of the Southern states could properly grant blacks the vote. These were often the same men who had held them as slaves a year earlier. Johnson said:

I might go down here to the ballot-box to-morrow and vote directly for universal suffrage; but if a great majority of the people said no, I should consider it would be tyrannical in me to attempt to force such upon them without their will. It is a fundamental tenet in my creed that the will of the people must be obeyed. Is there anything wrong or unfair in that?

Mr. Douglass (smiling.) A great deal that is wrong, Mr. President…

At the conclusion of the discussion Douglass made this famous reply:

Mr. Douglass. If the President will allow me, I would like to say one or two words in reply. You enfranchise your enemies and disfranchise your friends.

At the time of the meeting, the former enemies of the United States controlled most Southern state legislatures. All-White electorates chose men who had fought for the Confederacy to craft the Black Codes restricting not only the civil rights of Blacks, but even their ability to earn a living or marry freely. Andrew Johnson would continue to oppose Black voting rights throughout his term and Douglass would steadfastly oppose him.

By 1870, Douglass could count several seemingly insurmountable victories. Johnson had been impeached, the Civil Rights Act passed over his veto, the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments were ratified. Black men had voted en masse in 1868 for Ulysses S. Grant and their votes had elected him president. They had braved one of the worst waves of racial violence in American history to cast their first-ever votes for president.

Yet Douglass knew that the tide might be turning against civil rights. He saw the former Confederates building economic and political links with powerful men in the North. Douglass also witnessed the first stirrings in the North of a desire for white reconciliation with their “brothers” in the South. When Robert E. Lee died in October of 1870, the abolitionist was disgusted by the outpouring of tributes in the white press to the Confederate commander. A Galveston newspaper’s obituary, for example, described Lee and Stonewall Jackson triumphing together at Chancellorsville, amid “the shrieks of the wounded and dying,” who could now reunite in heaven. Douglass viewed this romantic image of the two ensconced in Paradise and wrote, “It would seem from this that the soldier who kills the most men in battle, even in a bad cause, is the greatest Christian, and entitled to the highest place in heaven.”

That Southern newspapers raised Lee up to the heights of a secular saint was odious enough in Douglass’s eyes, but when Northern papers depicted him as a noble man of principle, he worried that Lee’s battalions of the Lost Cause were winning the fight for the hearts of the White North and the restoration of the Southern “nobility” to power.

The Black leader was particularly perturbed that many editors described Lee as having “Died of a Broken Heart.” Former Confederates had already begun the construction of the Lost Cause narrative, in which Robert E. Lee was the human embodiment of the nobility of the Southern Cause. Douglass knew he had to puncture the image of the Marble Man and try to break the spell of romance surrounding him.

A month after Lee’s death, Douglass wrote in his newspaper:

“Is it not about time that this bombastic laudation of the rebel chief should cease? We can scarcely take up a paper…that is not filled with nauseating flatteries of the late Robert E. Lee.… Jeff Davis says that he “died of a broken heart…From which we are to infer that the liberation of four million slaves and their elevation to manhood, and to the enjoyment of their civil and political rights, was more than he could stand, and so he died!”

Douglass believed that there was a war being waged over the memory of the Civil War that would help determine the future place in the United States of African Americans. If Lee could be a national hero and a Christian symbol, then the Black slave, soldier, and freedman could be forgotten.

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5 Responses to Echoes of Reconstruction: Challenges for Frederick Douglass Post-War: Black Equality & the Memory of Lee

  1. BillF says:

    Thought provoking. Thank you.

  2. Steward T. Henderson says:

    Frederick Douglass is the person I admire the most in the Civil War time period. He was a great orator and and a great ambassador for African Americans in a very troubling time. The most important African American of his time.

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