Frederick Douglass’ Dream for EqualityAbolition stopped Frederick Douglass dead in his tracks and forced himto reinvent himself. He learned the hard central truth about abolition. Oncehe learned what that truth was, he was compelled to tell it in his speeches andwritings even if it meant giving away the most secret truth about himself. Fromthen 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 prideand artfulness, denied this fact.For years there had been disagreements among many abolitionists. Everyonehad their own beliefs towards abolition. There was especially great bitternessbetween Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison, dating from the early 1850’s whenDouglass had repudiated Garrisonian Disunionism.
Garrisonians supported theidea of disunion. Disunion would have relieved the North of responsibility forthe sin of slavery. It would have also ended the North’s obligation to enforcethe fugitive slave law, and encourage a greater exodus of fugitive slaves fromthe South. (161,162 Perry) Douglass did not support this idea because it wouldnot result in the complete abolition of slavery. Blacks deserved just as muchfreedom as whites. He believed that the South had committed treason, and theUnion must rebel by force if necessary. Astonished by Garrison’s thoughts,Douglass realized that abolition was truly a war between whites.
Garrison, andmany 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 thewhites? Douglass resolved never again to risk himself to betrayal. Troubled,Douglass did not lose faith in his beliefs of abolishing slavery. However, hedid reinvent his thinking.Douglass eventually made his way with what amounted to the applied ideasof Alexis de Tocqueville and Fancis Grund, both of which were writing at thetime when Douglass realized the truth about abolition. Grund and Tocquevillecelebrated the “new man,” the “self-made” men who were breaking through oldrestraints.
These restraints included monopolized privileges, restrictedfranchises, and the basic refusal of the main chance of equal opportunity. Theblacks 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 itwas not insurmountable.Douglass decided that the separation between whites was an advantage to hiscause. He could then make allies with one of the disputants in the fight andexploit the alliance to yield guarantees of access to the devices of power andmobility the “new man” had historically sought. In conclusion, he and hisallies would not share any common causes except that “your enemy is my enemy.”Influenced by Grund’s and Tocqueville’s beliefs, this was Douglass’ newpolitical strategy and social goal.
William Garrison continued to hounded Douglass. He once said, “I regardhim as thoroughly base and selfish..
..He reveals himself more and more to me asdestitute of every principle of honor, ungrateful to the last degree….
He isnot worthy of respect, confidence, or countenance.” (Garrison Papers)But in 1862, during wartime, Douglass was ready to bury theirdifferences and implement his new political strategy.”Every man who is ready to work for the overthrow of slavery, whether a voter ornon-voter, a Garrisonian or a Gerrit Smith man, black or white, is both clansmanand kinsman of ours. Whatever political or personal differences, which have inother days divided and distracted us, a common object and a common emergencymakes us for the time at least, forget those differences. No class of men aredoing more according to their numbers, to conduct this great war to theEmancipation of the slaves than Mr. Garrison and the American Anti-SlaverySociety.
” (Frederick Douglass, Monthly of March 1862).Raising the free black regiments for service in the Union Army was apolicy intended to give blacks a sturdy claim on the state and prove that theywere citizens of the United States. Frederick Douglass was extremely active,and his own sons were the first recruits from New York. In March 1863, hepublished the stirring Men of Color, To Arms! “Liberty won by white men wouldlack 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 bondageof centuries, and to rise in one bound from social degradation to the plane ofcommon equality with all other varieties of men…
.Action! action! notcriticism, is the plain duty of this hour.” Soon, two black regiments wereformed.After learning the truth about abolition, Douglass never deceived himselfby thinking that the blacks were anything but the nation’s foster children,taken into the “family” as a result of accident and necessity. Although theywere not of the nation, they were in the nation. They, the black race, werecitizens of the United States, and they were on equal terms.
The laws of thenational state guaranteed that. By 1870, Douglass and his allies had madeconsiderable progress. Most of the measures they had originally advocated hadbeen adopted: the immediate and universal abolition of slavery, the enlistmentof 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 lawof the land (Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth amendments).But the next decade proved to be a very frustrating one for Douglass andmany of his supporters. Many of the achievements of the Civil War andReconstruction were not concrete. It became expedient for northern politicaland business interests to conciliate southern whites, and an end to federalenforcement of black equality in the South was the price of conciliation.Frederick Douglass declared that “as the war for the Union recedes into themisty shadows of the past, and the Negro is not longer needed to assault fortsand stop rebel bullets, he is .
. . of less importance. Peace with the oldmaster class has been war to the Negro. As the one has risen, the other hasfallen.” The Reconstruction guarantees of the national state were broken.The ugly truth was now exposed.
Abolition was a war between whites, andblacks joined only on sufferance. Douglass knew this early on, but noweveryone 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.BibliographyThe Frederick Douglass Papers Volumes I-VEditor: John Blassingame, Yale University Press 1985Radical Abolition, Anarchy and the Government of God in Antislavery ThoughtLewis Perry, Cornell University 1973William Lloyd Garrison and the Humanitarian ReformersEditor: Oscar Handlin, Little Brown and Company, 1955