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CHAPTER XIII.: VAST CHANGES. - Frederick Douglass, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass: From 1817-1882 
The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass: From 1817-1882, written by himself; with an Introduction by the Right Hon. John Bright, ed. John Lobb (London: Christian Age Office, 1882).
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Satisfaction and anxiety—New fields of labour opening—Lyceums and colleges soliciting addresses—Literary attractions—Pecuniary gain—Still pleading for human rights—President Andy Johnson—Coloured delegation—Their reply to him—National Loyalist Convention, 1866, and its procession—Not wanted—Meeting with an old friend—Joy and surprise—The old master’s welcome, and Miss Amanda’s friendship—Enfranchisement discussed—Its accomplishment—The negro a citizen.
WHEN the war for the union was substantially ended, and peace had dawned upon the land, as was the case almost immediately after the tragic death of President Lincoln; when the gigantic system of American slavery which had defied the march of time, resisted all the appeals and arguments of the abolitionists, and the humane testimonies of good men of every generation during two hundred and fifty years, was finally abolished and for ever prohibited by the organic law of the land; a strange and, perhaps, perverse feeling came over me. My great and exceeding joy over these stupendous achievements, especially over the abolition of slavery—which had been the deepest desire and the great labour of my life,—was slightly tinged with a feeling of sadness.
I felt I had reached the end of the noblest and best part of my life; my school was broken up, my church disbanded, and the beloved congregation dispersed, never to come together again. The anti-slavery platform had performed its work, and my voice was no longer needed. “Othello’s occupation was gone.” The great happiness of meeting with my fellow-workers was now to be among the things of memory. Then, too, some thought of my personal future came in. Like Daniel Webster, when asked by his friends to leave John Tyler’s Cabinet, I naturally inquired: “where shall I go?” I was still in the midst of my years, and had something of life before me, and as the minister, urged by my old friend George Bradburn to preach anti-slavery, when to do so was unpopular, said, “It is necessary for ministers to live,” I felt it was necessary for me to live, and to live honestly. But where should I go, and what should I do? I could not now take hold of life as I did when I first landed in New Bedford, twenty-five years before; I could not go to the wharf of either Gideon or George Howland, to Richmond’s brass foundry, or Richeton’s candle and oil works, load and unload vessels, or even ask Governor Clifford for a place as a servant. Rolling oil casks and shovelling coal were all well enough when I was younger, immediately after getting out of slavery. Doing this was a step up, rather than a step down; but all these avocations had had their day for me, and I had had my day for them, My public life and labours had unfitted me for the pursuits of my earlier years, and yet had not prepared me for more congenial and higher employment. Outside the question of slavery, my thoughts had not been much directed, and I could hardly hope to make myself useful in any other cause than that to which I had given the best twenty-five years of my life. A man in the situation I found myself, has not only to divest himself of the old, which is never easily done, but to adjust himself to the new, which is still more difficult. Delivering lectures under various names, John B. Gough says, “whatever may be the title, my lecture is always on Temperance;” and such is apt to be the case with any man who has devoted his time and thoughts to one subject for any considerable length of time. But what should I do? was the question. I had a few thousand dollars—a great convenience, and one not generally so highly prized by my people as it ought to be—saved from the sale of “my bondage and my freedom,” and the proceeds of my lectures at home and abroad. With this sum I thought of following the noble example of my old friends Stephen and Abby Kelley Foster, purchase a little farm and settle myself down to earn an honest living by tilling the soil. My children were all grown up, and ought to be able to take care of themselves. This question, however, was soon decided for me. I had after all acquired—a very unusual thing—a little more knowledge and aptitude fitting me for the new condition of things than I knew, and had a deeper hold upon public attention than I had supposed. Invitations began to pour in upon me from colleges, Lyceums, and literary societies, offering me one hundred, and even two hundred dollars for a single lecture.
I had some time before, prepared a lecture on “Self-made men,” and also one upon Ethnology, with a special reference to Africa. The latter had cost me much labour, though as I now look back upon it, it was a very defective production. I wrote it at the instance of my friend Doctor M. B. Anderson, President of Rochester University, himself a distinguished Ethnologist, a deep thinker and scholar. I had been invited by one of the literary societies of Western Reserve College—then at Hudson, but recently removed to Cleveland, Ohio—to address it on “Commencement Day;” and never having spoken on such an occasion, never, indeed, having been inside of a school-house for the purpose of an education, I hesitated about accepting the invitation, and finally called upon Prof. Henry Wayland, son of the great Doctor Wayland of Brown University, and on Doctor Anderson, and asked their advice whether I ought to accept. Both gentlemen advised me to do so. They knew me, and evidently thought well of my ability, But the puzzling question now was, what shall I say if I go there? It won’t do to give them an old-fashioned anti-slavery discourse. I learned afterwards that such a discourse was precisely what they needed, though not what they wished; for the faculty, including the President, was in great distress because I, a coloured man, had been invited, and because of the reproach this circumstance might bring upon the College. But what shall I talk about? became the difficult question. I finally hit upon the one before mentioned. I had read, when in England a few years before, with great interest, parts of Doctor Pritchard’s “Natural History of Man,” a large volume marvellously calm and philosophical in its discussion of the science of the origin of the races, and was thus in the line of my then convictions. I sought this valuable book at once in our bookstores, but could not obtain it anywhere in this country. I sent to England, where I paid the sum of seven and a half dollars for it. In addition to this valuable work, President Anderson kindly gave me a little book entitled, “Man and his Migrations,” by Dr. R. G. Latham, and loaned me the large work of Dr. Morton, the famous Archæologist, and that of Messrs. Nott and Glidden, the latter written evidently to degrade the negro and support the then prevalent Calhoun doctrine of the rightfulness of slavery. With these books, and occasional suggestions from Dr. Anderson and Professor Wayland, I set about preparing my “Commencement address.” For many days and nights I toiled, and succeeded at last in getting something together in due form. Written orations had not been in my line. I had usually depended upon my unsystematized knowledge, and the inspiration of the hour and the occasion; but I had now got the “scholar bee in my bonnet,” and supposed that inasmuch as I was to speak to college professors and students, I must at least, make a show of some familiarity with letters. It proved, as to its immediate effect, a great mistake; for my carefully studied and written address, full of learned quotations, fell dead at my feet, while a few remarks I made extemporaneously at collation, were enthusiastically received. Nevertheless, the reading and labour expended were of much value to me. They were needed steps preparatory to the work upon which I was about to enter. If they failed at the beginning, they helped to success in the end. My lecture on “The Races of Men” was seldom called for, but that on “Self-made Men” was in great demand, especially through the West. I found that the success of a lecturer depends more upon the quality of his stock in store, than the amount. My friend, Wendell Phillips,—for such I esteem him,—who has said more cheering words to me, and in vindication of my race, than any man now living, has delivered his famous lecture on the “Lost Arts” during the last forty years; and I doubt if among all his lectures, and he has many, there is one in such requisition as this. When Daniel O’Connell was asked why he did not make a new speech, he playfully replied, that “it would take Ireland twenty years to learn his old ones.” Upon some such consideration as this, I adhered pretty closely to my old lecture on “Self-made Men,” retouching and shading it a little from time to time as occasion seemed to require.
Here, then, was a new vocation before me, full of advantages, mentally and pecuniarily. When in the employment of the American Anti-Slavery Society, my salary was about four hundred and fifty dollars a year, and I felt I was well paid for my services; but I could now make from fifty to a hundred dollars a night, and have the satisfaction, too, that I was in some small measure helping to lift my race into consideration: for no man who lives at all, lives unto himself; he either helps or hinders all who are in anywise connected with him. I never rise to speak before an American audience without something of the feeling that my failure or success will bring blame or benefit to my whole race. But my activities were not now confined entirely to lectures before Lyceums. Though slavery was abolished, the wrongs of my people were not ended. Though they were not slaves they were not yet quite free. No man can be truly free, whose liberty is dependent upon the thought, feeling, and action of others; and who has himself no means in his own hands for guarding, protecting, defending, and maintaining that liberty. Yet the negro, after his emancipation, was precisely in this state of destitution. The law, on the side of freedom, is of great advantage only where there is power to make that law respected. I know no class of my fellowmen, however just, enlightened, and humane, which can be wisely and safely trusted absolutely with the liberties of any other class. Protestants are excellent people, but it would not be wise for Catholics to depend entirely upon them to look after their rights and interests. Catholics are a pretty good sort of people—though there is a soul-shuddering history behind them,—yet no enlightened Protestant would commit his liberty to their care and keeping. And yet the Government had left the freedmen in a worse condition than either of these. It felt that it had done enough for them. It had made them free, and henceforth they must make their own way in the world, or as the slang phrase has it, “Root, pig, or die;” yet they had none of the conditions for self-preservation or self-protection. They were free from the individual master, but the slaves of society. They had neither property, money, nor friends. They were free from the old plantation, but they had nothing but the dusty road under their feet. They were free from the old quarter that once gave them shelter, but slaves to the rains of summer and the frosts of winter. They were in a word, literally turned loose, naked, hungry, and destitute to the open sky, The first feeling towards them by the old master classes, was full of bitterness and wrath. They resented their emancipation as an act of hostility towards themselves, and since they could not punish the emancipator, they felt like punishing the objects which that act had emancipated. Hence they drove them off the old plantation, and told them they were no longer wanted there. They not only hated them because they had been freed as a punishment to them, but because they felt that they had been robbed of their labour. An element of still greater bitterness came into their hearts: the freedmen had been the friends of the Government, and many of them had borne arms against their masters during the war. The thought of paying cash for labour that they could formerly extort by the lash did not in anywise improve their disposition to the emancipated slaves, or improve their own condition. Now, since poverty has, and can have no chance against wealth, the landless against the land owner, the ignorant against the intelligent, the freedmen were powerless. They had nothing left them but a slavery-distorted and diseased body, and lame and twisted limbs with which to fight the battle of life. I, therefore, soon found that the negro had still a cause, and that he needed my voice and pen with others to plead for it. The American Anti-Slavery Society, under the lead of Mr. Garrison, had disbanded, its newspapers were discontinued, its agents were withdrawn from the field, and all systematic efforts by abolitionists were abandoned. Many of the society, Mr. Phillips and myself amongst the number, differed from Mr. Garrison as to the wisdom of this course. I felt that the work of the Society was not done, that it had not fulfilled its mission, which was not merely to emancipate, but to elevate the enslaved class; but against Mr. Garrison’s leadership, and amid the surprise and joy occasioned by the emancipation, it was impossible to keep the association alive; and the cause of the freedmen was left mainly to individual effort, and to hastily extemporized societies of ephemeral character, brought together under benevolent impulse, but having no history behind them, and being new to the work, they were not as effective for good as the old society would have been, had it followed up its work and kept its old instrumentalities in operation.
From the first I saw no chance of bettering the condition of the freedman, until he should cease to be merely a freedman, and should become a citizen. I insisted that there was no safety for him, nor for anybody else in America, outside the American Government: that to guard, protect, and maintain his liberty, the freedman should have the ballot; that the liberties of the American people were dependent upon the Ballot-box, the Jury-box, and the Cartridge-box, that without these no class of people could live and flourish in this country; and this was now the word for the hour with me, and the word to which the people of the North willingly listened when I spoke. Hence, regarding as I did, the elective franchise as the one great power by which all civil rights are obtained, enjoyed, and maintained under our form of government, and the one without which freedom to any class is delusive if not impossible, I set myself to work with whatever force and energy I possessed to secure this power for the recently emancipated millions.
The demand for the ballot was such a vast advance upon the former objects proclaimed by the friends of the coloured race, that it startled and struck men as preposterous and wholly inadmissible. Anti-slavery men themselves were not united as to the wisdom of such demand. Mr. Garrison himself, though foremost for the abolition of slavery, was not yet quite ready to join this advanced movement. In this respect he was in the rear of Mr. Phillips; who saw not only the justice, but the wisdom and necessity of the measure. To his credit it may be said, that he gave the full strength of his character and eloquence to its adoption. While Mr. Garrison thought it too much to ask, Mr. Phillips thought it too little. While the one thought it might be postponed to the future, the other thought it ought to be done at once. But Mr. Garrison was not a man to lag far in the rear of truth and right, and he soon came to see with the rest of us that the ballot was essential to the freedom of the freemen. A man’s head will not long remain wrong, when his heart is right. The applause awarded to Mr. Garrison by the Conservatives, for his moderation both in respect of his views on this question, and the disbandment of the American Anti-Slavery Society must have disturbed him. He was at any rate soon found on the right side of the suffrage question.
The enfranchisement of the freedmen was resisted on many grounds, but mainly these two: first the tendency of the measure to bring the freedmen into conflict with the old master class, and the white people of the South generally. Secondly, their unfitness, by reason of their ignorance, servility, and degradation, to exercise so great a power as the ballot, over the destinies of this great nation.
These reasons against the measure, which were supposed to be unanswerable, were in some senses the most powerful arguments in its favour. The argument that the possession of the suffrage would be likely to bring the negro into conflict with the old master-class of the South, had its main force in the admission that the interests of the two classes antagonized each other and that the maintenance of the one would prove inimical to the other. It resolved itself into this, if the negro had the means of protecting his civil rights, those who had formerly denied him these rights would be offended and would make war upon him. Experience has shown, in a measure, the correctness of this position. The old master was offended to find the negro whom he lately possessed the right to enslave and flog to toil, casting a ballot equal to his own; and he resorted to all sorts of meanness, violence, and crime to dispossess him of the enjoyment of this point of equality. In this respect the exercise of the right of suffrage by the negro has been attended with the evil, which the opponents of the measure predicted, and they could say “I told you so,” but immeasurably and intolerably greater would have been the evil consequences resulting from the denial to one class, of this natural means of protection, and granting it to the other, and the hostile class. It would have been, to have committed the lamb to the care of the wolf—the arming of one class and disarming the other—protecting one interest, and destroying the other—making the rich strong, and the poor weak—the white man a tyrant, and the black man a slave. The very fact, therefore, that the old master-classes of the South felt that their interests were opposed to those of the freedmen, instead of being a reason against their enfranchisement, was the most powerful one in its favour. Until it shall be safe to leave the lamb in the hold of the lion, the labourer in the power of the capitalist, the poor in the hands of the rich, it will not be safe to leave a newly emancipated people completely in the power of their former masters, especially when such masters have not ceased to be such from enlightened moral convictions, but by irresistible force. Then on the part of the Government itself, had it denied this great right to the freedmen, it would have been another proof that “Republics are ungrateful.” It would have been rewarding its enemies, and punishing its friends—embracing its foes, and spurning its allies,—setting a premium on treason, and degrading loyalty. As to the second point, viz. the negro’s ignorance and degradation, there was no disputing either. It was the nature of slavery, from whose depths he had arisen, to make him so, and it would have kept him so. It was the policy of the system to keep him both ignorant and degraded, the better and more safely to defraud him of his hard earnings; and this argument never staggered me. The ballot in the hands of the negro was necessary to open the door of the school-house, and to unlock the treasures of knowledge to him. Granting all that was said of his ignorance, I used to say, “if the negro knows enough to fight for his country, he knows enough to vote; if he knows enough to pay taxes for the support of the Government, he knows enough to vote; if he knows as much when sober, as an Irishman knows when drunk, he knows enough to vote.”
And now, while I am not blind to the evils which have thus far attended the enfranchisement of the coloured people, I hold that the evils from which we escaped, and the good we have derived from that act, amply vindicate its wisdom. The evils it brought are in their nature temporary, and the good is permanent. The one is comparatively small, the other absolutely great. The young child has staggered on to his little legs, and he has sometimes fallen and hurt his head in the fall, but then he has learned to walk. The boy in the water came near drowning, but then he has learned to swim. Great changes in the relations of mankind can never come, without evils analagous to those which have attended the emancipation and enfranchisement of the coloured people of the United States. I am less amazed at these evils, than by the rapidity with which they are subsiding, and not more astonished at the facility with which the former slave has become a free man, than at the rapid adjustment of the master-class to the new situation.
Unlike the movement for the abolition of slavery, the success of the effort for the enfranchisement of the freedmen was not long delayed. It is another illustration of how one advance in pursuance of a right principle, prepares and makes easy the way to another. The way of transgression is a bottomless pit, one step in that direction invites the next, and the end is never reached; and it is the same with the path of righteous obedience. Two hundred years ago, the pious Dr. Godwin dared affirm that it was “not a sin to baptize a negro,” and won for him the rite of baptism. It was a small concession to his manhood; but it was strongly resisted by the slaveholders of Jamaica, and Virginia. In this they were logical in their argument, but they were not logical in their object. They saw plainly, that to concede the negro’s right to baptism was to receive him into the Christian Church, and make him a brother in Christ; and hence they opposed the first step sternly and bitterly. So long as they could keep him beyond the circle of human brotherhood, they could scourge him to toil, as a beast of burden, with a good Christian conscience, and without reproach. “What!” said they, “baptize a negro? preposterous!” Nevertheless the negro was baptized and admitted to Church fellowship; and though for a long time his soul belonged to God, his body to his master, and he, poor fellow, had nothing left for himself, he is at last not only baptized, but emancipated and enfranchised.
In this achievemeut, an interview with President Andrew Johnson, on the 7th of February, 1866, by a delegation consisting of George T. Downing, Lewis H. Douglass, Wm. E. Matthews, John Jones, John F. Cook, Joseph E. Otis, A. W. Ross, William Whipper, John M. Brown, Alexander Dunlop, and myself, will take its place in history as one of the first steps. What was said on that occasion brought the whole question, virtually, before the American people. Until that interview, the country was not fully aware of the intentions and policy of President Johnson on the subject of reconstruction, especially in respect of the newly emancipated class of the South. After having heard the brief addresses made to him by Mr. Downing and myself, he occupied at least three-quarters of an hour in what seemed a set speech, and refused to listen to any reply on our part, although solicited to grant a few moments for that purpose. Seeing the advantage that Mr. Johnson would have over us in getting his speech paraded before the country in the morning papers, the members of the delegation met on the evening of that day, and instructed me to prepare a brief reply which should go out to the country simultaneously with the President’s speech to us. Since this reply indicates the points of difference between the President and ourselves, I produce it here as a part of the history of the times, it being concurred in by all the members of the delegation.
Both the speech and the reply were commented upon very extensively.
Mr. President. In consideration of a delicate sense of propriety, as well as your own repeated intimations of indisposition to discuss, or listen to a reply to the views and opinions you were pleased to express to us in your elaborate speech to-day, the undersigned would respectfully take this method of replying thereto. Believing as we do that the views and opinions you expressed in that address are entirely unsound and prejudicial to the highest interests of our race as well as our country at large, we cannot do other than expose the same, and, as far as may be in our power, arrest their dangerous influence. It is not necessary at this time to call attention to more than two or three features of your remarkable address:
1. The first point to which we feel especially bound to take exception, is your attempt to found a policy opposed to our enfranchisement, upon the alleged ground of an existing hostility on the part of the former slaves toward the poor white people of the South. We admit the existence of this hostility, and hold that it is entirely reciprocal. But you obviously commit an error by drawing an argument from an incident of slavery, and making it a basis for a policy adapted to a state of freedom. The hostility between the whites and blacks of the South is easily explained. It has its root and sap in the relation of slavery, and was incited on both sides by the cunning of the slave masters. Those masters secured their ascendancy over both the poor whites and blacks by putting enmity between them.
They divided both to conquer each. There was no earthly reason why the blacks should not hate and dread the poor whites when in a state of slavery, for it was from this class that their masters received their slave catchers, slave drivers, and overseers. They were the men called in upon all occasions by the masters, whenever any fiendish outrage was to be committed upon the slave. Now, sir, you cannot but perceive that the cause of this hatred removed, the effect must be removed also. Slavery is abolished. The cause of this antagonism is removed, and you must see that it is altogether illogical, and “putting new wine into old bottles,” to legislate from slaveholding and slave driving premises, for a people whom you have repeatedly declared your purpose to maintain in freedom.
2. Besides, even if it were true, as you allege, that the hostility of the blacks towards the poor whites must necessarily project itself into a state of freedom, and that this enmity between the two races is even more intense in a state of freedom than in a state of slavery, in the name of Heaven, we reverently ask you how you can, in view of your professed desire to promote the welfare of the black man, deprive him of all means of defence, and clothe him whom you regard as his enemy in the panoply of political power? Can it be that you recommend a policy which would arm the strong and cast down the defenceless? Can you, by any possibility of reasoning, regard this as just, fair, or wise? Experience proves that those are most abused who can be abused with the greatest impunity. Men are whipped oftenest who are whipped easiest. Peace between races is not to be secured by degrading one race and exalting another, by giving power to one race and withholding it from another, but, by maintaining a state of equal justice between all classes. First pure, then peaceable.
3. On the colonization theory you were pleased to broach, very much could be said. It is impossible to suppose, in view of the usefulness of the black man in time of peace as a labourer in the South, and in time of war as a soldier in the North, and the growing respect for his rights among the people, and his increasing adaptation to a high state of civilization in his native land, there can ever come a time when he can be removed from this country without a terrible shock to its prosperity and peace. Besides, the worst enemy of a nation could not cast upon its fair name a greater infamy than to admit that negroes could be tolerated among them in a state of the most degrading slavery and oppression, and must be cast away, driven into exile, for no other cause than having been freed from their chains.
Washington, February 7th, 1866.
From this time onward, the question of suffrage for the freedmen, was not allowed to rest. The rapidity with which it gained strength, was something quite marvellous and surprising even to its advocates. Senator Charles Sumner soon took up the subject in the Senate and treated it in his usually able and exhaustive manner. It was a great treat to listen to his argument, running through two days, abounding as it did, in eloquence, learning, and conclusive reasoning. A committee of the Senate had reported a proposition giving to the States lately in rebellion in so many words complete option as to the enfranchisement of their coloured citizens; only coupling with that proposition the condition, that to such States as chose to enfranchise such citizens, the basis of their representation in Congress should be proportionately increased; or, in other words, only three-fifths of the coloured citizens should be counted in the basis of representation in States where coloured citizens were not allowed to vote, while in the States granting suffrage to coloured citizens, the entire coloured people should be counted in the basis of representation. Against this proposition, myself and associates addressed to the Senate of the United States the following memorial:
“To the Honourable the Senate of the United States:
“The undersigned, being a delegation representing the coloured people of the several States, and now sojourning in Washington, charged with the duty to look after the best interests of the recently emancipated, would most respectfully, but earnestly, pray your honourable body to favour no amendment of the Constitution of the United States which would grant any one or all of the States of this Union to disfranchise any class of citizens on the ground of race or colour, for any consideration whatever. They would further respectfully represent that the Constitution as adopted by the fathers of the Republic in 1789, evidently contemplated the result which has now happened, to wit, the abolition of slavery. The men who framed it, and those who adopted it, framed and adopted it for the people, and the whole people—coloured men being at that time legal voters in most of the States. In that instrument, as it now stands, there is not a sentence nor a syllable conveying any shadow of right or authority by which any State may make colour or race a disqualification for the exercise of the right of suffrage; and the undersigned will regard as a real calamity the introduction of any words, expressly or by implication, giving any State or States such power, and we respectfully submit that if the amendment now pending before your honourable body shall be adopted, it will enable any State to deprive any class of citizens of the elective franchise, notwithstanding it was obviously framed with a view to affect the question of negro suffrage only.
“For these, and other reasons, the undersigned respectfully pray that the amendment to the Constitution, recently passed by the House, and now before your body, be not adopted. And as in duty bound, etc.”
It was the opinion of Senator Wm. Pitt Fessenden, Senator Henry Wilson, and many others, that the measure here memorialized against, would, if incorporated into the Constitution, certainly bring about the enfranchisement of the whole coloured population of the South. It was held by them to be an inducement to the States to make suffrage universal, since the basis of representation would be enlarged or contracted, according as suffrage should be extended or limited; but the judgment of these leaders was not the judgment of Senator Sumner, Senator Wade, Yates, Howe, and others, or of the coloured people. Yet, weak as this measure was, it encountered the united opposition of Democratic senators. On that side, the Hon. Thomas H. Hendricks of Indiana, took the lead in appealing to popular prejudice against the negro. He contended that among other objectionable and insufferable results that would flow from its adoption would be, that a negro would ultimately be a member of the United States Senate. I never shall forget the ineffable scorn and indignation with which Mr. Hendricks deplored the possibility of such an event. In less, however, than a decade from that debate, Senators Revels and Bruce, both coloured men, have fulfilled the startling prophecy of the Indiana senator. It was not, however, by the half-way measure, which he was opposing for its radicalism, but by the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments, that these gentlemen reached their honourable positions.
In defeating the option proposed to be given to the States, to extend or deny suffrage to their coloured population, much credit is due to the delegation already named as visiting President Johnson. That delegation made it their business to personally see and urge upon leading Republican statesmen the wisdom and duty of impartial suffrage. Day after day, Mr. Downing and myself saw and conversed with those members of the Senate, whose advocacy of the suffrage would be likely to insure its success.
The second marked step in effecting the enfranchisement of the negro, was made at the “National Loyalist’s Convention,” held at Philadelphia in September, 1866. This body was composed of delegates from the South, North, and West. Its object was to diffuse clear views of the situation of affairs in the South, and to indicate the principles deemed advisable by it to be observed in the reconstruction of society in the Southern States.
This Convention was, as its history shows, numerously attended by the ablest and most influential men from all sections of the country, and its deliberations participated in, by them.
The policy foreshadowed by Andrew Johnson, who, by the grace of the assassin’s bullet, was then in Abraham Lincoln’s seat, a policy based upon the idea that the rebel States were never out of the Union, and hence had forfeited no rights which his pardon could not restore—gave importance to this Convention, more than anything which was then occurring in the South; for through the treachery of this bold, bad man, we seemed then about to lose nearly all that had been gained by the war.
I was residing in Rochester at the time, and was duly elected as a delegate from that city to attend this Convention. The honour was a surprise and a gratification to me. It was unprecedented for a city of over sixty thousand white citizens and only about two hundred coloured residents, to elect a coloured man to represent them in a national political convention, and the announcement of it gave a shock to the country, of no inconsiderable violence. Many Republicans, with every feeling of respect for me personally were unable to see the wisdom of such a course. They dreaded the clamour of social equality and amalgamation which would be raised against the party, in consequence of this startling innovation. They, dear fellows, found it much more agreeable to talk of the principles of liberty as glittering generalities, than to reduce those principles to practice.
When the train on which I was going to the convention reached Harrisburgh, it met and was attached to another from the West, crowded with Western and Southern delegates on the way to the Convention, and among them were several loyal Governors, chief among whom was the loyal Governor of Indiana, Oliver P. Morton, a man of Websterian mould in all that appertained to mental power. When my presence became known to these gentlemen, a consultation was immediately held among them, upon the question as to what it was best to do with me. It seems strange now, in view of all the progress which has been made, that such a question could arise. But the circumstances of the times made me the Jonah of the Republican ship, and responsible for the contrary winds and misbehaving weather. Before we reached Lancaster, on our eastward bound trip, I was duly waited upon by a committee of my brother delegates, which had been appointed by other honourable delegates, to represent to me the undesirableness of my attendance upon the National Loyalist’s Convention. The spokesman of these sub-delegates was a gentleman from New Orleans, with a very French name, which has now escaped me, but which I wish I could recall, that I might credit him with a high degree of politeness and the gift of eloquence. He began by telling me that he knew my history and my works, that he entertained a very high respect for me, that both himself and the gentlemen who sent him, as well as those who accompanied him, regarded me with admiration; that there was not among them the remotest objection to sitting in the Convention with me, but their personal wishes in the matter they felt should be set aside for the sake of our common cause; that whether I should or should not go into the Convention was purely a matter of expediency; that I must know that there was a very strong and bitter prejudice against my race in the North as well as in the South; and that the cry of social and political equality would not fail to be raised against the Republican party if I should attend this Loyal National Convention. He insisted that it was a time for the sacrifice of my own personal feeling, for the good of the Republican cause; that there were several districts in the State of Indiana so evenly balanced that a very slight circumstance would be likely to turn the scale against us, and defeat our Congressional candidates, and thus leave Congress without a two-thirds vote to control the headstrong and treacherous man then in the presidential chair. It was urged that this was a terrible responsibility for me or any other man to take.
I listened very attentively to this address, uttering no word during its delivery; but when it was finished, I said to the speaker and the committee, with all the emphasis I could throw into my voice and manner: “Gentlemen, with all respect, you might as well ask me to put a loaded pistol to my head and blow my brains out, as to ask me to keep out of this Convention, to which I have been duly elected. Then, gentlemen, what would you gain by this exclusion? Would not the charge of cowardice, certain to be brought against you, prove more damaging than that of amalgamation? Would you not be branded all over the land as dastardly hypocrites, professing principles which you have no wish or intention of carrying out? As a mere matter of policy or expediency, you will be wise to let me in. Everybody knows that I have been duly elected as a delegate by the city of Rochester. The fact has been broadly announced and commented upon all over the country. If I am not admitted, the public will ask, ‘Where is Douglass? Why is he not seen in the convention?’ And you would find that enquiry more difficult to answer than any charge brought against you for favouring political or social equality; but, ignoring the question of policy altogether, and looking at it as one of right and wrong, I am bound to go into that Convention; not to do so, would contradict the principle and practice of my life.” With this answer, the committee retired from the car in which I was seated, and did not again approach me on the subject; but I saw plainly enough then, as well as on the morning when the Loyalist procession was to march through the streets of Philadelphia, that while I was not to be formally excluded, I was to be ignored by the Convention.
I was the ugly and deformed child of the family, and to be kept out of sight as much as possible while there was company in the house. Especially was it the purpose to offer me no inducement to be present in the ranks of the procession of its members and friends, which was to start from Independence Hall on the first morning of its meeting.
In good season, however, I was present at this grand starting point. My reception there confirmed my impression as to the policy intended to be pursued towards me. Few of the many I knew were prepared to give me a cordial recognition, and among these few I may mention Gen. Benj. F. Butler, who, whatever others may say of him, has always shown a courage equal to his convictions. Almost everybody else on the ground whom I met seemed to be ashamed or afraid of me. On the previous night I had been warned that I should not be allowed to walk through the city in the procession; fears had been expressed that my presence in it would so shock the prejudices of the people in Philadelphia, as to cause the procession to be mobbed.
The members of the Convention were to walk two abreast, and as I was the only coloured member of the Convention, the question was, as to who of my brother members would consent to walk with me? The answer was not long in coming. There was one man present who was broad enough to take in the whole situation, and brave enough to meet the duty of the hour; one who was neither afraid nor ashamed to own me as a man and a brother; one man of the purest Caucasian type, a poet and a scholar, brilliant as a writer, eloquent as a speaker, and holding a high and influential position—the editor of a weekly journal having the largest circulation of any weekly paper in the city or State of New York—and that man was Mr. Theodore Tilton. He came to me in my isolation, seized me by the hand in a most brotherly way, and proposed to walk with me in the procession.
I have been in many awkward and disagreeable positions in my life, when the presence of a friend would have been highly valued, but I think I never appreciated an act of courage and generous sentiment more highly than I did in this brave young man, when we marched through the streets of Philadelphia on this memorable day.
Well! what came of all these dark forebodings of timid men? How was my presence regarded by the populace, and what effect did it produce? I will tell you. The fears of our loyal Governors, who wished me excluded, to propitiate the favour of the crowd, met with a signal reproof, their apprehensions were shown to be groundless, and they were compelled, as many of them confessed to me afterwards, to own themselves entirely mistaken. The people were more enlightened, and had made more progress than their leaders had supposed. An act for which those leaders expected to be pelted with stones, only brought to them unmeasured applause. Along the whole line of march my presence was cheered repeatedly and enthusiastically. I was myself utterly surprised by the heartiness and unanimity of the popular approval. We were marching through a city remarkable for the depth and bitterness of its hatred of the abolition movement; a city whose populace had mobbed anti-slavery meetings, burned temperance halls and churches owned by coloured people, and burned down Pennsylvania Hall because it had opened its doors to people of different colours upon terms of equality. But now the children of those who had committed these outrages and follies were applauding the very principles which their fathers had condemned. After the demonstrations of this first day, I found myself a welcome member of the Convention, and cordial greeting took the place of cold aversion. The victory was short, signal, and complete.
During the passage of the procession, as we were marching through Chesnut Street, an incident occurred which excited some interest in the crowd, and was noticed by the Press at the time, and may perhaps be properly related here as a part of the story of my eventful life. It was my meeting Mrs. Amanda Sears, the daughter of my old mistress, Miss Lucretia Auld, the same Lucretia to whom I was indebted for so many acts of kindness when under the rough treatment of Aunt Katy, on the “old plantation home” of Col. Edward Lloyd. Mrs. Sears now resided in Baltimore, and as I saw her at the corner of Ninth and Chesnut Streets, I hastily ran to her, and expressed my surprise and joy at meeting her, “But what brought you to Philadelphia at this time?” I asked. She replied, with animated voice and countenance, “I heard you were to be here, and I came to see you walk in this procession.” The dear lady, with her two children, had been following us for hours. Here was the daughter of the owner of a slave, following with enthusiasm that slave now a free man, and listening with joy to the plaudits he received as he marched along through the crowded streets of the great city. And here I may relate another circumstance which should have found place earlier in this story, which will further explain the feeling subsisting between Mrs. Sears and myself.
Seven years prior to our meeting, as just described, I delivered a lecture in National Hall, Philadelphia, and at its close a gentleman approached me and said, “Mr. Douglass, do you know that your once mistress has been listening to you to-night?” I replied that I did not, nor was I inclined to believe it. The fact was, that I had four or five times before had a similar statement made to me by different individuals in different States, and this made me sceptical in this instance. The next morning, however, I received a note from a Mr. Wm. Needles, very elegantly written, which stated that she who was Amanda Auld, daughter of Thomas and Lucretia Auld, and granddaughter to my old master, Capt. Aaron Anthony, was now married to Mr. John L. Sears, a coal merchant in West Philadelphia. The street and number of Mr. Sear’s office was given, so that I might, by seeing him, assure myself of the facts in the case, and perhaps learn something of the relatives whom I left in slavery. This note, with the intimation given me the night before, convinced me there was something in it, and I resolved to know the truth. I had now been out of slavery twenty years, and no word had come to me from my sisters, or my brother Perry, or my grandmother. My separation had been as complete as if I had been an inhabitant of another planet. A law of Maryland at that time visited with heavy fine and imprisonment any coloured person who should come into the State; so I could not go to them any more than they could come to me.
Eager to know if my kinsfolk still lived, and what was their condition, I made my way to the office of Mr. Sears, found him in, and handed him the note I had received from Mr. Needles, and asked him to be so kind as to read it and tell me if the facts were as there stated. After reading the note, he said it was true, but he must decline any conversation with me, since not to do so would be a sacrifice to the feelings of his father-in-law. I deeply regretted his decision, and spoke of my long separation from my relations, appealing to him to give me some information concerning them. I saw that my words were not without their effect. Presently he said, “You publish a newspaper, I believe?” “I do,” I said, “but if that is your objection to speaking to me, no word shall go into its columns of our conversation.” To make a long story short, we had then quite a long conversation, during which Mr. Sears said that in my “Narrative” I had done his father-in-law injustice, for he was really a kind-hearted man, and a good master. I replied that there must be two sides to the relation of master and slave, and what was deemed kind and just to the one was the opposite to the other. Mr. Sears was not disposed to be unreasonable, and the longer we talked the nearer we came together. I finally asked permission to see Mrs. Sears, the little girl of seven or eight years when I left the eastern shore of Maryland. This request was a little too much for him at first, and he put me off by saying she was a mere child when I last saw her, and she was now the mother of a large family of children, and I would not know her. He could tell me everything about my people as well as she. I pressed my suit, however, insisting that I could select Miss Amanda out of a thousand other ladies, my recollection of her was so perfect, and begged him to test my memory at this point. After much parley of this nature, he at length consented to my wishes, giving me the number of his house and name of the street, with permission to call at 3 o’clock p.m. on the next day. I left him, delighted, and prompt to the hour was ready for my visit. I dressed myself in my best, and hired the finest carriage I could get to take me, partly because of the distance, and partly to make the contrast between the slave and the free man as striking as possible. Mr. Sears had been equally thoughtful. He had invited to his house a number of friends to witness the meeting between Mrs. Sears and myself.
I was somewhat disconcerted when I was ushered into the large parlour occupied by about thirty ladies and gentlemen, to all of whom I was a perfect stranger. I saw the design to test my memory by making it difficult for me to guess which of the company was “Miss Amanda.” In her girlhood, she was small and slender, and hence a thin and delicately formed lady was seated in a rocking chair, near the centre of the room, with a little girl by her side. The device was good, but it did not succeed. Glancing around the room, I saw in an instant the lady who was a child twenty-five years before, and the wife and mother now. Satisfied of this, I said, “Mr. Sears, if you will allow me, I will select Miss Amanda from this company.” I started towards her, and she, seeing that I recognized her, bounded to me with joy in every feature, and expressed her great happiness at seeing me. All thought of slavery, colour, or what might seem to belong to the dignity of her position vanished, and the meeting was as the meeting of friends long separated, yet still present in each other’s memory and affection.
Amanda made haste to tell me that she agreed with me about slavery, and that she had freed all her slaves as they had become of age. She brought her children to me, and I took them in my arms, with sensations which I could not, if I would, stop here to describe. One explanation of the feeling of this lady towards me was, that her mother, who died when she was yet a tender child, had been briefly described by me in a little “Narrative of my Life,” published many years before our meeting, and when I could have had no motive but the highest for what I said of her. She had read my story, and learned something of the amiable qualities of her mother through me. She also recollected that as I had had trials as a slave, she had had her trials under the care of a stepmother, and that when she was harshly spoken to by her father’s second wife, she could always read in my dark face the sympathy of one who had often received kind words from the lips of her beloved mother. Mrs. Sears died three years ago in Baltimore, but she did not depart without calling me to her bed-side, that I might tell her as much as I could about her mother, whom she was firm in the faith that she should meet in another, and a better world. She especially wished me to describe to her the personal appearance of her mother, and desired to know if any of her own children then present resembled her. I told her that the young lady standing in the corner of the room was the image of her mother in form and features. She looked at her daughter and said, “Her name is Lucretia—after my mother.” After telling me that her life had been a happy one, and thanking me for coming to see her on her death-bed, she said she was ready to die. We parted to meet no more in life. The interview touched me deeply, and was, I could not help thinking, a strange one—another proof that “Truth is often stranger than Fiction.”
If any reader of this part of my life shall see in it the evidence of a want of manly resentment for wrongs inflicted upon myself and race by slavery, and by the ancestors of this lady, so it must be. No man can be stronger than nature, one touch of which, we are told, makes all the world akin. I esteem myself a good, persistent hater of injustice and oppression, but my resentment ceases when they cease, and I have no heart to visit upon children the sins of their fathers.
It will be noticed, when I first met Mr. Sears in Philadelphia, he declined to talk with me, on the ground that I had been unjust to Capt. Auld, his father-in-law. Soon after that meeting, Capt. Auld had occasion to go to Philadelphia, and, as usual, went straight to the house of his son-in-law, and had hardly finished the ordinary salutations, when he said: “Sears, I see by the papers that Frederick has recently been in Philadelphia. Did you go to hear him?” “Yes, sir,” was the reply. After asking something more about my lecture, he said, “Well, Sears, did Frederick come to see you?” “Yes, sir,” said Sears. “Well, how did you receive him?” Mr. Sears then told him all about my visit, and had the satisfaction of hearing the old man say that he had done right in giving me welcome to the house. This last fact I have from the Rev. J. D. Long, who, with his wife, was one of the party invited to meet me at the house of Mr. Sears, on the occasion of my visit to Mrs. Sears.
But I must now return from this digression, and further relate my experience in the Loyalist National Convention, and how from that time there was an impetus given to the enfranchisement of the freedmen, which culminated in the fifteenth amendment to the Constitution of the United States. From the first, the members of the Convention were divided in their views of the proper measures of reconstruction, and this division was in some sense sectional. The men from the far South, strangely enough, were quite radical, while those from the border States were mostly conservative, and, unhappily, these last had control of the Convention from the first. A Kentucky gentleman was made President, and its other officers were for the most part Kentuckians, and all opposed to coloured suffrage in sentiment. There was a “whole heap”—to use a Kentucky phrase—of halfness” in that State during the war for the Union, and there was much more there after the war. The Maryland delegates, with the exception of the Hon. John L. Thomas, were in sympathy with Kentucky. Those from Virginia, except the Hon. John Miner Botts, were unwilling to entertain the question. The result was, that the Convention was broken square in two. The Kentucky President declared it adjourned, and left the chair against the earnest protests of the friends of manhood suffrage.
But the friends of this measure were not to be out-generalled and suppressed in this way, and instantly reorganizing, elected John M. Botts of Virginia, President, discussed and passed resolutions in favour of enfranchising the freedmen, and thus placed the question before the country in such a manner that it could not be ignored. The delegates from the Southern States were quite in earnest, and bore themselves grandly in support of the measure; but the chief speakers and advocates of suffrage on that occasion were Mr. Theodore Tilton and Miss Anna E. Dickinson. Of course, on such a question, I could not be expected to be silent. I was called forward, and responded with all the energy of my soul, for I looked upon suffrage to the negro, as the only measure which could prevent him from being thrust back into slavery.
From this time onward the question of suffrage had no rest. The rapidity with which it gained strength was more than surprising to me.
In addition to the justice of the measure, it was soon commended by events as a political necessity. As in the case of the abolition of slavery, the white people of the rebellious States have themselves to thank for its adoption. Had they accepted, with moderate grace, the decision of the court to which they appealed, and the liberal conditions of peace offered to them, and united heartily with the National Government in its efforts to reconstruct their shattered institutions, instead of sullenly refusing as they did, their counsel and their votes to that end, they might easily have defeated the argument based upon necessity for the measure. As it was, the question was speedily taken out of the hands of coloured delegations and mere individual efforts, and became a part of the policy of the Republican party; and President U. S. Grant, with his characteristic nerve and clear perception of justice, promptly recommended the great amendment to the Constitution, by which coloured men are to-day invested with complete citizenship—the right to vote, and to be voted for, in the American Republic.