Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XIV.: LIVING AND LEARNING. - The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass: From 1817-1882
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CHAPTER XIV.: LIVING AND LEARNING. - 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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LIVING AND LEARNING.
Inducements to a political career—Objections—A newspaper enterprise—The “New National Era”—Its abandonment—The Freedmen’s Savings and Trust Company—Sad experience—Vindication.
THE adoption of the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments, and their incorporation into the Constitution of the United States, opened a very tempting field to my ambition, and one to which I should have probably yielded, had I been a younger man. I was earnestly urged by many of my respected fellow-citizens, both coloured and white, and from all sections of the country, to take up my abode in some one of the many districts of the South, where there was a large coloured vote, and get myself elected, as they were sure I easily could do, to a seat in Congress—possibly in the Senate. That I did not yield to this temptation was not entirely due to my age; for the idea did not square well with my better judgment and sense of propriety. The thought of going to live among a people in order to gain their votes and acquire official honours, was repugnant to my self-respect, and I had not lived long enough in the political atmosphere of Washington to have this sentiment sufficiently blunted to make me indifferent to its suggestions. I do not deny that the arguments of my friends had some weight in them, and from their stand-point it was all right; but I was better known to myself than to them. I had small faith in my aptitude as a politician, and could not hope to cope with rival aspirants. My life and labours in the North had in a measure unfitted me for such work, and I could not readily have adapted myself to the peculiar oratory found to be most effective with the newly enfranchised class. In the New England and Northern atmosphere I had acquired a style of speaking which in the South would have been considered tame and spiritless; and, consequently, he who “could tear a passion to tatters and split the ear of groundlings,” had far better chance of success with the masses there, than one so little boisterous as myself.
Upon the whole, I have never regretted that I did not enter the arena of Congressional honours to which I was invited.
Outside of mere personal considerations, I saw, or thought I saw, that in the nature of the case the sceptre of power had passed from the old slave and rebellious States, to the free and loyal States, and that hereafter, at least for some time to come, the loyal North, with its advanced civilization, must dictate the policy and control the destiny of the Republic. I had an audience ready made in the free States: one which the labours of thirty years had prepared for me, and before this audience the freedmen of the South needed an advocate as much as they needed a member of Congress. I think in this I was right; for thus far our coloured members of Congress have not largely made themselves felt in the legislation of the country; and I have little reason to think I could have done any better than they.
I was not, however, to remain long in my retired home in Rochester, where I had planted my trees and was reposing under their shadows. An effort was being made about this time to establish a large weekly newspaper in the city of Washington, which should be devoted to the defence and enlightenment of the newly emancipated and enfranchised people; and I was urged by such men as George T. Downing, J. H. Hawes, J. Sella Martin, and others, to become its editor-in-chief. My sixteen years’ experience as editor and publisher of my own paper, and the knowledge of the toil and anxiety which such a relation to a public journal must impose, caused me much reluctance and hesitation; nevertheless, I yielded to the wishes of my friends and counsellors, went to Washington, threw myself into the work, hoping to be able to lift up a standard at the National Capital, for my people, which should cheer and strengthen them in the work of their own improvement and elevation.
I was not long connected with this enterprise before I discovered my mistake. The co-operation so liberally promised, and the support which had been assured, were not very largely realized. By a series of circumstances, a little bewildering as I now look back upon them, I found myself alone, under the mental and pecuniary burden involved in the prosecution of the enterprise. I had been misled by loud talk of a grand incorporated publishing company, in which I should have shares if I wished, and in any case a fixed salary for my services; and after all these fair-seeming conditions, I had not been connected with the paper one year before its affairs had been so managed by the agent appointed by this invisible company or corporate body, as to compel me to bear the burden alone, and to become the sole owner of the printing establishment. Having become publicly associated with the enterprise, I was unwilling to have it prove a failure, and had allowed it to become in debt to me, both for money loaned, and for services, and at last it seemed wise that I should purchase the whole concern, which I did, and turned it over to my sons Lewis and Frederic, who were practical printers, and who, after a few years, were compelled to discontinue its publication. This paper was the New National Era, to the columns of which the coloured people are indebted for some of the best things ever uttered in behalf of their cause; for, aside from its editorials and selections, many of the ablest coloured men of the country made it the medium through which to convey their thoughts to the public. A misadventure though it was, which cost me from nine to ten thousand dollars, over it I have no tears to shed. The journal was valuable while it lasted, and the experiment was full of instruction to me, which has to some extent been heeded, for I have kept well out of newspaper undertakings since.
Some one has said that “experience is the best teacher.” Unfortunately the wisdom acquired in one experience seems not to serve for another and new one; at any rate, my first lesson at the National Capital, bought rather dearly as it was, did not preclude the necessity of a second whetstone to sharpen my wits in this my new home and new surroundings. It is not altogether without a feeling of humiliation that I must narrate my connection with the “Freedmen’s Savings and Trust Company.”
This was an institution designed to furnish a place of security and profit for the hard earnings of the coloured people, especially of the South. Though its title was “The Freedmen’s Savings and Trust Company,” it was known generally as the “Freedmen’s Bank.” According to its managers it was to be this and something more. There was something missionary in its composition, and it dealt largely in exhortations as well as promises. The men connected with its management were generally church members, and reputed eminent for their piety. Some of its agents had been preachers of the “Word.” Their aim was now to instil into the minds of the untutored Africans lessons of sobriety, wisdom, and economy, and to show them how to rise in the world. Circulars-tracts, and other papers were scattered like snowflakes in winter by this benevolent institution among the sable millions, and they were told to “look” to the Freedmen’s Bank and “live.” Branches were established in all the Southern States, and as a result, money flowed into its valuts to the amount of millions. With the usual effect of sudden wealth, the managers felt like making a little display of their prosperity. They accordingly erected one of the most costly and splendid buildings of the time-on one of the most desirable and expensive sites in the National Capital, finished on the inside with black walnut, and furnished with marble counters and all the modern improvements. The magnificent dimensions of the building bore testimony to its flourishing condition. In passing it in the street I often peeped into its spacious windows, and looked down the row of its gentlemanly and elegantly-dressed coloured clerks, with their pens behind their ears and button-hole bouquets in their coat-fronts, and felt my very eyes enriched. It was a sight I had never expected to see. I was amazed with the facility with which they counted the money; they threw off the thousands with the dexterity, if not the accuracy, of old and experienced clerks. The whole thing was beautiful. I had read of this Bank when I lived in Rochester, and had indeed been solicited to become one of its trustees, and had reluctantly consented to do so; but when I came to Washington and saw its magnificent brown stone front, its towering height, and its perfect appointments, and the fine display it made in the transaction of its business, I felt like the Queen of Sheba when she saw the riches of Solomon, “the half had not been told me.”
After settling myself down in Washington in the office of the New Era, I could, and did occasionally, attend the meetings of the Board of Trustees, and had the pleasure of listening to the rapid reports of the condition of the institution, which were generally of a most encouraging character. My confidence in the integrity and wisdom of the management was such that at one time I had entrusted to its vaults about twelve thousand dollars. It seemed fitting to me to cast in my lot with my brother freedmen, and help to build up an institution which represented their thrift and economy to such striking advantage; for the more millions accumulated there, I thought, the more consideration and respect would be shown to the coloured people of the whole country.
About four months before this splendid institution was compelled to close its doors in the starved and deluded faces of its depositors, and while I was assured by its President and by its Actuary of its sound condition, I was solicited by some of its trustees to allow them to use my name in the board as a candidate for its Presidency. So I awoke one morning to find myself seated in a comfortable arm-chair, with gold spectacles on my nose, and to hear myself addressed as President of the Freedmen’s Bank. I could not help reflecting on the contrast between Frederick the slave boy, running about at Col. Lloyd’s with only a tow linen shirt to cover him, and Frederick—President of a Bank counting its assets by millions. I had heard of golden dreams, but such dreams had no comparison with this reality. And yet this seeming reality was scarcely more substantial than a dream. My term of service on this golden height covered only the brief space of three months, and these three months were divided into two parts, during the first part of which I was quietly employed in an effort to find out the real condition of the Bank and its numerous branches. This was no easy task. On paper, and from the representations of its management, its assets amounted to three millions of dollars, and its liabilities were about equal to its assets. With such a showing I was encouraged in the belief that by curtailing expenses, doing away with non-paying branches, which policy the trustees had now adopted, we could be carried safely through the financial distress then upon the country. So confident was I of this, that in order to meet what was said to be a temporary emergency, I was induced to loan the Bank ten thousand dollars of my own money, to be held by it until it could realize on a part of its abundant securities. This money, though it was repaid, was not done so promptly as under the supposed circumstances I thought it should be, and these circumstances increased my fears lest the chasm was not so easily bridged as the Actuary of the institution had assured me it could be. The more I observed and learned, the more my confidence diminished. I found that those trustees who wished to issue cards and publish addresses professing the utmost confidence in the Bank, had themselves not one dollar deposited there. Some of them, while strongly assuring me of its soundness had withdrawn their money and opened accounts elsewhere. Gradually I discovered that the Bank had sustained heavy losses at the South through dishonest agents, that there was a discrepancy on the books of forty thousand dollars, for which no account could be given, that instead of our assets being equal to our liabilities we could not in all likelihoods of the case pay seventy-two cents on the dollar. There was an air of mystery, too, about the spacious and elegant apartments of the Bank building which greatly troubled me, and which I have only been able to explain to myself on the supposition that the employées, from the Actuary and the Inspector down to the messengers, were, perhaps, naturally, anxious to hold their places, and consequently have the business continued. I am not a violent advocate of the doctrine of the total depravity of human nature, I am inclined, on the whole, to believe it a tolerably good nature, yet instances do occur which oblige me to concede that men can and do act from mere personal and selfish motives. In this case, at any rate, it seemed not unreasonable to conclude that the finely dressed young gentlemen, adorned with pens and bouquets, the most fashionable and genteel of all our coloured youth, stationed behind those marble counters, should desire to retain their places as long as there was money in the vaults to pay them their salaries.
Standing on the platform of this large and complicated establishment, with its thirty-four branches, extending from New Orleans to Philadelphia, its machinery in full operation, its correspondence carried on in cipher, its Actuary dashing in and out of the Bank with an air of pressing business, if not of bewilderment, I found the path of inquiry I was pursuing an exceedingly difficult one. I knew there had been very lately several runs on the Bank, and that there had been a heavy draft made upon its reserve fund, but I did not know, what I should have been told before being allowed to enter upon the duties of my office, that this reserve, which the bank by its charter was required to keep, had been entirely exhausted, and that hence there was nothing left to meet any future emergency. Not to make too long a story, I was, in six weeks after my election as President of this Bank, convinced that it was no longer a safe custodian of the hard earnings of my confiding people. This conclusion once reached, I could not hesitate as to my duty in the premises, and this was, to save as much as possible of the assets held by the Bank for the benefit of the depositors; and to prevent their being further squandered in keeping up appearances, and in paying the salaries of myself and other officers in the bank. Fortunately, Congress, from which we held our charter, was then in session, and its committees on finance were in daily session. I felt it my duty to make known as speedily as possible to the Hon. John Sherman, chairman of the Senate committee on finance, and to Senator Scott of Pennsylvania, also of the same committee, that I regarded the institution as insolvent and irrecoverable, and that I could no longer ask my people to deposit their money in it. This representation to the finance committee subjected me to very bitter opposition on the part of the officers of the Bank. Its Actuary, Mr. Stickney, immediately summoned some of the trustees, a dozen or so of them, to go before the finance committee and make a counter statement to that made by me; and this they did. Some of them who had assisted me by giving me facts showing the insolvency of the bank, now made haste to contradict that conclusion, and to assure the committee that it was abundantly able to weather the financial storm, and pay dollar for dollar to its depositors if allowed to go on.
I was not exactly thunderstruck, but I was much amazed by this contradiction. I, however, adhered to my statement that the bank ought to stop. The Finance Committee substantially agreed with me, and in a few weeks so legislated as to bring this imposing banking business to a close by appointing three commissioners to take charge of its affairs.
This is a fair and unvarnished narration of my connection with the Freedmen’s Savings and Trust Company, otherwise known as the Freedmen’s Savings Bank, a connection which has brought upon my head an amount of abuse and detraction greater than any encountered in any other part of my life.
Before leaving the subject, I ought in justice to myself, to state that when I found that the affairs of the Bank were to be closed up, I did not, as I might easily have done, and as others did, make myself a preferred creditor and take my money out of the Bank, but on the contrary, I determined to take my chances with other depositors, and left my money, to the amount of two thousand dollars, to be divided with the assets among the creditors of the bank. And now, after seven years have been allowed for the value of the securities to appreciate, and the loss of interests on the deposits for that length of time, the depositors may deem themselves fortunate if they receive sixty cents on the dollar of what they placed in the care of this fine savings institution.
It is also due to myself to state, especially since I have seen myself accused of bringing the Freedmen’s Bank into ruin, and squandering in senseless loans on bad security the hardearned moneys of my race, that all the loans ever made by the Bank were made prior to my connection with it as its President. Not a dollar, not a dime of its millions were loaned by me, or with my approval. The fact is, and all investigation shows it, that I was married to a corpse. The fine building was there, with its marble counters and black walnut finishings, the affable and agile clerks, and the discreet and comely coloured cashier; but the Life, which was the money, was gone, and I found that I had been placed there with the hope that by “some drugs, some charms, some conjuration, or some mighty magic,” I would bring it back.
When I became connected with the Bank I had a tolerably fair name for honest dealing, I had expended in the publication of my paper in Rochester, thousands of dollars annually, and had often to depend upon my credit to bridge over immediate wants, but no man, there or elsewhere, can say I ever wronged him out of a cent; and I could, to-day, with the confidence of the converted tax collector, offer “to restore fourfold to any from whom I have unjustly taken aught.” I say this, not for the benefit of those who know me, but for the thousands of my own race who hear of me mostly through the malicious and envious assaults of unscrupulous aspirants, who vainly fancy that they lift themselves into consideration by wanton attacks upon the characters of men who receive a larger share of respect and esteem than themselves.