Frederick Douglass on the Ballot Box, the Jury Box, and the Cartridge Box

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass was born into slavery in Maryland in 1818, escaped in 1838, and became a leader in the movement for the abolition of slavery. After the Civil War ended, he continued to advocate for the political rights of American Blacks.

“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 [333] 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.” (FROM: CHAPTER XIII.: VAST CHANGES.)

Slaves became freedmen with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865, but Douglass argued that without additional constitutional safeguards they would not live in safety or at liberty. The Fourteenth Amendment (1868) conferred both national and state citizenship, and the Fifteenth Amendment (1870) conferred the right to vote. While Douglass thought the right to vote was crucial to protect one’s rights, he also emphasized other constitutional rights that Blacks should exercise. “The Jury-box” allowed freedmen to become part of the impartial jury system required by the Sixth Amendment, thus allowing for the hope if a freedman were on trial, he would actually have some of his peers sitting in judgment, and providing for the possibility of Blacks sitting in judgment of those who attempted to subvert their rights. The “Cartridge-box” harkened back to the Second Amendment’s protection of “the right of the people to keep and bear arms,” thus holding out the possibility of self-defense if other legal mechanisms failed. In an 1803 comment on the common law, St. George Tucker had written, “This may be considered as the true palladium of liberty… . The right of self defence is the first law of nature”.

Douglass thought that the primary line of defense for constitutional rights would be the “American Government,” and not the states. With the end of Reconstruction and the decline in attention on the part of the federal government to the rights of freedmen and other Blacks, the constitutional right to vote was eroded by state resistance and imposition of new voting requirements, and other legal protections were modified or eliminated. A year after Douglass’s death in 1895, the Supreme Court opinion in Plessy v. Ferguson set the groundwork for the Jim Crow system of “separate but equal” provision of governmental services. Many of the battles that Frederick Douglass had taken part in at the end of the Civil War would be refought a century later during the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-Twentieth Century.

In those later battles Martin Luther King, Jr., would be one of the major spokesmen for the importance of the right to vote. “Give us the ballot and we will no longer have to worry the federal government about our basic rights … we will no longer plead to the federal government for passage of an anti-lynching law … we will fill our legislative halls with men of good will …we will place judges on the benches of the South who will do justly and love mercy … we will quietly and nonviolently, without rancor or bitterness, implement the Supreme Court’s decision of May 17, 1954.” King was referring to Brown v. Board of Education. (“Give Us the Ballot,” 1957) Malcolm X, on the other hand, was a primary advocate of Black self-defense. “Negroes don’t realize this, that they are within their constitutional rights to own a rifle, to own a shotgun. When the bigoted white supremacists realize that they are dealing with Negroes who are willing to give their lives in defense of life and property, then those bigoted white supremacists will change their whole strategy and their whole attitude.” (“Interview by A. B. Spellman, 1964)