Friday, August 3, 2018

The Work Before Us

Frederick Douglass (1818–1895)
From Reconstruction: Voices from America’s First Great Struggle for Racial Equality

Detail from “The First Vote,” hand-colored wood engraving drawn by A. R. Waud and published on the cover of Harper's Weekly (November 16, 1867). See the full cover at the Object of History website, hosted by the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.
During the two years after the end of the Civil War, Southern States enacted Black Codes, which imposed restrictions on the activities of freedmen, such as owning property or operating businesses. One of the central features of the new legislation was to use vagrancy laws to arrest unemployed black men and punish them with forced labor. To avoid being arrested as vagrants, freedmen were coerced into year-long contracts with local plantations. Life for many black men became, to use the phrase popularized by Douglas A. Blackmon in his recent Pulitzer Prize–winning best seller, “slavery under another name.”

In February 1866 African American leaders gathered in Washington to protest these new laws. The convention sent a delegation of eleven men, including Frederick Douglass, to the White House to discuss their concerns with President Andrew Johnson, as well as to urge him to support suffrage for black men. According to a transcript of the meeting that appeared the next day in the press, Johnson (a former slaveholder) was defensive, belligerent, and angry from the outset: “Practically, so far as my connection with slaves has gone, I have been their slave instead of their being mine,” he claimed. “For the colored race my means, my time, my all has been perilled.”

Toward the end of the “conversation,” which was dominated by Johnson’s condescending harangues, Douglass and Johnson had a remarkable exchange. The President suggested that if former slaves felt they could “live and advance in civilization” in locations other than the South, then they should pick up and move elsewhere.
      Mr. Douglass. But the masters have the making of the laws, and we cannot get away from the plantations.
      The President. What prevents you?
      Mr. Douglass. We have not the single right of locomotion through the Southern States now.
      The President. Why not; the government furnishes you with every facility.
      Mr. Douglass. There are six days in the year that the negro is free in the South now, and his master then decides for him where he shall go, where he shall work, how much he shall work—in fact, he is divested of all political power. He is absolutely in the hands of those men.
      The President. If the master now controls him or his action, would he not control him in his vote?
      Mr. Douglass. Let the negro once understand that he has an organic right to vote, and he will raise up a party in the Southern States among the poor, who will rally with him. There is this conflict that you speak of between the wealthy slaveholder and the poor man.
      The President. You touch right upon the point there. There is this conflict, and hence I suggest emigration. If he cannot get employment in the South, he has it where he can get it.
The meeting, unsurprisingly, had no effect on Johnson’s future actions. The following January he vetoed a bill that granted the vote to black men in the District of Columbia; Congress overrode his veto and two days later extended the vote to black men in federal territorial elections as well. Two months later Republicans passed, over yet another veto, the Reconstruction Act, which stipulated that in order to be readmitted into the Union, former Confederate states would have to adopt constitutions that provided for black male suffrage.

By the 1868 presidential election seven Southern states ratified new constitutions and elected Republican governors. The votes of black Americans, then, would be a factor in the contest, and Douglass endorsed—and stumped for—the Republican candidate, Ulysses S. Grant, over the Democratic opponent Horatio Seymour, a former governor of New York. For Douglass, “there was but one choice,” writes historian Philip S. Foner. “A vote for Seymour meant a vote for the overthrow of these constitutions; it meant Negro disenfranchisement. . . . A victory for the Republican Party meant the continuance of the new southern governments; it meant the recognition of Negro suffrage.”

Although Douglass modestly claimed to a fellow activist that he was “not much of a stumper,” his energetic speeches always attracted large crowds. For our Story of the Week selection, we present the text of his stump speech—with its no-holds-barred denunciation of Johnson, Seymour, and the Democrats—as it was printed in a New York newspaper.

Notes: In the opening paragraph, Douglass refers to Lord Granby’s character. John Manners, marquess of Granby, served as commander-in-chief of the British forces, 1766–70. When an anonymous political writer attacked Granby’s temperament, a reply by his friend Sir William Draper unwittingly confirmed the gist of the accusation and thereby exacerbated the scandal for Granby. Later in the paragraph, Douglass mentions Seymour’s efforts to resist the drafts; when Seymour was the governor of New York in 1863–64, he repeatedly criticized the draft as unconstitutional. Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase, who favored black suffrage, sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 1868 but received no more than four votes during the balloting. Among the Confederate generals listed by Douglass on page 355 is Nathan Bedford Forrest, who had become the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan the previous year. Both Forrest and Wade Hampton were delegates to the 1868 Democratic national convention. The Union army occupied the Virginia estate on Arlington Heights on May 24, 1861, and established the now-famous national cemetery on its grounds in 1864. Speaker of the House Schuyler Colfax (R-IN) became vice president of the United States during the first Grant administration.

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It is eminently creditable to the sagacity, if not to the honesty, of the Democratic leaders that they prefer to limit discussion of the merits of their party, . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!
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