Sunday, February 11, 2024

The Final Struggle

Frederick Douglass (1818–1895)
From Frederick Douglass: Speeches & Writings

Attendees at the Fugitive Slave Convention, Cazenovia, New York, August 20–21, 1850, daguerreotype by American photographer Ezra Greenleaf Weld (1801–1874). Frederick Douglass is seated with his elbow on the table; behind him is Gerrit Smith, standing at center; Mary Edmonson is at Smith's fingertips, wearing a shawl; her sister Emily Edmonson, also in a shawl, stands to the left of Smith. (National Abolition Hall of Fame and Museum)
    Born into slavery in Maryland (as was Douglass), the Edmonson sisters became nationally known when the teenagers were among 76 fugitives captured during an escape attempt arranged and financed by Smith and others. The two sisters were sold to traders in New Orleans, sent back to Alexandria for hire, and then emancipated with funds raised by Henry Ward Beecher’s congregation.
Philip S. Foner, in his 1969 biography of Frederick Douglass, reminded his readers of the importance of the Liberty Party, not only to Douglass’s pre–Civil War career but also to American political history.
The vast majority of American historians have underestimated the Liberty Party since it never carried a state, or even came close to carrying it, in any election. Yet the significance of this party cannot be estimated from the number of votes cast for its candidates at any given time. Its newspapers and propaganda went into the homes of Whigs and Democrats alike; its lecturers spoke to hundreds of people whose sense of party loyalty prevented them from voting the Liberty Party ticket. The Liberty Party men helped to shape the principles, forge the arguments, and train the leaders who in 1854 formed the Republican Party.
Among those leaders were future Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase (who would also serve as Lincoln’s Secretary of the Treasury), the social reformer Lucretia Mott, and the poet John Greenleaf Whittier. The organization was also the first political party that numbered African Americans among its ranks, including the educator and minister Henry Highland Garnet and the prominent Presbyterian minister Theodore S. Wright.

Founded in New York State in 1840, the Liberty Party aimed to divorce the institutions of the federal government from slavery. The party’s members believed that the Constitution was inherently antislavery in spirit and that it already granted the federal government the power to limit slavery to only those states where it had already existed at the time it was adopted. Therefore, abolitionists had a moral obligation to enter the political fray and challenge and reform the government. They were opposed by other abolitionists, especially the members of the ‎American Anti-Slavery Society led by William Lloyd Garrison, who maintained that the Constitution was fundamentally corrupted by slavery, that any political action under its system was morally compromised, and that Americans could be persuaded of the wrongness of slavery though peaceful, nonpolitical resistance, or “moral suasion.”

Douglass, however, came late to the Liberty Party. By the time he publicly announced his support, in 1851, many of its adherents had switched to the new antislavery (but not abolitionist) Free Soil Party, and the remaining Liberty leaders had split into two factions. “From the hour that the old Liberty Party was swallowed up by the Van Buren Free Soil party in ’48,” he acknowledged a few years later, “the work of deterioration began, and has been continued until now. Instead of going upward, the political Anti-Slavery sentiment has been going downward.”

Initially, as a loyal follower of Garrison, Douglass was opposed to the principles of the Liberty Party. In June 1848, however, the remnants of one faction hosted a convention in Buffalo, close enough to his new home in Rochester, and he attended. He ended up debating with several attendees and strongly defended the Garrisonian directive for moral suasion over political action. While somewhat impressed with the proceedings, he remained convinced “that the only true ground for an American Abolitionist is, No Union with Slaveholders,” as he told the readers of his newspaper The North Star. Many of his allies in the Garrison camp, however, protested that he had bestowed legitimacy on the Liberty Party by appearing in Buffalo at all.

Over the next three years, frustrated in part by the lack of progress (much less action) in the abolitionist movement, Douglass inched toward accommodation with the Liberty Party’s position. He became friends with one of the party’s founders, the wealthy New York businessman Gerrit Smith, whose estate in the small town of Peterboro was a significant stop for the underground railroad. “I am sick and tired of argueing on the slaveholder side of this question although they are doubtless right so far as the intentions of the framers of the constitution are concerned,” Douglass admitted to Smith in January 1851. “But these intentions you fling to the winds—your legal rules of interpretation override all speculations as to the opinions of the constitution makers and these rules may be sound and I confess I know not how to meet or refute them on legal grounds.”

That spring, Smith arranged with Douglass to merge The North Star, which had more than 4,000 subscribers, with the Liberty Party Paper, struggling for survival with a circulation of 700. Smith provided the funding for the new publication, retitled Frederick Douglass’ Paper. In a letter to Smith, Douglass worried, correctly, that he would be accused of selling out: “The war will be waged not against opinions, but motives.” He publicly announced the merger in May at the annual meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society, and his statement in Garrison’s newspaper The Liberator argued that because slavery is incompatible with “the noble purposes avowed” in the preamble to the Constitution, the document should be interpreted as an antislavery instrument and “wielded in behalf of Emancipation.” His call to use political as well as moral power in their efforts to overthrow slavery alienated him from Garrison, and the subsequent exchange became so vitriolic and personal that—despite an attempt by Harriet Beecher Stowe to broker a peace—Douglass left the Society at the end of 1853.

By April 1856, the Liberty Party was a shell of its former self and a new group—the Republican Party—was on the rise. Douglass was skeptical: “That the National Republican party, around whose standard Abolitionists are now called upon to rally, does not occupy this high Anti-Slavery ground, (and what is worse, does not mean to occupy it,) is most painfully evident.” Rather than supporting the Republicans, Douglass stumped for the Radical Abolition Party—a small group of old Liberty Party men, led in part by Gerrit Smith. After the Republican Party held its convention in June, he dismissively summarized the party’s position, which was limited to its opposition to the expansion of slavery into Kansas and Nebraska:
Nothing said of the Fugitive Slave Bill—nothing said of Slavery in the District of Columbia—nothing said of the slave trade between States—nothing said of giving the dignity of the nation to Liberty—nothing said of securing the rights of citizens, from the Northern States, in the constitutional right to enter and transact business in the slave States. There is not a single warm and living position, taken by the Republican party, except freedom for Kansas.
Yet Douglass bowed to the reality of the political situation, and in August he endorsed the Republican ticket of John C. Frémont and William L. Dayton “because there is no chance whatever in the present context of electing better men than they.” As David W. Blight concluded in his recent Pulitzer Prize–winning biography: “More than from any other single issue before the war, Douglass derived his sense of political pragmatism from coming to grips with the Republican Party, the odd assemblage of former Whigs, antislavery Democrats, Liberty Party men, and even nativists who all coalesced around stopping the expansion of slavery. His reactions ranged from vehement opposition to cautious support.”

In the middle of this maelstrom of oppositional forces within the antislavery movement, Douglass found hope and strength in his continuing belief that the conflict over slavery “will not, cannot, last for ever” and that even the “disintegration of the once powerful political Parties, is a cheering and significant sign of the times.” In August 1855 he published the following editorial, presciently expressing his confidence that the “final struggle” was at hand.

Portions of the above introduction have been drawn from the Chronology and Notes in Frederick Douglass: Speeches & Writings, edited by David W. Blight.

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For this week’s selection, we depart from the usual format and reproduce the selection, in its entirety, below. You may also download it as a PDF or view it in Google Docs

The Final Struggle

Among the varied and multitudinous array of opposition to the anti-slavery movement, no Abolitionist should abate his zeal, or relax his energy, but rather redouble his diligence, and resolve, if need be, to die upon the battle field, struggling for the victory. There is some consolation in the reflection, that the conflict will not, cannot, last for ever. The hour which shall witness the final struggle, is on the wing. Already we hear the booming of the bell which shall yet toll the death knell of human slavery.

Liberty and Slavery cannot dwell together forever in the same country. There is not one iota of affinity existing between them. They hate each other, with a hatred which is unto Death. They ever have been, and they ever must remain, in a state of irreconcilable hostility. Before a union can be effected between them, the laws which govern the moral universe must be repealed. It is absurd in any one to expect to witness the spirit of Liberty being led, by the demon of Slavery, to the hymeneal altar.—As well expect the pains and sorrows of hell, to mingle, in happy unison, with the pleasures and the joys of heaven; the spirits of just men made perfect, with the spirits of the lost.

It is useless, then, to attempt to effect a union between them. No compromise can effect it. No legislation can change the inflexible law of adaptation, the eternal fitness of things. No compact can make that Right, which is wrong from its first principles to its crowning assumptions.

It is, then, perfectly apparent to every reflecting mind, that a crisis more critical than any which has preceded it, is pending. This crisis cannot much longer be delayed. It must come to pass as the legitimate result of the past and the present struggle for the mastery in which we behold these deadly enemies engaged. We may attempt to bind up the wounds of the respective hostile parties, with mollifying ointment, but this will not avert the impending hour. It must come, as sure as the laws of God cannot be trampled upon with impunity.

Then, as a nation, if we are wise, we will prepare for the last conflict, for that final struggle in which the enemy of Freedom must capitulate. Instead of indulging in delusive dreams of safety, the Slave Power should prepare for the era of its disastrous doom; it will be wise and consider its latter end.

The motto to be inscribed upon the banner of Freedom, in the last conflict is not, “No more Slave States,” nor “No Slavery outside of the Slave States”; but no Slavery where it does exist; no Slavery in the Republic. We shall not be burdened or annoyed by unhallowed compromises, we shall make no contracts with the perfidious enemy. Not one word of concession or compromise, shall escape our lips, not one syllable of apology. Truth and Error, Liberty and Slavery, in a hand-to-hand conflict. This is what we want; this is what we will have. The utter extinction of Slavery, everywhere in our national domain; the subversion of the Black Power, wherever, in all our widespread territory, it dare lift its defiant head toward Heaven.

Again; in the final struggle, in order to be successful, there must exist a thorough organization of freemen, with the single issue presented, Liberty everywhere, Slavery nowhere; there must be unity of effort; every man who loves freedom, must array himself in her defence, whatever may have been his past political predilections. The magnet of Human Freedom, must be held high above the din of party tumult, and every man who is willing to peril his life, his fortune, and his sacred honor, in its defence, will ultimately be attracted to the magnet, whether Whig, or Democrat, or Freesoiler, or Abolitionist. This will form the great Abolition Party of the land. In fact, there must be, and there will be, but two Parties in the country; these will be known not as Whigs, nor as Democrats, nor as Republicans, so far as party names are concerned, but simply as the Anti-Slavery, and Pro-Slavery parties of the country. All who are desirous of maintaining a sort of assumed neutrality on the question, as well as the most inveterate haters of the Abolition movement, will constitute the Pro-Slavery Party. Neither of these parties, in the last conflict, will be wheedled from the arena, by the presentation of incidental issues. Each party, forming a unit, and rallying under its own banner, will fight for the triumph of its respective Principles.

We do not fear the result of such a struggle. The sooner the last battle shall be fought, the sooner victory will perch upon the standard of the free. The Principles which form the basis of the Abolition movement, are as unchanging and as undying as their Eternal Author. They must triumph, for Heaven has nowhere promised to delegate his power to another. Let us then prepare for the battle, and for victory. Already are the masses moving. The disintegration of the once powerful political Parties, is a cheering and significant sign of the times. The throne of the despot is trembling to its deep foundations. There is a good time coming. We yet shall make the welkin ring with the mighty hallelujahs of the free.

From Frederick Douglass’ Paper, November 16, 1855

Note: The phrase “his life, his fortune, and his sacred honor” evokes the closing line of the Declaration of Independence: “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”