Do you agree with Frederick Douglass that the time was right to press for suffrage for black men?

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Frederick Douglass recognized that freedom for African Americans would mean absolutely nothing if it didn't give them the opportunity of taking control of their own destinies. Above all, this meant being able to exercise the right to vote. Douglass knew, better than most people, that the simple act of freeing...

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Frederick Douglass recognized that freedom for African Americans would mean absolutely nothing if it didn't give them the opportunity of taking control of their own destinies. Above all, this meant being able to exercise the right to vote. Douglass knew, better than most people, that the simple act of freeing the slaves, though essential, was not in itself enough to affect the necessary transformation in the economic and social status of African Americans.

The new birth of freedom promised by Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address couldn't simply be formal; it needed to be have real, enduring substance. There is a simple logic about Douglass's position which is hard to resist: if the slaves are emancipated, then they will become American citizens, and if they become American citizens then they should enjoy the exact same rights as all other citizens, including the right to vote.

The importance that Douglass attaches to the franchise would be vindicated in due course by the events that followed the collapse of Reconstruction. For when Congress and the federal government effectively abandoned the enforcement of civil rights, white supremacist legislatures in the South systematically began to disenfranchise African Americans, reintroducing slavery by the back door, in substance if not in form. As Douglass had seen, with great prescience, without that crucial right to vote, the destiny of African Americans would once more be placed in the hands of the white majority, who would use their power to keep what they regarded as an inferior race in a position of permanent subjection.

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In 1865--as the Civil War was coming to a close--Frederick Douglass gave a speech before the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. Defying his opponents, he declared that African Americans and abolitionists should not content themselves with the abolition of slavery but must push forward for black voting rights. As he said:

I am for the “immediate, unconditional, and universal” enfranchisement of the black man, in every state in the Union.

I believe Douglass was right to push for black male suffrage. Without voting rights, African Americans would never have equal rights with white Americans. They might be "free," but they would be so in name only. As Douglass forcefully declared:

Without this [voting rights], his liberty is a mockery; without this, you might as well almost retain the old name of slavery for his condition; for, in fact, if he is not the slave of the individual master, he is the slave of society, and holds his liberty as a privilege, not as a right.

Having been granted their liberty, black Americans needed the right to vote to ensure they could secure their liberty in the future. If they were not able to vote, white Americans would still retain power over them. It is true that Douglass' proposal still prevented women (both black and white) from voting, but black male suffrage was an important step forward for universal voting rights in the United States.

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