Douglass, Frederick Primary Source eText

Primary Source

(Reconstruction Era: Primary Sources)

A man speaks to children in the segregated Zion School for Colored Children. The Library of Congress. A man speaks to children in the segregated Zion School for Colored Children. Published by Gale Cengage The Library of Congress
Three African American men discuss politics, as shown in the November 20, 1869, issue of Harpers Weekly. The Library of Congress. Three African American men discuss politics, as shown in the November 20, 1869, issue of Harper's Weekly. Published by Gale Cengage The Library of Congress

Excerpt from "Reconstruction" Published in Atlantic Monthly, 1866; reprinted on (Web site)

A leading African American abolitionist fights for intervention from the federal government and Union military to gain equal rights for blacks

"If with the negro was success in war, and without him failure, so in peace it will be found that the nation must fall or flourish with the negro.…"

In many ways, the end of the American Civil War (1861–65) raised more questions than it answered. The North won the bloody struggle to end slavery and keep the South from seceding, or forming its own country. But how would these Southern states rejoin the Union? What changes would be made to their governments and their ways of life? What rights would African Americans have? And what would be their role in shaping a new South? The answers to these questions would define the process known as Reconstruction.

President Andrew Johnson (1808–1875; served 1865–69) developed the first Reconstruction policy during the summer of 1865, without any input from Congress. He appointed governors in each of the Southern states and required them to hold conventions to draft new state constitutions. The conventions were only open to men who were eligible to vote in 1860, effectively barring African Americans from participating in the process. (Johnson later argued that giving African American men the ballot would spark a racial war.) But most whites involved in the "rebellion" against the North could participate, as long as they had taken an oath of allegiance to the Union. The only exceptions were the highest ranking Confederates and Southerners with property worth more than $20,000 who had to apply to the president directly for a pardon.

Not surprisingly, these new Southern governments put prominent Confederates back in power without giving African American men the right to vote. Many Southern towns and states passed "Black Codes," discriminatory laws designed to keep African Americans under the control of whites. The laws in some areas barred African Americans from owning land or meeting after dark. Unemployed African Americans could be arrested and put to work for the white men who bailed them out. In South Carolina, African Americans had to get a special license to do any work besides farming. As noted in Frederick Douglass and the Fight for Freedom, "These so called 'Black Codes' virtually reconstituted [recreated] slavery in everything but name."

It was a devastating outcome for African Americans, particularly the 180,000 African American men who joined the Union army during the war to fight for their freedom. A group of African Americans met in Virginia in August 1865 to draft a message to Congress, reprinted on the "From Revolution to Reconstruction" Web site. They reminded Congress of the African Americans who helped in the war effort, only to see this sad result:

Four fifths of our enemies are paroled or amnestied [freed], and the other fifth are being pardoned, and the President has, in his efforts at the reconstruction of the civil government of these States … left us entirely at the mercy of these subjugated [defeated] but unconverted [unchanged] rebels, in everything save [except] the privilege of bringing us, our wives and little ones, to the auction block.…

Recognizing that Johnson's Reconstruction plan would leave the South largely unchanged, Congress responded with its own plan. The assembly refused to seat the ex-Confederates and other Southerners sent to Congress in December 1865. Instead, Congress created the Joint Committee on Reconstruction to hold hearings on Southern attitudes and offer a plan for rebuilding the region (see Chapter 7). Congress already created the Freedmen's Bureau (see Chapter 4) shortly before the war ended to provide food, lease land, and negotiate labor contracts for the newly freed slaves. It also officially ended slavery with the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (see Chapter 2), which was ratified by the states in 1865. In response to the Black Codes, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866 (see Chapter 8) and proposed the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (see Chapter 9). Both measures (which passed over Johnson's objections) granted citizenship to African Americans and required they receive the same legal treatment as whites.

But it would take more than a couple of laws to change the way Southern whites treated African Americans. Visiting the South shortly after the war, Union general Carl Schurz (1829–1906) made the following observations, reprinted in A History of Affirmative Action, 1619–2000:

Wherever I go … I hear the people talk in such a way as to indicate that they are yet unable to conceive of the Negro as possessing any rights at all. Men who are honorable in their dealings with white neighbors, will cheat a Negro without feeling a single twinge of their honor.… The reason for all this is simple and manifest [obvious]. The whites esteem [consider] blacks their property by natural right … they still have an ingrained feeling that the blacks at large belong to the whites at large.

Frederick Douglass (1817–1895), a former slave who became a leader in the abolitionist (antislavery) movement, was well aware of the obstacles facing African Americans. Raised on a Maryland farm, Douglass escaped to New York at age twenty after experiencing first-hand the tragedies of slavery: brutal whippings, separation from family members, and the humiliation of belonging to another person. He contributed to antislavery newspapers before writing his life's story, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, in 1845. A couple of years later he created his own antislavery newspaper, North Star, named for the star used by slaves escaping to freedom in the North.

Douglass knew that ending slavery was only half the battle. African Americans needed to be able to rent or buy land so they could work for themselves. They also needed the right to vote and run for office, so they could support officials who would protect their rights. The passage of the Black Codes throughout the South showed how African Americans would be treated as long as Southern whites were in control. Any push for equal rights for blacks must come from the federal government, backed up by Union soldiers, Douglass argued in the following article from Atlantic Monthly magazine.

Things to remember while reading an excerpt from "Reconstruction":

  • President Johnson drafted the first Reconstruction plan to bring the South back into the Union after the Civil War. Under his plan, Southern whites drafted new state constitutions and elected new officials, including many former Confederates. African Americans could not vote, however, and new laws called Black Codes restricted every aspect of their lives. These local laws barred African Americans from owning land, required them to get special permits for certain jobs, and allowed them to be arrested and put to work if they were unemployed.
  • Congress rejected Johnson's Reconstruction plan and passed some measures of its own. It created the Freedmen's Bureau to provide supplies to African Americans and help them negotiate their labor contracts. Congress also passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and proposed the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution to outlaw the Black Codes and ensure equal legal treatment for African Americans.
  • Douglass, a former slave who became a leading abolitionist, believed ending slavery was only half the battle. African Americans needed the right to vote and the ability to work for themselves in order to be free, he said. Knowing many Southern whites would not give African Americans these opportunities, Douglass called for Congress to lead the push for African Americans' rights and use Union troops to enforce those rights.

Excerpt from "Reconstruction"

The assembling of the Second Session of the Thirty-ninth Congress may very properly be made the occasion of a few earnest words on the already much-worn topic of reconstruction.

Seldom has any legislative body been the subject of a solicitude more intense, or of aspirations more sincere and ardent. There are the best of reasons for this profound interest. Questions of vast moment, left undecided by the last session of Congress, must be manfully grappled with by this. No political skirmishing will avail. The occasion demands statesmanship.

Whether the tremendous war so heroically fought and so victoriously ended shall pass into history a miserable failure, barren of permanent results,—a scandalous and shocking waste of blood and treasure, —a strife for empire, … of no value to liberty or civilization,—an attempt to re-establish a Union by force, which must be the merest mockery of a Union,—an effort to bring under Federal authority States into which no loyal man from the North may safely enter, and to bring men into the national councils who deliberate with daggers and vote with revolvers, and who do not even conceal their deadly hate of the country that conquered them; or whether, on the other hand, we shall, as the rightful reward of victory over treason, have a solid nation, entirely delivered from all contradictions and social antagonisms,

Frederick Douglass. The Library of Congress. Frederick Douglass. Published by Gale Cengage The Library of Congress
based upon loyalty, liberty, and equality, must be determined one way or the other by the present session of Congress. The last session really did nothing which can be considered final as to these questions. The Civil Rights Bill and the Freedmen's Bureau Bill and the proposed constitutional amendments, with the amendment already adopted and recognized as the law of the land, do not reach the difficulty, and cannot, unless the whole structure of the government is changed from a government by States to something like a despotic central government, with power to control even the municipal regulations of States, and to make them conform to its own despotic will. While there remains such an idea as the right of each State to control its own local affairs,—an idea, by the way, more deeply rooted in the minds of men of all sections of the country than perhaps any one other political idea,—no general assertion of human rights can be of any practical value. To change the character of the government at this point is neither possible nor desirable. All that is necessary to be done is to make the government consistent with itself, and render the rights of the States compatible with the sacred rights of human nature.

The arm of the Federal government is long, but it is far too short to protect the rights of individuals in the interior of distant States. They must have the power to protect themselves, or they will go unprotected, spite of all the laws the Federal government can put upon the national statute-book.…

If time was at first needed, Congress has now had time. All the requisite materials from which to form an intelligent judgment are now before it. Whether its members look at the origin, the progress, the termination of the war, or at the mockery of a peace now existing, they will find only one unbroken chain of argument in favor of a radical policy of reconstruction. For the omissions of the last session, some excuses may be allowed. A treacherous President stood in the way; and it can be easily seen how reluctant good men might be to admit an apostasy which involved so much of baseness and ingratitude. It was natural that they should seek to save him by bending to him even when he leaned to the side of error. But all is changed now. Congress knows now that it must go on without his aid, and even against his machinations. The advantage of the present session over the last is immense. Where that investigated, this has the facts. Where that walked by faith, this may walk by sight. Where that halted, this must go forward, and where that failed, this must succeed, giving the country whole measures where that gave us half-measures.… In every considerable public meeting, and in almost every conceivable way, whether at court-house, schoolhouse, or cross-roads, in doors and out, the subject has been discussed, and the people have emphatically pronounced in favor of a radical policy. Listening to the doctrines of expediency and compromise with pity, impatience, and disgust, they have everywhere broken into demonstrations of the wildest enthusiasm when a brave word has been spoken in favor of equal rights and impartial suffrage. Radicalism, so far from being odious, is not the popular passport to power. The men most bitterly charged with it go to Congress with the largest majorities, while the timid and doubtful are sent by lean majorities, or else left at home. The strange controversy between the President and the Congress, at one time so threatening, is disposed of by the people. The high reconstructive powers which he so confidently, ostentatiously, and haughtily claimed, have been disallowed, denounced, and utterly repudiated; while those claimed by Congress have been confirmed.…

Without attempting to settle here the metaphysical and somewhat theological question (about which so much has already been said and written), whether once in the Union means always in the Union … it is obvious to common sense that the rebellious States stand to-day, in point of law, precisely where they stood when, exhausted, beaten, conquered, they fell powerless at the feet of Federal authority. Their State governments were overthrown, and the lives and property of the leaders of the Rebellion were forfeited. In reconstructing the institutions of these shattered and overthrown States, Congress should begin with a clean slate, and make clean work of it. Let there be no hesitation. It would be a cowardly deference to a defeated and treacherous President, if any account were made of the illegitimate, one-sided, sham governments hurried into existence for a malign purpose in the absence of Congress. These pretended governments, which were never submitted to the people, and from participation in which four millions of the loyal [African American] people were excluded by Presidential order, should now be treated according to their true character, as shams and impositions, and supplanted by true and legitimate governments, in the formation of which loyal men, black and white, shall participate.…

The plain, common-sense way of doing this work, as intimated at the beginning, is simply to establish in the South one law, one government, one administration of justice, one condition to the exercise of the elective franchise, for men of all races and colors alike. This great measure is sought as earnestly by loyal white men as by loyal African Americans, and is needed alike by both. Let sound political prescience but take the place of an unreasoning prejudice, and this will be done.…

The policy that emancipated and armed the negro—now seen to have been wise and proper by the dullest —was not certainly more sternly demanded than is now the policy of enfranchisement. If with the negro was success in war, and without him failure, so in peace it will be found that the nation must fall or flourish with the negro.…

What happened next …

Congress passed the Reconstruction Act in 1867 setting a drastic new policy for bringing the Southern states back into the Union (see Chapter 10). The act divided the South into five military districts, each one headed by a Union general. Each state was required to draft a new state constitution at a convention open to African American and white delegates alike—except high-ranking ex-Confederates. African American and white men alike would get to vote on the constitution. Once the states approved new constitutions and ratified (formally confirm) the Fourteenth Amendment, they could be readmitted to the Union.

For the first time, these new state constitutions gave Southern African American men the ballot. About 703,400 African American men registered to vote that year, and about 2,000 African American men were elected to various offices during the next decade (see Chapter 12). To further protect

the right of African American men to vote, Congress passed the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution, ratified by the states in 1870, guaranteeing African American men the ballot (see Chapter 16). "We certainly hope that the time will come when the colored man in America shall cease to require special efforts to guard their rights and advance their interests as a class," Douglass wrote in an 1870 article supporting the Fifteenth Amendment, reprinted in A History of Affirmative Action, 1619–2000. "But that time has not yet come, and is not even at the door."

Indeed, that time would be decades away. When Reconstruction ended in 1877 with the withdrawal of federal troops (see Chapter 19), the Southern states started chipping away at the hard-won rights for African Americans. They imposed literacy tests (to test for ability to read and write) or poll taxes to discourage African Americans from voting. They created separate schools, railroad cars, and other facilities for African Americans and whites, a practice upheld by the Supreme Court in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson ruling. Nearly a century passed after Reconstruction before the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s resumed the push for racial equality.

Did you know …

  • Two of Douglass's sons, Lewis and Charles, served in the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Regiment, the first African American Union regiment to fight in the Civil War. The regiment was later made famous by the 1989 movie Glory starring Matthew Broderick (1962–) and Denzel Washington (1954–).
  • After the death of his first wife, a former slave named Anna, Douglass caused a stir by marrying a white woman. The new Mrs. Douglass was Helen Pitts, a college-educated woman who had been Douglass's secretary. Interracial marriage was socially forbidden in that era, and even Douglass's children opposed the union. But for a man who spent his life preaching racial equality, the pairing was only natural. "I could never have been at peace with my own soul or held up my head among men had I allowed the fear of popular clamor [uproar] to deter [discourage] me from following my convictions as to this marriage," Douglass wrote in a letter reprinted in Frederick Douglass and the Fight for Freedom.
  • Douglass was a strong supporter of women's rights, including the suffrage movement to grant women the right to vote. He participated in the Seneca Falls convention of 1848, a gathering in New York that started the women's rights movement.

Consider the following …

  • Why did Douglass think Congress needed to create a stronger Reconstruction policy?
  • Why did Douglass describe the Southern state governments formed after the Civil War, under President Johnson's Reconstruction plan, as "shams?"
  • What was life like for African Americans right after the Civil War? How would that change by allowing African Americans the right to vote and own land?

For More Information

"An Address to the Loyal Citizens and Congress of the United States of America Adopted by a Convention of Negroes Held in Alexandria, Virginia, from August 2 to 5, 1865." From Revolution to Reconstruction. (accessed on September 15, 2004).

Cashman, Sean Dennis. America in the Gilded Age. New York: New York University Press, 1984.

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Boston: Anti-slavery Office, 1845. Reprint, 150th anniversary ed., New York: Laurel, 1997.

Douglass, Frederick. "Reconstruction." Atlantic Monthly (1866): pp. 761–65. Also available at (accessed on September 15, 2004).

Miller, Douglas T. Frederick Douglass and the Fight for Freedom. New York: Facts on File, 1988.

Rubio, Philip F. A History of Affirmative Action, 1619–2000. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2001.