Last Updated on February 28, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 487
Frederick Douglass was a self-educated abolitionist who came to prominence with his autobiographical slave narrative The Narrative of Frederick Douglass. By December, 1866, when he penned the essay “Reconstruction,” he was a well-known orator and spokesperson for the civil rights of black Americans and for women’s suffrage. As Congress prepared to reconvene in 1866, Douglass released this essay, challenging lawmakers to confront the problems in the South and shape a new national identity informed by freedom and equality.
Douglass believes the challenge of Reconstruction requires a simple solution. From his view, the states must be brought into line with the principles that govern the nation at the federal level, as outlined in the Constitution. The federal government is not powerful enough to protect former slaves from the hostile new Southern state governments and their embittered citizens, but the situation can most easily be corrected by ensuring the right to vote for every natural-born American.
Douglass explores the idea of the Civil War as having been a necessary catalyst for change. Despite the work of abolitionists in the years prior to the outbreak of war, the United States was in an era of economic prosperity that was hard to dispute. Without the South’s secession, he argues, the United States might have continued as a slaveholding nation indefinitely.
Four years of Civil War had ended with 600,000 dead Americans, an assassinated president, and a Southerner named Andrew Johnson in charge of the future of the nation and of its former slaves. Douglass notes how it quickly became clear that Johnson wasn’t interested in the civil rights or suffrage of emancipated black Americans. Johnson freely exercised his vision for white supremacy in the postwar South for the first eight months of his presidency, as Congress was in recess. He used this time to issue pardons and amnesty to former Confederates willing to take an oath of allegiance to the United States; many of them went on to win leadership posts in southern state elections. “Black codes” subsequently began to appear, codes intended to make it difficult, if not impossible, for black American in the South to exercise any sort of civil liberties, including the right to vote.
In “Reconstruction,” Douglass addresses the chaos of Andrew Johnson’s presidency and policies. He observes that despite the disorder and ineffectiveness of this presidency, it was understandable that the first session of Congress had endeavored to give the new president an opportunity to lead. That time is now past, however. It is time to eradicate the fraudulent state governments of the South, and it is up to Congress to do it. Douglass concludes by observing that the right to vote is no less important to black Americans than the right to freedom. If the Constitution of the United States applies to all citizens of the nation, as clearly it does, then it must apply to the newly freed black Americans across the South.