Join me this week as I wrap up the life of famed abolitionist and ex-slave, Frederick Douglass.
In this episode, we pick up with Douglass venturing into national politics and announcing his support for women's suffrage. This episode also discusses how Douglass evolved in the aftermath of the Civil War and where he focused his attention once slavery was abolished.
Biography.com Editors. “Frederick Douglass Biography.” The Biography.com website. A&E Television Networks. (LINK)
Blight, David. Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018.
Frederick Douglass Papers. Library of Congress. (LINK)
Freeman, Elsie, Wynell Burroughs Schamel, and Jean West. "The Fight for Equal Rights: A Recruiting Poster for Black Soldiers in the Civil War." Social Education 56, 2 (February 1992): 118-120. [Revised and updated in 1999 by Budge Weidman.] (LINK)
History.com Editors. “Frederick Douglass.” History. October 27, 2009. (LINK)
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“I am an American citizen. In birth, in sentiment, in ideas, in hopes, in aspirations, and responsibilities, I am an American citizen.” Frederick Douglass
Welcome to Civics and Coffee. My name is Alycia and I am a self-professed history nerd. Each week, I am going to chat about a topic on U.S history and give you both the highlights and occasionally break down some of the complexities in history; and share stories you may not remember learning in high school. All in the time it takes to enjoy a cup of coffee.
Hey everyone, welcome back.
Last episode, I started the narrative of the life and times of one of the most iconic abolitionists in history, Frederick Douglass. I ended last week with Douglass becoming the owner and editor of his own newspaper, The North Star.
This week, I am continuing my review of Douglass’ life including. What happened between him and William Lloyd Garrison? What were his feelings on the Civil War? And what did he do once slavery was outlawed?
Grab your cup of coffee peeps, lets do this.
I mentioned Douglass’ paper, The North Star, towards the end of last week’s episode. The paper, a forceful voice in the cause for abolition, was a passion project of Douglass’ and though never a financial success, had an impact on his evolution as speaker and political activist. Douglass used The North Star as a way to enter into the public debate in a way he hadn’t before and hone his skills as a writer. Of his time with The North Star, Douglass said quote: “I had an audience to speak to every week, and must say something worth their hearing or cease to speak altogether,” end quote.
While always a proponent of the end of slavery, Douglass began to enter the fray on other hot button political issues; namely the rights of women. He was an early and consistent supporter of women’s suffrage and participated at the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, giving a speech in support of the rights of women at the conference. He supplemented his speech with articles in his paper, where he made the argument that quote, “there can be no reason in the world for denying to woman the exercise of the elective franchise,” end quote.
Providing assistance in maintaining the newspaper was Julia Griffiths, a white woman from Great Britain who came to work for Douglass as editor in 1849. She lived with the Douglass family, which created a rumor mill filled with innuendo and charges of infidelity. While they enjoyed a close relationship, there doesn’t appear to be any hard evidence that the two had an affair.
As Douglass continued to struggle to support the operating costs of The North Star, he became acquainted with another abolitionist who held vastly different view points than his original mentor William Lloyd Garrison. Gerrit Smith, a wealthy New York abolitionist who helped keep The North Star afloat, backed several social activist causes such as temperance and used his wealth to support the issues he believed in. Unlike Garrison who felt the constitution in and of itself was a pro-slavery document, Smith believed there was a path to abolition within its text. This idea, and Douglass’ belief in it, in part led to the coming fractured relationship between him and Garrison.
Garrison and his supporters quickly disavowed Douglass as a traitor to the cause and announced his refusal to support any abolitionist newspaper that did not support the belief in the Constitution’s innate support of slavery. At an American Anti-Slavery Soceity meeting in 1852, Douglass’ was raked over the coals for his change in opinion and shift in tactics. Many prominent abolitionists attacked his character and his newspaper. Douglass, who was already sensitive to insults and criticism, took the rift especially hard. He took to his paper to defend himself writing quote: “I contend that I have a right to cooperate with anybody, with everybody for the overthrow of slavery in this country,” end quote. With hurt feelings from Douglass and a sense of betrayal from Garrison, the two power house abolitionists parted ways and never managed to reconcile their differences.
Douglass continued his participation in national politics and started endorsing various candidates and party platforms, including in 1856 with his endorsement of the Republican Party. Douglass’ relationship with the party would be strained and complicated; they failed to move at the pace in which he desired and often left him wanting more. But, in taking stock of the options available to him, he felt most inclined to follow the republicans. As historian David Blight notes quote: “Douglass always had a party for his principles, but in the Republicans, as with the Free Soilers before, he found a party for his hopes” end quote.
While on one of many speaking tours, Douglass met John Brown, most famous for his raid at Harpers Ferry. Douglass, who was undergoing another evolution of thought and was becoming more supportive of a violent suppression of slavery, took to Brown and his dedication to the cause. Brown attempted to recruit Douglass into participating in an uprising, but Douglass never followed through. In the aftermath of the raid at Harpers Ferry, Douglass was accused of conspiring with Brown causing him to flee the country. He only returned after the death of his daughter Annie in 1860, a year after the attack.
It was during this time period Douglass also met a woman who became a friend, colleague and perhaps, lover. While the historical record is incomplete, Douglass maintained a nearly thirty year relationship with Ottilie Assing, a German American abolitionist who held Douglass in the highest regard. Assing wrote several letters to her sister describing the depth of her admiration and affection for the leader. Douglass never went into many details about his home life, which is odd considering the man wrote three separate memoirs detailing his life as a slave and abolitionist, so the story is unfortunately one sided. Whatever the truth, Assing, like Julia Griffiths before her, lived in the Douglass home and interacted with the family, even attempting to tutor Douglass’ wife Anna.
The 1860’s brought a time of great turmoil to the country as the institution of slavery became an ever present political issue. Southern states, committed to their economic system and touting states rights, quickly seceded from the rest of the country in the aftermath of the 1860 presidential election. Douglass, who had begun feeling more militant, welcomed the Civil War, feeling it was only through violence that slavery would once and for all be dealt the final blow. He pushed for black soldiers to participate and receive fair pay and all three his sons were somehow involved in the conflict, including his sons Charles and Lewis who were members of the Massachusetts 54th regiment, an all-black volunteer unit.
Allowing blacks to serve in the military took some convincing and Douglass grew frustrated with Lincoln for his apparent inaction on the issue. Finally, in July of 1862 with the passage of the Second Confiscation and Militia Act, black men were permitted to serve. Douglass threw himself into gathering recruits, using his newspaper as an advertisement of equality through service. The equality, of course, never actually materialized with black recruits often not getting the same rate of pay as their white counterparts.
In August, 1863 Douglass had the opportunity to air his grievances to the man in charge, President Abraham Lincoln. From the tale told by Douglass, the conversation between the two powerhouses was amiable and Lincoln was forthright in acknowledging that while black recruits were not treated great, it was better than not being allowed to serve at all. After meeting with Secretary of War Edward Stanton and Lincoln, Douglass left DC under the impression he would be acting as an official recruiter for the Union. As a result, he decided to cease publication of the newspaper that had been his passion for over a decade. No longer called The North Star, having merged with other papers, the Frederick Douglass paper issued its final edition in August 1863.
Finally, after five years of bloody conflict, and decades of fighting for the liberation of his fellow citizens, the Civil War was over and black freedom was within reach. Douglass had built a career on advocating for the abolition of slavery. Now that it was a reality, what was next? Without missing a beat, Douglass shifted from being an abolitionist to a proponent of reconstruction and securing black voting rights. In a somewhat odd approach, Douglass was a loud voice for self reliance for the newly freed slaves and advocated for white america to let the freedmen be, saying quote: “your doing with them is their greatest misfortune” end quote.
In Douglass’ mind, white America had done more harm than good and the freedmen only needed the opportunity to make it for themselves. This forceful support of going it alone is odd given Douglass’ own experiences. Throughout his life, Douglass was aided by the charity of others, most often white abolitionists. It was white donations that helped support his family while he was on lecture tours; white contributions that kept his paper afloat for years. So while white america had by and large done atrocious things to their fellow citizens, it is a surprising turn of events that Douglass was not more supportive of a collaborative approach to financial independence for the newly freed men and women.
Douglass had a sweeping vision for reconstruction. According to Douglass biographer David Blight, Douglass quote: “believed the establishment of a new order in the South, especially the protection of the freedmen’s rights, had to be done by activist, interventionist federal power,” end quote. Unfortunately for Douglass, the man who followed Lincoln into the White House had an entirely different opinion of just how to put the country back together.
In a forced meeting with Andrew Johnson, Douglass, leading a delegation of thirteen men, implored the president to do right by the black men and women who had supported the union during the war and now needed their rights guaranteed. Johnson, a slave owner and southern sympathizer, rebuked Douglass’ pleas and provided colonization as the best option for the newly freed black americans. A race war would ensue, Johnson lectured, if the government tried to enforce any law granting access to the franchise. Not one to back down, Douglass shot back quote: “the very thing your excellency would avoid in the Southern states can only be avoided by the very measure that we propose” end quote.
Jaded given his life experiences, Douglass initially opposed the fourteenth amendment due to its lack of specificity. And just in case you don’t have the text of each amendment memorized, Section One of the fourteenth amendment says quote: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws” end quote. To Douglass, the amendment lacked a forceful declaration that as citizens, black Americans should be guaranteed the right to vote. While section two of the fourteenth amendment provided a punishment of sorts for any state who denied the vote to any man over the age of 21, Douglass believed southern states would find a way to limit or outright deny the vote to black americans.
And he wasn’t the only one who took issue with the text of the amendment. Women’s suffrage activists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B Anthony took exception to the inclusion of the word “male” throughout section two. This led to tensions with Douglass who, while not thrilled with the amendment, was pragmatic and felt strongly that the safety of his fellow citizens were at stake, whereas women, in his estimation, could survive without it. In response to the racially charged attacks against black suffrage by Stanton, Douglass wrote quote: “when women, because they are women, are hunted down in the cities of New York and New Orleans; when they are dragged from their houses and are hung from lamp-posts; when their children are torn from their arms, and their brains bashed out upon the pavement… when they are in danger of having their homes burnt down over their heads… then they will have an urgency to obtain the ballot equal to our own” end quote.
While he had a point, women would have to wait another forty years to achieve the franchise, with black women waiting in the wings another century.
Douglass moved his family to Washington DC after a fire, likely from arson, destroyed his family home in Rochester on June 12th, 1872. In his later years, Douglass enjoyed some privileges due to his notoriety, namely a few appointments to federal posts such as Marshal, Recorder of Deed and eventually, Minister to Haiti. He continued to financially support an ever growing list of extended family members, including his adult children and brother.
He lost his wife Anna to a likely stroke in 1882. In a demonstration of how treasured and well regarded he was, nearly three thousand people showed up for her funeral to pay their respects. As a result, the ceremony turned more into a tribute to Douglass the man versus the remembrance of his wife. And while Douglass was deeply impacted by the loss of his partner of over forty years, he never wrote publicly about her or their relationship, save for a brief mention about the start of their relationship.
Douglass did not stay a widower long and married just over a year and a half later on January 24th, 1882 to Helen Pitts, a white woman twenty years his junior. This secret marriage - so secret in fact Douglass did not disclose his intentions to marry - not even to his children - created a stir. Douglass, a well known fighter for black rights, married a white woman in a time when one of the purported biggest fears of white southerners was the defiling of quote unquote pure white women. In the ultimate clap back to the outcry over his marriage, Douglass called upon his own heritage as a man of mixed race writing quote, “it would seem that what the american people object to is not the mixture of the races, but honorable marriage between them” end quote.
In his later years, he became a staunch ally against lynchings, meeting and mentoring the famed journalist and activist Ida B Wells. Throughout the south, mob violence took over as a way to suppress black rights and hundreds of men were hanged in an effort to use fear as a method of control. Perfectly demonstrating the fiery prose for which he became famous, Douglass took his country to task writing quote: “the sad thing is that in the average American mind, horrors of this character have become so frequent since the slaveholding rebellion, that they excited neither shame nor surprise, neither pity for the slain nor indignation for the slayers” end quote.
He spent his final years as he had his youth - advocating for the freedom and equality of black americans. Still going out on the lecture circuit despite his advanced age, Douglass was preparing for a speech to the National Council of Women on February 20th, 1895 when he suffered a massive heart attack and passed away. He was 77.
It’s hard to capture the magnitude and influence a man like Frederick Douglass had. To this day, he remains one of the most noted and cited Americans throughout history. He was not a perfect man, no one is. However, he was someone who was committed to his ideals and fought as hard as her could for as long as he could. To end the story of Frederick Douglass, I will share a quote that I feel captures his essence.
It comes from a speech, known as What the Black Man Wants, was first shared in 1865 at the close of the Civil War and in the immediate aftermath of Lincoln’s assassination. Quote:
I am not asking for sympathy at the hands of abolitionists, sympathy at the hands of any. I think the American people are disposed often to be generous rather than just. I look over this country at the present time, and I see Educational Societies, Sanitary Commissions, Freedmen's Associations, and the like,--all very good: but in regard to the colored people there is always more that is benevolent, I perceive, than just, manifested towards us. What I ask for the Negro is not benevolence, not pity, not sympathy, but simply justice.
Thanks for tuning and I hope you enjoyed this episode of Civics & Coffee. If you want to hear more small snippets from american history, be sure to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks for listening and I look forward to our next cup of coffee together.