THR Web Features   /   February 22, 2021

Frederick Douglass and the American Project

It would be hard to blame him if he had lost faith in the republic.

Richard Hughes Gibson

( Frederick Douglass (1818-1895), head-and-shoulders portrait, facing right. Albumen process, scanned from the negative by Library of Congress. Via Wikimedia Commons.)

At a time when it is too easy to lapse into cynicism about the fate of our republic, it is bracing to read the words from two of the more notable speeches by the great African American orator Frederick Douglass. Although separated by twenty-five years that saw the promise of full equality for all Americans almost realized before being thwarted, both speeches testify to a hard-won and resilient faith in the American creed that we would now do well to remember.

Douglass (1818–1895), the man who had escaped enslavement in his native Maryland and become a leading abolitionist, statesman, and internationally recognized author, had good reasons to be sanguine in the first of those addresses. Only two decades earlier, he had heaped scorn on the emptiness of the ideals underwriting the American Constitution: How could they be squared with the brutal, dehumanizing fact of slavery? But “Our Composite Nationality” was delivered in Boston in 1869, four years after the Union had prevailed in the Civil War. The Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery had been ratified, and Congress had approved the Fourteenth Amendment guaranteeing citizenship and due process for former slaves. With movement toward ratification of Fifteenth Amendment protecting the voting rights of all citizens, the future on that December day seemed bright to Douglass.

Early in the speech, however, Douglass pointed out that his optimism was far from universal: “It is thought by many, and said by some, that this Republic has already seen its best days; that the historian may now write the story of its decline and fall.”

Douglass filed those Reconstruction-era doubters into two classes. One consisted of onlookers—European by implication—who were ideologically at odds with the American way of life and governance, those who, for example, “think the few are made to rule, and the many to serve; who put rank above brotherhood, and race above humanity.” Dim auguries from this quarter were to be expected, Douglass suggested, and he was confident that “the American people can easily stand the utterances” of such distant prophets of doom.

Far more worrisome to Douglass were those among ourselves who turn the most hopeful portents into omens of disaster, and make themselves the ministers of despair.” With his trademark wit, Douglass called these men “croakers by nature,” adding that they have a perverse “taste for funerals, and especially national funerals.” Yet these scoffers could not simply be laughed off. Unlike the other class, they were Douglass’s fellow citizens and thus capable of affecting popular opinion. Although he never named them directly, Douglass, I strongly suspect, had newspaper pundits in mind here. As one British journalist observed in 1869, Americans were “newspaper-reading animals,” and among the staples of their print diet were the prognostications of editorial writers. In a bravura display of his oratorical powers, Douglass highlighted how such ministers of despair had fallen, like a raving Lear, into a cadence of nevers:

Like the raven in the lines of Edgar A. Poe, they have learned two words, and those are, “never more.” They usually begin by telling us what we never shall see. Their little speeches are about as follows: You will never see such statesmen in the councils of the Nations as Clay, Calhoun and Webster. You will never see the South morally reconstructed and our once happy people again united. You will never see this Government harmonious and successful while in the hands of different races. You will never make the negro work without a master, or make him an intelligent voter, or a good and useful citizen. This last never is generally the parent of all the other little nevers that follow.

Noticeably, while Douglass spoke in the first-person plural (“we”), the purveyors of gloom used only the second-person: “You will never see” is their refrain. The skeptics speak as though they are not living at the same time, in the same country, as if these things have nothing to do with them at all.

Because we know what will come in the next several decades—the abandonment of Reconstruction and rise of segregation and Jim Crow—those dire forecasts are painful to read. In resigning themselves to a future of nevers, the nay-sayers were absolving themselves of any responsibility to make the fragile present of a morally reconstructed South, an integrated government, and a thriving black citizenry into a lasting reality. Douglass noted the paradox, that those forecasters—these inhabitants of the future tense—were lacking in imagination. He went even further, arguing that it was good that these prophets do not, Jove-like, “command the destructive bolt, as readily as they command the destructive word,” since they might take it upon themselves to “fulfill their own gloomy prophecies” in order to see their predictions prove correct.

Douglass could have stopped there. “Our Composite Nationality” would already have been a memorable speech if Douglass had simply answered the nay-sayers—local and European—with his argument that white and black citizens could live together as equals, mingling their talents and energies to build a better republic. But Douglass had exactly that rare substance, that integrity, that comes with standing by your words. He did not, indeed could not, leave the great questions that he had raised about citizenship, about equality, about the American project there.

About halfway through the speech, Douglass acknowledges that “Before the relations of those two races are satisfactorily settled, and in despite of all opposition, a new race is making its appearance within our borders, and claiming attention.” He was referring to the influx of Chinese immigrants that had begun in the California gold-rush years of the mid-1840s. Douglass’s claim was that Chinese immigrants, too, had a contribution to make to “our composite nationality.” In a striking inversion of the doom-sayers’ language of “You will never,” Douglass made “I would” his melody:

I have said that the Chinese will come, and have given some reasons why we may expect them in very large numbers in no very distant future. Do you ask if I would favor such immigrations? I answer, I would. “Would you admit them as witnesses in our courts of law?” I would. Would you have them naturalized, and have them invested with all the rights of American citizenship? I would. Would you allow them to vote? I would. Would you allow them to hold office? I would.

As Douglass’s audience well knew, each of these questions could have been answered with a Never. Many critics of Chinese immigration at the time were saying exactly that. But Douglass was too principled to constrict his vision of “composite nationality” to white and black alone. Douglass’s “woulds” were designed to make an American future possible for Chinese immigrants—and for immigrants from other nations after them. He made Chinese citizenship his problem, even though no one at the time would have thought less of him for leaving this issue to someone else.

In 1869, Douglass could remind his audience that “the air was full of nevers” during the Civil War, and yet “every one was contradicted and put to shame by the result.” He felt confident, in turn, that “most of those [nevers] we now hear in our troubled air will meet the same fate.” Yet within a decade of speaking these words, Douglass would see his vision for a “composite” nation fade with the collapse of Reconstruction and the institution of Jim Crow-era restrictions on blacks’ exercise of their newly won citizenship. Chinese immigrants fared no better. Anxieties about an onrush of Chinese laborers propelled local and state measures in the West and culminated, in 1882, in the Chinese Exclusion Act, a ten-year national ban on Chinese immigration that would, after subsequent renewals, last until 1943.

In his last years, as he observed the passage of unjust laws and the persistence, even the increase, of lynching, he admitted that “my faith in the nobility of the nation” had been shaken. “I hope and trust all will come out right in the end, but the immediate future looks dark and troubled,” he said in an 1894 speech, “I cannot shut my eyes to the ugly facts before me.”

It would be hard to blame Douglass in his later years for turning his back on the America that had so failed his hopes. It would have been understandable if he had returned to his youthful position that the Constitution (and the Republic it underwrote) was broken from the start. No one now would blame him for joining the doom-sayers’ party or for just giving up. Yet, astonishingly, to close that same 1894 speech, “Lessons of the Hour,” Douglass called “this great nation” back to “the sublime and glorious truths with which, at its birth, it saluted a listening world,” foremost among those truths being “liberty and equality.” And with the very last words of the speech, he argued that what had been possible in 1869 was still possible twenty-five wretched years later:

Recognize the fact that the rights of the humblest citizen are as worthy of protection as are those of the highest, and your problem will be solved; and, whatever may be in store for it in the future, whether prosperity, or adversity; whether it shall have foes without, or foes within, whether there shall be peace, or war; based upon the eternal principles of truth, justice and humanity, and with no class having any cause of complaint or grievance, your Republic will stand and flourish forever.

Here he wedded himself, one last time, to the promise of the republic as he had come to understand it at its best. He never said never. Agonizing as it must have been, with so many faith-shaking signs around him, he stood by his words to the end.