David Blight on Frederick Douglass’ Demoralization

In this past Friday’s Disunion in the New York Times, David W. Blight revisits Frederick Douglass and his reaction to the early weeks of the Lincoln Administration. Blight finds, “The two months following Lincoln’s inauguration found Frederick Douglass struggling to understand and bitterly demoralized by the president’s policies, but also exhilarated by the outbreak of war at Fort Sumter.” Virtually all of his piece though focuses on Douglass’ dark days following Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration, asserting Frederick Douglass even briefly toyed with the idea of emigration.

David Blight finishes his piece by writing:

So, even he, a long opponent of black emigration schemes that would remove his people from their native North America, declared his personal interest in a “tour of observation” and potential exile. But just before going to press with his April edition, he added a postscript declaring that since the article was “put in type,” recent events — namely, the assault on Fort Sumter — had wrought “a tremendous revolution in all things pertaining to the possible future of the colored people of the United States.” His long anticipated war was on. “This,” he announced, “is no time for us to leave the country.”

It is a pity that Blight ends his Disunion essay with the war’s outbreak because by May 1861 Frederick Douglass was truly a man transformed. Writing in Douglass’ Monthly, he greeted with enthusiasm the war fervor in the North after the assault on Fort Sumter. Douglass exclaimed, “But what a change now greets us! The Government is aroused, the dead North is alive, and its divided people united. Never was a change so sudden, so universal, and so portentous. The whole North, East and West is in arms. Drums are beating, men are enlisting, companies forming, regiments marching, banners are flying, and money is pouring into the national treasury to put an end to the slaveholding rebellion.

Douglass was renewed and energized by the outbreak of the war because like his one-time mentor, William Lloyd Garrison, he saw in the nascent conflict as an opportunity to destroy forever the institution of slavery. In the May 1861 issue of Douglass’ Monthly, Frederick Douglass described his plan to accomplish this goal in an essay entitled, “How to End the War.” He laid out his prescription clearly and forcefully in the first paragraph, writing:

To our mind, there is but one easy, short and effectual way to suppress and put down the desolating war which the slaveholders and their rebel minions are now waging against the American Government and its loyal citizens. Fire must be met with water, darkness with light, and war for the destruction of liberty must be met with war for the destruction of slavery. The simple way, then, to put an end to the savage and desolating war now waged by the slaveholders, is to strike down slavery itself, the primal cause of that war.

Douglass also believed a war to destroy slavery must involve African Americans in the fight. “The sooner this rebellion is put out of its misery, the better for all concerned,” he opined. “This can be done at once, by ‘carrying the war into Africa.’ Let the slaves and free colored people be called into service, and formed into a liberating army, to march into the South and raise the banner of Emancipation among the slaves.

Douglass realized the weight of white opinion in the North in May 1861 was against arming even free blacks, let alone slaves, noting an offer of Boston blacks after the Fort Sumter attack to enlist for military service quickly had been rejected. So he made a point that soon would have a significant impact on public sentiment in the free states about slavery: that the Confederacy was putting slaves to work in its war effort. He stated:

The slaveholders have not hesitated to employ the sable arms of the Negroes at the South in erecting the fortifications which silenced the guns of Fort Sumter, and brought the star-spangled banner to the dust. They often boast, and not without cause, that their Negroes will fight for them against the North. They have no scruples against employing the Negroes to exterminate freedom, and in overturning the Government. They work with spade and barrow with them, and they will stand with them on the field of battle, shoulder to shoulder, with guns in their hands, to shoot down the troops of the U.S. Government.—They have neither pride, prejudice nor pity to restrain them from employing Negroes against white men, where slavery is to be protected and made secure.

To Douglass, the rebels, by employing their slaves as military laborers provided ample justification for the North to enlist African Americans as soldiers. He wrote:

Oh! that this Government would only now be as true to liberty as the rebels, who are attempting to batter it down, are true to slavery. We have no hesitation in saying that ten thousand black soldiers might be raised in the next thirty days to march upon the South. One black regiment alone would be, in such a war, the full equal of two white ones. The very fact of color in this case would be more terrible than powder and balls. The slaves would learn more as to the nature of the conflict from the presence of one such regiment, than from a thousand preachers. Every consideration of justice, humanity and sound policy confirms the wisdom of calling upon black men just now to take up arms in behalf of their country.

Frederick Douglass finished his essay by lamenting that the national government for too long had sought to appease slaveholders, which in his opinion had in the end only encouraged their rebellion–which justified a short, harsh war which would leave white Southerners forfeit of their slaves. Douglass saw such a conflict as the only way the North could atone for its past sins in regard to slavery and preserve the Union. “Until the nation shall repent of this weakness and folly,” he wrote, “until they shall make the cause of their country the cause of freedom, until they shall strike down slavery, the source and center of this gigantic rebellion, they don’t deserve the support of a single sable arm, nor will it succeed in crushing the cause of our present troubles.

Truly, between early April and May 1861, Frederick Douglass was a man transformed. No longer was he David W. Blight’s demoralized man considering emigration, but a passionate  and energized leader ready to use his formidable intelligence and eloquence to redeem his country by destroying the institution that had blighted his youth and in which millions of his race were still trapped.

About Donald R. Shaffer

Donald R. Shaffer is the author of _After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans_ (Kansas, 2004), which won the Peter Seaborg Award for Civil War Scholarship in 2005. More recently he published (with Elizabeth Regosin), _Voices of Emancipation: Understanding Slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction through the U.S. Pension Bureau Files_ (2008). Dr. Shaffer teaches online exclusively (i.e., a virtual professor). He lives in Arizona and can be contacted at donald_shaffer@yahoo.com
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