Frederick Douglass – “The Decision of the Hour”

For Frederick Douglass, Spring 1861 was a time of roller coaster emotions. As described in the May 5 edition of Civil War Emancipation, Douglass’ spirits were low in the early weeks of the Lincoln administration, dismayed by its policies, but were lifted by the outbreak of civil war in April and martial hysteria that followed, which he hoped would lead to the crushing of slavery along with the southern rebellion.

By mid-June, Douglass had again turned pessimistic, as it became clear that slavery’s destruction would not be an aim of the northern war effort. His mood is well reflected in a lecture he delivered on June 16, 1861, at the Zion Church in Rochester, New York. He dismissed Lincoln’s acceptance of Gen. Benjamin Butler’s contraband of war policy because it did not free the slaves and because Douglass feared that contraband would be returned to their owners as part of a negotiated settlement ending the war. “We hear that while other property is freely confiscated,” Douglas said, “this peculiar property is only held to the end of the war, and the inference seems to be that these slaves, by and by, are to enter into the basis of negotiations between the Government and the slave-holding rebels.” Indeed, some months later he dismissed the term “contraband” sarcastically stating it was “a name that will apply better to a pistol, than to a person.

Frederick Douglass also lashed out at the Lincoln administration for not recognizing slavery as the true enemy of the Union. Douglass stated:

The fact is, slavery is at the bottom of all mischief amongst us, and will be until we shall put an end to it. We have seen three attempts within less than thirty years to break up the American Government in this the first century of its existence, and slavery has been the moving cause in each instance. The attempt was made in 1832, again in 1850, again in 1860. Some of us were surprised and astonished that the slaveholders should rebel against the American Government, simply because they could not rule the Government to the full extent of their wishes. — Little cause had we for such surprise and astonishment. We ought to have known slaveholders better. What is a slaveholder but a rebel and a traitor? That is, and must be in the nature of his vocation, his true character. Treason and rebellion are the warp and woof of the relation of master and slave. A man cannot be a slaveholder without being a traitor to humanity and a rebel against the law and government of the ever-living God. He is a usurper, a spoiler. His patriotism means plunder, and his principles are those of the highway robber. Out of such miserable stuff you can make nothing but conspirators and rebels.

In addition, Douglass was contemptuous of Lincoln’s efforts to placate slaveholders in the Border State. He said:

There is still an effort to conciliate the Border States. Our Government does not know slavery. Our rulers do not yet know slaveholders. We are likely to find them out after a while. We are just now in a pretty good school. The revolution through which we are passing is an excellent instructor. We are likely to find out what is meant by Southern chivalry and Southern honor. — When you have watched a while longer the course of Southern men, whether in the cotton States or in the slavebreeding States, you will have become convinced that they are all of the same species, and that the Border States are as bad as any. John Bell, the Union man, is as much a traitor as Frank Pickens of South Carolina. We shall learn by and by that such men as Letcher of Virginia, Jackson of Missouri, Magoffin of Kentucky, were traitors and rebels in the egg, only waiting to be hatched by the heat of surrounding treason. The ties that bind slaveholders together are stronger than all other ties, and in every State where they hold the reins of government, they will take sides openly or secretly with the slaveholding rebels. — Conciliation is out of the question. They know no law, and will respect no law but the law of force. The safety of the Government can be attained only in one way, and that is, by rendering the slaveholders powerless.

Frederick Douglass finished his lecture by asserting the survival of the United States and liberty itself depended on the slavery’s destruction. He stated:

The friends of slavery are bound by the necessity of their system to do just what the history of the country shows they have done — that is, to seek to subvert all liberty, and to pervert all the safeguards of human rights. They could not do otherwise. It was the controlling law of their situation.

Now, if these views be sound, and are borne out by the whole history of American slavery, then for the statesman of this hour to permit any settlement of the present war between slavery and freedom, which will leave untouched and undestroyed the relation of master and slave, would not only be a great crime, but a great mistake, the bitter fruits of which would poison the life blood of unborn generations. No grander opportunity was ever given to any nation to signalize, either its justice and humanity, or its intelligence and statesmanship, than is now given to the loyal American people. We are brought to a point in our National career where two roads meet and diverge. It is the critical moment for us. The destiny of the mightiest Republic in the modern world hangs upon the decision of that hour. If our Government shall have the wisdom to see, and the nerve to act, we are safe. If it fails, we perish, and go to our own place with those nations of antiquity long blotted from the maps of the world. I have only one voice, and that is neither loud nor strong. I speak to but few, and have little influence; but whatever I am or may be, I may, at such a time as this, in the name of justice, liberty and humanity, and in that of the permanent security and welfare of the whole nation, urge all men, and especially the Government, to the abolition of slavery. Not a slave should be left a slave in the returning footprints of the American army gone to put down this slaveholding rebellion. Sound policy, not less than humanity, demands the instant liberation of every slave in the rebel States.


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
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