Douglass Argues that Abolition is Essential and Expresses His Confidence that Lincoln Will Come Around
On March 25, 1862 Frederick Douglass, perhaps the most eloquent Union advocate after Lincoln himself, spoke at Corinthian Hall in his home town of Rochester, New York. The text of his speech was published in Douglass’ Monthly the next month.
In it he noted how the North had not thought that so many Southern states would secede, and how some in the North, even at that late date, were reluctant to acknowledge that peaceful reconciliation between North and South was an impossibility. He asserted that slavery was both the cause of the war and the source of the profound hatred that Southerners felt for the North. He argued that the abolition of slavery was necessary if another civil war were to be avoided. Finally, he expressed his confidence that Lincoln would, in due course, embrace abolition — that while Lincoln was “tall and strong,” he was “not done growing.” “A blind man can see where the President’s heart is,” Douglass said.
Douglass said in part:
“I stand here to-night to advocate in my humble way, the unrestricted and complete Emancipation of every slave in the United States, whether claimed by loyal or disloyal masters.
“. . . We are a charitable people, and in excess of charity were disposed to put the very best construction upon the strange behavior of our southern brethren. We admitted that South Carolina might secede. It was like her to do so. She had talked extravagantly about going out of the union, and she must do something extravagant and startling to save a show of consistency. Georgia too, we thought might possibly go out, but we were quite sure that these twin rebel States, would stand alone in their infamy, and that they would soon tire of their isolation, repent of their folly, and come back to the union. Traitors fled the Cabinet, the House and the Senate, and hastened away to fan the flames of treason at home. Still we doubted that any thing very serious would come of it. We treated it as a bubble on the wave, a nine day’s wonder. Calm and thoughtful men ourselves, we relied on the sober second thought of others. Even a shot at one of our ships . . . caused only a momentary feeling of indignation and resentment. . . .It was not until Beauregard opened his slave built batteries upon the starving garrison in Charleston harbor, that the confiding North, like a sleeping lion, was roused from his lair, and shook his thundering mane in wrath. We were slow to wake, but we did awake. Still we were scarcely conscious of the skill, power and resources of the enemy. We still hoped that wiser and better counsels would ultimately prevail. We could not believe but that a powerful union sentiment still existed at the South, and that a strong reaction would yet take place there in favor of the union. To the very last we continued to believe in the border States. We could not believe that those States would plunge madly into the bloody vortex of rebellion. It required the assaults of a blood thirsty mob spilling the blood of loyal soldiers to convince us of Baltimore treason.
“I need not tell you, how . . . we have been grossly mistaken. Every hope based upon the sanity, loyalty, and good disposition of the South has been woefully disappointed. While armies were forming, and the most formidable preparations were making, we continued to dream of peace, and even after the war was fairly begun, we thought to put down the rebellion by a show of force rather than by an exercise of force. . . . We now see what we could not at first comprehend. We are astonished at the strength and vigor of the foe. Treason has shot its poisonous roots deeper, and has spread them farther than our calculations had allowed for. . .
“Even now, you need not go far to find newspapers clinging still to the delusion that there is a strong union sentiment at the South. While the rebels are waging a barbarous war,. . . we are still speaking of them as our erring brothers, to be won back to the union by fondling, rather than fighting. . . .
“. . . The fact is the South hates the north. It hates the Union. The feeling is genuine and all-pervading. Whence comes this hate? . . . If I were a slaveholder, . . . I should hate the declaration of Independence, hate the Constitution, hate the Golden rule, hate free schools, free speech, free press, and every other form of freedom. Because in them all, I should see an enemy to my claim of property in man. I should see that the whole North is a point blank and killing condemnation of all my pretensions. The real root of bitterness, that which has generated this intense Southern hate toward the North, is Slavery. . . .
“It is true that the President lays down his propositions with many qualifications some of which to my thinking, are unnecessary, unjust and wholly unwise. There are spots on the Sun. A blind man can see where the President’s heart is. I read the spaces as well as the lines of that message, I see in them a brave man trying against great odds, to do right. An honest patriot endeavoring to save his country in its day of peril. It is the [Lincoln’s] first utterance, and first utterances are not according to Carlyle the most articulate and perfect. Time and practice will improve the President as they improve other men. He is tall and strong but he is not done growing, he grows as the nation grows. He has managed to say one good word, and to say it so distinctly that all the world may hear. He has dared to say that the highest interest of the country will be promoted by the abolition of slavery. . . .
“Who wants a repetition of the same event thro’ which we are passing? . . . To such a man I say, leave slavery still dominant at the South and you shall have all your wants supplied.
“On the other hand abolish slavery and the now disjointed nation like kindred drops would speedily mingle into one. Abolish slavery and the last hinderance to a solid nationality is abolished. Abolish slavery and you give conscience a chance to grow, and you will win the respect and admiration of mankind. Abolish slavery and you put an end to all sectional politics founded upon conflicting sectional interests. . . .
Abolish slavery and the citizens of each state will be regarded and treated as equal citizens of the United States. . . . Abolish slavery and you put an end to sectional religion and morals, and establish free speech and liberty of conscience throughout your common country. Abolish slavery and rational, law abiding Liberty will fill the whole land with peace, joy, and permanent safety now and forever.”
Douglass’s confidence that President Lincoln would come to emancipate the slaves was well-placed. Less than two months later, Lincoln would read a preliminary draft of the Emancipation Proclamation to his Vice President, Hannibal Hamlin, and a month thereafter, he would share a revised draft with his cabinet.
– Submitted by Peter A. Gilbert, Vermont Humanities Council Executive Director
Frederick Douglass: Let African Americans Fight (Civil War Book of Days, May 27, 2011)
Frederick Douglass: “Cast off the Millstone” (Civil War Book of Days, September 23, 2011)