Freedom Deferred

Freedom Deferred:

Frederick Douglass and the End of Reconstruction 



                        April 1865 saw the end of what was, and remains, the bloodiest war in American History. Over six hundred thousand Americans were dead, and more hundreds of thousands had been wounded. The rebellious South had been devastated: politically, economically, and socially. Physically, large areas of the region had razed to the ground in what became the first modern, industrialized, total war. Finally, four million black slaves were now legally free. They were jobless and landless, with no obvious economic opportunities on the horizon. The “freemen” lived among a hostile, bitter population that was still in shock regarding the outcome of the war. In the North, many in the abolitionist community felt that their work had been done. Most believed the victorious Union would ensure Black rights and liberties, and all would be well.

US Army soldiers – Virginia, 1864

                        Frederick Douglass would “emerge as black America’s premier spokesman, welcomed at the White House, his speeches widely reprinted in the Northern press, his own life, he believed, exemplifying how America might move beyond racism to a society founded on universal human rights. Throughout the war, Douglass insisted that the logical and essential corollaries of emancipation were the end of all color discrimination of black men – the ‘full and complete adoption’ of blacks into the great national family of America” (E. Foner 866).  

                          Although Frederick Douglass was optimistic, he expressed a prophetic view of the fate that awaited Blacks, not just in the South, but in the North as well, if vigilance and effort were not maintained. At an Anti-Slavery society meeting in May 1865, he opposed William Lloyd Garrison’s call for disbanding the organization. “I hold that the work of abolitionists is not done. Even if every state in the Union ratified that Amendment, while the black man is confronted in the legislation of the South by the word ‘white,’ our work as Abolitionists, as I conceive it, is not done. I took the ground, last night, that the South, by unfriendly legislation, could make our liberty, under that provision, delusion, a mockery, and a snare, and I hold that ground now” (Foner 578). As we shall see, Douglass was right to be concerned.

                       In this paper, we will examine the “Redemption” of the South following the withering away of Reconstruction and the reaction of Frederick Douglass, as it becomes apparent to him that his life’s work may have ultimately been in vain. We will then look at Douglass’ reaction as Blacks in the South are slowly re-enslaved in a new form of bondage. We will conclude with a brief examination of the triumph of “Jim Crow” and a look at the hopes and fears of Frederick Douglass, as his long life came to an end. 


                       For Blacks in the United States, the end of the Civil War brought about a combined sense of euphoria and hope. “Among northern blacks the war inspired hopes for a broad expansion of their rights within American society. The small northern black political leadership of ministers, professionals, fugitive slaves, and members of abolitionist societies had long searched for a means of improving the condition of blacks in the Free states and striking a blow against the peculiar institution. In the antebellum decades, a majority (including Frederick Douglass) had embraced what Vincent Harding calls the ‘Great Tradition’ – an affirmation of Americanism that insisted that blacks formed an integral part of the nation and were entitled to the same rights and opportunities white citizens enjoyed” (E. Foner 866).

                         At times it appeared that Douglass fully expected this to happen. He “concluded in 1865 that the persistent question ‘What shall we do with the Negro?’ had only one answer: ‘Do nothing…Give him a chance to stand on his own legs! Let him alone!’ Douglass realized that the other face of benevolence is often paternalism and that a society resting, if only rhetorically, on the principle of equality, ‘special efforts’ on the freedmen’s behalf might serve to keep up the very prejudices, which it is so desirable to banish” (E. Foner 881). Like a lot of Blacks, north and south, Douglass believed that the Union victory in the Civil War and the subsequent end of slavery could end racism in the United States. “Douglass looked forward to a day when American society would be as color-blind as its post-bellum constitution. The closer America got to this ideal, the less need there would be for blacks to concern themselves with the fate of their own race, to form associations for racial advancement, and to talk of racial loyalty” (Goldstein 469-470).

In keeping with his push for a color-blind society, Douglass stated, in 1866, that racial assimilation of blacks was the best course for the future of the United States: “My strongest conviction as to the future of the Negro therefore is, that he will not be expatriated nor annihilated, nor will he forever remain a separate and distinct race from the people around him, but that he will be absorbed, assimilated, and will only appear finally, as the Phoenicians now appear on the shores of the Shannon, in the features of a blended race” (Foner 591).

                         For a brief time, it appeared that the United States would make every effort to ensure equal rights for blacks. George Frederickson believes that “the enfranchisement of southern blacks by the Reconstruction Acts of 1867 inaugurated what may have been the most radical experiment in political democracy attempted anywhere in the nineteenth century” (182). In addition, in the first months and years of Reconstruction, Blacks boldly asserted themselves in ways that have been unthinkable under slavery, they “held mass meetings unrestrained by white surveillance; they acquired dogs, guns, and liquor (all forbidden them under slavery); and they refused to yield the sidewalk to whites. Blacks dressed as they pleased and left plantations when they desired” (E. Foner 870).  In a move for further autonomy, they also demanded the right to set the terms of conditions for their employment (E. Foner 870-871). Boiling beneath the surface, however, was a rage that was about to explode.

                      The shock of the Confederate defeat in 1865 cannot be overstated. An entire way life, going back over two hundred years, had ended. Millions of slaves, the backbone of the Southern economy, were now free and, at least on paper, equal to their former masters. Suddenly, access to education, public accommodation and services, public transportation, and just about every aspect of life would be open and available to everyone. A social system that took for granted the concept of supremacy now faced the specter of dealing with their former slaves as social equals. For centuries, even the poorest and most downtrodden whites could be secure in their knowledge that they were seen as racially and socially superior to blacks. Now those same whites faced the real possibility in rural areas of competition for land and resources and in urban areas, competition for jobs and housing. As for the middle- and upper-classes, the reliability of a cheap work force was in jeopardy. The majority population faced what they saw as a terrifying future of blacks no longer willing to be deferential and submissive to their former masters.

                     The reaction to the perceived threat of blacks to the Southern way of life was swift and often violent. “The pervasiveness of violence reflected the determination to define in their own way the meaning of freedom and their determined resistance to blacks’ efforts to establish their autonomy” (*E. Foner 120). At the University of North Carolina in 1865, a group of white students violently broke up a meeting held to select delegates to a state-wide black convention” (*E. Foner 120). A Freedmen’s Bureau agent observed that “Southern Whites are quite indignant if they were not treated with the same deference that they were accustomed to under slavery and behavior that departed from the etiquette of antebellum race relations frequently provoked violence” (*E. Foner 120).

                                  One of the main perpetrators of this violence was an organization founded near Pulaski, Tennessee in 1866 as a social club. “The Ku Klux Klan now spread into every Southern state, launching a reign of terror against Republican leaders, black and white” (*E. Foner 342). Those murdered in the initial 1866-1868 round of violence included several men who attended state constitutional conventions, three members of the South Carolina legislature, and an Arkansas congressman (*E. Foner 342). The immediate post-war southern state governments also enacted legal systems known as “Black Codes”. These laws denied blacks the right to vote, serve on juries, testify in against whites in court, buy or lease real estate, or refuse to sign yearly labor contracts” (Kousser 653). The Black Codes would be overturned when Congress established “radical reconstruction”. By 1885, however, legal restrictions against blacks would be re-established in even harsher forms.

                     Reconstruction would end in 1877, prematurely in the eyes of many historians. The process had gone through two phases. The first phase was presidential reconstruction, briefly under President Lincoln, but mainly under President Andrew Johnson, a Unionist Democrat from Tennessee, and a white supremacist. Johnson resisted working with Congressional Republicans, and in the 1866 mid-term elections, the Republicans won an overwhelming victory, which opened the way for the second phase, “radical” congressional reconstruction. This led to ten southern states being re-occupied by the US Army and “forced them to enfranchise black men and granted those states congressional representation only after they had ratified the Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution and rewritten their state constitutions to make them more liberal” (Kousser 654).

                                 After a near economic depression in 1873, it had become clear that the North and the Republican Party were tiring of the cost being paid to support blacks in the Southern reconstruction effort. After the 1876 election that put Republican Rutherford B. Hayes in the White House under very questionable circumstances, Hayes ended the federal occupation of the South, and the fate of blacks was left to “redeemer governments” of Southern Democrats and ex-confederates. These governments were now free to proceed on the road that would lead to Plessy v. Ferguson. In their paths were the recently ratified Thirteenth (citizenship), Fourteenth (equal protection), and Fifteenth (right to vote) amendments to the US Constitution, as well as the federal Civil Rights Acts of 1870 and 1875. These laws provided remedies against state officials who violated citizens’ constitutional rights and required equal treatment of all in places of public accommodation (Tushnet 125). 

The Reaction of Douglass

            The optimism of the Civil War victory quickly passed. It appeared, as Douglass had anticipated, that Blacks would not be allowed to quickly assimilate into the American way of life. In a letter published in the National Standardon October 15, 1870, he notes the difficulty Blacks have using public resources and services in New York: “ Neither in London, Paris, Berlin, St. Petersburg, Rome, Vienna, nor Constantinople, could two decent persons with money in their pockets and willing to pay, be refused accommodation at any hotel on account of color…this inhuman treatment of men and women, for a color which they cannot alter to suit the taste of anybody, plainly enough tells the colored people, that no part of their number shall be respected as men or gentlemen if New York hotels can degrade them” (Foner 608) .  Frederick Douglass had expressed this belief in the humanity and dignity of black people his entire life. He never lost his anger and bewilderment as to why people could not be treated decently as people.

On the larger issue of maintaining rights of blacks in the United States, a fierce debate took place in Congress over proposed Civil Rights legislation in the first half of the decade of the 1870s. Constitutional amendments in and of themselves do not guarantee rights or that the amendments will be followed. The force of law must be in place to insure their enforcement. Incredibly, or not, the Fifteenth Amendment, guaranteeing the right to vote, received ratification in 1870; however, it was only enforced when Congress finally passed the Voting Rights Act in 1965.  Douglass and those who supported equal rights and protection under the law for blacks knew that unless strong legislation was passed, the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments would never be enforced.  

                    In a December 1872 article in The New National Era, Douglass makes the case, as forcefully as ever, that real legislation is needed to enforce the Constitution: “We cannot be asking too much when we ask Congress to carry out the intention of this nation as expressed in the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth amendments. We are not free. We cannot be free without the appropriate legislation provided for in the above amendments…The result intended to be reached by the nation has not been reached. Congress has neglected to do its full duty” (Foner 613). As we read this, we must keep in mind that this was December 1872. U.S. Grant had just been reelected President, the Republicans were in control of Congress and the height of the Reconstruction effort had yet to be reached. Douglass, however, understood the movement for full rights was in danger of spiraling out of control.

                Earlier in the December 1872 article, Douglass expressed why it was so important for Congress to support the amendments. Being an abolitionist and former slave, he begins at the root of the problem: “Freedom from the auction block and from legal claim as property is of no benefit to the colored man without the means of protecting his rights. The black man is not a free American citizen in the sense that the white man is a free American citizen; …he cannot send his children to the nearest public school…if after purchasing tickets for a first-class railway carriage, a colored person is hustled out into a smoking car, he or she has no redress at law because custom prevails which allows injustice in this respect to colored persons” (Foner 613). 

                  In the end, custom would prevail. During the antebellum era, blacks, free or slave, were excluded from American life. After the Civil War and Reconstruction, segregation from whites, by law and custom, would become the norm. In the United States, governments at every level moved to segregate blacks from whites. In the South this was done through “legal” means, in the rest of the country, it was done by a laissez-faire approach that let custom prevail.

The Triumph of “Jim Crow”

                  As the Nineteenth century entered its final two decades, the issue of race relations in the United States had reached a crucial crossroads. The attempt at giving the newly freed slaves the tools to succeed and the legal framework to protect their rights as Americans had essentially failed. Reconstruction had been poorly conceived and led. It had never been completely embraced at any level of government, and most Americans, North and South were glad to see it end in 1877. During Reconstruction and afterwards, attitudes toward blacks did not change. Racial supremacy was to be maintained and strengthened, and if racial exclusion was no longer possible, racial segregation would be implemented.

The End of Reconstruction

                                “Segregation first became a major political issue in the 1870s as many private railroads and streetcar companies, theaters, hotels, and restaurants excluded blacks altogether or set them apart in Jim Crow areas” (Schmidt, Jr. 461). The Civil Rights Act of 1875, so passionately argued for by Douglass, was supposed to give legislative backbone to the Fourteenth amendment and guarantee blacks their civil rights. In 1883 “The Supreme Court finally decided the dozens of cases dealing with the Act’s constitutionality” (Schmidt, Jr. 461). In an opinion written by Justice Joseph P. Bradley, the “court majority found the Civil Rights Act of 1875 beyond Congress’s powers under the thirteenth and fourteenth amendments” (Schmidt, Jr. 461). Private discrimination could not be regulated by Congress. In a statement that echoes down to our own era of conservative retrenchment and denial, Bradley, near the end of his opinion wrote: “when a man has emerged from slavery… there must be some stage in the process of his elevation when he takes the ranks of a mere citizen and ceases to be the special favorite of the laws” (Schmidt, Jr. 462). Justice Bradley obviously thought that eighteen years was long enough to secure all the things needed by the former slaves and their descendants to enjoy full citizenship, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

       Despite the success of Redemption, white Americans, especially southerners, were not completely secure in their reestablished domination. “Before segregation laws and suffrage restrictions had apparently put southern blacks ‘in their place,’ anxieties about how to maintain total dominance over a group that persisted in asserting its claim to civil and political equality helped provoke an epidemic of lynching and pogrom-type “race riots” in the South. Even after the full array of discriminatory legislation was on the books, extra-legal violence, or the threat of it, continued to play an important role as a device for intimidating blacks and shoring up the color line” (Frederickson 251). 

              There has always been an unwritten social and economic “bargain” in the United States, from its beginning. This bargain is based on race and economic class. The social and economic myth of the United States is that everyone can rise as high as their aspirations and abilities can take them. The facts, however, do not bear this out. The United States has been dominated by oligarchic elite that rules every macroeconomic and political factor of American life, mainly to insure its own survival.

                 The “wild card” in this equation has always been race. Take away the presence of black Americans, and the United States would have a social and economic system today like that of any other western European country at the beginning of the 21st century. This, however, is not the case. Blacks have been woven into the American mosaic from the beginning.  Hence, the “bargain”, which goes something this: Most people in this country know they cannot break into the elite ranks, unless under the most extraordinary circumstances. The elite, however, guaranteed that the majority middle class, working class and rural poor, would dominate all economic benefits not already controlled by the elite, and that they would remain socially superior to all blacks. Non-elites, in many cases, would accept lower pay and living standards, especially in the South, to maintain the bargain.

                    According to Leon Litwack, black education grew to be the dominant fear of whites after the Civil War. “Speaking with ‘an intelligent businessman’ a visiting journalist was startled by the virulence of his reaction to an important black school in the vicinity. The school should be dynamited, he insisted, and the principal run out of the state. That he explained, would force blacks to understand that ignorance, hard work, and white domination constituted their permanent destiny” (Litwack 100). Education for blacks was useful only if it perpetuated the social and economic status quo (Litwack 102).  “No matter how fervently whites embraced beliefs in black inferiority, no matter what controls were placed on the quality and extent of black education, the fears and skepticism never really subsided. The principal concern remained readily apparent – the danger in teaching blacks until, in the words of one fearful educator, they had the same ‘instincts and drives’ as whites. That would be a certain invitation to trouble” (Litwack 103).

                                Ironically, blacks already had the same “instincts and drives” as whites. As Douglass had already noted, blacks had the same drive to succeed and thrive as whites, if only they would be left alone and allowed to do that as equal citizens. This was not to be the case. “Even if blacks managed to accumulate some savings and used the savings to purchase land, they needed to exert as much resourcefulness to retain the land as they had expended to acquire it. The fears of black success and independence that provoked much of the violence of Reconstruction proved equally devastating when blacks posed no political threat. The historical record is replete with examples of violence aimed at successful blacks, those suspected of having saved their earnings, those who had just made a crop, those determined to improve themselves” (*Litwack 324).

                    In the eyes of the majority population, it did not matter what blacks did, how they lived their lives, how patriotic they were; it just simply did not matter. “Faithful adherence to the work ethic brought most of them (blacks) nothing. No matter how hard they labored, no matter how much trust they put in the free labor ideology and in abstract notions of democracy and equality, no matter how fervently they prayed, the chances for making it were less than encouraging, the basic rules did not change” (*Litwack 323). This hopelessness was compounded by the real fear of death through a system of state-ignored domestic terrorism engaged in by individuals, small groups, mobs, and terrorist organizations.  

                         Lynching and terrorism were the ultimate expressions of the need and desire of whites to maintain domination and superiority. “According to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), between the years of 1889 and 1900 (five years after Douglass’ death), 3,224 people fell victim to lynch mobs. Of these victims, 2,522 or 78% were black” (Soule 431). Blacks lived under the constant fear of threat, intimidation, and death because of the way they conducted themselves and lived their lives. “The terror visited on black homes and families impressed on all blacks their powerlessness and vulnerability” (*Litwack 320). This kind of domestic terrorism, ignored and thereby sanctioned by the state, had the result the of breaking the spirit of blacks. “The language and demeanor of blacks defined their ‘place’ in society, and white people were sensitive, especially after emancipation, to any deviation from expectations to any semblance of individuality. Early in their lives then, blacks came to appreciate the narrow boundaries of their world, the limited options, the need to learn the appropriate social usages, to carefully weigh every word, gesture, and movement” (*Litwack 320).

           In their detailed sociological study of lynching, Beck and Tolnay, give three major reasons for its emergence: “the political threat of a large black population, economic competition between southern white and black laborers/small farmers, and the maintenance of the caste boundary that assured whites superior social status, despite the often-minuscule difference between the economic well-being of blacks and whites” (526).

               As the 1880s concluded, most of the gains blacks made during the Civil War and Reconstruction had been crushed under a tidal wave of court decisions, domestic terrorism, political intrigue, and societal neglect. The means and parameters of their servitude had changed, but it remained servitude, nonetheless.


The Hopes and Fears of Douglass

Frederick Douglass

                         In the last five years of Frederick Douglass’ life, the triumph of conservative redemption neared its predictable, yet tragic, conclusion. Blacks had been terrorized into submission, stripped of their chance for real economic advancement, and denied the right to exercise what is fundamental in a democracy, the right to vote. “In Georgia, for example, the estimated black voter turnout in 1876 was 55%, a figure that dropped to less than 10% after 1900” (Soule 434). As we have seen, every other indicator of black freedom went in the same direction.

                After Reconstruction, Douglass would serve in the government as U.S. Marshal (1877-1881) and Recorder of Deeds (1881-1886) for the District of Columbia and as Consul-General in Haiti (1889-1891). Douglass served in the administrations of four presidents. During this service, he acknowledged what was happening to hope and desires for blacks and for America on a regular basis. During the brief Garfield administration, he attacked the reemergence of ex-confederates: “Under the disguise of meekly accepting the results and decisions of the war, the rebels had come back to Congress more with the pride of conquerors than with the repentant humility of defeated traitors” (Douglass 950-951).

                To the end of his life, Douglass remained a loyal Republican. He criticized his party for not being tough enough on the South; however, he always saw them as better than the alternative, the Democrats. “During the administration of Chester A. Arthur, also during that of Rutherford B. Hayes, the spirit of slavery and rebellion increased in power and advanced toward ascendency. At the same time, the spirit which abolished slavery and saved the Union steadily and proportionately declined, and with it the strength and unity of the Republican party also declined” (Douglass 963). Commenting on the election of Grover Cleveland, a Democrat: “Clinging in hope to the Republican Party, thinking it would cease its backsliding and resume its old character as the party of progress, justice, and freedom, I regretted its defeat and shared in some measure the painful apprehension and distress felt by my people at the South from the return to power of the old Democratic and slavery party” (Douglass 962).

                In retrospect, the 1883 Supreme Court decision declaring the 1875 Civil Rights Act unconstitutional was the death knell for any hope blacks had to achieve equal citizenship. An astute observer like Douglass knew this was the case. His reaction to the decision was uncompromising: “The Supreme Court of the United States, in the exercise of its high and vast constitutional power, has suddenly and unexpectedly decided that the law intended to secure to colored people the civil rights guaranteed to them by the Constitution of the United States, is unconstitutional and void” (Douglass 969-970).

                Douglass than moved to the heart of the matter: “We cannot, however, overlook the fact that though not so intended, this decision has inflicted a heavy calamity upon seven million of the people of this country, and left them naked and defenseless against the action of a malignant, vulgar, and pitiless prejudice” (Foner 688).  

               As for domestic terrorism, Douglass directly attacked the entire premise of lynching: “Its presence is either evidence of governmental depravity, or of a demoralized state of society. It is generally in the hands of the worst class of men in the community and is enacted under the most degrading and blinding influences” (Douglass 2). In 1886, Douglass discussed one of the worse massacres in American History and one of the least remembered : “Only a few weeks ago, at Carrolton Court-House, Mississippi, in absence of all political excitement, while the Government of the nation, as well as the government of the Southern States, was safely in the hands of the Democratic party; when, there was no pending election, no pretence of a fear of possible Negro supremacy, one hundred white citizens, on horseback, armed to the teeth, deliberately assembled and in cold blood opened a deadly fire upon a party of peaceable, unarmed colored men, killing eleven of them on the spot, and mortally wounding nine others, most of whom have since died. The sad thing is that, in the average American mind, horrors of this character have become so frequent since the slaveholding rebellion that they excite neither shame nor surprise; neither pity for the slain, nor indignation for the slayers…Neither governors, presidents, nor statesmen, have yet declared that these barbarities shall be stopped. On the contrary, they all confess themselves powerless to protect our class; and thus, you and I and all of us are struck down, and bloody treason flourishes over us” (Foner 698). 

            Frederick Douglass passed away on February 20, 1895. He thought he was born in 1817 or 18; however, he was never sure. At birth, Douglass was not considered to be a real human being, so no records exist of his birth. Celebrated at his death, both he and his legacy would pass into oblivion until the sixth decade of the twentieth century. His journey into oblivion mirrored that of his black brethren. In 1896, the Supreme Court, in the case of Plessey v. Ferguson, confirmed segregation, the concept of separate but equal and it made blacks second-class citizens by law. “When President Theodore Roosevelt wrote in 1906 ‘that as a race and in the mass they (Negroes) are altogether inferior to the whites,’ he articulated the belief of most Americans, a belief that was being acted out not only in Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi, but in Latin America and Asia” (*Litwack 333).


                            The rise out of oblivion would be a long, sad, painful journey. In the 21st century, much progress has indeed, been made toward the goal of achieving Douglass’s ultimate hope and dream that African Americans would be seen as a “Real Americans”. The struggle has always been through peaks and valleys. In the third decade of the 21stcentury, the valley has reappeared.    

Works Cited

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