Frederick Douglass: “Reconstruction” Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In the December 1866 edition of The Atlantic Monthly, abolitionist and author Frederick Douglass warned that, if left intact, the state governments of the South could allow for re-enslavement of the region's recently freed black population. In the article, Douglass questioned whether the Civil War had really resulted in freedom and liberty for all Americans, including black people. He called upon Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act and the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. However, he also understood that even with federal mandates for equality among African Americans and whites, the federal government's power to enforce the rights of individuals in every state was limited. Douglass, therefore, pushed for empowering African Americans with the right to vote. Such a policy, he said, would enable Southern black men to be involved in and even change the political system, fostering a truly equitable environment for all races within each state.

Summary Overview

In the December 1866 edition of The Atlantic Monthly, abolitionist and author Frederick Douglass warned that, if left intact, the state governments of the South could allow for re-enslavement of the region's recently freed black population. In the article, Douglass questioned whether the Civil War had really resulted in freedom and liberty for all Americans, including black people. He called upon Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act and the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. However, he also understood that even with federal mandates for equality among African Americans and whites, the federal government's power to enforce the rights of individuals in every state was limited. Douglass, therefore, pushed for empowering African Americans with the right to vote. Such a policy, he said, would enable Southern black men to be involved in and even change the political system, fostering a truly equitable environment for all races within each state.

Defining Moment

In 1841, three years after he escaped slavery via the Underground Railroad, Douglass attended an antislavery meeting on the island of Nantucket, off the coast of Massachusetts. The meeting was hosted by famed abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, who was so inspired by an impromptu set of comments by Douglass that he recruited the former slave as a lecturer in his American Anti-Slavery Society. Douglass gained national prominence in 1845 when he penned his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. That text, which was seen by audiences as not only a highly personal account of a life of slavery, but also as an indictment of this practice, would fuel the fire of the abolitionist movement.

Douglass was unabashed in his goals. He sought a permanent end to slavery in the United States. He also looked to instill in the American political system a framework in which racism would be eradicated and equality among all Americans would be promoted. Over time, Douglas became an international figure–a symbol of the antislavery movement. He developed a reputation as an inspiring orator, giving thousands of speeches to audiences in both the United States and abroad. He was also an accomplished writer, using his pen as a weapon against slavery and racism in the United States. Furthermore, Douglass edited three newspapers, including one of the most prominent black newspapers of the early nineteenth century, the North Star.

When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Douglass seized upon it as an opportunity to accomplish his goals. He helped promote the Union cause and even recruited black soldiers to fight on the Union's behalf. His relationship with President Abraham Lincoln helped his pursuits even further. However, Douglass was, by most accounts, a radical, adhering to the notion that all of humanity should be treated equally, while Lincoln was more of a pragmatist. Still, with Lincoln struggling to win reelection in 1864, the president turned to Douglass to help bring more African Americans into the Union Army to help push toward a victory in the war. The two leaders were on decidedly different pages (prior to the war, Lincoln looked for the abolition of slavery within one hundred years, for example), but their eventual friendship proved beneficial to the pursuit of both individuals' ultimate goals.

Still, before and after the Civil War, Douglass faced a daunting reality: White Americans (even a large number of abolitionists) saw black men and women as inferior to whites. After the war, Douglass felt the need to impress upon American political leaders an imperative to prevent the return of slavery and reconstruct the political system in such a way that black people would find themselves on an equal social, economic, and political footing with their white counterparts.

Author Biography

Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey was born a slave in Maryland around February of 1818. In 1838, he escaped to the North, moving to New Bedford, Massachusetts (where he changed his name to Frederick Douglass). He married Anna Murray, a free black woman whom he had met in Maryland and with whom he would have five children. Following the success of his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (1845), Douglass became a prominent orator and writer. He and his family moved to Rochester, New York, where he edited two black newspapers and wrote his second autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom (1855). Some years after the Civil War, he moved to Cedar Hill, an estate in the Washington, DC, neighborhood of Anacostia. In 1881, he published his third autobiography, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. Douglass was a vice presidential candidate for the unsuccessful Equal Rights Party in 1872 and later served as minister and consul to Haiti, among a number of other government appointments in the postwar years. In 1882, his wife Anna died; he remarried, to Helen Pitts, in 1884. Douglas died at Cedar Hill on February 20, 1895.

Document Analysis

“Reconstruction” provides an illustration of Frederick Douglass's idealism and relative political radicalism. Douglass was consistently an advocate of a simple agenda: equal treatment for all people in the United States, regardless of race. In the article, he calls upon Congress to appreciate the devastation and loss caused by the Civil War and, during the course of rebuilding US institutions, instill within them the mechanisms to prevent the reemergence of slavery and inequality. Without such action, Douglass warns, the war will have been fought in vain.

Douglass's opening in this article is a challenge to Congress. The Civil War, he says, was fought “heroically” in an effort to protect the Union. Much blood was shed, the nation's monetary resources were depleted, and the country was exhausted. After the war, Congress was tasked with rebuilding the country, bringing back into the fold the states that had been defeated, and healing the deep wounds that tore apart American society. However, Douglass argues, in its first session following the war, Congress offered very little with regard to these tasks. Now, he states, Congress must take visible and major action on these issues–failure to do so will mean that the Union's hard-fought victory “shall pass into history a miserable failure.”

In Douglass's view, the most pressing task Congress must take up is to foster a culture that empowers each citizen equally. Racism and slavery, he says, are not just matters of public policy (laws that permitted slavery or the violation of nonwhite civil rights, for example); rather, they are born from “the depths of human selfishness.” Over time, the law–along with religion and social tradition–evolved to validate them. Congress could pass laws forbidding slavery and the violation of black civil rights, Douglass says, but unless the federal government became a tyranny, wiping away all state rights, Congress could not destroy the desire to mistreat and/or enslave black Americans.

Then again, he says, if Congress gave the same power to every American that only white men had enjoyed–the power to vote and, thereby, protect one's individual interests–the culture of racism in the United States could be diluted and even overridden. The time has come, Douglass argues, for Congress to finally take up this issue. That Congress had stalled its action in the previous session was understandable but regrettable, he argues. After all, President Andrew Johnson had, in 1865, quickly moved to return the secessionist states to the Union, while Congress was not in session, an action Douglass viewed as “treacherous” and “disgraceful.” Congress returned, but did not overrule Johnson for the sake of national unity. Now, Douglass stressed, Congress had a clean slate, all of the information necessary to make a proper decision, and the moral imperative to take action.

To Douglass, how Congress worked to undo Johnson's actions (and undermine the hastily assembled state governments in the former Confederacy) was not his concern. His focus was on one goal: the establishment of a civil society that utilized the full participation of all of its citizens, regardless of race. The Constitution, he says, does not distinguish between a citizen of a state or the nation, nor does it distinguish between races. The governments of the newly reconstructed South, he states, should, therefore, be built upon the voting power of every citizen, each of whom enjoys the same rights under the Constitution.

Essential Themes

Douglass's “Reconstruction” provides an illustration of the famed abolitionist's perspectives as they compared to the political agenda of the post–Civil War federal government. To be sure, even before the war, Douglass was seen as a radical (a designation he accepted) whose only priorities were the complete and global eradication of the practice of slavery and the establishment of the equality of all peoples. During the war, his relationship with President Lincoln gave him an understanding of the risks of a headstrong attack on these issues. Lincoln's careful, pragmatic political approach to defeating slavery was frustrating to Douglass, but in “Reconstruction” (written in the year after Lincoln's assassination), Douglass saw that any heavier approach would have revitalized the rebellion and possibly facilitated a Confederate victory.

With the Union victory complete, however, Douglass saw an opportunity. Lincoln's successor, Johnson, had (in Douglass's opinion) run roughshod over Congress and the democratic process by attempting to quickly reintegrate the former Confederate states into the United States. Congress was now in a better position to create and enforce thoughtful policy that would achieve Douglass's goals without undermining the government or inciting a new rebellion. If Congress failed to do so now, however, then the war that had cost so many lives and resources would have been fought in vain.

Douglass also saw an opportunity to prevent a future rebellion, in addition to ending racism and slavery, through one simple act. Slavery had survived for generations because political systems were instituted to meet the needs of a dominant group of people, who had embraced racism and prejudice; the state governments of the South were no exception to this trend, he felt. Allowing state governments in the former Confederacy to continue to follow the lead of this elite class of white men could facilitate a return to slavery, Douglass said. By passing a single federal law that allowed for all American peoples to vote, the age-old traditions of racism and slavery could be defeated, he argued, and a new and more equitable political order would rise in its place.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • “Black History, American History.” The Atlantic. The Atlantic Monthly, 12 Feb. 1997. Web. 9 Jan. 2014.
  • Blight, David W. “Frederick Douglass, 1818–1895.” Documenting the American South. U of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2004. Web. 9 Jan. 2014.
  • ___________. Frederick Douglass' Civil War: Keeping Faith in Jubilee. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1989. Print.
  • “Douglass Biography.” Frederick Douglass Papers Edition, Institute for American Thought. Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis, n.d. Web. 9 Jan. 2014.
  • “Lincoln and Douglass Shared Uncommon Bond.” NPR Books. NPR, 16 Feb. 2009. Web. 9 Jan. 2014.
  • McFeely, William S. Frederick Douglass. New York: Norton, 1995. Print.
  • Oakes, James. The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics. New York: Norton, 2008. Print.
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