Frederick Douglass and the Periodization of Reconstruction

*This post is part of the online forum on The Futures of Frederick Douglass. The contributions in this forum each highlight innovative approaches to the study of Douglass’s life and works.

Statue of Frederick Douglass at Talbot County Courthouse, Easton, Maryland (Thad Zajdowicz, Flickr).

When I began research on the project that finally became The Wars of Reconstruction, one question was where the saga should start, and another was where it should end. Periodization is important, of course, and one of our jobs as historians is to organize and make sense of what at first glance often appears to be random data. But periodization can also be misleading and deceptive. Frederick Douglass’s wartime and Reconstruction-era career not only reminds us how illusory standard periodization often is, it suggests new ways to conceptualize the period.

Most histories of Reconstruction begin their narrative in December 1863 when President Abraham Lincoln put forward his famous Ten Percent Plan for reconstruction, placing most of the authority to restore the collapsing Confederacy in the executive branch. Republicans in Congress pushed back with the Wade-Davis Bill, which Lincoln eventually pocket-vetoed. I too began my story in 1863, but in January, and for a very different reason. That month, after the final Emancipation Proclamation was issued, the War Department at long last permitted states to recruit Black soldiers. The first governor to take up the challenge was John A. Andrew of Massachusetts. Because the state was home to so few Black men of the right age and physique, and because conservative Democratic governors across the North, such as New York’s Horatio Seymour, resisted the initiative, Andrew was both forced but also able to recruit outside of his state. In the end, the largest contingent of men in the pioneering Fifty-fourth Infantry Regiment came from Pennsylvania, but the second largest hailed from the Empire State. The very first recruit to enlist was nineteen-year-old Charles Douglass, with his older brother Lewis signing on just days later.

Many northern African Americans were reluctant to follow suit. New York State imposed a property qualification on Black voters that it did not on whites, and in 1860 not a single Black man could vote in Lincoln’s Illinois, Salmon Chase’s Ohio, or Thaddeus Stevens’s Pennsylvania. To win over doubters, Andrew turned to Douglass. For much of 1863, Douglass traveled the length of the Erie Canal, delivering his famous “Men of Color to Arms” speech. As a Maryland runaway, Douglass harbored deep hatred for southern slaveholders and welcomed the chance for younger men to “go down and kill white rebels.” Yet if a thirst for vengeance played a role, most of Douglass’s public statements that year followed a nobler path. “To fight for the Government in this tremendous war,” Douglass assured one audience, was “to fight for nationality, and for a place with all other classes of our fellow-citizens.” This apocalyptic war was sure to be followed by a countrywide reassessment, a new political order. Once a Black man got “an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder, and bullets in his pocket,” Douglass reasoned, there was “no power on earth” that could “deny that he has earned the right of citizenship in the United States.” Supreme Court decisions might be overturned by future courts or amendments, especially once Black troops’ service forced whites to acknowledge the African American contribution to the saga of American democracy. “Remember Denmark Vesey, of Charleston,” Douglass exhorted. “Remember Nathaniel Turner, of Southampton!”

Before the war’s end, 179,000 Black men served in the U.S. Army. Of that total, 141,000 had been born into slavery. As was the case with every American conflict, young veterans were determined to help reshape their postwar world, and of the 1,510 identifiable men of color who held office during Reconstruction, at least 130 had first served in the nation’s armed forces. The Douglass family was not among those who sought political office, in part because electoral victories only came to those who settled in black-belt counties and states. But former Corporal Charles Douglass leveraged his service, and his elegant penmanship, into a clerkship with the Freedmen’s Bureau and later with the Treasury Department.

For William Lloyd Garrison and a good number of white abolitionists, their struggle concluded with the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in December 1865. With his own hands, Garrison printed the final edition of the Liberator, announcing the death of slavery in North America. And then he was done. As ever, Douglass understood that the fight had just begun. He knew that the antithesis of slavery was not freedom, but equality. After Republicans in Congress passed the 1866 Civil Rights Act without addressing the question of voting rights, Black activists and a handful of white abolitionists—most of them veterans of the Liberty Party—met at Philadelphia’s National Suffrage Convention. As the November off-year elections approached, even Congressman Thaddeus Stevens shied away from “universal negro suffrage” and declined an invitation to attend the convention. The Pennsylvania congressmen, Douglass complained, “feared they would lose several members of Congress by such an avowal.” As the keynote speaker, Douglass spoke of his sons and of those Black soldiers who had perished during the war. “We demand suffrage in return for our sacrifices,” he shouted, as the audience “rose en masse to cheer him.” Warning those reluctant Republicans that Black Americans would not settle for second-class citizenship, Douglass demanded the vote for all. “Give it to us now, or we will soon get it without your aid,” he threatened. “We will remember our friends, and will not forget our enemies.”

Sergeant Major Lewis Douglass returned home from the fight at Battery Wagner a disabled veteran temporarily without employment, so he found himself unable to meet the $250 property qualification to vote that New York imposed on Black men. Because of such northern restrictions, the Douglass family knew that the demands of southern freedpeople—from land reform to the ballot box to decent schools for their children—were not strictly southern but were in fact national demands. In the years before the war, Douglass had fought with a private academy in Rochester over their treatment of his daughter Rosetta in the classroom. Douglass eventually carried the day, but as late as 1857, of the Empire State’s major cities, only Syracuse and Rochester offered free, integrated public schools. Finally, ten years later in 1867, two years after the guns had fallen silent, the New York State assembly agreed to integrate all public schools. California fell into line in 1874. Ohio, the state that provided the third largest contingent of soldiers in the Fifty-fourth, followed in 1887.

Such struggles for equality remind us that just as Reconstruction had no precise beginning, neither did it have a finite ending. Almost every textbook used in the country identifies the presidential election of 1876 and the subsequent deals made by Rutherford B. Hayes as the end point. Even then, the demands made by southern whites were largely symbolic. Thanks in large part to the Indian Wars in the Midwest, the federal government had been removing soldiers from the southern states to fight the Lakota. By 1876, only 2,800 soldiers patrolled southern streets. After the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments made his New England-born sons both citizens and voters, Douglass was aware that his crusade was far from over. In heavily Black districts in the South, Black men continued to vote and stand for office. In twenty-three Florida towns, African American office-holding actually increased by 123 percent between 1876 and 1889, as Black men won election as mayors, city councilmen, and sheriffs. Blanche K. Bruce, who briefly lived with the Douglass family upon relocating to Washington, did not begin his six-year Senate term until 1875.

Reconstruction reforms stretched far beyond voting rights. Douglass was an early advocate of the Freedman’s Savings Bank, understanding the need of working-class African Americans, former slaves, and Black churches and charities to build their savings. Its main branch sat on the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and Madison Place in Washington. Douglass marveled that he could not pass it without glancing “into its spacious windows, and look[ing] down the row of its gentlemanly and elegantly dressed colored clerks, with their pens behind their ears and buttonhole bouquets in their coat-fronts.” Although its director and most of its trustees were white, each branch hired Black clerks so as to attract Black veterans and freed people. Among those who deposited funds in the Charleston branch was thirty-nine year old Robert Vesey Jr., grandson of the famous abolitionist. So dedicated was Douglass to economic democracy that after the Bank was crippled by the Panic of 1873, he loaned the institution ten thousand dollars of his own money and finally agreed to serve as the Bank’s president in a failed effort to keep it afloat.

On occasion, the family’s battles became personal, although for the Douglass men, the personal was ever political. When former Sergeant Major Lewis Douglass was “surrounded by a number of white boys” who resented his “good clothes” while ice skating on what they regarded as an all-white pond, he donned his skates like boxing gloves and defended himself with the blades, “splitting [one’s] head with the skates” while taking another’s “thumb nearly off.”

We have no idea how many young Black men heard Douglass speak along the canal in 1863, but nearly 3,000 served in the two Massachusetts infantry regiments—the vast majority of them born free in the North—with another 1,225 New Yorkers serving in later USCT regiments. Those were the men who marched home to demand decent schools and voting rights. When North Carolina’s George Henry White lost his seat to racial gerrymandering in 1901, he became the last Black member of Congress for the next twenty-eight years. But former Alabama slaves Martha and Neander De Priest heard that Dayton offered schools for their son Oscar, thanks in large part to the 158 Black Ohioans who had fought with the Fifty-fourth and dedicated their postwar lives to reforming northern society. Oscar De Priest would serve on the Chicago City Council before taking his seat in Congress in March 1929 as the representative of Illinois’s First District. He understood that Reconstruction had never ended in his state, and he knew also that it was Frederick Douglass’s legacy.

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Doug Egerton

Doug Egerton is Professor of History at LeMoyne College. His work deals with the intersections between race and politics in early America. His books include Thunder At the Gates: The Black Civil War Regiments That Redeemed America (Basic Books, 2016), The Wars of Reconstruction: The Brief, Violent History of America’s Most Progressive Era (Bloomsbury, 2014), Year of Meteors: Stephen Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, and the Election That Brought on the Civil War (Bloomsbury, 2010), and Death or Liberty: African Americans and Revolutionary America (Oxford University Press, 2009).