Frederick Douglass was an African American who spent most of his life being enslaved on the Eastern Shore in Maryland. Even though Douglass was born in Maryland, but he also became a victim of slavery that ruled the lives of black Americans. However, after escaping or freeing himself from slavery, Douglass became a freedom and human rights activist who agitated for the equality and dignity of the minority races like the black Americans. Douglass' speeches are recorded in the "The African-American Pamphlet Collection" which involves the historic events regarding the colonization and slavery of the African Americans. This essay examines Douglass' ideas regarding the black Americans during and after the war.
Douglass' key idea that he expressed in most of his speeches involved abolition of slavery during the civil war. Douglass related well with the slaves not only because he was one of them but because he went through the experiences that slaves experienced. For example, just like any other slave in America, Douglass never enjoyed the love and closeness of having a family. Douglass was not a pure black and neither was he a European (Douglass 10). Since he grew in a situation worse than what a Native American or black could, he found it easy interacting and relating with the experiences that black Americans went through.
The civil war comprised of different races, but the black Americans were greatly involved in the war. Over 179,000 black Americans served in the war in more than 160 units (Escott 73). It was difficult to become a free man especially during the war following the illiteracy level of the black Americans. Douglass became a free man after escaping from his master in 1838 to become an agitator of human rights (Douglass 149). Abolition of slavery was his first agenda during the war. Douglass started associating himself with abolitionist in New York who greatly influenced him into becoming an agitator for human rights. For example, William Garrison is among the people that influenced him. Douglass often talked about his experience as a slave in most of his speeches. For instance, in Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society's annual convention that was held in Nantucket, Douglass shared his experience on rough life as a slave (Douglass 287).
Douglass spoke vehemently against the discrimination of the black people including denying them access to things that other races like the whites enjoyed. Douglass tried to express the idea that black Americans deserved to be treated better, with dignity and respect like the whites. While expressing his joyous feeling of freedom in Ireland, Douglass argues that he was met with kindness and deference that was paid to the white people back in America. When he went to church he did not meet people that would tell him that "no niggers are allowed," something that he could easily relate with when in America. His vision was to see America where blacks enjoyed the freedom like the white people. He desired America where certain racial group does not question the equal humanity of another group.
Douglass admired the kind of equality that he experienced in Ireland and England. He was treated in England as a man and not as "a color" as it happened in America. In his London Reception Speech in May 1846 at Alexander Fletcher's Finsbury Chapel, Douglass remarkably commented and appreciated the equality in England; something that he wished could happen to America (Ruuth 117). Even though he managed to convince Thomas Clarkson, who also convinced the Great Britain Parliament to abolish slavery in its colonies, Douglass desired that every black American could enjoy their rights as people and not treated as subjects or objects. After attaining his freedom legally in England, Douglass still desired to come back to America to free other three million black Americans who were still held in slavery bondage in America (Ruuth 118).
Douglass' vision regarding the abolition of slavery was characterized by different elements including women's rights, education, political representations, and constitutionality of anti-slavery campaign. Douglass understood that education could be the way to help black Americans achieve their freedom as he did. Even though other black Americans bought their freedom, but Douglass used writing and reading skills that he had acquired while learning to fight for freedom and other three million others in America. Douglass encouraged the black Americans to get an education through his speeches and tutorial lessons (Douglass 50). Therefore, as he agitated for the freedom and end of slavery, he knew that black Americans could not be free if they still depended on the whites or still viewed as an inferior race by other races that enjoyed advanced education like the whites.
Women's rights were also included in his vision of freedom to all black Americans (McMillen 93). In his speech in Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, Douglass argued that the world would be a better place with the inclusion of women in the political arena (Stanton 85). He claimed that denying the women the right to participate in the government is not the only degradation of women but also a perpetuation of a great injustice. He also emphasized that women need to be involved in public affairs (McMillen 94). In this case, he was not only fighting for black women but other races as well. Douglass relied on the conventions and writing in the "North Star" magazine where he expressed his ideas regarding freedom and equality of the black Americans and other human rights. Before the war, Douglass argued that since the aim of the civil war was to abolish slavery, it was important that African Americans be allowed to participate in the agitation for their freedom.
In one of his published articles in Newspaper in 1861, Douglass agitated to the government under President Abraham Lincoln that led to the freedom of all slaves in the Confederate regions (McFeely 247). After the war, Douglass still agitated for equality and dignity of the black Americans, who despite having actively participated in the war did not take any credit. After the war, Douglass tried to reconstruct his ideas advocating for voting rights, work for the black Americans, and actual exercise of suffrage. Douglass believed that freedom cannot only be achieved through political avenues, but also through the social and economic aspects. He believed that if the blacks were granted freedom but unable to maintain their families because they lacked jobs, education, or recognition they would be still slaves. Therefore, he tried to reconstruct his vision of equality and freedom through avenues that could fit the situation after the war.
Constitutional participation was another significant element of Douglass' vision of equality and freedom to all black Americans. Douglass believed that the constitution should be a tool to end slavery and discrimination, but not a tool used to enhance slavery (Vogel 65). This idea separated Douglass from his long-term friend, Garrison whom he considered very radical and pro-slavery. His idea that constitution should be a liberator of people from slavery brought disagreements between him and Garrison. As a result, they separated in 1847, something which triggered abolitionist movement campaign (Vogel 69).
Even though Douglass believed that black Americans deserved to be treated equally and with a lot of respect like the whites, his vision could not be implemented because the whites, who were the majority and considered superior still had the power to make the changes. The political class was comprised of the whites. Douglass constantly disagreed with political class on the rights and equality of the black people. His vision for education for African Americans could not be implemented because teachers in the South where most black Americans resided were either dead or dispersed during the war. Furthermore, the people were too poor to give their children education (Wright 2). Over five million black Americans who lived in the South were poor that they could not send their children from home to school. Therefore, the urge to get an education was almost impossible to fulfill during and immediately after the war. However, even after the war ended, more education money was allocated to the whites than the blacks (Wright 7). Therefore, the disparity between the economic conditions in the North and the South greatly barred Douglass' vision of equality and freedom is achieved.
In conclusion, Douglass' speeches mainly focused on equality and freedom for all black Americans who suffered at the hands of the white people in America. Douglass traveled to England and Great Britain to convince the Parliament on the need to abolish slavery. However, after the war, he realized that black people needed more than just legal freedom. Even though he tried to agitate for more equality in terms of social, economic, and political spaces, his attempts were barred by different obstacles including the financial and political barriers.
Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, an American slave. Random House Digital, Inc., 2000.
Douglass, Frederick. Frederick Douglass: Selected speeches and writings. Chicago Review Press, 2000.
Douglass, Frederick, and Rayford Whittingham Logan. The life and times of Frederick Douglass. Courier Corporation, 2003.
Douglass, Frederick. The life and times of Frederick Douglass: From 1817-1882. Christian Age Office, 1882.Escott, Paul D. " What Shall We Do with the Negro?": Lincoln, White Racism, and Civil War America. University of Virginia Press, 2009.McFeely, William S. Frederick Douglass. WW Norton & Company, 1995.
McMillen, Sally. Seneca Falls and the origins of the women's rights movement. Oxford University Press, 2008.Ruuth, Marianne. "Frederick Douglass." Halloway House Publishing, 1996.Vogel, Todd, ed. The Black press: New literary and historical essays. Rutgers University Press, 2001.Wright, Richard Robert. A Brief Historical Sketch of Negro Education in Georgia. No. 1. Robinson printing house, 1894.
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