Life After the 13th Amendment
With the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in December 1865, slavery was officially abolished in all areas of the United States. The Reconstruction era was under way in the South, the period during which the 11 Confederate states would be gradually reintroduced to the Union. In the meantime, Northern armies continued to occupy the South and to enforce the decrees of Congress. Frederick Douglass was then 47 years old, an active man in the prime of his life. No longer enlisted in the war on slavery, he thought about buying a farm and settling down to a quiet life. But black Americans still desperately needed an advocate, and Douglass soon rejected any notion of an early retirement.
In many parts of the South, the newly freed slaves labored under conditions similar to those existing before the war. The Union army could offer only limited protection to the ex-slaves, and Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson of Tennessee, clearly had no interest in ensuring the freedom of southern blacks. The new president’s appointments as governors of southern states formed conservative, proslavery governments. The new state legislatures passed laws designed to keep blacks in poverty and in positions of servitude. Under these so-called black codes, ex-slaves who had no steady employment could be arrested and ordered to pay stiff fines. Prisoners who could not pay the sum were hired out as virtual slaves. In some areas, black children could be forced to serve as apprentices in local industries. Blacks were also prevented from buying land and were denied fair wages for their work.
At a meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society in May 1865, one month after the end of the Civil War, William Lloyd Garrison had called upon the organization to disband, now that its goal was achieved. Douglass came out against Garrison’s proposal, stating that “Slavery is not abolished until the black man has the ballot.” The society voted to continue the struggle for black rights, but many abolitionists left the movement. Fortunately, abolitionists were not the only ones interested in giving blacks the right to vote. The Republican party was worried that the Democrats would regain their power in the South. If this happened, the Republicans would lose their dominant position in Congress when the southern states were readmitted to the Union. Led by two fierce antislavery senators, Thaddeus Stevens and Charles Sumner, a group of radical Republicans joined with abolitionists in a campaign for voting rights for black men, who, they believed, would naturally support the Republicans. During the later part of 1865, Douglass traveled throughout the North, speaking out for black suffrage and warning the country that the former slaveholders were regaining control of the South. In February 1866, he addressed his most important audience, President Andrew Johnson. Along with his son Lewis and three other black leaders, Douglass met with Johnson to impress upon him the need for changes in the southern state governments. The president did most of the talking, and he told the delegation that he intended to support the interests of southern whites and to block voting rights for blacks. Douglass and Johnson parted, both saying that they would take their cases to the American people.
Despite the president’s opposition, Douglass and the supporters continued to battle for black rights with some success. The public mood gradually turned against Johnson and his attempts to install governments in the South that were controlled by Confederate loyalists. The Republican-controlled Congress became increasingly resistant to Johnson’s plans for a limited reconstruction of the southern states. The radical Republicans wanted to see sweeping changes enforced that would end the former slaveholders’ power in the South. Thaddeus Stevens urged that the estates of the large slaveholders be broken up and the land distributed to ex-slaves, or freedmen, as they were then known.
In the summer of 1866, Congress passed two bills over the president’s veto. One, the Freedmen’s Bureau Bill, extended the powers of a government agency that had been established in 1865 for the purpose of providing medical, educational, and financial assistance for the millions of impoverished southern blacks. Congress also passed the Civil Rights Bill, which gave full citizenship to blacks, along with all the rights enjoyed by other Americans. President Johnson’s supporters, mainly Democrats and conservative Republicans, organized in the summer of 1866 to stop the movement for further black rights. The radical Republicans also held a meeting in Philadelphia to vote on a resolution calling for black suffrage, and Douglass attended the convention as a delegate from New York. Unfortunately, he encountered much prejudice from some Republican politicians, who were unwilling to associate with blacks on an equal level. Nonetheless, Douglass went to the convention and spoke out for black suffrage. The vote on the resolution was a close one, for some of the delegates were afraid that white voters would not support a party that allied itself too closely with blacks.
Speeches by Douglass and the woman suffragist Anna E. Dickinson helped turn the tide in favor of black suffrage. For Douglass, the convention also held a more personal note. While marching in a parade of delegates, he spotted Amanda Sears, whose mother, Lucretia Auld, had given him his first pair of pants and arranged for him to leave the Lloyd plantation. Sears and her two children had traveled to Philadelphia just to see the famed Frederick Douglass. The movement for black suffrage grew rapidly after the Philadelphia convention. With President Johnson’s supporters greatly outnumbered, in June 1866, Congress passed the Fourteenth Amendment, which was designed to ensure that rights guaranteed earlier to blacks under the Civil Rights Bill were protected by the Constitution. The amendment was finally ratified in July 1868 after all the states approved it. Although the new amendment declared that no state could deny any person his full rights as an American citizen, it did not guarantee blacks the right to vote. In most states, however, blacks were already voting.
During July 1867, Douglass was asked by President Johnson to take charge of the Freedman’s Bureau, a position that would have allowed him to oversee all the government programs administering to the needs of southern blacks. Douglass was tempted by the offer, the first major post to be offered to a black man, but he realized that by associating with the Johnson administration, he would be helping the president appear to be the black man’s friend. Instead, he refused to serve under a man whose policies he detested. By 1867, Douglass could see that Johnson’s days in office were numbered. The president was unable to stop Congress’s Reconstruction acts, which divided the South into five military districts and laid out strict guidelines for the readmission of the Confederate states into the Union. The new laws required the southern states to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment and to guarantee blacks the right to vote. The radical Republicans were angered by Johnson’s attempts to block the Reconstruction measures, and they instituted impeachment proceedings against him, the first time a president underwent this ordeal. The impeachment measure fell one vote short of the two-thirds majority in the House and Senate needed to remove Johnson from office, but the president exercised little power during the last two years of his term.
During the 1868 presidential contest, Douglass campaigned for the Republican candidate, Ulysses S. Grant, the former commander in chief of the Union army. In a famous speech, “The Work Before Us,” Douglass attacked the Democratic party for ignoring black citizens and warned about the rise in the South of white supremacist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan. These secret societies attempted to intimidate blacks with fire and the hangman’s noose. They also attacked “Yankee carpetbaggers” (northerners who had flooded into the South at the end of the Civil War) and “scalawags” (southern whites who cooperated with the federal Reconstruction authorities). Douglass feared that the terrorist tactics of the Klan would succeed in frightening blacks into giving up the civil rights they had gained in the South. “Rebellion has been subdued, slavery abolished, and peace proclaimed,” he said, “and yet our work is not done…..We are face to face with the same old enemy of liberty and progress…..The South today is a field of blood.”
Black voters came out strongly for the Republicans in the 1868 elections, helping Grant win the presidency. With Grant in office, the Fifteenth Amendment passed through Congress and was submitted to the states for ratification. This amendment guaranteed all citizens the right to vote, regardless of their race. Douglass’s push for state approval of the amendment caused a breach between him and the woman suffragists, who were upset that the measure did not include voting rights for woman. Old friends such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton accused Douglass of abandoning the cause of women’s rights. At the annual meeting of the Equal Rights Association in May 1869, Douglass tried to persuade the woman suffragists that voting rights for blacks must be won immediately, while women could afford to wait. “When women because they are women are dragged from their homes and hung upon lampposts, …..then they will have the urgency to obtain the ballot,” said Douglass. One of the women in the crowd cried out, “Is that not also true about black women?” “Yes, yes,” Douglass replied, “but not because she is a woman but because she is black.” The women in the audience were not convinced by Douglass’s argument, and some of them even spoke out against black suffrage. Douglass’s relationship with the woman suffragists eventually healed, but women would not receive the right to vote until 1920.
The campaign for state ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment was successful. On March 30, 1870, President Grant declared that the amendment had been adopted. Later, at the last official meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society, Douglass spoke gratefully about the new rights blacks had won. “I seem to be living in a new world,” he said. While thanking all the men and women who had struggled for so long to make this new world possible, he modestly omitted his own name. However, no one had fought harder for black rights than Douglass. By 1870, he could look proudly upon some of the fruits of his labors. Between 1868 and 1870, the southern states were readmitted to the Union, and large numbers of blacks were elected to the state legislatures. Blacks also won seats in Congress, with Hiram Revels of Mississippi becoming the first black senator and Joseph Rainey of South Carolina being the first black to enter the House of Representatives. In 1870, Douglass was asked to serve as editor of a newspaper based in Washington, D.C., whose goal was to herald the progress of blacks throughout the country. Early on, the paper, the New National Era, experienced financial difficulties, and Douglass bought the enterprise. The paper folded in 1874, but for a few years it provided him with the means to publish his opinions on the developing racial situation in the United States.
Another misfortune occurred in 1872, when Douglass’s Rochester home went up in flames. None of his family was hurt, but many irreplaceable volumes of his newspapers were destroyed. Although friends urged him to rebuild in Rochester, Douglass decided to move his family to the center of political activity in Washington, D.C. During 1872, Douglass campaigned hard for the reelection of President Grant. He supported the president even though many of the Republican party leaders he most respected, including Senator Charles Sumner, chose to back the Democratic candidate, Horace Greeley. Although personally honest, Grant was harshly criticized for not controlling the corrupt officials who served in his administration. Douglass stuck with the president, believing that blacks needed a strong friend in the White House. At the time, the Ku Klux Klan and other white terrorist organizations were burning black schools and murdering schoolteachers in an effort to keep southern blacks from learning how to read. Grant easily won the 1872 election, and Douglass was given an unexpected honor. He was chosen as one of the two electors-at-large from New York, the men who carried the sealed envelope with the results of the state voting to the capital. After the election, Douglass expected that he would be given a position in the Grant administration, but no post was offered, so he returned to the lecture circuit.
A third financial loss struck Douglass in 1874. That year he was offered and accepted the position of president of the Freedmen’s Savings and Trust Company, a bank that had been founded to encourage blacks to invest and save their money. The previous management had made huge loans to speculators at extremely low interest rates. By the time Douglass was put in charge, the bank was on the verge of collapse. He immediately appealed to Congress for help and tried to restore confidence by investing much of his own money in the bank. Even so, the prestigious Freedmen’s Bank failed, and many black depositors lost their money. For Douglass, it was a blow to his pride as well as to his pocketbook. Fortunately, Douglass had the means to recoup his losses on the lecture circuit. He no longer spoke simply about black rights but included other topics on which he was an authority, such as Scandinavian folklore. On whatever subject he lectured, he combined his humor, intelligence, and passion to create a memorable experience for his audiences. Many people described him as one of the world’s greatest speakers.
As Douglass traveled, he continued the battle against the daily humiliations that blacks were forced to endure throughout the country. Whenever he encountered discriminatory practices in a restaurant, hotel, or railway car, he would write a letter of protest to the local newspapers. In such ways, he retained his position as the foremost spokesman for black Americans. In 1875, he was cheered by Congress’s passage of the Civil Rights Bill, which gave blacks the right to equal treatment in theaters, inns, and other public places. In 1877, after the inauguration of the new Republican president, Rutherford B. Hayes, Douglass was finally rewarded with a political post, the largely ceremonial position of marshal for Washington, D.C. However, in order to court southern votes for the close presidential election of 1876, the Republicans had agreed to remove the bulk of the federal troops in the South. The rights that had been granted to blacks after the Civil War could no longer be protected in the sothern states. Douglass was criticized for accepting his post after the Republicans’ betrayal of their black supporters, but he saw the appointment as simply another milestone for his people. In any case, Douglass did speak out against the Republicans for abandoning southern blacks to the discriminatory practices of the South.
Nearing the age of 60, Douglass was ready to give up his life on the road. In his undemanding job as a U.S. marshal overseeing the criminal justice system in the nation’s capital, he was aided by a large staff of employees. Following his appointment, he purchased a new home in the Washington area. The 15 acre estate that he christened Cedar Hill included a 20 room house, which held a huge library and whose walls were decorated with the portraits of Abraham Lincoln, William Lloyd Garrison, Susan B. Anthony, and other people who had influenced him. His children were frequent visitors to Cedar Hill, and he greatly enjoyed playing the role of family patriarch. In 1877, Douglass traveled to St. Michaels, Maryland, to visit old friends and to see the farms and plantations where he had worked as a slave. While there, he took the opportunity to visit his old master, Thomas Auld. Aged and feeble, Auld greeted his former slave as Marshal Douglass, and the two men spoke for a long time. Auld both justified and apologized for his actions as a slaveholder. Overall, the former master and slave were able to part on good terms. After the 1880 election of the Republican candidate James Garfield as president, Douglass was appointed to the post of recorder of deeds for Washington, D.C. He liked his new job, which entailed managing the department that made records of property sales in the capital. During his five years in this position, he had ample time for his writing projects and speaking engagements. In 1881, he published the third of his autobiographical volumes, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. In August 1882, Anna Douglass died after a long illness. Douglass observed a traditional year of grieving, but he was hardly ready to settle into the life of a widower. He had never shrunk from controversy, and his next act upset both black and white society. In early 1884, Douglass announced that he was marrying Helen Pitts, a white woman who was nearly 20 years younger than he was.
Douglass enjoyed 9 years of marriage to Helen Pitts, on February 20, 1895, Douglass was struck by a massive heart attack and died at the age of 77. As news of Douglass’s death spread throughout the country, crowds gathered at the Washington church where he lay in state to pay their respects. Black public schools closed for the day, and parents took their children for a last look at the famed leader. His wife and children accompanied his body back to Rochester, where he was laid to rest. No one has struggled more resolutely for the rights of his people than Frederick Douglass. Born at a time when strong voices were desperately needed to cry out for freedom, he established himself as a powerful speaker for all men and women.