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    Reconstruction

    by Frederick Douglass
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    The assembling of the Second Session of the Thirty-ninth Congress
    may very properly be made the occasion of a few earnest words on
    the already much-worn topic of reconstruction.

    Seldom has any legislative body been the subject of a solicitude
    more intense, or of aspirations more sincere and ardent. There
    are the best of reasons for this profound interest. Questions of
    vast moment, left undecided by the last session of Congress, must
    be manfully grappled with by this. No political skirmishing will
    avail. The occasion demands statesmanship.

    Whether the tremendous war so heroically fought and so
    victoriously ended shall pass into history a miserable failure,
    barren of permanent results,--a scandalous and shocking waste of
    blood and treasure,--a strife for empire, as Earl Russell
    characterized it, of no value to liberty or civilization,--an
    attempt to re-establish a Union by force, which must be the merest
    mockery of a Union,--an effort to bring under Federal authority
    States into which no loyal man from the North may safely enter,
    and to bring men into the national councils who deliberate with
    daggers and vote with revolvers, and who do not even conceal their
    deadly hate of the country that conquered them; or whether, on the
    other hand, we shall, as the rightful reward of victory over
    treason, have a solid nation, entirely delivered from all
    contradictions and social antagonisms, based upon loyalty,
    liberty, and equality, must be determined one way or the other by
    the present session of Congress. The last session really did
    nothing which can be considered final as to these questions. The
    Civil Rights Bill and the Freedmen's Bureau Bill and the proposed
    constitutional amendments, with the amendment already adopted and
    recognized as the law of the land, do not reach the difficulty,
    and cannot, unless the whole structure of the government is
    changed from a government by States to something like a despotic
    central government, with power to control even the municipal
    regulations of States, and to make them conform to its own
    despotic will. While there remains such an idea as the right of
    each State to control its own local affairs,--an idea, by the way,
    more deeply rooted in the minds of men of all sections of the
    country than perhaps any one other political idea,--no general
    assertion of human rights can be of any practical value. To
    change the character of the government at this point is neither
    possible nor desirable. All that is necessary to be done is to
    make the government consistent with itself, and render the rights
    of the States compatible with the sacred rights of human nature.

    The arm of the Federal government is long, but it is far too short
    to protect the rights of individuals in the interior of distant
    States. They must have the power to protect themselves, or they
    will go unprotected, spite of all the laws the Federal government
    can put upon the national statute-book.

    Slavery, like all other great systems of wrong, founded in the
    depths of human selfishness, and existing for ages, has not
    neglected its own conservation. It has steadily exerted an
    influence upon all around it favorable to its own continuance.
    And to-day it is so strong that it could exist, not only without
    law, but even against law. Custom, manners, morals, religion, are
    all on its side everywhere in the South; and when you add the
    ignorance and servility of the ex-slave to the intelligence and
    accustomed authority of the master, you have the conditions, not
    out of which slavery will again grow, but under which it is
    impossible for the Federal government to wholly destroy it, unless
    the Federal government be armed with despotic power, to blot out
    State authority, and to station a Federal officer at every cross-
    road. This, of course, cannot be done, and ought not even if it
    could. The true way and the easiest way is to make our government
    entirely consistent with itself, and give to every loyal citizen
    the elective franchise,--a right and power which will be ever
    present, and will form a wall of fire for his protection.

    One of the invaluable compensations of the late Rebellion is the
    highly instructive disclosure it made of the true source of danger
    to republican government. Whatever may be tolerated in
    monarchical and despotic governments, no republic is safe that
    tolerates a privileged class, or denies to any of its citizens
    equal rights and equal means to maintain them. What was theory
    before the war has been made fact by the war.

    There is cause to be thankful even for rebellion. It is an
    impressive teacher, though a stern and terrible one. In both
    characters it has come to us, and it was perhaps needed in both.
    It is an instructor never a day before its time, for it comes only
    when all other means of progress and enlightenment have failed.
    Whether the oppressed and despairing bondman, no longer able to
    repress his deep yearnings for manhood, or the tyrant, in his
    pride and impatience, takes the initiative, and strikes the blow
    for a firmer hold and a longer lease of oppression, the result is
    the same,--society is instructed, or may be.

    Such are the limitations of the common mind, and so thoroughly
    engrossing are the cares of common life, that only the few among
    men can discern through the glitter and dazzle of present
    prosperity the dark outlines of approaching disasters, even though
    they may have come up to our very gates, and are already within
    striking distance. The yawning seam and corroded bolt conceal
    their defects from the mariner until the storm calls all hands to
    the pumps. Prophets, indeed, were abundant before the war; but
    who cares for prophets while their predictions remain unfulfilled,
    and the calamities of which they tell are masked behind a blinding
    blaze of national prosperity?

    It is asked, said Henry Clay, on a memorable occasion, Will
    slavery never come to an end? That question, said he, was asked
    fifty years ago, and it has been answered by fifty years of
    unprecedented prosperity. Spite of the eloquence of the earnest
    Abolitionists,--poured out against slavery during thirty years,--
    even they must confess, that, in all the probabilities of the
    case, that system of barbarism would have continued its horrors
    far beyond the limits of the nineteenth century but for the
    Rebellion, and perhaps only have disappeared at last in a fiery
    conflict, even more fierce and bloody than that which has now been
    suppressed.

    It is no disparagement to truth, that it can only prevail where
    reason prevails. War begins where reason ends. The thing worse
    than rebellion is the thing that causes rebellion. What that
    thing is, we have been taught to our cost. It remains now to be
    seen whether we have the needed courage to have that cause
    entirely removed from the Republic. At any rate, to this grand
    work of national regeneration and entire purification Congress
    must now address Itself, with full purpose that the work shall
    this time be thoroughly done. The deadly upas, root and branch,
    leaf and fibre, body and sap, must be utterly destroyed. The
    country is evidently not in a condition to listen patiently to
    pleas for postponement, however plausible, nor will it permit the
    responsibility to be shifted to other shoulders. Authority and
    power are here commensurate with the duty imposed. There are no
    cloud-flung shadows to obscure the way. Truth shines with
    brighter light and intenser heat at every moment, and a country
    torn and rent and bleeding implores relief from its distress and
    agony.

    If time was at first needed, Congress has now had time. All the
    requisite materials from which to form an intelligent judgment are
    now before it. Whether its members look at the origin, the
    progress, the termination of the war, or at the mockery of a peace
    now existing, they will find only one unbroken chain of argument
    in favor of a radical policy of reconstruction. For the omissions
    of the last session, some excuses may be allowed. A treacherous
    President stood in the way; and it can be easily seen how
    reluctant good men might be to admit an apostasy which involved so
    much of baseness and ingratitude. It was natural that they should
    seek to save him by bending to him even when he leaned to the side
    of error. But all is changed now. Congress knows now that it
    must go on without his aid, and even against his machinations.
    The advantage of the present session over the last is immense.
    Where that investigated, this has the facts. Where that walked by
    faith, this may walk by sight. Where that halted, this must go
    forward, and where that failed, this must succeed, giving the
    country whole measures where that gave us half-measures, merely as
    a means of saving the elections in a few doubtful districts. That
    Congress saw what was right, but distrusted the enlightenment of
    the loyal masses; but what was forborne in distrust of the people
    must now be done with a full knowledge that the people expect and
    require it. The members go to Washington fresh from the inspiring
    presence of the people. In every considerable public meeting, and
    in almost every conceivable way, whether at court-house, school-
    house, or cross-roads, in doors and out, the subject has been
    discussed, and the people have emphatically pronounced in favor of
    a radical policy. Listening to the doctrines of expediency and
    compromise with pity, impatience, and disgust, they have
    everywhere broken into demonstrations of the wildest enthusiasm
    when a brave word has been spoken in favor of equal rights and
    impartial suffrage. Radicalism, so far from being odious, is not
    the popular passport to power. The men most bitterly charged with
    it go to Congress with the largest majorities, while the timid and
    doubtful are sent by lean majorities, or else left at home. The
    strange controversy between the President and the Congress, at one
    time so threatening, is disposed of by the people. The high
    reconstructive powers which he so confidently, ostentatiously, and
    haughtily claimed, have been disallowed, denounced, and utterly
    repudiated; while those claimed by Congress have been confirmed.

    Of the spirit and magnitude of the canvass nothing need be said.
    The appeal was to the people, and the verdict was worthy of the
    tribunal. Upon an occasion of his own selection, with the advice
    and approval of his astute Secretary, soon after the members of
    the Congress had returned to their constituents, the President
    quitted the executive mansion, sandwiched himself between two
    recognized heroes,--men whom the whole country delighted to
    honor,--and, with all the advantage which such company could give
    him, stumped the country from the Atlantic to the Mississippi,
    advocating everywhere his policy as against that of Congress. It
    was a strange sight, and perhaps the most disgraceful exhibition
    ever made by any President; but, as no evil is entirely unmixed,
    good has come of this, as from many others. Ambitious,
    unscrupulous, energetic, indefatigable, voluble, and plausible,--a
    political gladiator, ready for a "set-to" in any crowd,--he is
    beaten in his own chosen field, and stands to-day before the
    country as a convicted usurper, a political criminal, guilty of a
    bold and persistent attempt to possess himself of the legislative
    powers solemnly secured to Congress by the Constitution. No
    vindication could be more complete, no condemnation could be more
    absolute and humiliating. Unless reopened by the sword, as
    recklessly threatened in some circles, this question is now closed
    for all time.

    Without attempting to settle here the metaphysical and somewhat
    theological question (about which so much has already been said
    and written), whether once in the Union means always in the
    Union,--agreeably to the formula, Once in grace always in grace,--
    it is obvious to common sense that the rebellious States stand to-
    day, in point of law, precisely where they stood when, exhausted,
    beaten, conquered, they fell powerless at the feet of Federal
    authority. Their State governments were overthrown, and the lives
    and property of the leaders of the Rebellion were forfeited. In
    reconstructing the institutions of these shattered and overthrown
    States, Congress should begin with a clean slate, and make clean
    work of it. Let there be no hesitation. It would be a cowardly
    deference to a defeated and treacherous President, if any account
    were made of the illegitimate, one-sided, sham governments hurried
    into existence for a malign purpose in the absence of Congress.
    These pretended governments, which were never submitted to the
    people, and from participation in which four millions of the loyal
    people were excluded by Presidential order, should now be treated
    according to their true character, as shams and impositions, and
    supplanted by true and legitimate governments, in the formation of
    which loyal men, black and white, shall participate.

    It is not, however, within the scope of this paper to point out
    the precise steps to be taken, and the means to be employed. The
    people are less concerned about these than the grand end to be
    attained. They demand such a reconstruction as shall put an end
    to the present anarchical state of things in the late rebellious
    States,--where frightful murders and wholesale massacres are
    perpetrated in the very presence of Federal soldiers. This
    horrible business they require shall cease. They want a
    reconstruction such as will protect loyal men, black and white, in
    their persons and property; such a one as will cause Northern
    industry, Northern capital, and Northern civilization to flow into
    the South, and make a man from New England as much at home in
    Carolina as elsewhere in the Republic. No Chinese wall can now be
    tolerated. The South must be opened to the light of law and
    liberty, and this session of Congress is relied upon to accomplish
    this important work.

    The plain, common-sense way of doing this work, as intimated at
    the beginning, is simply to establish in the South one law, one
    government, one administration of justice, one condition to the
    exercise of the elective franchise, for men of all races and
    colors alike. This great measure is sought as earnestly by loyal
    white men as by loyal blacks, and is needed alike by both. Let
    sound political prescience but take the place of an unreasoning
    prejudice, and this will be done.

    Men denounce the negro for his prominence in this discussion; but
    it is no fault of his that in peace as in war, that in conquering
    Rebel armies as in reconstructing the rebellious States, the right
    of the negro is the true solution of our national troubles. The
    stern logic of events, which goes directly to the point,
    disdaining all concern for the color or features of men, has
    determined the interests of the country as identical with and
    inseparable from those of the negro.

    The policy that emancipated and armed the negro--now seen to have
    been wise and proper by the dullest--was not certainly more
    sternly demanded than is now the policy of enfranchisement. If
    with the negro was success in war, and without him failure, so in
    peace it will be found that the nation must fall or flourish with
    the negro.

    Fortunately, the Constitution of the United States knows no
    distinction between citizens on account of color. Neither does it
    know any difference between a citizen of a State and a citizen of
    the United States. Citizenship evidently includes all the rights
    of citizens, whether State or national. If the Constitution knows
    none, it is clearly no part of the duty of a Republican Congress
    now to institute one. The mistake of the last session was the
    attempt to do this very thing, by a renunciation of its power to
    secure political rights to any class of citizens, with the obvious
    purpose to allow the rebellious States to disfranchise, if they
    should see fit, their colored citizens. This unfortunate blunder
    must now be retrieved, and the emasculated citizenship given to
    the negro supplanted by that contemplated in the Constitution of
    the United States, which declares that the citizens of each State
    shall enjoy all the rights and immunities of citizens of the
    several States,--so that a legal voter in any State shall be a
    legal voter in all the States.
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