“No political skirmishing will avail. The occasion demands statesmanship.”
So goes the beginning of Frederick Douglass’s essay “Reconstruction,” featured in The Atlantic Monthly in 1866. While such a statement is timeless in its application, let’s back up to look at its historical context before diving deeper.
The period known as Reconstruction spanned the twelve years following the end of the American Civil War. During that time, the federal government’s primary focus was not only how to reunify the country but also how to provide essential civil rights and protections for the emancipated slaves. However, many of these efforts were met with opposition from former Confederates as well as those with Southern sympathies — President Andrew Johnson being one of the major obstacles to the Republican Congress’s progressive legislation — who sought to resuscitate the South and restore it to its former power.
Douglass’s statement that “the occasion demands statesmanship” means that thus far, Reconstruction had not been handled appropriately by those in authority. This claim sets the foundation for his essay by providing the necessary context, identifying the main problem, and offering a proposal for action.
Let’s keep this claim in mind as we explore several other timeless quotes from Douglass’s essay and consider their relevance to our lives today.
“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.”
Bemoaning the nature of politics and bureaucracy as corrupt, conflated, and obtuse has become almost instinctive for many Americans today. Douglass nods to the problems that come with government — which, let’s be honest, are similar to much of the private industry as well — but he makes the point that this does not matter. Sure, we can wish for the character of the government to change, but when there are more pressing concerns, this aim “is neither possible nor desirable.” Douglass advocates for real, progressive, immediate change to help the citizenry; he doesn’t seek to change the nature of politics.
Regardless, this political skirmishing frustrated Douglass, and we can sympathize. He had a well-founded distaste for states’ rights because of their lack of consistency in approach to and application of civil rights. For him, changing the nature of government is not the issue; instead, creating and maintaining consistency in public policy is of vital importance. The desire “to make the government consistent with itself, and render the rights of the States compatible with the sacred rights of human nature” is not only understandable, but also it’s essential to guaranteeing basic freedoms.
While the federal government sought to provide assistance to the newly freed slaves after the Civil War with the establishment of the Freedmen’s Bureau in 1865, in the same year many former Confederate states were actively taking steps to limit the freedoms of African Americans. Beginning in Mississippi, state legislatures across the South passed insidious “Black Codes” while in Tennessee, six former Confederate officers gathered for the first meetings of the Ku Klux Klan. Seeing that the legislative goals of these former Confederate states essentially returned African Americans to slavery in all but name, Congress pushed back by passing the Civil Rights Act of 1866 — over the veto of President Andrew Johnson, who claimed that it violated states’ rights to discriminate as they wish. (No, I am not making this up.)
The Union victory in the Civil War was a victory for Lincoln and the Republicans, who strongly advocated for a strong, centralized federal government. Douglass agreed with this approach, because he had seen that the scattered, state-by-state model of government hampers attempts at nationwide progress.
President Johnson thought that the Civil Rights Act of 1866 was an instance of government overreach, believing the states could implement civil rights policies as they saw fit. However, the reality of the situation was that they did not want to integrate such policies. To combat this, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act; the First, Second, and Third Reconstruction Acts; and the Fourteenth Amendment — all of them over Johnson’s vetoes and opposition. The Republicans had the advantage of holding a strong majority of Congressional seats throughout the Civil War and Reconstruction periods.
“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.”
Much of the rhetoric in Douglass’s essay condemns the actions of “monarchical and despotic governments” for a specific purpose: such governments abuse the rights of their citizenry. When Douglass says “republic,” he is referring to a democratic form of government, one founded by the people and for the people. Should a republic deny any citizen equal rights, the foundation of that republic is at risk.
Douglass’s concerns here arise from the federal government’s inaction on ensuring that these equal rights will be maintained. At the end of 1866, when this essay was published, the Fourteenth Amendment had passed in Congress but would not be ratified by the states until 1868. This amendment, one of the most important pieces of legislation of the Reconstruction era, definitively granted full citizenship to all natural-born Americans, regardless of race or former enslavement. President Johnson knew that Congress would override his veto of the amendment, and so instead he went to the states to advocate against it. In 1867, Congress passed three Reconstruction acts, all over Johnson’s vetoes, and a fourth in early 1868 to strongarm the states into ratifying the Fourteenth Amendment.
In a perfect democracy, providing rights for citizens would be simple. However, the difficulties Congress faced in enacting progressive laws — opposition from Johnson, the conservative Democrats, and the former Confederate states — show the grim reality Douglass describes. The deeper sources of racism and oppression continued to linger long after the end of slavery.
It’s clear to many that denying equal rights and “equal means to maintain them” is harmful to a republic. Douglass astutely notes that obstacles to equality come from “tolerat[ing] a privileged class.” The key word here is “tolerate.” Many Americans in the 19th century disagreed with the institution of slavery yet failed to take action against it. For example, in his 1852 speech “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?,” Douglass condemns the implicit support the Christian Church had for slavery and the hypocrisy found among its believers, who in effect tolerated the slaveholding class despite their personal judgments.
“Fortunately, the Constitution of the United States knows no distinction between citizens on account of color.”
Abolitionists, feminists, progressives, and civil rights advocates have long made the same observation as Douglass makes here. The Constitution does not discriminate citizens according to their race (although it took the Nineteenth Amendment to grant suffrage to women). However, the unfortunate reality is that many politicians, like President Johnson and other Southern sympathizers, did discriminate citizens based on race and would prefer to distribute rights accordingly.
Douglass continues to say that the Constitution also does not “know any difference between a citizen of a state and a citizen of the United States.” Douglass uses this fact to his advantage in the conclusion of “Reconstruction.” The political skirmishing of 1865 and 1866 had led to discussions of the differences in rights between state citizenship and United States citizenship, a concept addressed by President Johnson in his veto of the Civil Rights Act of 1866.
Douglass’s conclusion ties in many of the points that he made throughout the essay. Since the Constitution knows no distinctions between race or citizenship, the states have no authority to violate the rights of any citizen based on either. States cannot institute discriminatory policies of their own, for that would both violate the Constitution and create political inconsistencies across the nation. If the states were to do such things, their actions would create privileged classes in different parts of the country, which if federally tolerated, would threaten the very foundations of the democratic republic.
What does this all mean for us today?
Having read this essay several times, the best advice I can give you is to do the same. Douglass was a powerful orator and a skilled rhetorician. (You may as well read anything he wrote; I promise you won’t be disappointed.)
I would like to leave you with a few takeaways from my re-reading of Frederick Douglass’s “Reconstruction” in 2018:
- We ought not to trust the better angels of our nature; we ought to follow Douglass’s lead and advocate for civil liberties to be consistently implemented at a federal level. This not only protects against discrimination, but also expands personal liberties for everyone.
- We ought to challenge the toleration of privileged classes. This begins with looking to ourselves first and recognizing what privileges we may have. From there, we can practice empathy, read narratives from other viewpoints, and expand our views.
- Finally, we ought to hold our policymakers accountable to the Constitution itself. It does not discriminate among its citizens on race, sex, or anything else — neither should we discriminate and neither should we support legislation that repeals or prohibits “the sacred rights of human nature.”
This, of course, is just one white man’s reading. I welcome any comments, criticism, or questions you may have.