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by: Frederick Douglass
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

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

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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