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Frederick Douglass’s Vision for a Reborn America

Douglass, like many other former abolitionists, watched with high hopes as Radical Reconstruction gained traction in Washington, D.C., placing the ex–Confederate states under military rule and establishing civil and political rights for the formerly enslaved. The United States, he believed, had launched a new founding in the aftermath of the Civil War, and had begun to shape a new Constitution rooted in the three great amendments spawned by the war’s results. Practically overnight, Douglass even became a proponent of U.S. expansion to the Caribbean and elsewhere: Americans could now invent a nation whose egalitarian values were worth exporting to societies that were still either officially pro-slavery or riddled with inequality.

The aspiration that a postwar United States might slough off its own past identity as a pro-slavery nation and become the dream of millions who had been enslaved, as well as many of those who had freed them, was hardly a modest one. Underlying it was a hope that history itself had fundamentally shifted, aligning with a multiethnic, multiracial, multireligious country born of the war’s massive blood sacrifice. Somehow the tremendous resistance of the white South and former Confederates, which Douglass himself predicted would take ever more virulent forms, would be blunted. A vision of “composite” nationhood would prevail, separating Church and state, giving allegiance to a single new Constitution, federalizing the Bill of Rights, and spreading liberty more broadly than any civilization had ever attempted.

Was this a utopian vision, or was it grounded in a fledgling reality? That question, a version of which has never gone away, takes on an added dimension in the case of Douglass. One might well wonder how a man who, before and during the war, had delivered some of the most embittered attacks on American racism and hypocrisy ever heard could dare nurse the optimism evident from the very start of the speech. How could Douglass now believe that his reinvented country was, as he declared, “the most fortunate of nations” and “at the beginning of our ascent”?

few americans denounced the tyranny and tragedy at the heart of America’s institutions more fiercely than Douglass did in the first quarter century of his public life. In 1845, seven years after his escape to freedom, Douglass’s first autobiography was published to great acclaim, and he set off on an extraordinary 19-month trip to the British Isles, where he experienced a degree of equality unimaginable in America. Upon his return, in 1847, he let his profound ambivalence about the concepts of home and country be known. “I have no love for America, as such,” he announced in a speech he delivered that year. “I have no patriotism. I have no country.” Douglass let his righteous anger flow in metaphors of degradation, chains, and blood. “The institutions of this country do not know me, do not recognize me as a man,” he declared, “except as a piece of property.” All that attached him to his native land were his family and his deeply felt ties to the “three millions of my fellow-creatures, groaning beneath the iron rod … with … stripes upon their backs.” Such a country, Douglass said, he could not love. “I desire to see its overthrow as speedily as possible, and its Constitution shivered in a thousand fragments.”