Frederick Douglass and Reconstruction

Frederick Douglass’s political advocacy did not end with the ratification of the 13th Amendment. Just as he had pressured President Abraham Lincoln to make emancipation a priority of the campaign against secession, so too did he lobby Reconstruction politicians to create a safe and fair society for African Americans after the war. Douglass, however, often found these efforts were in vain.

Douglass’s frustration is evident in this letter—coming late in Reconstruction when many politicians were turning away from protecting Black civil rights. He is writing to former Louisiana Governor P. B. S. Pinchback to convince him not to support the so-called “Wheeler Compromise,” which would, in part, make concessions to Democrats who had prevented a Republican legislative majority through racial violence. The compromise nevertheless went into effect, signaling the coming end of Reconstruction in Louisiana.

Frederick Douglass to Pinchback regarding LA politics, Apr. 25, 1875 – SC417

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Letter Transcription

Frederick Douglass to Pinckney B. S. Pinchback, 25 April 1875

Washington D.C. April. 25. 1875

Senator Pinchback.

My dear Sir.

I am much obliged to you for your letter giving me your views of the present and future effects of the late so called compromise adopted to preserve the peace of your state.  To me it is not so much a measure of peace as a measure of mischief and bloodshed.  It was born of lawless murder on the one hand and of loyal cowardice on the other.  It is the harvest reaped by the red sword of the Rebel Penn.  He may well hail it as a victory for all the reactionary and rebellious elements of the country.  You need not be ashamed of any resistance that yourself and friend made to that compromise.  The sad thing about it was your inability to defeat it.  The compromise combination in New Orleans and the Republican defeat in Connecticut are both due to the same cause.  They are due to the old spirit of concession.  Courageous vice is more than a match for virtuous cowardice.  In deference to the mean spirit born of slavery—no colored man was invited to show his face at the Connecticut canvass—and in deference to the same mean spirit the colored majority in your state have been placed under the legislative heels of the disloyal whites—who have all the treason of the late rebellion in their hearts and would have it in their arms, if they had the power.  The compromise is part of that policy which was tried and failed fifteen years ago— which sought to conciliate wrong instead of stamping it out.  It belongs to that wisdom which refused to reenforce Sumpter, for fear of exasperating our southern brethren—when those same brethren had muskets in their hands and bullets in their pockets.  This cowardly policy did not avail then and it will not avail now.  It is the same influence that keeps you seat vacant in the Senate.  I do not despair however of the future. 

Do nothing rash: stand your ground—bide your time, you are postponed but not defeated.  December will soon be here—and a presidential election is only a little farther off.

You have shown the people of your State with what patience, steadiness, and fidelity you can serve them—that you have courage, fortitude and ability,-- that you are not turned aside from your course by discouragements of any kind.  You had better fall in that attitude, than succeed by in anywise compromising that enviable position.

Your friends in Louisiana cannot desert.  Though depressed, and to some extent, intimidated—they have votes and those votes will some day be needed.  You have earned the confidence of those voters—Hold it—and neither you nor they can be much longer ignored.

My kindest regard to Mrs Pinchback and the children.  I should like to see you all, and I cling to the faith that I shall see you snugly in your seat in the Senate.

Yours Truly

Fredk Douglass,

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