Frederick Douglass -- Used Politically
The two years leading to the Presidential election of 1876 were depressing years for Frederick Douglass. His sorry participation in the demise of the Freedman’s Bank weighed upon him. President Grant did not reward him with a government job. His newspaper, which he had at first undertaken with partners, had been insolvent, and he stopped its publication. Two white abolitionists from the old days died. Charles Sumner, long time senator from
, had been, next to Abraham
Lincoln, most esteemed in the hearts of Negroes. Douglass respected him immensely. Soon afterwards the Vice President, Henry
Wilson, died. As a senator from
Massachusetts Wilson had urged Massachusetts
to proclaim emancipation and had introduced many anti-slavery measures in the
Senate. And now the evil forces of
racism had gathered strength in the South and seemed to be winning again,
despite the legal rights afforded to his race by the Thirteenth, Fourteenth,
and Fifteenth Amendments. Lincoln
The Ku Klux Klan had begun its guerilla warfare against the black man. Douglass, lecturing in
Philadelphia, spoke of Lucy Haydon, in , who was “called from an
inner-room at midnight and shot down because she teaches colored children to
read.” In Tennessee Louisiana
“the black man scarcely dares to deposit the votes which you gave him for fear
of his life” (Bontemps 267). And for a
time, the newly elected black senator from Alabama Louisiana,
P. B. S. Pinchback, dined with Douglass in while the Senate’s Committee on
Privileges and Elections decided whether or not they would recommend his
acceptance as a member of the Senate.
Democrat opponents had charged corruption in his election. The Senate eventually denied him his office,
by a 32 to 29 vote. Several Republican
senators sided with the opposition party.
It was an ominous sign that the party that had been the protector of the
Negro had tired of the task. Douglass
did not know yet, although he was cognizant of the symptoms, that the Election
of 1876 would signal white political abandonment of his race. Washington
Douglass’s family life added to his depression. Ottila Assing’s continued presence at his home in
Washington had, as Julia Griffith’s
years before in ,
stirred Anna Douglass’s jealous emotions. Rochester
… In her letter to her sister, Assing reported that Douglass was adding a wing to the
A Street house and
wanted her to move in permanently: “You can imagine how happy that would make
me, but I must consider if it is advisable to be in the constant companionship
of his amiable wife. Until now I have
managed through diplomacy and the giving of many gifts to maintain the best of
relationships with her, but one can never know what can come into the head of such
an unknowledgeable and illiterate creature.
What should one say, for instance, if one were charged with having
bewitched a person?”
Assing was implying that Anna Douglass, lashing out at the bewitcher, had reached back to savage African superstitions in her fight to hold her man … who had led her into a world she could compete in only with her own primal tenacity.
… Assing commented sarcastically, “He would be doing all right if he did not have his dear family worrying him to death and consuming everything he manages to earn.” Her nasty charge had some justification. Charles, Frederick Jr., and Rosetta were constantly asking their father for financial help. He had pressed them to live according to a standard of dignity that was hard to maintain for a clerk in government office, a printer who had a sure job only as long as his father’s newspaper employed him, and a son-in-law (for whom Douglass showed true affection and understanding) who had trouble holding any kind of job (McFeely 288).
Ottilla Assing, in April 1876, wrote to her sister that Douglass would not accompany her to Europe that summer as she had wished, “for he is completely taken up in the service of the Republican party during the campaign” (McFeely 289).
For the first and only time in American history the outcome of a Presidential election was decided by a commission of political office holders, rather than the American people.
The winning candidate would have been the candidate that carried the states of
Louisiana, Florida, and , where the voting was very close, and very
irregular. Each of these states
submitted two different sets of returns.
One set had the Republican candidate winning the election, the other set
elected the Democrat candidate. An
electoral commission of congressmen, senators and Supreme Court justices was
appointed, seven Democrats and eight Republicans, to decide the matter. By a vote of eight to seven, the Republican
Rutherford B. Hayes was deemed President, but not without a singular
compromise. Federal troops were to be
withdrawn from South
Carolina South Carolina and (soon the
entire South). And white supremacists
had what they wanted, control of their own states, and their inhabitants. Louisiana
After the election Frederick Douglass finally received a governmental appointment. Assing wrote,
He had been named marshal of the District of Columbus. … He has served the Republican party for the past twenty years so well that such an acknowledgment could hardly have been put off any longer. Since he will now be in the immediate vicinity of the president, one might hope that he will win his way to a beneficent influence (McFeely pp. 289-290).
What she had not realized yet, what some in
had but not
Douglass, was that the appointment was a political scheme not to reward
Douglass personally for his past service but to appease Negroes generally for
the abandonment of their brethren in the South. Washington
Assing did not know what the duties of the marshal were. In the two previous administrations, the marshal attended formal receptions in the White House, stool beside the President, and presented each guest to him, by name. President Hayes selected a white man to perform these duties. Douglass was permitted instead to appoint bailiffs, messengers and jurors for the D. C. courts, and in doing so he strengthened the grasp of black civil servants on minor government positions. Nonetheless, in accepting the appointment, Frederick Douglass betrayed what he had fought for and stood for most of his life. Douglass permitted himself to be used politically to obscure the fact that Negroes were no longer permitted to be what Douglass had always insisted they had to be, undiscriminated upon American citizens.
His need to be rewarded obscured his vision. Perhaps he rationalized that he could do more for his race directly by appointing blacks to minor government positions than he could by speaking out against hypocrisy and injustice. Perhaps he still believed that the Republican ship, however misbegotten it had become, was still the only ship that could carry his people to their destination. In any event, he did not concur with friends who thought he should resign his office. In Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, his third autobiography, he wrote,
“I should have presented … a most foolish and ridiculous figure had I, as absurdly counseled by some of my colored friends, resigned the office … because President … Hayes, for reasons that must have been satisfactory to his judgment, preferred some person other than myself to attend upon him at the Executive Mansion.”
… On a personal level, Douglass was to find the mild Civil War general from
who consulted him on the reliability of black petitioners [for political
office], the most comfortable to deal with of the eight presidents he came to
know. And yet, one of his observant
friends detected “something in your way of speaking of Pres. Hayes which
suggests you do not feel quite at ease in regard to him.” Whether knowledge that he was part of a
cover-up of the administration’s anti-black policies caused Douglass
discomfort, he never said … (McFeely pp. 291-292; 292-293). Ohio
Bontemps, Arna, Free at Last, the Life of Frederick Douglass, New York, Dodd, Mead & Company, 1971. Print.
McFeely, William S. Frederick Douglass.
, W. W. Norton & Company, 1991. Print. New