J.R. Johnson

A Great Figure in American History

(December 1944)

From Labor Action, Vol. 8 No. 49, 4 December 1944, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for MIA.

I wish to begin this column with a tribute to a man to whom I shall often refer. His name is Frederick Douglass. He is known as a great fighter on behalf of the abolition of slavery, as a great orator, great propagandist, etc. I want here to emphasize his career as a political strategist.

The leaders of the Abolitionists were, of course, William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips. It is not often remembered that for some twenty years before 1861 their policy for the abolition of slavery was that the South should secede. Day in and day out they preached that doctrine, and, when, after Lincoln’s election, the Southern states began to secede one by one, the Garrisonians rejoiced. It was only when the Civil War began that they changed their line and supported Lincoln.

Secession and No Politics

Their basic theoretical argument was that the Constitution was a pro-slavery document. As far as I understand their practical argument, they believed that a seceded South would not be able to hold the Negroes as slaves for any length of time.

They staunchly upheld another important doctrine of their creed. They were non-political. They held politics to be corrupt. Participation in politics meant inevitably the manipulation of the abolition crusade for base ends of wealth and political gain. Therefore they and their followers abstained from joining such parties as the Liberty Party andthe Free Soil Party, which sought to abolish slavery by political action. Not only that. They abstained, and taught their followers to abstain, from voting.

Douglass and Garrison

Frederick Douglass was in his early years a follower of Garrison. The Garrisonians educated him, gave him opportunities which made him famous sent him abroad. He was one of their paid lecturers. Like so many other escaped slaves, Douglass for years preached the Garrisonian doctrine – secession by the South, non-participation in politics. But after a few years Douglass broke with Garrison and evolved his own policy.

He claimed that the aim of the Abolitionists should be to form a government which would abolish slavery in the United States – in all of them. He opposed secession, he advocated political action, he joined the Free Soil Party and later worked heart and soul for the victory of Lincoln and the Republican Party.

The Garrisonian slogan was “No union with slave-holders.” Of this Douglass wrote:

“... Its logical result is but negatively anti-slavery. [The] doctrine of ‘No union with slave-holders,’ carried out, dissolves the union and leaves the slaves and their masters to fight their own battles, in their own way. This I hold to be an abandonment of the great idea with which [Garrison’s] society started. It started to free the slave. It ends by leaving the slave to free himself.”

Douglass was bitterly attacked by his former friends. He went his own way. He continued to be an abolitionist in the old sense, carried on agitation as vigorously as before, took part in the Underground Railroad and refused to go with John Brown on the Harper’s Ferry raid only because he was sure it would fail. For the same reason he tried to dissuade Brown from going. In principle he had no objection to the raid.

But at the same time Douglass worked in the very closest relation with Senator Sumner, ex-Governor Seward, who became Lincoln’s Secretary of State, Gerritt Smith and other political leaders of the anti-slavery fight. He joined with the Free Soil Party, then was active in a party called the Radical Abolitionists, and finally threw all his powers into the struggle for the victory of the Republican Party.

Without exaggeration, he can be called one of the founders of that party. Certainly some of the men who actually founded it and led it to victory learned much of what they knew about the slavery question and the abolition movement from Douglass.

For the Whig Party and the Democratic Party, the two great parties of those days, Douglass had nothing but the most utter contempt. He attacked them and all their works without mercy and without fear. It is obvious that the career of this remarkable politician can teach us many lessons today.

Last updated on 17 February 2016