Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Hoping Against Hope

This entry is from a letter written by Frederick Douglass to Rev. Samuel J. May on August 30, 1861.  An original image of this letter can be found at University of Rochester Frederick Douglass Project.

Frederick Douglass was a former slave who escaped to freedom some twenty years earlier and became a famous and tireless supporter for African American rights.  This letter is addressed to Samuel J. May, a well known radical reformer who championed  abolition and women's rights.  The letter starts by referencing a plan by somebody named Copeland.  Douglass didn't know Copeland, nor do I know to whom the letter is referring, but the topic gave Douglass a chance to air his feelings about the current climate of abolition in Washington in this powerful and prophetic letter.

I do not know Mr. Copeland, nor his plan, and I should like to know something of the latter before offering myself or procuring any other man to ask as his body servant.

It now seems to me that our Government has resolved that no good shall come to the negro from this war, and that it means by every means its power to convince the slaveholders that slavery is safer in than out of the union --  that the slave holding rebel is an object of higher regard than is his humble slave.  The hope that the war would finally become an abolition war has been dissipated  and men are now preparing for another attempt to preserve the liberty of the white man at the expense of that of the black.  I have tried to be hopeful and do still try to be so -- but I confess that it seems much like hoping against hope.  What I feared would result from sudden success has come  from defeat.  The Government defeated seems as little disposed to carry the war to the abolition point as before.  Who would have supposed that General Banks would have signalized the first week of his campaign on the Potomac by capturing all slaves and returning them to their masters?  He has done less to punish the rebels than to punish their victims. Only think too, of Fremont with Edward M. Davis for quartermaster, cooping up  two fugitive slaves in the arsenal of St Louis and when the poor fellows succeeded in getting away from these their federal and abolition friends, their loyal owners were assured that they might expect to be duly paid for their runaway chattels with your money and mine.  Looking at the government in the light of these and of similar examples, and the fact that the government consents only that negroes shall smell powder in the character of cooks and body servants in the army, my antislavery confidence is blown to the winds.  I wait and work -- relying more upon the  stern logic of events than upon any disposition of the Federal army towards slavery.

When I join any movement such as I suppose contemplated, I must have a country or the hope of a country under me, a government around me and some flag of a Northern or Southern Nation floating over me.  The negro can do much, but he can not hope to whip two nations at once.  Not even the allowance that the Government at Washington would wink at a John Brown movement could induce me to join it.  Nothing short of an open recognition of the negro's manhood, his rights as such to have a country, to bear arms, and to defend that country equally with others would induce me to join the army in any capacity.  I am sick of seeing mere isolated, extemporaneous insurrections the only result of which is the shooting and hanging of the few brave men who take part in them -- and not being willing to take the chances of such insurrection myself I could not advise any one else to take part in them.  Whenever the government is ready to make the war, a war for freedom and progress and will receive the services of black men on the same terms upon which it received that of other men I pledge myself to do one man's work in supplying the Government .  I honor Mr. Copeland for his supposed good intentions, but he will not succeed in getting the government to do justice by persuasion.  Nothing short of dire necessity will bring it to act wisely.
Frederick Douglass Ambrotype, 1856 from National Portrait Gallery,
Smithsonian Institution, as found at Wikimedia Commons

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