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Historical Context in Reconstruction

The End of the War and Reconstruction: As the Civil War stretched into 1864 and 1865, the Confederacy could no longer sufficiently fight the Union. Their armies and resources were dwindling, accelerated by the Union army’s trade blockades along the Southeastern seaboard. The consequences of the war were enormous. There were at least one million American casualties, more than all other American wars combined. The balance of economic power tilted dramatically northward for the next century. The task of rebuilding and reintegrating the South—known as “Reconstruction”—became the focus of the federal government in the following years. Complicating this task was the sudden assassination of President Abraham Lincoln just five days after the end of the war. In his place arrived former Vice President Andrew Johnson, a Southerner and former slave owner who felt that the South had never truly left the Union. Johnson swiftly and independently handpicked new Southern governors and allowed each state to develop its own new constitution. The rights and enfranchisement of African Americans, an issue important to Lincoln, was a distraction to Johnson. In an unprecedented move, Congress turned its back on Johnson, ignored the new governments of the South, and began to produce a series of legislations designed to grant African Americans more rights.

The Black Codes: “Black Codes” were laws which guided and limited the behavior of African Americans. There had been Black Codes in place long before the war, but the Southern states revamped them in the wake of the Emancipation Proclamation in an effort to control the new population of free African Americans. The codes limited the movements of African Americans, their ability to gather and meet, their ability to own property and land, and to buy and trade goods. When President Johnson allowed the Southern states to draft new constitutions, white Southerners created new Black Codes. These new codes addressed two developments many whites found problematic: the influx of itinerant former slaves and the sudden lack of labor. Their solution was to force African Americans to have a recognizable job at all times; those without work could be arrested and then put to work. In many cases, the US army aided in enforcing these laws, driven as they were by the federal government’s desire to rebuild the shattered Southern economy.

The Push for African-American Rights: Amid Johnson’s efforts to reinvigorate the South to the detriment of its former slaves, Congress pushed to improve the lives of African Americans. After Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, Congress advanced the tide of pro-African American legislation with the passing of the Freedmen’s Bureau Act, the Civil Rights Act of 1866, and the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution, all between 1865 and 1870. These laws assisted African Americans in a number of ways: offering basic support to former slaves, establishing full citizenship for African Americans, and granting them the right to vote. Frederick Douglass, who wrote “Reconstruction” in the midst of this legislative push, was a firm proponent for the advancement of African-American rights.

Historical Context Examples in Reconstruction:

Text of Douglass's Essay

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"disfranchise..."   (Text of Douglass's Essay)

To “disfranchise” is to “disenfranchise,” which means to deprive someone of the right to vote. The disenfranchisement of African Americans by Southerners was one of the most significant challenges to the advancement of civil rights in the wake of the war.

"If the Constitution knows none, it is clearly no part of the duty of a Republican Congress now to institute one...."   (Text of Douglass's Essay)

Here Douglass again tackles the issue of states’ rights. In trying to grant citizenship to former slaves in the wake of the Emancipation Proclamation, Congress encountered the problem of whether the definition of citizenship could alter from state to state. Douglass proposes that citizenship should not be thus alterable, that an American citizen in one state ought to be an American citizen in all states, maintaining all the rights and privileges of a citizen. The Fourteenth Amendment of 1868 clarified this point but did not eradicate resistance among the Southern states.

"Fortunately, the Constitution of the United States knows no distinction between citizens on account of color...."   (Text of Douglass's Essay)

Douglass is correct to indicate that in 1866 the Constitution did not delineate citizens according to race. Despite this fact, Congress was compelled to pass the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868, a measure which clarified the citizenship of all Americans, regardless of race.

"to establish in the South one law, one government, one administration of justice, one condition to the exercise of the elective franchise, for men of all races and colors alike...."   (Text of Douglass's Essay)

Douglass is calling for two developments here. First, he wants a centralized federal government guiding the South, rather than scattered, inconsistent state legislatures. Second, he wants enfranchisement for those of all races, including African Americans. While the changes he proposes would take many decades to come about, Congress soon passed the laws he calls for here in the form of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments.

"No Chinese wall can now be tolerated...."   (Text of Douglass's Essay)

In this metaphor, Douglass reveals his broader vision for the United States in the wake of the Civil War. The Great Wall of China stretches along the western Chinese border and was built and maintained over millennia to keep Mongolian tribes out. Douglass views a similar, though metaphorical, wall dividing the North and South of the United States, with the South—in the mode of medieval China—resisting the North’s laws and values. Thus, along with Reconstruction, Douglass is calling for “the light of law and liberty” to flow into the South. Ultimately, Douglass is calling for national unity.

"They want a reconstruction such as will protect loyal men, black and white, in their persons and property..."   (Text of Douglass's Essay)

According to the values of Northerners, progressive for their time, the ideal constituency would have been all male citizens, “black and white.” The cause of women’s suffrage had already begun, however, and would advance for the next half century, eventually culminating in the passing of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920. Frederick Douglass was an active figure in the women’s rights movement, which was centered in New England. In fact, there was a great deal of overlap between abolitionists and women’s rights activists.

"These pretended governments, which were never submitted to the people, and from participation in which four millions of the loyal people were excluded by Presidential order..."   (Text of Douglass's Essay)

Here Douglass refers to President Johnson’s initiation of the new “pretended” state governments without holding democratic elections. The Southern states held conventions to draft new constitutions and vote for new officials. African Americans—the “four millions” Douglass mentions—were excluded from these conventions, per Johnson’s orders. It was during these conventions, which largely consisted of ex-Confederate white men, that the brutal “Black Codes” were passed.

"agreeably to the formula, Once in grace always in grace..."   (Text of Douglass's Essay)

The phrase “Once in grace, always in grace” refers to the Christian notion of eternal security, which originated in the writings of St. Augustine in the 5th century. Eternal security suggests that those who are faithful to God will always remain so, despite any sinful acts along the way. Frederick Douglass offers this Augustinian formula as context for the status of the Southern states, who have sinned in their rebellion. Douglass nods to the ongoing debates over whether the South may redeem itself, though he does not throw his own voice in.

"The strange controversy between the President and Congress..."   (Text of Douglass's Essay)

The “strange controversy” Douglass refers to is the rift between President Johnson and Congress. Johnson first turned from Congress when enacting a series of Reconstruction measures. Congress reacted by rejecting the new batch of Southern congressmen and passing a series of civil rights-oriented laws without Johnson’s approval.

"A treacherous President stood in the way;..."   (Text of Douglass's Essay)

Douglass refers to President Andrew Johnson as “a treacherous President” for several reasons. Johnson undertook the process of Reconstruction by shutting out the opinions of Congress and effectively resurrecting the former governing bodies of the South. Johnson handpicked new governors for the Southern states and gave each state the opportunity to gather a whites-only convention and draft a new state constitution. These actions infuriated Congress and Douglass alike.

"If time was at first needed, Congress has now had time...."   (Text of Douglass's Essay)

Here Douglass appeals to Congress to push for responsible Reconstruction at a faster rate. Douglass takes a no-excuses approach, stating that Congress has had enough time to enact the proper changes. Douglass’s idea of enough time is one year, for this essay was published one year after the end of the war. Ultimately, it would take five years for Congress to pass the entire body of civil rights legislation Douglass calls for.

"a convicted usurper..."   (Text of Douglass's Essay)

Douglass refers to President Johnson as a “convicted usurper” because of Johnson’s actions immediately after the end of the Civil War. A “usurper” is someone who seizes power or authority without appropriate cause. While Johnson was Lincoln’s vice president, Douglass calls him a usurper because of Johnson’s immediate actions after Lincoln’s assassination, which he performed without consulting Congress. Douglass likely states that Johnson is “convicted” of these crimes because Congress took measures into their own hands to protect the freed African Americans by passing legislation and overriding Johnson’s veto for the Civil Rights Act of 1866.

"in favor of equal rights..."   (Text of Douglass's Essay)

In the pursuit of women’s rights, Douglass was a strong supporter. The first American women’s rights convention, known as the Seneca Falls Convention, was held in June of 1848. Douglass was the only African American present, and he eloquently argued for women’s suffrage, signing a key document in women’s suffrage—Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s Declaration of Sentiments.

"impartial suffrage..."   (Text of Douglass's Essay)

The noun “suffrage” has had varied meanings over time, but from the 18th century on, it has referred to exercising one’s right to vote. For Douglass, “impartial suffrage” is akin to full enfranchisement of all American citizens. Douglass was not only an advocate for African-American suffrage, he also was a vocal proponent of women’s suffrage in the 19th century, supporting the efforts of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and other women’s rights activists.

"Henry Clay..."   (Text of Douglass's Essay)

Henry Clay was a famous politician from Kentucky who served as a senator, representative, and secretary of state. Known for his remarkable ability to forge compromises between clashing interests, he was instrumental in limiting the spread of Southern slavery in the decade before the Civil War. Despite his Kentucky background, he brought to Washington a staunch anti-slavery stance.

"no republic is safe that tolerates a privileged class, or denies to any of its citizens equal rights and equal means to maintain them..."   (Text of Douglass's Essay)

In this passage, Douglass is presaging the Fourteenth Amendment, which would be passed two years later, in 1868. The Fourteenth Amendment, one of the most important pieces of legislation of the Reconstruction era, definitively granted full citizenship to all natural-born Americans, regardless of race or former enslavement. As with many of the changes Douglass calls for in this essay, the proper laws were passed swiftly but the deeper sources of racism continued to linger long after.

"and give to every loyal citizen the elective franchise..."   (Text of Douglass's Essay)

Douglass expresses his desire for the full enfranchisement of African Americans, a change that would come about four years later with the passing of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870. Douglass would go on to champion the cause of African-American suffrage for the rest of his life. Even after the passing of the Fifteenth Amendment, many white Southerners have endeavored, often effectively, to block African Americans from voting.

"elective franchise..."   (Text of Douglass's Essay)

The noun “franchise” means “freedom,” or access to privileges and rights granted by a governing body. When Douglass expresses a desire to “give to every loyal citizen the elective franchise,” he means the power to vote, as full enfranchisement—having the same rights as whites—was not yet a reality for African Americans during Reconstruction.

"This, of course, cannot be done, and ought not even if it could...."   (Text of Douglass's Essay)

Douglass takes a nuanced view of federal governance. He supports a centralized federal government and favors consistency across the nation. However, he knows that there is a limit to how much power a government ought to wield. The problem of protecting freedmen highlights the challenge of striking such a balance. To enforce new federal laws protecting freedmen, there would need to be a “Federal officer at every cross-road.” Such a solution is not only unrealistic but also suffocating to a democratic body—in Douglass’s words, it is “despotic.”

"Freedmen's Bureau Bill..."   (Text of Douglass's Essay)

Congress established the Bureau for the Relief of Freedmen and Refugees, known as the Freedmen’s Bureau Bill, shortly before the Civil War. Since Lincoln and others knew that the Emancipation Proclamation could only temporarily serve until a constitutional amendment was instituted, the bureau helped support the newly freed slaves by providing food, opportunities to lease land, and negotiating labor contracts.

"The Civil Rights Bill..."   (Text of Douglass's Essay)

Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866 in response to the Black Codes that the former Confederate States had established. These codes essentially recreated most aspects of slavery, implementing discriminatory laws to keep African Americans subjugated by barring them from owning land or meeting after dark. Police had the power to arrest unemployed African Americans and force them to work for the white men who bailed them out.

"And to-day it is so strong that it could exist, not only without law, but even against law...."   (Text of Douglass's Essay)

Douglass confronts the immense challenges of dismantling the tradition of Southern slavery. He understands that new laws alone cannot obliterate the underlying attitudes, prejudices, and values that accompany the institution of slavery. Douglass notes that, despite emancipation, slavery “could exist… even against law.” This is correct; indentured servitude continued in the South for decades after the Emancipation Proclamation, often backed up by insidious “Black Codes.”

"but it is far too short to protect the rights of individuals in the interior of distant States...."   (Text of Douglass's Essay)

Douglass takes a realistic stance here. Regarding the fates of the recently freed slaves in the South, referred to at the time as “freedmen,” Douglass claims that they must defend themselves. Despite the “long arm” of the federal government, the South remains a hostile territory for African Americans. Newly inked laws cannot quickly erase a deep tradition of racism.

"All that is necessary to be done is to make the government consistent with itself, and render the rights of the States compatible with the sacred rights of human nature...."   (Text of Douglass's Essay)

This paragraph displays Douglass’s distaste for states’ rights. In his view, the best government is a strong, centralized federal government. One of the primary sources of division between the North and the South—both before and after the war—was their differing visions of governance. The North favored a powerful federal government, the South strong state governments and minimal federal supervision. President Johnson’s first moves towards Reconstruction aligned with the Southern ideal. Douglass thinks this scattered, state-by-state model of government is a disaster, hampering attempts at nationwide progress.

"The Civil Rights Bill and the Freedmen's Bureau Bill and the proposed constitutional amendments..."   (Text of Douglass's Essay)

At the time of Frederick Douglass’s writing, Congress was in the middle of passing a series of laws intended to assist the African-American population, both in the North and the South. The Civil Rights Bill granted full citizenship to African Americans; the Freedmen’s Bureau Bill established organizations to assist former slaves in the South; the constitutional amendments—the Thirteenth and Fourteenth—abolished slavery and granted African Americans equal protection under the law. Douglass supports all of these measures but emphasizes that laws alone are not enough to bring proper change to the South, still under the spell of centuries of deeply-ingrained racism.

"THE assembling of the Second Session of the Thirty-ninth Congress..."   (Text of Douglass's Essay)

The 39th Congress met from March 4, 1865, to March 4, 1867. By December of 1866, Congress had enacted the Freedmen’s Bureau Bill and the Civil Rights Act of 1866 in response to President Johnson’s personal Reconstruction policy. He calls the topic of Reconstruction “much-worn” due to the constant debate, opposing policies, and general anxiety around reintegrating the rebel states into the Union. Because of this, he uses the gathering of the second session of Congress as an occasion to call for specific action on Reconstruction, which he outlines shortly.

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