Frederick Douglass Project Writings: The Work of the Future


Douglass' Monthly,November, 1862

Already it seems well to look forward to the future to which we are hastening. No nation was ever called to the contemplation of a destiny more important and solemn than ours. Great duties and responsibilities are devolved upon us. Liberty, order, and civilization are staked against a slaveholding despotism, and social anarchy. To-day we have to put down a stupendous rebellion. To-morrow we shall have to reconstruct the whole fabric of Southern society, and bring order out of anarchy. It is a tremendous undertaking. When the armies of the rebellion are entirely demoralized, broken and scattered beyond the possibility of organized opposition to the National Government, when the flag of the Union shall wave from the battlements of every fortress in the South, when slavery the grim and guilty motive for this horrid war shall have been abolished, when the poor whites of the South shall have been delivered from the rule and sway of the slaveholding class, when sullen, silent, and gloomy but subdued hate shall settle upon the Southern mind, then will come the time for the exercise of the highest of all human faculties. A profounder wisdom, a holier zeal, than belongs to the prosecution of war, will be required. Courage and patriotism are chiefly needed now, a holy philanthropy and a deep insight into human nature will be needed then. The sea of thought and feeling lashed into rage and fury by the war will remain to be calmed into the steady motions of peace and safety. The war will leave Southern Society like a ship driven by the storm, without rudder or compass. State and National constitutions, holding but feeble sway and exciting but feeble reverence. The people left to themselves, will each be disposed to do after his own mind, and the discomfited rebels may among themselves, fulfill the prediction of Mr. Stephens of Georgia, who said he expected yet to see the rebels cutting each other's throats. The structure of the American Constitution and Government imply the existence among the whole people of a fraternal good will, an earnest spirit of co-operation for the common good, a mutual dependence of all upon each and of each upon all. The Government is not enthroned above the people but is of, by and through the people. A despotic form of Government with its standing armies, holds its existence in large measure independently of the people and in some sort against the people, looking at them very much as a slave-holder regards his slaves, to be worked and fed when obedient, and to be flogged and otherwise punished when they disobey. When such people raise an insurrection and are put down, the path before them is plain and simple: It is submission. To obey is the fulfillment of the whole law of despotism.—But our form of Government contemplates in such a case something more than mere cold obedience. It not only requires this, but a cordial co-operation. Its whole machinery is deranged when one of its parts fail to perform its functions. The rebellion has paralyzed the Federal Government in all the rebel States, but putting down the rebels in arms does not necessarily cure this paralysis. The benumbed or dead state must be called into life, and for this the highest wisdom must be employed. The State Senate, the State Legislature, the State Courts, the State Governors, and officers generally have to be gathered in under the fold of the Constitution and Union, and brought to co-operate in good faith with the National Government. How all this shall be done, is one of the great questions of the future. Forseeing this state of things, Mr. Sumner of the Senate, with the comprehensible grasp of a true statesmanship, proposed that the States in rebellion shall be governed as Territories. Though denounced and repudiated at the time, this theory of conducting the rebel States back to their former position will in the end be adopted.

It would be absurd and ridiculous to expect that the conquered traitors will at once cordially cooperate with the Federal Government. They must be set aside for a new class of men, men who have hitherto exercised but little influence in the State. For this, we shall have to educate the people. The arduous task of the future will be to make the Southern people see and appreciate Republican Government, as a blessing of inestimable value, and to be maintained at any and every cost. They have got to be taught that slavery which they have valued as a blessing has ever been their direct calamity and curse.—The work before us is nothing less than a radical revolution in all the modes of thought which have flourished under the blighting slave system. The idea that labor is an evil, that work is degrading and that idleness is respectable, must be dispelled and the idea that work is honorable made to take its place.—Above all they must be taught that the liberty of a part is never to be secured by the enslavement or oppression of any. Neither the slave or the slaveholder can instantly throw off the sentiments inspired and ground into them by long years of tyranny on the one hand and of abject and cringing submission on the other. The master will carry into the new relation of liberty much of the insolence, caprice and pretention exercised by him while the admitted lord of the lash. The slave in his turn will be bound in the invisible chains of slavery long after his iron chains are broken and forever buried out of sight. There is no such thing as immediate Emancipation either for the master or for the slave. Time, experience and culture must gradually bring society back to the normal condition from which long years of slavery have carried all under its iron sway.

Then for the freed men: What shall be their status in the new condition of things? Shall they exchange the relation of slavery to individuals, only to become the slaves of the community at large, having no rights which anybody is required to respect, subject to a code of black laws, denying them school privileges, denying them the right of suffrage, denying them the right to sit as jurors, denying them the right to testify in courts of Law, denying them the right to keep and bear arms, denying them the right of speech, and the right of petition? Or shall they have secured to them equal rights before the law. Oh! that the heart of this unbelieving nation could be at once brought to a faith in the Eternal Laws of justice, justice for all men, justice now and always, justice without reservation or qualification except those suggested by mercy and love.

It is not likely however, that at the outset, the Southern people will consent to an absolutely just and humane policy towards the newly emancipated black people so long enslaved and degraded. One, therefore, of the labors and duties which will require the exertions of those who have heretofore remembered those in bonds as bound with them, will be to ameliorate the condition of the partially emancipated. The whole South, as it never was before the abolition of slavery will become missionary ground. The family relation which has had no real existence under the region of slavery, will remain to be established, schools for the education of dusky millions will be required, and all the elevating and civilizing institutions of the country must be extended to these people. Men full of faith in the race, and of the sacred fire of love, must walk among these slavery-smitten columns of humanity and lift their forms towards Heaven. Verily, the work does not end with the abolition of slavery but only begins. Slavery has been the great hindrance. It has stood athwart the pathway of knowledge and progress, dreading nothing so much as the enlightenment of its slaves. This old and grim obstacle removed, and jets of heavenly light will speedily illumine the land long covered with darkness, cruelty and crime.