Frederick Douglass and the Dawn of Reconstruction

Historians today debate precisely when Reconstruction began, yet in many ways that is a very old discussion. At the time, its goals and focus were disputed, and even what to call the federal policy for the collapsing Confederacy was contested, as conservative northern Democrats preferred the term “restoration,” suggesting that following emancipation, the white South might return with its racial order largely intact. Most modern histories of Reconstruction begin their narrative in Washington in December 1863 when President Abraham Lincoln announced his famous Ten Percent Plan, reserving most of the authority to restore the former Confederacy in the executive branch. Republicans in Congress pushed back with the Wade-Davis Bill, which Lincoln eventually pocket-vetoed.[1]

Frederick Douglass also believed that Reconstruction began in 1863, but in January rather than in December, and not due to any legislation on Capitol Hill. That month, after the final Emancipation Proclamation was issued, the War Department at long last permitted states to recruit black soldiers. The first governor to take up the challenge was John Andrew of Massachusetts. Because the state was home to so few black men of the right age and physique, and because conservative Democratic governors across the North, such as New York’s Horatio Seymour, resisted the initiative, Andrew was both forced but also able to recruit outside of his state. In the end, the second largest contingent of men in the pioneering Fifty-fourth Infantry Regiment hailed from Douglass’s adopted home, New York State. The very first recruit to enlist from New York was nineteen-year-old Charles Douglass, with his older brother Lewis signing on just days later.[2]

Many northern African Americans were reluctant to follow the lead of Douglass’s sons, however. New York State imposed a property qualification on black voters that it did not on whites, and in 1860 not a single black man could vote in Lincoln’s Illinois or Thaddeus Stevens’s Pennsylvania. To win over doubters, Andrew turned to Frederick Douglass. For much of 1863, Douglass traveled the length of the Erie Canal, delivering his famous “Men of Color to Arms” speech. “To fight for the Government in this tremendous war,” Douglass assured one audience, was “to fight for nationality and for a place with all other classes of our fellow-citizens.”[3] The apocalyptic war was sure to be followed by a countrywide reassessment, a new political order. Once a black man got “an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder,” Douglass reasoned, there was “no power on the earth” that could “deny that he has earned the right of citizenship in the United States.”[4] Supreme Court decisions might be overturned by future amendments, especially once black troops’ service forced whites to acknowledge the African American contribution to the saga of American democracy. “Remember Denmark Vesey, of Charleston,” Douglass exhorted. “Remember Nathaniel Turner, of Southampton!”[5]

Engraved portrait of African American members of Reconstruction Congresses [Joseph H. Rainey of South Carolina; James T. Rapier of Alabama; and Hiram R. Revels, Blanche K. Bruce, and John R. Lynch of Mississippi], New York, ca. early 1880s (The Gilder Lehrman Institute, GLC09746)For Douglass, who had high ambitions for his sons, citizenship was only the first step. Just months earlier, thoughts of black veterans serving in the nation’s counsels would have struck even the most optimistic reformer as absurd, but with black soldiers helping to turn the tide of war, could political or judicial service be far behind? If even the most progressive Republicans regarded Reconstruction as a policy for the Confederacy only, black activists knew better. “You and I know that the mission of this war is National regeneration,” Douglass reminded an audience at New York City’s Cooper Union. Douglass envisioned the “black man a soldier in war; a laborer in peace; a voter at the South as well as at the North.”[6] Within a year of the formation of the Fifty-fourth, talented and ambitious black northerners were demonstrating leadership capacity, inspiring others with their courage, leading troops in battle after the death of white officers, and learning to inspire fellow soldiers with their words and deeds. If anything, Douglass underestimated the value of African American service under arms. No fewer than forty-one black delegates to the postwar southern conventions that would draft new state constitutions were veterans. Sixty-four future state legislators had once donned Union blue, as had three lieutenant governors. Military service would open doors for four congressmen, one of whom, army chaplain Hiram Revels, went on to the Senate.[7]

Those successes lay in the future. To ensure that black military service would in fact transform the entire nation, African American activists sought to revive the tradition of black antislavery conferences, a movement that had largely ceased after the 1857 Dred Scott decision. Fall 1864 witnessed the rebirth of the campaign in what was to be the first of dozens of black conventions that would stretch into 1867. On October 4, 1864, 150 delegates representing Washington DC and seventeen states gathered in the Wesleyan Methodist Church in Syracuse for a four-day meeting, “the most truly national black convention” held to that date.[8] John Cook gaveled the assembly to order at ten o’clock. Many of those who attended—Douglass, Henry Highland Garnet, William Wells Brown, and future congressman John Mercer Langston—were veterans of the antebellum convention movement. Some were local activists, such as future congressman the Reverend Richard Cain and Philadelphia educator Octavius Catto, both of them new to the national crusade.[9] The delegates selected Douglass as the convention’s president, and taking the podium, he promised to fight for the “freedom, progress, elevation, and perfect enfranchisement of the entire colored people.”[10] To better implement this national strategy, the convention announced the formation of the National Equal Rights League, a permanent civil rights organization designed to establish and oversee local branches across the North and in those parts of the South already under federal arms. Langston agreed to serve as its head.

Five months later in March, Douglass and the Reverend Jermain Loguen, the Tennessee runaway turned Syracuse minister who daughter Emilia was engaged to Lewis Douglass, kept the momentum going when abolitionists gathered in Albany for the annual meeting of the State Equal Rights League. After Douglass delivered a passionate account of the October meeting, William Johnson proposed that his group’s original charter be revised so that it “was more in harmony with the spirit of the National Equal Rights League.” The members voted their approval, and with that, the first local affiliate of the organization was born. Their task, they knew, would be to prod white Republicans into embracing a truly progressive political agenda.[11]

Douglass was lecturing in Troy, New York, when word reached him that on February 3, 1865, the Lincoln administration and the Republican House leadership had mustered the requisite two-thirds vote for the Thirteenth Amendment. Former corporal Charles Douglass was in the chamber that afternoon. “I wish you could have been here the day that the constitutional amendment was passed forever abolishing slavery in the United States,” Charles wrote his father. “Such rejoicing I never before witnessed, cannons firing, people hugging and shaking hands, white people I mean, flags flying all over the city.”[12]

For William Lloyd Garrison and a good number of white abolitionists, their struggle concluded with the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in December 1865. With his own hands, Garrison printed the final edition of the Liberator, announcing the death of slavery in North America. And then he was done. As ever, Douglass understood that the fight had just begun. He knew that the antithesis of slavery was not freedom, but equality. Douglass, of course, would play no role in crafting the Fourteenth or Fifteenth Amendments, but his wartime activities were just the beginning of a long crusade—and one that did not cease in 1877—for decent schools, integrated streetcars, and voting rights from Maine to California, and from New York to Mississippi. Too many historians, even now, regard Reconstruction as a political spat among Washington-based white politicians, a fight over presidential power versus Congressional authority. For young educator Octavius Catto, who had journeyed to Syracuse for the 1864 convention only to be assassinated in the streets of Philadelphia in October 1871 by a white vigilante, it was a movement that long preceded Lincoln’s Ten Percent Plan. And it is one not finished today.[13]


[1] As its subtitle indicates, Eric Foner’s magisterial Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution: 1863−1877 (New York: HarperCollins, 1988), begins with the Fall 1863 fight over federal control over the policy, as does Michael Perman’s Emancipation and Reconstruction (Arlington Heights, Ill.: Harlan Davidson, 1987). More recently, Richard White’s The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865−1896 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), begins with the war’s end, while W. E. B. Du Bois’s classic, Black Reconstruction in America, 1860−1880 (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1935), suggested Reconstruction implicitly began at the moment of secession.

[2] For a history of the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Infantry, and the Douglass brothers’ role in the regiment, see my Thunder at the Gates: The Black Civil War Regiments That Redeemed America (New York: Basic Books, 2016).

[3] Frederick Douglass, “Another Word to Colored Men,” Douglass' Monthly, April 1863.

[4] Frederick Douglass, “Address for the Promotion of Colored Enlistments,” speech delivered in Philadelphia, July 6, 1863, in The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, ed. Philip Foner (New York: International Publishers, 1952), 3:365.

[5] Frederick Douglass, “Men of Color to Arms,” March 21, 1863, in The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, ed. Philip Foner (New York: International Publishers, 1952), 3: 318−319.

[6] Frederick Douglass, “The Mission of the War,” speech sponsored by the Women’s Loyal League and delivered at the Cooper Institute, New York City, January 13, 1864, in The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, ed. Philip Foner (New York: International Publishers, 1952), 3:395−403.

[7] William McFeely, Frederick Douglass (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1991), 231; Joseph Glatthaar, Forged in Battle: The Civil War Alliance of Black Soldiers and White Officers (New York: The Free Press, 1990), 248−249; Richard Bailey, Neither Carpetbaggers Nor Scalawags: Black Officeholders during the Reconstruction of Alabama, 1867−1878 (Montgomery, Ala: R. Bailey Publishers, 1991), 109; Eric Foner, Reconstruction, 9; Eric Foner, Freedom’s Lawmakers: A Directory of Black Lawmakers during Reconstruction (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1996), 154.

[8] William Cheek and Aimee Lee Cheek, John Mercer Langston and the Fight for Black Freedom, 1829−65 (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1989; repr. 1996), 425.

[9] Hugh Davis, “We Will Be Satisfied with Nothing Less”: The African American Struggle for Equal Rights in the North during Reconstruction (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2011), 17−22.

[10] Frederick Douglass, in Proceedings of the National Convention of Colored Men, Held in the City of Syracuse, N.Y. (Boston: J. S. Rock and Geo. L. Ruffin, 1864), 9.

[11] New Orleans Tribune, May 12, 1866.

[12] Charles R. Douglass to Frederick Douglass, February 9, 1865, Douglass Papers, Library of Congress, ser. 1, vol. 3, printed in David W. Blight, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018), 454.

[13] On the brief reform career and assassination of Octavius Catto, see my The Wars of Reconstruction: The Brief, Violent History of America’s Most Progressive Era (New York, 2014), 168−172.


Douglas Egerton has taught history at Le Moyne College since 1987. He has also held visiting appointments at Colgate University, Cornell University, and the University College of Dublin. He is the author of eight books, including the Lincoln Prize winner Thunder at the Gates: The Black Civil War Regiments That Redeemed America (Basic Books, 2016), Heirs of an Honored Name: The Decline of the Adams Family and the Rise of Modern America (Basic Books, 2019), The Wars of Reconstruction: The Brief, Violent History of America’s Most Progressive Era (Bloomsbury Press, 2014), and He Shall Go Out Free: The Lives of Denmark Vesey (Madison House, 1999). He lives near Syracuse, New York, with his wife, the historian Leigh Fought.