With the fall of slavery and the emancipation of the colored race the heroic epoch of Douglass's career may be said to have closed. The text upon which he so long had preached had been expunged from the national bible; and he had been a one-text preacher, a one-theme orator. He felt the natural reaction which comes with relief from high mental or physical tension, and wondered, somewhat sadly, what he should do with himself, and how he should earn a living. The same considerations, in varying measure, applied to others of the anti-slavery reformers. Some, unable to escape the reforming habit, turned their attention to different social evils, real or imaginary. Others, sufficiently supplied with this worlds goods for their moderate wants, withdrew from public life. Douglass was thinking of buying a farm and retiring to rural solitudes, when a new career opened up for him in the lyceum lecture field. The North was favorably disposed toward colored men. They had acquitted themselves well during the war, and had shown becoming gratitude to their deliverers. The once despised abolitionists were now popular heroes. Douglass's checkered past seemed all the more romantic in the light of the brighter present, like a novel with a pleasant ending; and those who had hung thrillingly upon his words when he denounced slavery now listened with interest to what he had to say upon other topics. He spoke sometimes on Woman Suffrage, of which he was always a consistent advocate. His most popular lecture was one on "Self-made Men." Another on "Ethnology," in which he sought a scientific basis for his claim for the negro's equality with the white man, was not so popular--with white people. The wave of enthusiasm which had swept the enfranchised slaves into what seemed at that time the safe harbor of constitutional right was not, after all, based on abstract doctrines of equality of intellect, but on an inspiring sense of justice (long dormant under the influence of slavery, but thoroughly awakened under the moral stress of the war), which conceded to every man the right of a voice in his own government and the right to an equal opportunity in life to develop such powers as he possessed, however great or small these might be.
But Douglass's work in direct behalf of his race was not yet entirely done. In fact, he realized very distinctly the vast amount of work that would be necessary to lift his people up to the level of their enlarged opportunities; and, as may be gathered from some of his published utterances, he foresaw that the process would be a long one, and that their friends might weary sometimes of waiting, and that there would be reactions toward slavery which would rob emancipation of much of its value. It was the very imminence of such backward steps, in the shape of various restrictive and oppressive laws promptly enacted by the old slave States under President Johnson's administration, that led Douglass to urge the enfranchisement of the freedmen. He maintained that in a free country there could be no safe or logical middle ground between the status of freeman and that of serf. There has been much criticism because the negro, it is said, acquired the ballot prematurely. There seemed imperative reasons, besides that of political expediency, for putting the ballot in his hands. Recent events have demonstrated that this necessity is as great now as then. The assumption that negroes--under which generalization are included all men of color, regardless of that sympathy to which kinship at least should entitle many of them--are unfit to have a voice in government is met by the words of Lincoln, which have all the weight of a political axiom: "No man can be safely trusted to govern other men without their consent." The contention that a class who constitute half the population of a State shall be entirely unrepresented in its councils, because, forsooth, their will there expressed may affect the government of another class of the same general population, is as repugnant to justice and human rights as was the institution of slavery itself. Such a condition of affairs has not the melodramatic and soul-stirring incidents of chattel slavery, but its effects can be as far-reaching and as debasing. There has been some manifestation of its possible consequences in the recent outbreaks of lynching and other race oppression in the South. The practical disfranchisement of the colored people in several States, and the apparent acquiescence by the Supreme Court in the attempted annulment, by restrictive and oppressive laws, of the war amendments to the Constitution, have brought a foretaste of what might be expected should the spirit of the Dred Scott decision become again the paramount law of the land.
On February 7, 1866, Douglass acted as chief spokesman of a committee of leading colored men of the country, who called upon President Johnson to urge the importance of enfranchisement. Mr. Johnson, true to his Southern instincts, was coldly hostile to the proposition, recounted all the arguments against it, and refused the committee an opportunity to reply. The matter was not left with Mr. Johnson, however; and the committee turned its attention to the leading Republican statesmen, in whom they found more impressionable material. Under the leadership of Senators Sumner, Wilson, Wade, and others, the matter was fully argued in Congress, the Democratic party being in opposition, as always in national politics, to any measure enlarging the rights or liberties of the colored race.
In September, 1866, Douglass was elected a delegate from Rochester to the National Loyalists' Convention at Philadelphia, called to consider the momentous questions of government growing out of the war. While he had often attended anti-slavery conventions as the representative of a small class of abolitionists, his election to represent a large city in a national convention was so novel a departure from established usage as to provoke surprise and comment all over the country. On the way to Philadelphia he was waited upon by a committee of other delegates, who came to his seat on the train and urged upon him the impropriety of his taking a seat as a delegate. Douglass listened patiently, but declined to be moved by their arguments. He replied that he had been duly elected a delegate from Rochester, and he would represent that city in the convention. A procession of the members and friends of the convention was to take place on its opening day. Douglass was solemnly warned that, if he walked in the procession, he would probably be mobbed. But he had been mobbed before, more than once, and had lived through it; and he promptly presented himself at the place of assembly. His reception by his fellow-delegates was not cordial, and he seemed condemned to march alone in the procession, when Theodore Tilton, at that time editor of the _Independent_, paired off with him, and marched by his side through the streets of the Quaker City. The result was gratifying alike to Douglass and the friends of liberty and progress. He was cheered enthusiastically all along the line of march, and became as popular in the convention as he had hitherto been neglected.
A romantic incident of this march was a pleasant meeting, on the street, with a daughter of Mrs. Lucretia Auld, the mistress who had treated him kindly during his childhood on the Lloyd plantation. The Aulds had always taken an interest in Douglass's career,--he had, indeed, given the family a wide though not altogether enviable reputation in his books and lectures,--and this good lady had followed the procession for miles, that she might have the opportunity to speak to her grandfather's former slave and see him walk in the procession.
In the convention "the ever-ready and imperial Douglass," as Colonel Higginson describes him, spoke in behalf of his race. The convention, however, divided upon the question of negro suffrage, and adjourned without decisive action. But under President Grant's administration the Fourteenth Amendment was passed, and by the solemn sanction of the Constitution the ballot was conferred upon the black men upon the same terms as those upon which it was enjoyed by the whites.