Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

An Appeal To Congress For Impartial Suffrage

A very limited statement of the argument for impartial suffrage,
and for including the negro in the body politic, would require
more space than can be reasonably asked here. It is supported by
reasons as broad as the nature of man, and as numerous as the
wants of society. Man is the only government-making animal in the
world. His right to a participation in the production and
operation of government is an inference from his nature, as direct
and self-evident as is his right to acquire property or education.
It is no less a crime against the manhood of a man, to declare
that he shall not share in the making and directing of the
government under which he lives, than to say that he shall not
acquire property and education. The fundamental and unanswerable
argument in favor of the enfranchisement of the negro is found in
the undisputed fact of his manhood. He is a man, and by every
fact and argument by which any man can sustain his right to vote,
the negro can sustain his right equally. It is plain that, if the
right belongs to any, it belongs to all. The doctrine that some
men have no rights that others are bound to respect, is a doctrine
which we must banish as we have banished slavery, from which it
emanated. If black men have no rights in the eyes of white men,
of course the whites can have none in the eyes of the blacks. The
result is a war of races, and the annihilation of all proper human
relations.

But suffrage for the negro, while easily sustained upon abstract
principles, demands consideration upon what are recognized as the
urgent necessities of the case. It is a measure of relief,--a
shield to break the force of a blow already descending with
violence, and render it harmless. The work of destruction has
already been set in motion all over the South. Peace to the
country has literally meant war to the loyal men of the South,
white and black; and negro suffrage is the measure to arrest and
put an end to that dreadful strife.

Something then, not by way of argument, (for that has been done by
Charles Sumner, Thaddeus Stevens, Wendell Phillips, Gerrit Smith,
and other able men,) but rather of statement and appeal.

For better or for worse, (as in some of the old marriage
ceremonies,) the negroes are evidently a permanent part of the
American population. They are too numerous and useful to be
colonized, and too enduring and self-perpetuating to disappear by
natural causes. Here they are, four millions of them, and, for
weal or for woe, here they must remain. Their history is parallel
to that of the country; but while the history of the latter has
been cheerful and bright with blessings, theirs has been heavy and
dark with agonies and curses. What O'Connell said of the history
of Ireland may with greater truth be said of the negro's. It may
be "traced like a wounded man through a crowd, by the blood." Yet
the negroes have marvellously survived all the exterminating
forces of slavery, and have emerged at the end of two hundred and
fifty years of bondage, not morose, misanthropic, and revengeful,
but cheerful, hopeful, and forgiving. They now stand before
Congress and the country, not complaining of the past, but simply
asking for a better future. The spectacle of these dusky millions
thus imploring, not demanding, is touching; and if American
statesmen could be moved by a simple appeal to the nobler elements
of human nature, if they had not fallen, seemingly, into the
incurable habit of weighing and measuring every proposition of
reform by some standard of profit and loss, doing wrong from
choice, and right only from necessity or some urgent demand of
human selfishness, it would be enough to plead for the negroes on
the score of past services and sufferings. But no such appeal
shall be relied on here. Hardships, services, sufferings, and
sacrifices are all waived. It is true that they came to the
relief of the country at the hour of its extremest need. It is
true that, in many of the rebellious States, they were almost the
only reliable friends the nation had throughout the whole
tremendous war. It is true that, notwithstanding their alleged
ignorance, they were wiser than their masters, and knew enough to
be loyal, while those masters only knew enough to be rebels and
traitors. It is true that they fought side by side in the loyal
cause with our gallant and patriotic white soldiers, and that, but
for their help,--divided as the loyal States were,--the Rebels
might have succeeded in breaking up the Union, thereby entailing
border wars and troubles of unknown duration and incalculable
calamity. All this and more is true of these loyal negroes. Many
daring exploits will be told to their credit. Impartial history
will paint them as men who deserved well of their country. It
will tell how they forded and swam rivers, with what consummate
address they evaded the sharp-eyed Rebel pickets, how they toiled
in the darkness of night through the tangled marshes of briers and
thorns, barefooted and weary, running the risk of losing their
lives, to warn our generals of Rebel schemes to surprise and
destroy our loyal army. It will tell how these poor people, whose
rights we still despised, behaved to our wounded soldiers, when
found cold, hungry, and bleeding on the deserted battle-field; how
they assisted our escaping prisoners from Andersonville, Belle
Isle, Castle Thunder, and elsewhere, sharing with them their
wretched crusts, and otherwise affording them aid and comfort; how
they promptly responded to the trumpet call for their services,
fighting against a foe that denied them the rights of civilized
warfare, and for a government which was without the courage to
assert those rights and avenge their violation in their behalf;
with what gallantry they flung themselves upon Rebel
fortifications, meeting death as fearlessly as any other troops in
the service. But upon none of these things is reliance placed.
These facts speak to the better dispositions of the human heart;
but they seem of little weight with the opponents of impartial
suffrage.

It is true that a strong plea for equal suffrage might be
addressed to the national sense of honor. Something, too, might
be said of national gratitude. A nation might well hesitate
before the temptation to betray its allies. There is something
immeasurably mean, to say nothing of the cruelty, in placing the
loyal negroes of the South under the political power of their
Rebel masters. To make peace with our enemies is all well enough;
but to prefer our enemies and sacrifice our friends,--to exalt our
enemies and cast down our friends,--to clothe our enemies, who
sought the destruction of the government, with all political
power, and leave our friends powerless in their hands,--is an act
which need not be characterized here. We asked the negroes to
espouse our cause, to be our friends, to fight for us, and against
their masters; and now, after they have done all that we asked
them to do,--helped us to conquer their masters, and thereby
directed toward themselves the furious hate of the vanquished,--it
is proposed in some quarters to turn them over to the political
control of the common enemy of the government and of the negro.
But of this let nothing be said in this place. Waiving humanity,
national honor, the claims of gratitude, the precious satisfaction
arising from deeds of charity and justice to the weak and
defenceless,--the appeal for impartial suffrage addresses itself
with great pertinency to the darkest, coldest, and flintiest side
of the human heart, and would wring righteousness from the
unfeeling calculations of human selfishness.

For in respect to this grand measure it is the good fortune of the
negro that enlightened selfishness, not less than justice, fights
on his side. National interest and national duty, if elsewhere
separated, are firmly united here. The American people can,
perhaps, afford to brave the censure of surrounding nations for
the manifest injustice and meanness of excluding its faithful
black soldiers from the ballot-box, but it cannot afford to allow
the moral and mental energies of rapidly increasing millions to be
consigned to hopeless degradation.

Strong as we are, we need the energy that slumbers in the black
man's arm to make us stronger. We want no longer any heavy-
footed, melancholy service from the negro. We want the cheerful
activity of the quickened manhood of these sable millions. Nor
can we afford to endure the moral blight which the existence of a
degraded and hated class must necessarily inflict upon any people
among whom such a class may exist. Exclude the negroes as a class
from political rights,--teach them that the high and manly
privilege of suffrage is to be enjoyed by white citizens only,--
that they may bear the burdens of the state, but that they are to
have no part in its direction or its honors,--and you at once
deprive them of one of the main incentives to manly character and
patriotic devotion to the interests of the government; in a word,
you stamp them as a degraded caste,--you teach them to despise
themselves, and all others to despise them. Men are so
constituted that they largely derive their ideas of their
abilities and their possibilities from the settled judgments of
their fellow-men, and especially from such as they read in the
institutions under which they live. If these bless them, they are
blest indeed; but if these blast them, they are blasted indeed.
Give the negro the elective franchise, and you give him at once a
powerful motive for all noble exertion, and make him a man among
men. A character is demanded of him, and here as elsewhere demand
favors supply. It is nothing against this reasoning that all men
who vote are not good men or good citizens. It is enough that the
possession and exercise of the elective franchise is in itself an
appeal to the nobler elements of manhood, and imposes education as
essential to the safety of society.

To appreciate the full force of this argument, it must be
observed, that disfranchisement in a republican government based
upon the idea of human equality and universal suffrage, is a very
different thing from disfranchisement in governments based upon
the idea of the divine right of kings, or the entire subjugation
of the masses. Masses of men can take care of themselves.
Besides, the disabilities imposed upon all are necessarily without
that bitter and stinging element of invidiousness which attaches
to disfranchisement in a republic. What is common to all works no
special sense of degradation to any. But in a country like ours,
where men of all nations, kindred, and tongues are freely
enfranchised, and allowed to vote, to say to the negro, You shall
not vote, is to deal his manhood a staggering blow, and to burn
into his soul a bitter and goading sense of wrong, or else work in
him a stupid indifference to all the elements of a manly
character. As a nation, we cannot afford to have amongst us
either this indifference and stupidity, or that burning sense of
wrong. These sable millions are too powerful to be allowed to
remain either indifferent or discontented. Enfranchise them, and
they become self-respecting and country-loving citizens.
Disfranchise them, and the mark of Cain is set upon them less
mercifully than upon the first murderer, for no man was to hurt
him. But this mark of inferiority--all the more palpable because
of a difference of color--not only dooms the negro to be a
vagabond, but makes him the prey of insult and outrage everywhere.
While nothing may be urged here as to the past services of the
negro, it is quite within the line of this appeal to remind the
nation of the possibility that a time may come when the services
of the negro may be a second time required. History is said to
repeat itself, and, if so, having wanted the negro once, we may
want him again. Can that statesmanship be wise which would leave
the negro good ground to hesitate, when the exigencies of the
country required his prompt assistance? Can that be sound
statesmanship which leaves millions of men in gloomy discontent,
and possibly in a state of alienation in the day of national
trouble? Was not the nation stronger when two hundred thousand
sable soldiers were hurled against the Rebel fortifications, than
it would have been without them? Arming the negro was an urgent
military necessity three years ago,--are we sure that another
quite as pressing may not await us? Casting aside all thought of
justice and magnanimity, is it wise to impose upon the negro all
the burdens involved in sustaining government against foes within
and foes without, to make him equal sharer in all sacrifices for
the public good, to tax him in peace and conscript him in war, and
then coldly exclude him from the ballot-box?

Look across the sea. Is Ireland, in her present condition,
fretful, discontented, compelled to support an establishment in
which she does not believe, and which the vast majority of her
people abhor, a source of power or of weakness to Great Britain?
Is not Austria wise in removing all ground of complaint against
her on the part of Hungary? And does not the Emperor of Russia
act wisely, as well as generously, when he not only breaks up the
bondage of the serf, but extends him all the advantages of Russian
citizenship? Is the present movement in England in favor of
manhood suffrage--for the purpose of bringing four millions of
British subjects into full sympathy and co-operation with the
British government--a wise and humane movement, or otherwise? Is
the existence of a rebellious element in our borders--which New
Orleans, Memphis, and Texas show to be only disarmed, but at heart
as malignant as ever, only waiting for an opportunity to reassert
itself with fire and sword--a reason for leaving four millions of
the nation's truest friends with just cause of complaint against
the Federal government? If the doctrine that taxation should go
hand in hand with representation can be appealed to in behalf of
recent traitors and rebels, may it not properly be asserted in
behalf of a people who have ever been loyal and faithful to the
government? The answers to these questions are too obvious to
require statement. Disguise it as we may, we are still a divided
nation. The Rebel States have still an anti-national policy.
Massachusetts and South Carolina may draw tears from the eyes of
our tender-hearted President by walking arm in arm into his
Philadelphia Convention, but a citizen of Massachusetts is still
an alien in the Palmetto State. There is that, all over the
South, which frightens Yankee industry, capital, and skill from
its borders. We have crushed the Rebellion, but not its hopes or
its malign purposes. The South fought for perfect and permanent
control over the Southern laborer. It was a war of the rich
against the poor. They who waged it had no objection to the
government, while they could use it as a means of confirming their
power over the laborer. They fought the government, not because
they hated the government as such, but because they found it, as
they thought, in the way between them and their one grand purpose
of rendering permanent and indestructible their authority and
power over the Southern laborer. Though the battle is for the
present lost, the hope of gaining this object still exists, and
pervades the whole South with a feverish excitement. We have thus
far only gained a Union without unity, marriage without love,
victory without peace. The hope of gaining by politics what they
lost by the sword, is the secret of all this Southern unrest; and
that hope must be extinguished before national ideas and objects
can take full possession of the Southern mind. There is but one
safe and constitutional way to banish that mischievous hope from
the South, and that is by lifting the laborer beyond the
unfriendly political designs of his former master. Give the negro
the elective franchise, and you at once destroy the purely
sectional policy, and wheel the Southern States into line with
national interests and national objects. The last and shrewdest
turn of Southern politics is a recognition of the necessity of
getting into Congress immediately, and at any price. The South
will comply with any conditions but suffrage for the negro. It
will swallow all the unconstitutional test oaths, repeal all the
ordinances of Secession, repudiate the Rebel debt, promise to pay
the debt incurred in conquering its people, pass all the
constitutional amendments, if only it can have the negro left
under its political control. The proposition is as modest as that
made on the mountain: "All these things will I give unto thee if
thou wilt fall down and worship me."

But why are the Southerners so willing to make these sacrifices?
The answer plainly is, they see in this policy the only hope of
saving something of their old sectional peculiarities and power.
Once firmly seated in Congress, their alliance with Northern
Democrats re-established, their States restored to their former
position inside the Union, they can easily find means of keeping
the Federal government entirely too busy with other important
matters to pay much attention to the local affairs of the Southern
States. Under the potent shield of State Rights, the game would
be in their own hands. Does any sane man doubt for a moment that
the men who followed Jefferson Davis through the late terrible
Rebellion, often marching barefooted and hungry, naked and
penniless, and who now only profess an enforced loyalty, would
plunge this country into a foreign war to-day, if they could
thereby gain their coveted independence, and their still more
coveted mastery over the negroes? Plainly enough, the peace not
less than the prosperity of this country is involved in the great
measure of impartial suffrage. King Cotton is deposed, but only
deposed, and is ready to-day to reassert all his ancient
pretensions upon the first favorable opportunity. Foreign
countries abound with his agents. They are able, vigilant,
devoted. The young men of the South burn with the desire to
regain what they call the lost cause; the women are noisily
malignant towards the Federal government. In fact, all the
elements of treason and rebellion are there under the thinnest
disguise which necessity can impose.

What, then, is the work before Congress? It is to save the people
of the South from themselves, and the nation from detriment on
their account. Congress must supplant the evident sectional
tendencies of the South by national dispositions and tendencies.
It must cause national ideas and objects to take the lead and
control the politics of those States. It must cease to recognize
the old slave-masters as the only competent persons to rule the
South. In a word, it must enfranchise the negro, and by means of
the loyal negroes and the loyal white men of the South build up a
national party there, and in time bridge the chasm between North
and South, so that our country may have a common liberty and a
common civilization. The new wine must be put into new bottles.
The lamb may not be trusted with the wolf. Loyalty is hardly safe
with traitors.

Statesmen of America! beware what you do. The ploughshare of
rebellion has gone through the land beam-deep. The soil is in
readiness, and the seed-time has come. Nations, not less than
individuals, reap as they sow. The dreadful calamities of the
past few years came not by accident, nor unbidden, from the
ground. You shudder to-day at the harvest of blood sown in the
spring-time of the Republic by your patriot fathers. The
principle of slavery, which they tolerated under the erroneous
impression that it would soon die out, became at last the dominant
principle and power at the South. It early mastered the
Constitution, became superior to the Union, and enthroned itself
above the law.

Freedom of speech and of the press it slowly but successfully
banished from the South, dictated its own code of honor and
manners to the nation, brandished the bludgeon and the bowie-knife
over Congressional debate, sapped the foundations of loyalty,
dried up the springs of patriotism, blotted out the testimonies of
the fathers against oppression, padlocked the pulpit, expelled
liberty from its literature, invented nonsensical theories about
master-races and slave-races of men, and in due season produced a
Rebellion fierce, foul, and bloody.

This evil principle again seeks admission into our body politic.
It comes now in shape of a denial of political rights to four
million loyal colored people. The South does not now ask for
slavery. It only asks for a large degraded caste, which shall
have no political rights. This ends the case. Statesmen, beware
what you do. The destiny of unborn and unnumbered generations is
in your hands. Will you repeat the mistake of your fathers, who
sinned ignorantly? or will you profit by the blood-bought wisdom
all round you, and forever expel every vestige of the old
abomination from our national borders? As you members of the
Thirty-ninth Congress decide, will the country be peaceful,
united, and happy, or troubled, divided, and miserable.

Frederick Douglass