‘We Were Always Men’Roundup
tags: slavery, Civil War, voting rights, Fredrick Douglass, Fifteenth Amendment
Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the director of the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research at Harvard University and the author of “Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow and host of Reconstruction: America After the Civil War.”
Writing in The New York Times 150 years ago this April 11, Frederick Douglass celebrated the ratification of the 15th Amendment, which at long last banned racial discrimination in voting nationwide. He hailed the extension of the franchise to all eligible African-American men as a “revolution.”
“We were always men,” he wrote. “Now we are citizens and men among men.”
What did Douglass mean? Perhaps the most persistent political debate of his lifetime had been about what exactly the founders meant when they wrote that “all men are created equal.” After all, by the start of the Civil War, free African-American men were, with few exceptions, excluded from the most fundamental element of democratic life: the right to vote.
The silences and contradictions of the Declaration of Independence were glaring. Thomas Jefferson himself confessed his “suspicion only” in his “Notes on the State of Virginia,” written in the 1780s, that “the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments of both body and mind.” Intentionally or not, Jefferson was advancing the idea that all men were not, well, “men,” at least not in the same way.
Douglass had become a living argument for black Americans’ equal manhood. Pressing the point in his most famous address, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?,” he turned to the law to make plain what should have been obvious to all: “The manhood of the slave is conceded. It is admitted in the fact that Southern statute books are covered with enactments forbidding, under severe fines and penalties, the teaching of the slave to read or to write. When you can point to any such laws in reference to the beasts of the field, then I may consent to argue the manhood of the slave.”
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