Explore the later life of Frederick Douglass below!

From the end of the Civil War until his passing in 1895 Douglass continued his public speaking with more than 800 speeches. He also wrote all the time, published his newspaper, and served in various government positions for more than 30 years.

You can scroll through the exhibit content below or use the blue bullets on the side of the screen to move between three areas of content including: 

  • His work for and concerns about the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments 
  • His broad vision of equality for all 
  • His hopes for the future even as he was confronted with the despair of his lifetime

You can also expand on the content below by:

  • Hovering your mouse over the blue underlined sections of Douglass’ quotes to find more information
  • Hovering your mouse over most of the pictures to see them more closely
  • Looking for links to the full speech or article referenced in most sections

Members of the House of Representatives celebrate after passing the 13th Amendment. Abraham Lincoln was assassinated less than four months later. “At the end of that year, the 13th amendment went into effect.” 

Photo credit: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

When Abraham Lincoln died, his vice-president, Andrew Johnson, suddenly became the president. In 1866, Douglass (shown here around that time) met with Johnson to discuss voting rights, but the president dismissed the subject because he was worried about a race war.

Photo credit: Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library

13th, 14th & 15th Amendments

Douglass was a strong supporter of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments, which outlawed slavery, granted citizenship to “all persons born or naturalized in the United States,” and gave African-American men the right to vote.

At the same time, Douglass had grave concerns about entrenched racism in the South. He feared that slavery had ended in name only.

Hover over the photos to explore each in more detail.

“In what skin will the old snake come forth?”

Speech delivered at the American Anti-Slavery Society in New York City (May 10, 1865)

By January 31 of 1865, the Senate and House had passed the 13th Amendment. As the World waited to see if enough states would ratify the law, Douglass emphasized that emancipation could not be the only goal. He felt that the right to vote is essential to citizenship and called for future amendments.

“Slavery is not abolished until the black man has the ballot. While the legislatures of the south retain the right to pass laws making any discrimination between black and white, slavery still lives there.”

“reconstruction”

Essay published in “The Atlantic Monthly” (December 1866)

In this essay, Douglass argues for giving African-Americans the right to vote, calling “the elective franchise” a protective “wall of fire.”

Without a federal law, Douglass worried that southern states would pass their own laws redefining and restricting citizenship. African-Americans would be as powerless as they were before the war.

“All that is necessary to be done is to make the government consistent with itself, and render the rights of the States compatible with the sacred rights of human nature…Fortunately, the Constitution of the United Statesknows no distinction between citizens on account of color. Neither does it know any difference between a citizen of a state and a citizen of the United States.

Full speech available here.

The reality of Reconstruction as Douglass saw it was very different from this overly positive print by John Lawrence Giles. According to an explanatory key about the columns, the old “Foundations of Slavery” are being changed for “Justice, Liberty, and Education.” 

Photo credit: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

“An Appeal to congress for impartial suffrage”

Essay published in “The Atlantic Monthly” (January 1867)

The summer before this essay was published, Congress had passed the 14th Amendment, which granted African-Americans the rights of citizenship. Yet, as Douglass explains, citizenship has no meaning without the right to vote.

He details practical and moral reasons for giving African Americans the right to vote, chief among them being a unified North and South.

“[Congress] must enfranchise the negro, and by means of the loyal negroes and the loyal white men of the South build till 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 bottles. The lamb may not be trusted with the wolf. Loyalty is hardly safe with traitors.”

Hear the full speech here.

“Seeming and Real”

Essay published in “The New National Era” (6 October 1870)

The 15th Amendment, ratified on February 3, 1870, established that the voting rights of U.S. citizens “shall not be denied or abridged…on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

Douglass had been fighting for voting rights, but he saw challenges ahead. As he predicted, racism would stop implementation of the law.

“‘There are no colored people in this country’ said a highly poetic friend of ours, not long since. To his mind the fifeenth amendment was not merely a law but a miracle, for nothing less than a miracle could thus so suddenly change black into white, and obliterate all traces of two hundred and fifty years of slavery, both on the part of the race enslaved and the race enslaving. This delirium of enthusiasm is very pleasant to those possessed by it, and it would seem unamiable to disturb it if it did not sometimes stand directly in the way of needed effort.”

As Douglass thought, many states found ways to stop African-Americans from voting long after the 15th Amendment was passed. Tactics included literacy tests, “poll taxes,” and plain bullying. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 tried to get rid of such barriers, and the number of registered African-American voters nationwide jumped from 1 in 4 to almost 3 in 4 today. 

Photo credit: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

The Library of Congress houses much of Douglass’ work–an archive that contains contents of Douglass’ home office. This image is of one of Douglass’ many handwritten manuscripts.

Photo credit: Frederick Douglass Papers at the Library of Congress

Broad Vision

Equality for All

Douglass’ definition of equality went beyond the right of African-American men to vote. He believed that women should be able to vote and participate in all levels of government. He advocated for integrated schools. He also supported free speech, a right he often exercised in critiquing the nation’s lawmakers.

“Equal Rights for All”

Speech delivered at the American Equal Rights Association in New York City (14 May 1868)

Douglass was a feminist long before that term even existed. He was the only African-American (and one of only 40 men) at the trailblazing Seneca Falls Convention of 1848. Throughout his career, he delivered many speeches and wrote many essays arguing that women should receive the same rights as men.

No man should be excluded from the Government on the basis of his color, no woman on account of her sex; there should be no shoulder that does not bear its burden of the Government, and no individual conscience debarred of [a] chance to exercise its influence for good on the National councils.”

Read the full speech here

“liberty of speech [in the] south”

Essay published in the “New National Era”

In 1860, Douglass offered a “plea” for free speech. In his view, suppressing it is a “double wrong” since it “violates the rights of the hearer as well as those of the speaker.” He returned to the subject in this 1871 essay, calling for freedom of speech in the South.

“Until a man can express his opinion upon all possible subjects as freely and as safely at the South as he does at the North, freedom is the merest farce, and reconstruction a failure. All the rights possessed by citizens of one State must be freely enjoyed in every State.”

A portrait of women's rights activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton

This portrait of women’s rights activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton hung in Douglass’ home.

Photo credit: Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

Reverend Charles Campbell stands at the pulpit of his Richmond, Virginia church, around 1879.

Photo credit: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

The Whitaker Family of South Carolina, as photographed by J.A. Palmer in 1874.

Photo credit: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

The Convention exhibition hall as Rutherford B. Hayes is named the Republican Party’s nominee for President.

Photo credit: Cornell University Collection of Political Americans, Cornell University Library (accessed from Wikimedia Commons)

“Mixed Schools”

Essay published in the “New National Era”

Douglass was an early supporter of desegregating public schools. His logic here is that African-American and poor white communities needed to recognize their “common cause against the rich land-holders of the South.”

He explains that both are “tools” of the rich, in which the rich stir up racist fears to incite poor whites to “in every conceivable manner mistreat” African-Americans.

“Educate the poor white children and the colored children together; let them grow up to know that color makes no difference as the rights of a man; that both the black man and white man are at home; that the country is as much the country of one as of the other; and that both together make it a valuable country.”

“Looking the Republican Party Squarely in the Face”

Speech Given at the Republican National Convention in Cincinnati, Ohio (14 June 1876)

Douglass was asked to speak on the opening day of the convention. He begins his speech with grand flourishes of compliments (“I must say … that you are pretty good-looking men”) and thanks them for emancipation and the right to vote.

Then he switches gears stealthily, lethally; he bluntly reminds Republicans that if they don’t protect African-American rights, African-Americans can vote them out of power.

“… Tell me, if your heart be as my heart, that the liberty which you have asserted for the black man in this country will be maintained! You say, some of you, that you can get along without the vote of the black man of the South. Yes, that may be possible, but I doubt it …. I have these feelings – without bringing forth either of the gentlemen’s names here – the government of the United States and the moral feeling of the country will surround the black voter as a wall of fire; and, instead of electing your President without the black vote, you may count in the number of your victorious Republican states five or six, at least, of the old master states of the South.”

Read the full speech here

This illustration depicts Douglass in his role as U.S. Marshal for the District of Columbia. He was first African-American confirmed for a presidential appointment by the U.S. Senate.

Photo credit: Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library

This image of a stylish young woman (taken around 1880) is a “carte de visite,” a photo card given to friends and family.

Photo credit: Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library

Despair & Hope for the future

In the 1880s and 90s, violence against African-Americans in the South surged as their civil rights weakened due to restrictive “Jim Crow” laws. At times, it seemed to Douglass that slavery was lifted in name only.

Yet he held out hope that America would eventually live up to its lofty ideals – the “Star-Spangled Banner” was still a favorite tune to play on his violin.

“Our Destiny is Largely in Our Own Hands”

Speech delivered in Washington, D.C. on the occasion of the 21st anniversary of emancipation (16 April 1883)

Douglass felt renewed hope in 1883, despite the Supreme Court’s partial overturn of the Civil Rights Act of 1875.

Perhaps the fact that African-Americans had been free for 20 years–a whole generation–reminded him that progress had been made. As he wrote in a different essay, “I see colored people steadily rising.”

“Assimilation and not isolation is our true policy and our natural destiny. Unification for us is life: separation is death…All the political, social and literary forces around us tend to unification. I am more inclined to accept this solution because I have seen the steps already taken in that direction. The American people have their prejudices, but they have other qualities as well. They easily adapt themselves to inevitable conditions, and all their tendencyis to progress, enlightenment and to the universal.”

Read the full speech here

“The Future of the Negro”

Essay published in The North American Review (July 1884)

Given ongoing violence and discrimination, some Americans–black and white–wondered if it made sense for African Americans to stay in the United States. Douglass disagreed.

In this essay, he lists all the reasons why African-Americans would stay, from the practical (it’s expensive to move) to the intangible (things are getting better).

“The expense of removal to a foreign land, the difficult of finding a country where the conditions of existence are more favorable than here, attachment to native land, gradual improvement in moral surroundings, increasing hope for a better future, improvement in character and value by education, impossibility of finding any part of the globe free from the presence of white men,–all conspire to keep the Negro here, and compel him to adjust himself to American civilization.”

Read the full speech here

“Strong to Suffer, and Yet Strong to Strive”

Speech in Washington, D.C. celebrating emancipation (16 April 1886)

The speech finds Douglass weary, contemplating the future of African-Americans in general and wondering aloud about the next generation of civil rights activists. He notes that it is difficult to offer new thoughts on the “same subject, before the same audience.”

He even goes as far as to say that, “I wish that your choice of speaker had fallen upon one of our young men …. I want to see them coming to the front as I am retiring to the rear.” In the speech that follows, he offers advice to those who will follow him.

“I have seen too many abuses outgrown, too many evils removed, too many material and physical improvements made, to doubt that the wheels of progress will still roll on. We have but to toil and trust, throw away whiskey and tobacco, improve the opportunities that we have, put away all extravagance, learn to live within our means, lay up our earnings, educate our children, live industrious and virtuous lives, establish a character for sobriety, punctuality, and general uprightness, and we shall raise up powerful friends who shall stand by us in our struggle for an equal chance in the race of life.”

Read the full speech here

“The Reason Why the Colored American is not in the World’s Columbian Exposition”

Pamphlet distributed at the Columbian Exposition (1893)

Chicago hosted the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893 in honor of the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s voyage to America. The fair took place across 700 acres (that’s about 530 football fields!), and more than 20 million tickets were sold.

Yet, African-Americans could not get jobs at the fair, and were not allowed to create an exhibit showing their culture.

Douglass was one of the few African-Americans at the Exposition, he served as a representative for the country of Haiti. Angered by the discrimination, he partnered with fellow activist-writers Ida B. Wells, Ferdinand Lee Barnett, and Irvine Garland Penn.

They wrote and distributed this pamphlet together. Douglass would later write a short preface to Wells’ masterpiece about lynching, The Red Record.

Read the full pamphlet here

In this 1883 illustration, Douglass, the “colored champion of freedom,” is wreathed by other African-American men of accomplishment.

Photo credit: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

This view of the fairgrounds illustrates why the exposition was called “the white city,” a nickname that must have been bitterly ironic to the African-Americans excluded from the year-long event.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

This facsimile was made with Douglass’ own copy of “The Reason Why” pamphlet. His introduction, one of his last pieces of published writing, reads almost like a summary of, or eulogy for, his own work: “Let the truth be told, let the light be turned on ignorance and prejudice, let lawless violence and murder be exposed.”

Photo credit: Frederick Douglass Papers at the Library of Congress