January 5, 1862 (Sunday)
“What shall be done with the slaves if emancipated?” The question, on the minds of millions, both north and south, was the subject of debate, editorials, and parlor room conversations. It had been so for years, but recently, especially since President Abraham Lincoln’s December 3rd message to Congress, the question hung like thick smoke over the nation. While men in the Confederacy were, essentially, dying and killing to keep the slaves enslaved, men in the Union were merely fighting to keep the Southern states from seceding.
The question, never mind the answer, meant different things to different classes. Many northerners were fearful of freed blacks infiltrating their towns and taking their jobs. In the South, many worried that their tradition and heritage would be changed forever. For the border states, emancipation seemed almost inevitable, so ideas like being compensated by the Federal government for the liberated slaves were many.
While the white politicians and citizens deliberated, killed and died for the question, few ever considered what the black population thought of the question, even though it concerned them far more than any other class.
In a direct response to Lincoln’s December 3rd message, Frederick Douglass, a former slave and abolitionist organizer, on this date published “What Shall Be Done with the Slaves If Emancipated?” in his newspaper, Douglass’ Monthly.
After addressing the concerns of the whites, he turned to a higher power, allowing that the question of what to do with them was already answered by God. The very question, wrote Douglass, “assumes that nature has erred; that the law of liberty is a mistake; that freedom, though a natural want of human soul, can only be enjoyed at the expense of human welfare, and that men are better off in slavery than they would or could be in freedom; that slavery is the natural order of human relations, and that liberty is an experiment.”
Allowing that many of the white people may not accept God’s answer, Douglass moved to the pragmatic. Man’s “answer is, do nothing with them; mind your business, and let them mind theirs.” After all, he asserted, “Your doing with them is their greatest misfortune. They have been undone by your doings, and all they now ask, and really have need of at your hands, is just to let them alone. They suffer by ever interference, and succeed best by being let alone.”
“The Negro should have been let alone in Africa — let alone when pirates and robbers offered him for sale in our Christian slave markets — (more cruel and inhuman than the Mohammedan slave markets) — let alone by courts, judges, politicians, legislators and slave-drivers — let alone altogether, and assured that they were thus to be left alone forever, and that they must now make their own way in the world, just the same as any and every other variety of the human family.”
It was here where Douglass joined his fellow black men. Rather than writing of “them” and “they,” he wrote of “us” and “we.” “Let us stand upon our own legs, work with our own hands, and eat bread in the sweat of our own brows. When you, our white fellow-countrymen, have attempted to do anyting for us, it has generally been to deprive us of some right, power or privilege which you yourself would die before you would submit to have taken from you.”
According to Douglass, black men had a right to work, to go to school and even to vote. “He is a human being, capable of judging between good and evil, right and wrong, liberty and slavery, and is as much a subject of law as any other man; therefore, deal justly with him.”
Proving, undoubtedly, that the slaves must be freed, he turned to the question on where to put them. In answering this, he was just as practical, asking, “Will they occupy more room as freemen than as slaves?”
Again equaling himself with freed whites, he asked, “Is an object of your injustice and cruelty a more ungrateful sight than one of your justice and benevolence?”1 Besides, Douglass recalled, Maryland, Virginia and South Carolina had tried to rid themselves of freed black men, but had failed “because the black man as a freeman is a useful member of society. To drive him away, and thus deprive the South of his labor, would be absurd and monstrous as for a man to cut off his right arm, the better to enable himself to work.”
Douglass concluded with a prophetic assertion:
“When the accursed slave system shall once be abolished, and the Negro, long cast out from the human family, and governed like a beast of burden, shall be gathered under the divine government of justice, liberty and humanity, men will be ashamed to remember that they were ever deluded by the flimsy nonsense which they have allowed themselves to urge against the freedom of the long enslaved millions of our land. That day is not far off.”2
- Due to a typo, most, if not all, online copies of this essay read: “Is an object of our injustice and cruelty a more ungrateful sight than one of your justice and benevolence?” which makes little sense. [↩]
- All quotes taken from Douglass’ essay “What Shall Be Done With the Slaves If Emancipated,” first published in Douglass’ Monthly, January 5, 1862. As mentioned in the previous footnote, most versions appearing online are not correct. For a correct version, see “The Friends’ Review, Vol. 15 edited by Samuel Rhoads, 1862. [↩]