ASKOM: Was Frederick Douglass a Republican?
This is a popular question that comes up again and again as the City of Rochester celebrates Frederick Douglass’ bicentennial year.
We partnered with CITY for a year’s worth of content and have received comments and emails asking this question. I’ll try to make this straightforward but it can get complicated. So, let’s get straight to it.
Frederick Douglass was certainly a Republican and while he waned towards the end of his life, he was vocally supportive of the political party for much of his life. He’s known to have influenced then-President Abraham Lincoln. In a 1883 letter, Douglass discussed why he’s so loyal to the party. He wrote
I am thought to be an Independent, and so I am, but I am an Independent inside of the Republican party. I can have all the independence I want inside of the Republican party….In politics, I am dependent upon one or the other political party, and I am foolish enough to think that the Republican party may as safely be trusted with the destiny of the Republic and the rights of the colored people as the Democratic party, and in this I know I am right. For the life of me I cannot see how any honest colored man who has brains enough to put two ideas together can allow himself under the notion of independence to give aid and comfort to the Democratic party in Ohio or elsewhere. Woe to the colored people of this country when the Republican party shall triumph in spite of the treacherous votes of colored men
My advice to colored men everywhere is to stick to the Republican party. Tell your wants, hold the party up to its profession, but do your utmost to keep it in power in State and Nation.
It’s important to understand, however, that the Republican party of his time is not the same one we see today. Lincoln was a pillar of that party and in its 1880 party platform address, Republicans talked up their involvement in strengthening the union and abolishing slavery. They credit their party with reconstructing the Union and for pursuing “freedom instead of slavery [as] its corner-stone.” This party also believed the federal government had a responsibility for ensuring citizens’ rights are respected and defining the limits of state power.
“Whatever promises the Nation makes the Nation must perform. A Nation cannot safely relegate this duty to the States. The solid south must be divided by the peaceful agencies of the ballot, and all honest opinions must there find free expression. To this end honest voters must be protected against terrorism, violence or fraud. And we affirm it to be the duty and the purpose of the Republican party to use all legitimate means to restore all the States of this Union to the most perfect harmony that may be possible…”