In the late 1860s, Frederick Douglass, the fugitive slave turned prose poet of American democracy, toured the country spreading his most sanguine vision of a pluralist future of human equality in the recently re-United States. It is a vision worth revisiting at a time when the country seems once again to be a house divided over ethnicity and race, and over how to interpret our foundational creeds.
The Thirteenth Amendment (ending slavery) had been ratified, Congress had approved the Fourteenth Amendment (introducing birthright citizenship and the equal-protection clause), and Douglass was anticipating the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment (granting black men the right to vote) when he began delivering a speech titled “Our Composite Nationality” in 1869. He kept it in his oratorical repertoire at least through 1870. What the war-weary nation needed, he felt, was a powerful tribute to a cosmopolitan America—not just a repudiation of a divided and oppressive past but a commitment to a future union forged in emancipation and the Civil War. This nation would hold true to universal values and to the recognition that “a smile or a tear has no nationality. Joy and sorrow speak alike in all nations, and they above all the confusion of tongues proclaim the brotherhood of man.”
Douglass, like many other former abolitionists, watched with high hopes as Radical Reconstruction gained traction in Washington, D.C., placing the ex–Confederate states under military rule and establishing civil and political rights for the formerly enslaved. The United States, he believed, had launched a new founding in the aftermath of the Civil War, and had begun to shape a new Constitution rooted in the three great amendments spawned by the war’s results. Practically overnight, Douglass even became a proponent of U.S. expansion to the Caribbean and elsewhere: Americans could now invent a nation whose egalitarian values were worth exporting to societies that were still either officially pro-slavery or riddled with inequality.
The aspiration that a postwar United States might slough off its own past identity as a pro-slavery nation and become the dream of millions who had been enslaved, as well as many of those who had freed them, was hardly a modest one. Underlying it was a hope that history itself had fundamentally shifted, aligning with a multiethnic, multiracial, multireligious country born of the war’s massive blood sacrifice. Somehow the tremendous resistance of the white South and former Confederates, which Douglass himself predicted would take ever more virulent forms, would be blunted. A vision of “composite” nationhood would prevail, separating Church and state, giving allegiance to a single new Constitution, federalizing the Bill of Rights, and spreading liberty more broadly than any civilization had ever attempted.
Was this a utopian vision, or was it grounded in a fledgling reality? That question, a version of which has never gone away, takes on an added dimension in the case of Douglass. One might well wonder how a man who, before and during the war, had delivered some of the most embittered attacks on American racism and hypocrisy ever heard could dare nurse the optimism evident from the very start of the speech. How could Douglass now believe that his reinvented country was, as he declared, “the most fortunate of nations” and “at the beginning of our ascent”?
Of course you are going to want to read the whole thing and learn a lot. I know I learned something new.