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Voters Face A Big Decision In 2020: Could A Lesson From Frederick Douglass Help?

A portrait of 19th-century abolitionist Frederick Douglass is unveiled at the Maryland governor's residence in Annapolis on Sept. 15, 2014.
Brian Witte
A portrait of 19th-century abolitionist Frederick Douglass is unveiled at the Maryland governor's residence in Annapolis on Sept. 15, 2014.

In 1856, Frederick Douglass made a decision. He was an antislavery activist then, hoping to advance his cause by supporting a candidate in that fall's presidential election.

Douglass' endorsement mattered. He was famous — a man who had escaped slavery to become an influential speaker and writer. He was a newspaper editor, operating Frederick Douglass' Paper out of an office in Rochester, N.Y. The power of his words could be measured by the efforts to silence him: White men with clubs and stones once chased him off a stage in Indiana, while his autobiography was banned in the slave states of the South. In 1856, leaders of Mobile, Ala., banished two booksellers who dared to offer it, saying the men risked execution if they stayed in town.

Deciding how best to use his influence, Douglass faced a classic American political question: Should he vote for a radical or a moderate? He could support the big change he believed in — abolition of slavery — or settle for less sweeping change from a candidate better positioned to win.

Democrats in 2020 may find his dilemma familiar: They are scanning their large field, asking who can bring enough change, and also who can win. (The choice is not necessarily either-or; in 2016, Republicans chose the candidate who promised the biggest change, who also won.) Come November's general election, voters will have third-party options too. So it is instructive to observe how one of the greatest figures in American history wrestled with his decision in 1856 — especially because he changed his mind.

We can begin the story soon after he escaped slavery in the 1830s. He became a protégé of William Lloyd Garrison, a fierce, white, antislavery editor based in Boston. Garrison declared the U.S. Constitution corrupt because it accommodated slavery. He denounced the government and refused to take part in electoral politics. Douglass initially agreed; as late as 1848, he was attending meetings of the Western New York Anti-Slavery Society, which endorsed "No Union with Slave-Holders," meaning it would be better to break up the country than remain allied with the slaveholding South.

But by the late 1840s, Douglass was taking a step that the radical Garrison rejected: He was beginning to support political candidates, so long as they favored abolition. This meant he never supported a major-party candidate; the two major parties, Whigs and Democrats, both appealed for the votes of Southern slave owners. He backed third-party candidates with no chance of winning.

Douglass began the 1856 presidential campaign the same way, promoting Gerrit Smith, a New York abolitionist and reformer. But he was taking notice of another option: the new Republican Party, founded to oppose the spread of slavery. In June, this new major party nominated its first presidential candidate: John C. Frémont, a famed explorer of the American West. Republicans wanted to prevent slavery's expansion into the lands he had explored.

Might Republicans actually win? In his newspaper, Douglass acknowledged debate on his third-party endorsement: "The enquiry has repeatedly reached us — why can you not give to Fremont ... your undivided support?" Douglass said that Frémont was a better choice than the proslavery Democrats — but Republicans were not calling to abolish slavery where it already existed. Abolition was then considered an extreme position.

"We are Abolitionists; Fremont [is] not, and votes are sought for [him] on that very ground." Although Douglass understood why Republicans had to refrain from pushing abolition in order to build a political majority, "a black man in this country" could not abide it: "If white men were enslaved in South Carolina, no pretense of State's rights would shield it from the [thunder] bolts of the Republican party."

Yet the same issue of Douglass' paper included articles about Frémont and his wife, Jessie Benton Frémont, who had become a prominent part of the campaign. Douglass was intrigued; and six weeks later, on Aug. 15, he changed his stance. His paper would support Frémont "with whatever influence we possess."

He made no apology for inconsistency: "Right Anti-slavery action is that which deals the severest deadliest blow upon Slavery that can be given at that particular time."

Weeks earlier, in justifying his support for the abolitionist campaign, Douglass had written that he was thinking long term:

The rise of the Republicans had prompted him to rethink what the long term required of him. A leader who knew slavery from experience — and understood the Republicans' compromises and half-measures — determined that the party would shift national life in a better direction.

Republicans lost in 1856, but Douglass knew his actions could influence events over time. In 1860, the Republican coalition captured the presidency for its nominee, Abraham Lincoln. Though it took five more years and a calamitous civil war, Lincoln steered to passage a constitutional amendment outlawing slavery. Douglass became a friend of Lincoln and a mainstay of the Republican Party.

Douglass' move toward pragmatism does not necessarily mean that Democrats should make the most moderate move in 2020. His antislavery choice in 1856 was still fairly radical for the time. But we can learn from his perception that his acts could shape times to come: "The good or evil of the present, the wisdom or folly of present actions, reproduce themselves a thousand fold in the future."

Adapted from Imperfect Union: How Jessie and John Frémont Mapped the West, Invented Celebrity, and Helped Cause the Civil War, by Steve Inskeep, publishing on Jan. 14, 2020.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.