On Jan. 3, 1867, almost two years after the tip of the Civil Battle, Frederick Douglass stood earlier than a full home of a whole lot of African Individuals at Philadelphia’s Nationwide Corridor. He had been invited to talk in a Black lecture sequence organized by William Nonetheless, well-known for his work on the Underground Railroad. As recounted by the Philadelphia Each day Night Telegraph, the celebrated African American singer Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield carried out a number of arias earlier than Douglass’s introduction. Douglass then took the stage to talk on the “Sources of Hazard to the Republic.” The Telegraph reported that he “was regularly interrupted by applause, and evidently made the perfect effort of his life.”

American abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

© Apic/Getty Photos
American abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

“Sources of Hazard to the Republic” is certainly one in every of Douglass’s biggest speeches, and it deserves to be higher recognized for its ruminations on the precarious state of democracy in post-Civil Battle America. Douglass delivered the speech within the midst of the battle over civil rights for Black individuals, addressing the risk posed to the nation by a racist President who refused to offer them the total rights of citizenship. Douglass’s warning about antidemocratic authoritarianism through the early years of Reconstruction resonates in our personal time as effectively.


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The “Sources of Hazard” speech was prompted by the reactionary insurance policies of Andrew Johnson, who assumed the presidency on April 15, 1865, after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. Shortly after taking workplace, Johnson pardoned former Accomplice leaders, and over the 4 years of his presidency he vetoed all laws that sought to broaden the rights of African Individuals. (A lot of these vetoes had been overturned by the Radical Republicans and their allies.) Specifically, Johnson opposed measures that granted African Individuals the proper to vote. His reactionary insurance policies contributed to massacres of Black individuals in Memphis and New Orleans through the spring and summer time of 1866. Appalled by the killing of over 100 Black individuals in these cities, Douglass linked the murders to the disempowerment promoted by Johnson. “Disenfranchisement means New Orleans; it means Memphis,” he mentioned. On this approach Douglass referred to as consideration to the all the time simmering potentialities for violence that accompanied the suppression of voting rights.

However Douglass was additionally indignant on the Radical Republicans, who claimed to assist African Individuals, however tried to cease Douglass from attending a public assembly of Republicans in September 1866 as a result of they didn’t need their occasion to be perceived as “Black.” Douglass was additionally distraught that the Republicans’ proposed Fourteenth Modification, which gave Blacks birthright citizenship, failed to incorporate the proper to vote. With out the vote, Douglass bitterly remarked, “my citizenship is however an empty identify.”

Satisfied that Reconstruction was at a crossroads, Douglass composed “Sources of Hazard to the Republic” throughout late 1866 and gave its first full presentation in January 1867 to the Black lecture sequence in Philadelphia. In all variations of the speech, Douglass requested: What occurs when a “dangerous man,” as he termed Andrew Johnson, occupies the White Home? Douglass knew that Johnson was hardly the primary “dangerous man” to imagine the presidency and wouldn’t be the final. Earlier than the packed home at Nationwide Corridor, Douglass made a shocking declare: the precept supply of hazard to the Republic was the Structure itself, which, by failing to place a major test on govt energy, “put the liberties of the American individuals on the mercy of a foul and depraved President and his Cupboard.”

Learn extra: The Historical past of Frederick Douglass’ Searing Independence Day Oration

Douglass admired the U.S. Structure, usually calling it a “liberty doc.” Nevertheless it had “defects and errors,” he claimed, as a result of the framers mistakenly invested the President with “kingly powers.” Key to Douglass’s speech was his elaboration of precisely how the Structure enabled a President to thwart democracy.

Douglass objected, initially, to the “immense patronage” that the Structure put on the President’s disposal—a whole lot of tens of millions of {dollars} that he may use to nominate somebody to a authorities job “due to his political beliefs, not for any health for the place.” Patronage energy was doubtlessly corrupting, each of the President and his appointees, Douglass defined, for “it holds out a temptation to a person to agree with the President, not due to the knowledge and justice of his place, however as a result of in that approach he can get one thing in change for his soul.”

Second, Douglass objected to the Structure’s conception of a presidential veto that would solely be overturned by a two-thirds vote of Congress. Inserting a lot energy within the palms of the President, he insisted, undercut the democratic spirit of Congress. In an analogous vein, he argued that the presidency ought to be a single-term place. Underneath the present system, he remarked, the President “is partly President, and partly chief of the Presidential occasion.” For that cause, the President will all the time be tempted to serve himself greater than the nation.

Third, Douglass took particular exception to the President’s pardoning energy. The framers’ determination to make the President the only real arbiter on federal pardons in impact gave the President “a coin with which to visitors in treason.” Realizing that he may pardon anybody serving his pursuits, the President may use that energy to realize “co-operation and alliance, as a substitute of loyal obedience to the legal guidelines of the land.” Douglass summed up the issue: “A Authorities that can’t hate traitors, can’t love and respect loyal males.”

Douglass believed that the defects within the Structure may very well be mounted via amendments that reduce on patronage, restricted the pardoning energy, modified the votes wanted to overturn a presidential veto, made the presidency a one-term place and removed the vice-presidency (the workplace that enabled Johnson’s presidency). “Laughter and cheers,” in response to the reporter for the Telegraph, greeted Douglass’s comment that “we’ve had again luck with Vice-Presidents.”

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Douglass despised Johnson. However much more essential to “Sources of Hazard” was his concern that Individuals risked shedding that which they most valued: “democracy in its purity.” For Douglass, democracy was about voting rights. Making clear that the shortage of Black suffrage had a lot to do with Johnson, however was not completely Johnson’s fault, Douglass proclaimed: “The actual fact is that the ballot-box, upon which we’ve relied as a safety from the passions of the multitude, has failed us, damaged down below us.” Most Black individuals in America, whether or not within the North or South, merely didn’t have the proper to vote. In his speech at Nationwide Corridor, Douglass referred to as on Black individuals to “hate as you like,” extolling anger as a approach to create group and immediate political motion. One month later, when he gave a barely revised model of the speech to a white viewers in St. Louis, Douglass concluded fairly otherwise, telling the whites in attendance that “this matter of Reconstruction” could be left to the “constructive expertise of this Anglo-Saxon race.” He continued to ship variations of “Sources of Hazard” via 1867; it was one in every of his hottest speeches.

With the ratification of the Fifteenth Modification in 1870, giving Black males the proper to vote, Douglass received what he needed, however by the late 1870s Black individuals discovered it almost unimaginable to vote within the South. Douglass anticipated these issues in “Sources of Hazard” when he instructed Johnson and different white racists: “Drive no man from the ballot-box due to his coloration.” Douglass’s speech impressed individuals in 1867 and has a lot to say to us right this moment, not simply in regards to the risks posed by govt energy, whether or not of Presidents or governors, however about what it means for the character of the nation to limit the voting rights of African Individuals and different individuals of coloration. The speech is a prophetic warning from the previous about how the highly effective can use the instruments of energy to close down democracy. Simply as vital, it advocates resistance with a purpose to protect what Douglass termed “our stunning republican establishments.”

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