On Frederick Douglass
May 27, 1908 — 60th anniversary of the Seneca Falls Women’s Convention, Seneca Falls NY
There are two reasons why I look back upon the meeting of which this is the sixtieth anniversary with genuine pleasure and glowing pride. In the first place, I a woman like Elizabeth Cady Stanton. In the second place, I belong to the race of which Frederick Douglass was such a magnificent representative. Perhaps I should be too modest to proclaim from the housetops that I think I have a decided advantage over everybody else who participates in this anniversary today. Perhaps I should be too courteous and generous to call attention to the fact that I have one more reason of being proud of that record-breaking history making meeting, which was held in this city 60 years ago, than anybody else who takes part in these exercises today. But I simply cannot resist the temptation to show that t his is one occasion which as colored woman really has good and sufficient reasons for feeling several inches taller than her sisters in the more favored race. It so rarely happens that a colored woman in the United States can prove by convincing, indisputable facts that she has good reasons for being proud of the race with which she is identified that you will pardon me for the pride I feel on this occasion, I am sure.
The incomparable Frederick Douglass did many things of which I as a member of that race which he served so faithfully and well am proud. But there is nothing he ever did in his long and brilliant career in which I take keener pleasure and greater pride than I do in his ardent advocacy of equal political rights for women and the effective service he rendered the cause of woman suffrage sixty years ago. Even though some of us have passed that period in our lives, when we take much pleasure in those romances which describe in such deliciously thrilling details those days of old, when knights were bold and had a chronic habit of rescuing fair ladies in high towers in distress, still I am sure there is nobody here today with soul so dead and heart so cold who, in the everyday affairs of this prosaic world, rushes gallantly to the assistance of a woman fighting to the death for a principle as dear to her as life and actually succeeds in helping her establish and maintain it, in spite of the opposition of ever faithful coadjutors and her most faithful friends. This is precisely the service which Frederick Douglass rendered Elizabeth Cady Stanton in that Seneca Falls meeting sixty years ago.
When the defeat of that resolution which demanded equal political rights for women seemed imminent, because some of the most ardent advocates of woman suffrage deemed it untimely and unwise, when even dear, broad, brave Lucretia Mott tried to dissuade Mrs. Stanton, to whom it was the very heart and soul of the movement, from insisting upon it by declaring, “Lizzie, thee will make us all ridiculous.” I am glad that it was to a large extent due to Frederick Douglass’ masterful arguments and matchless eloquence that it was carried in spite of the opposition of its equally conscientious and worthy foes. And I am as proud of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, as a woman, as I am of Frederick Douglass, the Negro. Try as hard as we may, it is difficult for women of the present day to imagine what courage and strength of mind it required for Elizabeth Cady Stanton to demand equal political rights for her sex at that time.
It is safe to assert that there is not a single woman here to-day who would not have uttered the same words of warning and caution as did Lucretia Mott if she had been present, when a sister made demands which seemed so utterly impossible and rashly extravagant as those urged by Elizabeth Cady Stanton at a meeting in which for the first time in the history of the world it was openly, boldly proclaimed without qualifications and reservations whatsoever, that women on general principles had as much right to choose the rulers and make laws as men, and that it was the duty of American women in particular to do everything in their power to secure the elective franchise for themselves. And this little episode with which we are all so familiar should not cause us to love those who opposed the resolution demanding equal political rights for women the less but should cause us to praise those who insisted upon its adoption, the more.
It is difficult for us to exaggerate the importance of the bold step taken by the advocates of this resolution, when they dared to array themselves against their friends who they knew were as interested in woman suffrage as themselves and as willing to make sacrifices to effect it as were they themselves. And for that reason there are no words of praise too strong to bestow on that great woman and that illustrious man who finally succeeded in convincing their friends in that meeting that the course they advised was the wisest and the best. How glad we are today that Martha C. Wright, Mary Ann McClintock, Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton dared to offend the tender, delicate sensibilities and shock the proprieties of this staid, inconsistently proper and hypocritical old world.
But if Elizabeth Cady Stanton manifested sublime courage and audacious contempt for the ridicule and denunciation she knew would be heaped upon her as a woman, how much more were such qualities displayed by Frederick Douglass, the ex-slave. It is doubtful if Frederick Douglass’ independence of spirit and sense of justice were ever put to severer test than they were on that day, when for the first time in his life, he publicly committed himself to the cause of woman suffrage. I have always extracted grate pleasure form the thought not only that Frederick Douglass, and he alone of all men present at the Seneca Falls meeting, was conspicuous for his enthusiastic advocacy of equal political rights for women, but that he found in his heart to advocate it ever afterward with such ardor and zeal.
In no half-hearted way did he lay hold f the newly-proclaimed doctrine, nor did he ever try to conceal his views. When nearly all the newspapers, big and little, good, bad and indifferent were hurling jibes and jeers at the women and the men who participated in the Seneca Falls meeting, there was one newspaper, published in Rochester, N.Y., which not only warmly commended the leaders, in the new movement, but warmly espoused their cause. This was Frederick Douglass’ North Star, in the leading editorial 28 July 1848, after declaring, “we could not do justice to our own convictions nor to the excellent persons connected with the infant movement, if we did not in this connection offer a few remarks on the general subject which the convention met to consider and objects it seeks to attain.” As editor of the North Star, Mr. Douglass expresses his views as follows: “A discussion of the rights of animals would be regarded with far more complacency by many of what are called the wise and good of the land than would be a discussion of the rights of women. Many who have at last made the discovery that Negroes have some rights as well as other members of the human family have yet to be convinced that women have any. Standing as we do upon the watch tower of human freedom, we cannot be deterred from expression of our approbation of any movement, however humble, to improve and elevate any member of the human family.”
In his autobiography which was published in 1882 Mr. Douglass thus explains how he first became interested in the cause of woman suffrage. “Observing woman’s agency, devotion and efficiency in pleading the cause of the slave, gratitude for this high service early moved me to give favorable attention to the subject of what is called “Woman’s Rights’ and caused me to be denominated a woman’s rights man. “I am glad to say,” he adds, “that I have never been ashamed to be thus designated.” To Mrs. Elizabeth Cady Stanton Mr. Douglass always attributed his first conversion to the cause of woman suffrage. And so eager was he that Mrs. Stanton should know that he had referred to this in his book that he wrote her a letter February 6, 1882, calling her attention to that fact. “You will observe,” he said “that I don’t forget my walk with you fro the house of Mr. Joseph Southwick, where you quietly brought to my notice your arguments for womanhood suffrage.” That is forty years ago. You had just returned from your European tour. From that conversation with you I have been convinced of the wisdom of woman suffrage and I have never denied the faith.”
If at any time Mr. Douglass seemed to waver in his allegiance to the cause of political enfranchisement of women, it was he realized as no white person, no matter how broad and sympathetic he may be, has ever ben able to feel or can possibly feel today just what it means to be long to my despised, handicapped and persecuted race. I am woman and I know what it means to be circumscribed, deprived, handicapped and fettered on account of my sex. But I assure you that nowhere in the United States have my feelings been so lacerated, my spirit so crushed, my heart so wounded, nowhere have I been so humiliated on account of my sex as I have been on account of my race. I can readily understand, therefore, what feelings must have surged through Frederick Douglass’ heart, and I can almost feel the intensity of the following words he uttered, when he tried to explain why he honestly thought it was more necessary and humane to give the ballot to the Negro than to women, for the law makers of this country were too narrow and ungenerous to deal justly both by the oppressed race and the handicapped, disfranchised sex at one and the same time “I must say,” declared Mr. Douglass, “that I cannot see how anyone can pretend that there is the same urgency in giving the ballot to women as to the Negro. With us,” he said, “the matter is a question of life and death at best in fifteen states of the union. When women, because they are women, are hunted down through the streets of New York and New Orleans their children torn from their arms and their brains dashed out on the pavement; when they are objects of insult and outrage at every turn; when they are in danger of having their houses burnt down over their heads; when their children are not allowed to enter school; then they will have an urgency to obtain the ballot to our own.” “Is that not also true about black women? somebody in the audience inquired. “Yes, yes, yes,” replied Mr. Douglass, “But not because they are women, but because they are black.”
Now I am not trying to minimize in the slightest degree the crime against American women, particularly intelligent women, perpetrated by the law-makers of this country, who for years have refused to allow women to exercise the rights and privileges already guaranteed them in the constitution of the United States. For I have placed myself in that glorious company of eminent American jurists who insist that the 14th amendment extends its privileges and benefactions to women as well s to colored men. As a woman I can readily understand the keen disappointment experienced by those women who had worked so indefatigably, so conscientiously and so long to secure equal political rights for their sex. I can understand their bitterness of spirit, too, when the right of citizenship was coldly withheld from them and converted upon a race just emerging from bondage, the masses of whose men were densely ignorant — could neither read nor write. But I know that along with such staunch and sterling advocates of woman suffrage as was Wendell Phillips, Wm. Lloyd Garrison, Gerrit Smith and others, Mr. Douglass was as firmly and honestly convinced that his position was scrupulous, wise and just as were the the opponents of his view. Those who knew Frederick Douglass best know that he was neither a truckler or a time-server and that he was incapable of doing a mean, dishonest act. They know also that he was genuinely interested in the cause of woman suffrage.
When the National American woman suffrage Association held its meetings in Washington, or when the National council of Women met here, if Mr. Douglass were well and at his home, Cedar Hill, I should just as much have expected to see the presidents of those organizations absent from all the meetings as to see Frederick Douglass present at none. If no good thing had come into my life after I went to Washington except the privilege of meeting Frederick Douglass, becoming well-acquainted wit him, visiting him his home and being visited by him in turn — in short the privilege of being included in his list of friends — I should consider that this honor alone would have made my residence in the national capital worth while.
It seems but yesterday when I was present at a meeting of the National Council of Women, Feb. 20th, 1895, and heard when the president remarked that she saw Frederick Douglass in the room and would appoint a committee of two to escort him to the stage. I can see the flutter of white handkerchiefs waved by enthusiastic, admiring women, as the towering, majestic form of Frederick Douglass between the committee of two approached the stage of what is now Columbia Theatre, but what was then called Metzerrott Hall. I can see the handsome, kindly, brown face, surmounted by a shock of snow white hair, as with the grace and courtesy of a Chesterfield he bowed his pleased acknowledgement to the royal Chautauqua salute and the other hearty demonstration which the women made. At the close of the meeting, when Mr. Douglass descended from the stage, he motioned me to wait for him, while he stopped to talk with some of his friends — a request with which I cheerfully complied on that occasion, as on all others, when he honored me by proferring it. As we walked from the hall about two o’clock, Mr. Douglass invited me to lunch with him. Alas, that we cannot know on rare occasions what a day will bring forth. If such knowledge were vouchsafed us, how often would we sacrifice our own feelings and comfort to please a well-beloved friend. Having been indisposed for some time, I felt obliged to decline Mr. Douglass’ invitation. How often since that memorable day have I regretted that I did not remain in that inspiring, kingly, kindly presence another short hour. With a courtly sweep of a large, light hat which Mr. Douglass happened to wear, he bade me good-bye, saying as he did that he was sorry I would not come to see him appease his own hunger, if I didn’t care for lunch myself. About nine o’clock that night a friend called at my house to tell me that Mr. Douglass had expired at seven o’clock at his residence just as he was telling Mrs. Douglass the cordial reception accorded him by the National Council of Women.
It has always seemed fitting that a large portion of Frederick Douglass’ last day on earth should have been spent at a meeting of an organization founded for the purpose of advancing the interests and promoting the welfare of women — a subject in which he had been interested and a cause for which he had worked so enthusiastically for many years.
If Frederick Douglass were here in the flesh to-day, I am sure he would urge us to buckle on the armor and go forth with fresh courage and renewed zeal to throttle the giants of prejudice, proscription and persecution on account of either sex or race. In Mr. Douglass’ own fight from the degradation, the blight and the curse of slavery to freedom, he has set us an example of determination, energy, resolution, faith and hope which we should do well to imitate to-day. Catching the spirit of that great and good man, let us resolve here and now that neither principalities nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come shall separate us from our beloved cause and deter us from discharging the obligations and duties to it which rest upon us to-day.
Source: Centennial Anniversary of Seneca County and Auxiliary Papers, Seneca Falls Historical Society, Seneca Falls, New York, 1908, pp. 54-58.
Also: Frederick Douglass on Women’s Rights, Philip S. Foner (Da Capo Press), 1992, pp. 176-181.