Frederick Douglass: America’s real emancipator

Sep 15, 2012  

Written by
Rich Newman

An important Civil War anniversary looms for both Rochester and the nation. On Sept. 22, 1862, Abraham Lincoln issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. If Confederates did not relinquish their arms before Jan. 1, 1863, the president warned, enslaved people would be liberated.

Although Lincoln had been contemplating emancipation since the summer, he waited until Union success at the bloody battle of Antietam to announce his bold policy. As one historian has argued, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was probably the greatest presidential reform document in American history.

Yet as Americans honor the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s initial emancipation act, they may well forget that during the early war years the real emancipator hailed from Rochester.

Frederick Douglass, the runaway slave who became one of the nation’s leading abolitionists, consistently called for an emancipation order to defeat the Confederacy.

From his Rochester base, where Douglass published the third of his famous newspapers (Douglass’ Monthly), the celebrated black abolitionist called on President Lincoln to transform the Union war into an abolitionist crusade.

No sooner had the firing on Fort Sumter begun than Douglass issued his own proclamation on “the war and how to end it.”

By declaring freedom to Southern slaves, Douglass argued, the United States would not only end the Civil War but perfect the nation.

Douglass was continually frustrated by Lincoln’s conservatism.

In 1861, after Lincoln overturned Union Gen. John C. Fremont’s freedom proclamation to slaves of Confederate sympathizers in Missouri, Douglass excoriated the president.

When Lincoln again reversed one of a general’s emancipation edicts in the spring of 1862, Douglass was beside himself. He even considered leaving the country. But Douglass remained, challenging the president to embrace emancipation.

Indeed, as David Blight, the celebrated Yale historian and biographer of Douglass, will argue in a free public talk at 7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 20, in the Rochester Institute of Technology’s Golisano Hall auditorium, Douglass should be considered the Union’s “Person of the Year” for 1862. No other abolitionist did more to promote emancipation as a war aim.

Even Lincoln, who ended up befriending Douglass, honored the Rochesterian as a key emancipation ally.

Hopefully, in the weeks ahead, Rochester residents will pause to consider Douglass’ many contributions to Civil War freedom.

Copyright © 2012

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