Frederick Douglass, Andrew Johnson, and the Copperhead GOP

Frederick Douglass, Andrew Johnson, and the Copperhead GOP

I am currently reading David W. Blight’s biography of Frederick Douglass, the 19th century orator and champion of black equality. Today I wanted to briefly write on several timely topics inspired by that tome.

Douglass was biracial, or in the parlance of the day, a mulatto. His mother was a young slave named Harriet Bailey. His father was probably Aaron Anthony, the “overseer of overseers” of slaves at the nearby Wye Plantation on the eastern shore of Maryland. He was probably conceived in rape.

His earliest memories included Anthony giving his mother’s sister a vicious whipping for the crime of having a romantic relationship with a young male slave; and Anthony also gently leading him by the hand, patting him on the head, tousling his hair, and calling him “my little Indian boy.”

 

At about age 12, he was given to the Auld family in Baltimore as a house slave and companion for several of their children. In the first of several portentous mere chances, the wife, Sophia Auld, who had never owned a slave before, included him in her own children’s education, and taught him how to read. Soon he was reading the Bible, and sermonizing at church services among slaves on Sundays.

He escaped to freedom when he was 18, and in another serendipitous episode, was asked to lecture about his experiences at a local abolitionist meeting attended by William Lloyd Garrison. A oratorical star was born.

He was already famous in the 1840s . By the middle of the Civil War he was meeting with Lincoln at the White House, pressing the issues of the abolition of slavery, the enlistment of black soldiers, and the right to vote.

After Lincoln’s assassination, Douglass pressed for activist, interventionist Federal power to protect the rights of freedmen in the South as part of the establishment of a new order.

There he ran into the brick wall of President Andrew Johnson. Johnson was the only Senator from a seceded state (Tennessee) who did not resign, and was a powerful symbol as Lincoln’s 1864 running mate.

The problem was that, aside from opposing secession, and recognizing that the Thirteenth Amendment was fait accompli, Johnson was in favor of “Confederate Reconstruction,” determined to restore the status quo ante, including state’s rights, restoration of land to slaveowners, pardoning of prominent Confederates, providing no help nor rights whatsoever to the freed slaves, and accepting the passage of “black codes” in the South that de facto returned former slaves to servility.

Against this, Douglass led a delegation of 13 men who went to the White House and insisted on a meeting with Johnson that proved deeply contentious.

At the meeting, Johnson claimed that slavery was a de facto conspiracy by masters and slaves against poor whites, and that the abolition of slavery was nothing more than an expedient to suppress the rebellious South. He insisted that states’ rights was a fundamental tenet of the nation, and meant that nothing should be forced on the white majority against their consent. He disdained what he called “abstract ideas of liberty” for blacks that he claimed would result in race war. Johnson subsequently reiterated those views in his strident veto of the 1866 Civil Rights Act, inveighing against the “centralization” of power in the Federal government, and claiming that the extension of civil rights protections for blacks were “fraught with evil” and “made to operate in favor of the colored and against the white race.” Congress overrode that veto.

The contemporaneous term for those who held views like Johnson was “copperheads.” Just last week the almost identical assertions were made on the Senate Floor by Mitch McConnell. His party equally deserves the epithet of the  Copperhead GOP.

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