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The nation’s foremost African American voice articulates his clear view of equality in the United States, quoted from his own 1852 address to a Free Soil meeting. FREDERICK DOUGLASS.
Autograph Quotation Signed. [Washington, D.C., February 24, 1882]. 1 p., 5 x 8 in. With original envelope addressed to William F. Gable, Reading, Pa., stamped and postmarked Washington, D.C.
In a composite nation like ours, as before the Law, there should be no rich no poor, no high, no low, no white, no black, but a common country common citizenship, equal rights and a common destiny.
In light pencil, partly erased,
“Feby 22nd 1882
Born 1817 (half negro)”
In 1882, Frederick Douglass sent this quotation on the nature of American pluralism to Pennsylvania businessman and manuscript collector William F. Gable. Douglass originally expressed this egalitarian vision in an October 14, 1852, address at St. James AME Zion Church in Ithaca, N.Y. At that time, Douglass was speaking before the Mass Free Democratic Convention, campaigning on behalf of Free Democrat Gerrit Smith. He assailed the proslavery position of both the Whigs and the Democrats:
“We know you hate your platform in your hearts; but we complain that you do not in your votes. You love liberty and vote against it. You hate slavery and the fugitive slave act, and then vote for the twin abominations. When we condemn your votes, you vindicate your opinions; when we assail your deeds, you defend your motives. Is this honest? Is it manly? What matter is it to the man in chains, whether his chains are voted on by an anti-slavery or by a pro-slavery man, by a Christian or by an infidel? It is not the motives nor the opinions of the voter, but it is the vote that either rivets or breaks his fetters.”
The presidential election of 1852 reflected the nation’s growing tension over slavery. The incumbent Whig party candidate, Millard Fillmore, failed to secure renomination. Though from New York and generally against slavery, Fillmore’s support of the Compromise of 1850, while earning him support of Southern Whigs, alienated New Englanders and other Northern Whigs. Ultimately, a bitterly divided convention nominated Mexican War General Winfield Scott on the 53rd ballot. On the Democratic ticket, Southern sympathizer and New Hampshire son Franklin Pierce gained the nomination as the compromise candidate on the 49th ballot.
As the November election neared, Douglass rightly observed that both national parties had accepted slavery by nominating their respective candidates. In 1852, the Free Soil party was the only force in American politics that stood against slavery. Founded in 1848, the Free Soil party absorbed anti-slavery elements of both the Whig and the Democratic parties.
In its original 1852 context, Douglass’s speech at the St. James AME Zion Church reflected the moment when decades of compromises over slavery were finally failing, and this breakdown was being played out at a national political level. Over the next five years, American politics split over the issue of slavery. Democrats remained supportive of Constitutional protections for slavery, and, especially in the South, were unabashedly pro-slavery. The Whigs disintegrated over the issue, with proslavery Whigs largely joining the Democratic party and antislavery supporters joining the nascent Republican party, and the Free Soil party was likewise absorbed into the Republican party. Less than a decade later, Republican Abraham Lincoln was elected without a single Southern state supporting him.
William F. Gable (1856-1921) was a Pennsylvania businessman who built up his Altoona department store from a single room in 1884 to the state’s most complete facility, housed in a city-block sized Neoclassical building, by 1891. In addition to his business interests, his hobbies included raising Guernsey cattle and collecting rare books and manuscripts. In this capacity, Douglass wrote him this autograph quotation signed in 1882, two years before he started his department store. Douglass’s quotation took its place among letters from Declaration of Independence signers, Benjamin Franklin, all the U.S. presidents, as well as literary figures such as John Greenleaf Whittier, Henry W. Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Thomas Bailey Aldrich, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, and Charles Dickens.
Frederick Douglass (1817[?]-1895) was an orator, journalist, abolitionist, and distinguished African-American leader. Born a slave in Tuckahoe, Maryland, as Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, he assumed the name Douglass after his escape from slavery in 1838. In 1841, Douglass successfully addressed a Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society convention and was employed as its agent. He wrote Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass in 1845 to document his experiences and sufferings, and to silence those who contended that a man of his abilities could not have been a slave. Douglass soon became a noted anti-slavery orator and supporter of women’s rights, lecturing in both the United States and England. He attended the Seneca Falls Convention on women’s rights and signed its Declaration of Sentiments. Douglass edited his own newspaper, The North Star, for several years. During the Civil War, he was instrumental in advocating for African-American combat units, and in raising troops. He fought for passage of the Thirteenth (Abolition), Fourteenth (Citizenship and Equal Protection) and Fifteenth (Voting Rights) Amendments, through testimony to Congress, reports to the President and regular appearances on the lecture circuit. In 1872, Douglass was nominated for vice-president by the Equal Rights Party on a ticket headed by Victoria Woodhull. Douglass was the first African American to serve in important federal posts, including Marshal of the District of Columbia (1877-1881). President James Garfield appointed Douglass as Recorder of Deeds for the District of Columbia, then a high-paying job. Douglass held the position for five years, resigning in 1886 to spend the next two years traveling to Europe and Africa with his second wife. He then became Minister-General to Haiti (1889-1891).