"THE SERFS OF RUSSIA...WERE GIVEN THREE ACRES OF LAND"
Frederick Douglass assesses the meaning of emancipation in 1880.
How stands the case with the recently emancipated millions of colored
people in our own country? What is their condition to-
What is their relation to the people who formerly held them as slaves? These
are important questions, and they are such as trouble the minds of thoughtful
men of all colors, at home and abroad. By law, by the constitution of the
United States, slavery has no existence in our country. The legal form has
been abolished. By the law and the constitution, the Negro is a man and a
citizen, and has all the rights and liberties guaranteed to any other variety
of the human family, residing in the United States....
In pursuance of this idea, the Negro was made free, made a citizen, made
eligible to hold office, to be a juryman, a legislator, and a magistrate. To
this end, several amendments to the constitution were proposed, recommended,
and adopted....This is our condition on paper and parchment. If only from the
national statute book we were left to learn the true condition of the colored
race, the result would be altogether creditable to the American people....
We have laid the heavy hand of the constitution upon the matchless
meanness of caste, as well as upon the hell-
crime of slavery....But to-
in most of the Southern States, the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments are
The rights which they were intended to guarantee are denied and held in
contempt. The citizenship granted in the fourteenth amendment is practically
a mockery, and the right to vote, provided for in the fifteenth amendment, is
literally stamped out in face of government. The old master class is to-
triumphant, and the newly-
class in a condition but little above that in which they were found before the
Do you ask me how, after all that has been done, this state of things has
been made possible? I will tell you. Our reconstruction measures were
radically defective. They left the former slave completely in the power of
the old master, the loyal citizen in the hands of the disloyal rebel against
the government. Wise, grand, and comprehensive in scope and desire as were
the reconstruction measures, high and honorable as were the intentions of the
statesmen by whom they were framed and adopted, time and experience, which try
all things, have demonstrated that they did not successfully meet the case.
In the hurry and confusion of the hour, and the eager desire to have the
Union restored, there was more care for the sublime superstructure of the
republic than for the solid foundation upon which it could alone be
upheld....The old master class was not deprived of the power of life and
death, which was the soul of the relation of master and slave. They could
not, of course, sell their former slaves, but they retained the power to
starve them to death, and wherever this power is held there is the power of
slavery. He who can say to his fellow-
"You shall serve me or starve," is a master and his subject is a
slave....Though no longer a slave, he is in a thralldom grievous and
intolerable, compelled to work for whatever his employer is pleased to pay
him, swindled out of his hard earnings by money orders redeemed in stores,
compelled to pay the prince of an acre of ground for its use during a single
year, to pay four times more than a fair price for a pound of bacon and to be
kept upon the narrowest margin between life and starvation....
When the serfs of Russia were emancipated, they were given three acres of
ground upon which they could live and make a living. But no so when our
slaves were emancipated. They were sent away empty-
without money, without friends and without a foot of land upon which to
Greatness does not come on flowery beds of ease to any people. We must
fight to win the prize. No people to whom liberty is given, can hold it as
firmly and wear it as grandly as those who wrench liberty from the iron hand
of the tyrant. The hardships and dangers involved in the struggle give
strength and toughness to the character, and enable it to stand firm in storm
as well as in sunshine.
Source: Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (Boston, 1892).