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Here’s Why Frederick Douglass was a Republican

Many people may not realize that one of the champions of the fight for African American rights was a black “dyed in the wool Republican” by his own account.

In remarks at the White House on Tuesday, President Donald Trump described abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass as a “great American icon,” noting his 200th birthday to be celebrated on Feb. 14.

Douglass was a lifelong member of the GOP and strongly supported two of its most prominent presidents — Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant — in their efforts to secure the rights of black Americans.

“I am a Republican, a black, dyed in the wool Republican, and I never intend to belong to any other party than the party of freedom and progress,” Douglass is credited with saying.

The reason why is understandable. The Grand Old Party was founded in 1854 with the stated mission of stopping the growth of slavery into the western territories.

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Lincoln argued in his famous debates with Sen. Stephen Douglas in 1858 and his Cooper Union Address in 1860 that the founders had placed slavery on the pathway to extinction by limiting its geographic sphere, which politicians in the 19th century reversed by allowing it to expand west.

Lincoln repeatedly referenced the Declaration of Independence with its well-known words that “all men are created equal” and “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights” to argue the case that black people should be free.

Frederick Douglass frequently did the same.

In one of his most celebrated speeches entitled “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” in 1852, Douglass said, “(Y)ou hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal; and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” he said, but then pointed out that “you” also hold on to slavery.

Do you think Frederick Douglass would be a Republican today?

He continued, “The existence of slavery in this country brands your republicanism (as in constitutional republic) as a sham, your humanity as a base pretense, and your Christianity as a lie.”

Following Lincoln’s issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, Douglass’ mission changed from abolitionist to recruiter. He now traveled town-to-town, church-to-church, anywhere people could be gathered, and encouraged the young black men to join the Union ranks and fight for the cause of freedom.

Black men heeded Douglass’ call to fight. By the end of the war, 180,000 had served, making up 10 percent of the Union’s ranks.

In recognition of his recruiting efforts, Douglass became the first African American in the nation’s history to visit the White House and meet with the president in an official capacity.

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During his final year in office, Lincoln championed passage of the 13th Amendment, which ended slavery throughout the United States once and for all. The measure was introduced by Republicans and passed with unanimous support of its members of Congress, while only a handful of Democrats (2 in the Senate and 16 in the House) voted in the affirmative.

In an oration honoring the assassinated Lincoln after the war, Douglass said, “Our faith in him was often taxed and strained to the uttermost” as he moved in measured steps toward freeing the slaves, “but it never failed.”

Grant, who had served as commander of the Union forces under Lincoln, would take up his former boss’ banner when he became commander-in-chief.

The nation’s 18th president fully supported passage of the 15th Amendment, which guaranteed the right to vote, regardless of race or previous condition as a slave. Once again, it was Republican members of Congress who passed the measure, but this time with no Democrat votes.

Grant backed up the words and promises of the post Civil War amendments by sending federal troops into the former Confederate states to ensure their enforcement and to protect the lives of the recently freed slaves.

Of Grant, Douglass said, “To him more than any other man the Negro owes his enfranchisement and the Indian a humane policy. … He was accessible to all men. … The black soldier was welcome in his tent, and the freedman in his house.”

One hundred years after the Civil War ended, the Republican Party backed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in greater percentages than the Democrat Party. Eighty percent of Republican senators voted for it versus 69 percent of Democrats, and in the House, it was 80 percent of Republicans to the Democrats 63 percent.

One cannot know whether Douglass would be a Republican in 2018, but the GOP is proud to count him as part of its storied history.

At remarks at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture on Tuesday, Vice President Mike Pence honored the legacy of Douglass.

“Two-hundred years ago,” Pence said, “America was blessed by the birth of a man who, in his lifetime, through his intellect and personal courage and through his inspiration that would echo through the generations, transformed America into a more perfect Union.”

Randy DeSoto is The Western Journal’s senior staff writer and author of the book “We Hold These Truths.” 

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