“Anguish and grief, like darkness and rain, may be depicted; but gladness and joy, like the rainbow, defy the skill of pen or pencil.”

Today in History, September 3, 1838:

A young man named Frederick Douglass manages, on his third attempt, to escape slavery by hiding aboard a train headed north.

The future abolitionist leader, author, statesman, marshal, and presidential confidant, after a dangerous trip through several states, finds himself in New York City.

“I have often been asked, how I felt when first I found myself on free soil. And my readers may share the same curiosity. There is scarcely anything in my experience about which I could not give a more satisfactory answer. A new world had opened upon me. If life is more than breath, and the ‘quick round of blood,’ I lived more in one day than in a year of my slave life. It was a time of joyous excitement which words can but tamely describe. In a letter written to a friend soon after reaching New York, I said: ‘I felt as one might feel upon escape from a den of hungry lions.’ Anguish and grief, like darkness and rain, may be depicted; but gladness and joy, like the rainbow, defy the skill of pen or pencil.”

Dred Scott & The Supreme Court

Today in History, March 6, 1857:

The Dredd Scott Decision.

Dredd Scott was a slave whose owner had traveled and lived in “free states” and had promised him his freedom. When his owner died, Scott sued for his freedom, because he had lived in “free” states.

The case worked it’s way up the chain to the Supreme Court, which at that time was loaded with Southerners.

Chief Justice Roger Taney wrote the majority opinion that declared that no slave could possibly be a citizen, therefore they had no standing to sue. Also that the Federal Government had no right to regulate slavery in the states and territories.

Obviously a biased, politically motivated opinion, the decision, in part, led to the horrific, devastating American Civil War.

So our lesson is complex. The Supreme Court, while our highest court, is not infallible. It’s bad decisions lead to horrific consequences for the nation. It DOES make political decisions. And this theory does not end with Dredd Scott.

Kicking the Abolition Can Down the Road…

Today in History, March 2, 1807:

The US Congress passes a law abolishing the transatlantic slave trade in the US, “An Act to prohibit the importation of slaves into any port or place within the jurisdiction of the United States, from and after the first day of January, in the year of our Lord, One Thousand Eight Hundred and Eight.”

Congress began the habit of “kicking the can down the road” from the very beginning. When the Constitution was ratified, a clause was included that prohibited any laws affecting slavery for 20 years, or 1808.

The clause was included to ensure that southern states would sign off on the union.

By 1794 abolitionist groups were already forming to push for action once the time was up; in 1805 Senator Stephen Row Bradley of Vermont announced his intention to present the bill described here, and did so. The British also outlawed the slave trade in 1807.

However the importation of slaves continued in Central and South America, especially in Brazil where it had begun, until 1860 (officially).

Even this step by US lawmakers was a bit of a cynical compromise…the South signed off on the new law easily because they had enough slaves already in the country that they didn’t feel they needed to import them anymore.

Frederick Douglass’ Earthly Journey Ends

Today in History, February 20, 1895:

Frederick Douglass dies of either a heart attack or stroke in Washington DC after having appeared at an event of the National Council of Women where he received a standing ovation.

Thousands paid their respects at his funeral before he was returned to New York City to be interred at Mount Hope Cemetery in his family plot.

Douglass had been born circa 1818 (he never knew his actual birth date) into slavery in Maryland.

In 1838, on his third attempt, he escaped slavery. In the coming years Frederick Douglass became a well respected orator and statesman for the growing abolitionist and equal rights movements, impressing his listeners with his intellect and powerful messages.

“I have often been asked, how I felt when first I found myself on free soil. And my readers may share the same curiosity. There is scarcely anything in my experience about which I could not give a more satisfactory answer. A new world had opened upon me. If life is more than breath, and the ‘quick round of blood,’ I lived more in one day than in a year of my slave life. It was a time of joyous excitement which words can but tamely describe.

In a letter written to a friend soon after reaching New York, I said: ‘I felt as one might feel upon escape from a den of hungry lions.’ Anguish and grief, like darkness and rain, may be depicted; but gladness and joy, like the rainbow, defy the skill of pen or pencil.” – Frederick Douglass

The Emancipation Proclamation

Today in History, January 1, 1863:

President Abraham Lincoln signs the final version of the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring an end to slavery in the rebelling states.

The road to the end of slavery had been long and hard, and it wasn’t over yet. But this was the most definitive statement ever made in America about the evil and the demise it must suffer.

The founding fathers had known slavery was wrong; but they didn’t believe they could end it and still create the nation that would be America…the southern states depended on slavery for their economy. So they “kicked the can down the road”.

The nation continued to deal with the inequity of it’s principles and its sins through each administration. Andrew Jackson dealt with it during the Nullification Crisis; but again, half measures to keep the peace.

The Missouri Compromise, the Compromise of 1850, the Kansas-Nebraska Act…our early history was juggling Abolition against the slave driven economy of the South on a continuous basis by some of the most talented people of the time.

The Republican party was born of abolitionist beliefs, but still, only half measures.

Even the Proclamation was a half measure. It only declared slavery ended in states in which it could not be enforced….Confederate states. But it made the war about the end of slavery, not only about the perpetuation of the Union. The dye was cast for freedom.

By the President of the United States of America:

A Proclamation.

Whereas, on the twenty-second day of September, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-two, a proclamation was issued by the President of the United States, containing, among other things, the following, to wit:

“That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.

“That the Executive will, on the first day of January aforesaid, by proclamation, designate the States and parts of States, if any, in which the people thereof, respectively, shall then be in rebellion against the United States; and the fact that any State, or the people thereof, shall on that day be, in good faith, represented in the Congress of the United States by members chosen thereto at elections wherein a majority of the qualified voters of such State shall have participated, shall, in the absence of strong countervailing testimony, be deemed conclusive evidence that such State, and the people thereof, are not then in rebellion against the United States.”

Now, therefore I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, by virtue of the power in me vested as Commander-in-Chief, of the Army and Navy of the United States in time of actual armed rebellion against the authority and government of the United States, and as a fit and necessary war measure for suppressing said rebellion, do, on this first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and in accordance with my purpose so to do publicly proclaimed for the full period of one hundred days, from the day first above mentioned, order and designate as the States and parts of States wherein the people thereof respectively, are this day in rebellion against the United States, the following, to wit: 

Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, (except the Parishes of St. Bernard, Plaquemines, Jefferson, St. John, St. Charles, St. James Ascension, Assumption, Terrebonne, Lafourche, St. Mary, St. Martin, and Orleans, including the City of New Orleans) Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia, (except the forty-eight counties designated as West Virginia, and also the counties of Berkley, Accomac, Northampton, Elizabeth City, York, Princess Ann, and Norfolk, including the cities of Norfolk and Portsmouth[)], and which excepted parts, are for the present, left precisely as if this proclamation were not issued.

And by virtue of the power, and for the purpose aforesaid, I do order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said designated States, and parts of States, are, and henceforward shall be free; and that the Executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authorities thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of said persons.

And I hereby enjoin upon the people so declared to be free to abstain from all violence, unless in necessary self-defence; and I recommend to them that, in all cases when allowed, they labor faithfully for reasonable wages.

And I further declare and make known, that such persons of suitable condition, will be received into the armed service of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations, and other places, and to man vessels of all sorts in said service.

And upon this act, sincerely believed to be an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution, upon military necessity, I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind, and the gracious favor of Almighty God.

In witness whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.

Done at the City of Washington, this first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty three, and of the Independence of the United States of America the eighty-seventh.

By the President: ABRAHAM LINCOLN 
WILLIAM H. SEWARD, Secretary of State.

“This damn fool Sumner is going to get himself shot by some other damn fool.” – Sen. Stephen Douglas

Today in History, May 22, 1856:

Years before the Civil War. On May 20, 1856 US Senator Charles Sumner, a free soil Democrat and later Republican from Massachussetts, had given a firey speech entitled “Crime Against Kansas” about the violence in that state over slavery.

A devout abolitionist, he excoriated the south, in particular Senator Andrew Butler of South Carolina, who he likened to a pimp abusing a prostitute (slavery).

This enraged Butler’s nephew, Senator Preston Brooks. When Sen. Stephen Douglas heard the speech, he commented, “this damn fool Sumner is going to get himself shot by some other damn fool.”

On the 22nd, Brooks entered the Senate chamber with two other Southern Senators, found Sumner at his desk writing and proceeded to bludgeon him nearly to death with his heavy metal tipped cane while Sumner was trapped within his desk, defenseless.

Southerners hailed Brooks a hero.

Northerners called him a coward. One of these, Republican Representative Anson Burlingame called him such on the House floor.

Brooks challenged Burlingame to a duel. When Burlingame actually accepted and showed up, Brooks did not.

Sumner would suffer debilitating pain for the rest of his life from his injuries, but would recover to become a key proponent of abolitionist policies during reconstruction, living until 1872.

Brooks on the other hand died in January 1857, less than a year after the attack, of the croup.

Assassin’s Demise

Today in History, April 26, 1865:

Union Army forces track down John Wilkes Booth 12 days after he assassinated President Lincoln. In the meantime, he had been hidden by Confederates, treated by Doctor Samuel Mudd (your name is mud) and hidden in a barn on the Garrett farm in Virginia, where he was found.

The barn was set afire and his associate surrendered. Booth refused…a Union soldier, Boston Corbett, saw Booth inside the barn and fired his Colt revolver…causing a mortal wound to Booth.

Many Confederates saw Booth as a hero. However many Southerners wept openly at Lincoln’s death, and Confederate Generals, including Lee and Johnston, denounced Booth’s actions.

Fortunately, in the interim between his deed and his death, Booth was able to see news accounts that recorded his hero’s denunciation of his act. So when he died, he knew what he was.