At Last, at Last, the Black Man Has a Future: an Address Delivered in Albany, New York, on April 22, 1870
AT LAST, AT LAST, THE BLACK MAN HAS A FUTURE:
AN ADDRESS DELIVERED IN ALBANY, NEW YORK,
ON 22 APRIL 1870
Albany Evening Journal, 23 April 1870. Another text in New Era, 5 May 1870.
On 22 April 1870 Douglass was in Albany, New York, to join in that city’s
celebration of the Fifteenth Amendment’s ratiﬁcation. A committee of local
blacks had made elaborate preparations for the event, decorating Tweddle
Hall, site of the festivities, with numerous ﬂowers, banners, and ﬂags. “By
the time the order of exercises had commenced,” reported the Albany Evening
Journal, “the house was literally packed to suffocation with humanity, and
even the lobbies and stairways were crowded with those unable to obtain an
entrance to the main hall.” The speakers reached the platform escorted by
uniformed militia. L. H. Jackson, chairman of the arrangements committee,
called the gathering to order at 8:00 P.M., after which the program continued
with prayers, songs, poetry recitations, and the reading of the secretary of
state’s proclamation announcing the ratification of the amendment. A band
played “Hail to the Chief” when Douglass was introduced. After Douglass’s
address, which the local press described as “one of his thrilling, eloquent,
extempore speeches, such as he only can make,” Charles L. Remond took the
floor, substituting for Senator Hiram Revels of Mississippi, who had been
invited but could not attend. The meeting concluded with the passage of
resolutions hailing the new amendment. The Evening Journal warmly praised
the affair and proclaimed that “a new era has opened for the colored race, and
we trust that the success of last evening may be the harbinger of a bright future
in store for them.” This was one of numerous speeches Douglass delivered
commemorating the Fifteenth Amendment. See Appendix A, text 6, for
précis of alternate texts. Albany Evening Journal, 20, 22 April 1870; San
Francisco Elevator, 3 June 1870.
I have no fixed and formal speech to make to you to-day. The event we
celebrate is its own best speech. It exceeds all speech, and language is tame
in its presence. It has rolled in upon us a joyous surprise, and seems almost
too good to be true.
You did not expect to see it; I did not expect to see it; no man living did
expect to live to see this day. In our moments of unusual mental elevation
and heart-longings, some of us may have caught glimpses of it afar off; we
saw it only by the strong, clear, earnest eye of faith, but none dared even to
hope to stand upon the earth at its coming. Yet here it is. Our eyes behold it;
our ears hear it, our hearts feel it, and there is no doubt or illusion about it.
The black man is free, the black man is a citizen, the black man is enfran-
chised, and this by the organic law of the land. No more a slave, no more a
fugitive slave, no more a despised and hated creature, but a man, and, what
is more a man among men.
Henceforth we live in a new world. The sun does not rise nor set for us as
formerly. “Old things have passed away and all things have become new.”1Douglass paraphrases 2 Cor. 5: 17.
I once went abroad among men with all my quills erect. There was
cause for it. I always looked for insult and buffetings, and was seldom
disappointed in finding them. Now civility is the rule, and insult the
At last, at last, the black man has a future. Heretofore all was dark,
mysterious, chaotic. We were chained to all the unutterable horrors of
never ending ﬁxedness. Others might improve and make progress, but for
us there was nothing but the unending monotony of stagnation, of moral,
mental and social death. The curtain is now lifted. The dismal death-
cloud of slavery has passed away. Today we are free American citizens.
We have ourselves, we have a country, and we have a future in common
with other men.
One of the most remarkable features of this grand revolution is its
thoroughness. Never was revolution more complete. Nothing has been left
for time. No probation has been imposed. The Hebrews tarried in the
wilderness forty years before they reached the land of promise.2The Israelites' forty-year wanderings in the wilderness are recounted in the Books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. The West
India slaves had their season of apprenticeship. Feudal slavery died a
lingering death in Europe. Hayti rose to freedom only by degrees and by
limited concessions. Religious liberty as now enjoyed came only in slow
installments; but our liberty has come all at once, full and complete. The
most exacting could not ask more than we have got; the most urgent could
not have demanded it more promptly. We have all we asked, and more than
Even William Lloyd Garrison (I speak it not reproachfully) halted
when the advance to suffrage was sounded; and he was not alone.3William Lloyd Garrison‘s opposition to immediate black suffrage was one of the issues debated at the meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society in New York City on 10 May 1865. Walter M. Merrill, Against Wind and Tide: A Biography of Wm. Lloyd Garrison (Cambridge, Mass., 1963), 299-301; John L. Thomas, The Liberator, William Lloyd Garrison: A Biography (Boston, 1963), 431-35. It
seemed too much to ask, that a people so long accustomed to the restraints
of slavery should be all at once lifted into the complete freedom of cit-
izenship. It was too fast and too far. For once, the clear-eyed preacher,
pioneer and prophet failed to discern the signs of the times. While the
midnight darkness of slavery lasted, none more clearly than he saw the true
course, or more steadily pursued it; but the first streak of daylight confused
his vision, and he halted; while at halt, a part of the hosts he had led moved
on. While we can never fully pay the debt of gratitude we owe to William
Lloyd Garrison for his long and powerful advocacy of our emancipation
from chattel slavery, other names loom up for grateful mention when equal
suffrage is under consideration.
We cannot be too grateful to the brave and good men through whose
exertions our enfranchisement has been accomplished. It would, of course,
be impossible to do justice to all who have participated in this noble work.
We have no scales by which to weigh and measure the value of our indi-
vidual benefactors. This must be left to other times and other men. Impar-
tial history will bring many who are obscure for a moment into future
notice, and will shower upon their memories all merited honors. In this
hour of joy and gratitude we can do no more than view the grand army as a
whole, and bow our heads in warmest admiration and gratitude to all.
A few names, however, stand at the heads of columns—men whose
merits are above debate. Of these we may speak without being invidious.
Some are living; some are dead. Among the living let us remember Wen-
dell Phillips—than whom none have been more vigilant, clearsighted,
earnest, true and eloquent. Without ofﬁce, without party, only a handful at
his back, he has done more to lead and mould public opinion in favor of
equal suffrage than any man I know of. After Phillips, let us remember
Theodore Tilton and the Independent; it was mainly through Mr. Tilton
and Anna E. Dickinson that the Loyal Convention three years ago, against
the protests of Border State men, inscribed upon its banner the vital princi-
ple of the Fifteenth amendment, and thus forced its recognition upon the
great Republican party.4Douglass refers to the Southern Loyalists' Convention held in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on 3-7 September 1866. The speaker was a delegate from the city of
Rochester. He was urged to keep out of that Convention. Governors united
in a petition that he should be excluded, because he would turn the scale
against us, and his presence would give our enemies a handle to defeat us, a
club to knock down the Republican party. But he was bound to go in.
Among all that crowd of Republicans there was scarcely one who was
ready to welcome a colored man to the Convention. Theodore Tilton was
the only man who dared to walk through the streets with a black man. The
boldness, address, ﬁrmness and sagacity of that young man, on that occa-
sion, ﬁlled me with admiration and gratitude. He was the only one who
advocated the Fifteenth amendment. He dared to advocate it against the
opposition of the leading men who placed John Minor Botts in the chair and
made a speech in favor of the amendment. He (the speaker) made a speech
also and Anna Dickinson made one. The voice of that Convention was
saved to our cause through Theodore Tilton; and I doubt if the Fifteenth
amendment would now be a part of the Constitution had not the demand
come from that Convention. Up to this time most of our political friends
had been contented with the Fourteenth amendment, which left the matter
of franchise to the States, and to State action, which could grant or refuse
suffrage to the colored man at pleasure, and we all know how the States
separately would have acted upon that question. How anybody could have
been in favor of leaving the freedmen to the mercy of the dark, depraved,
disappointed and bloody spirit of defeated rebels, seems strange enough at
this time. But many they were, inside and outside of Congress, men whom
we are accustomed to honor as our friends, who had nothing better to offer
than the compromising and worthless Fourteenth amendment.5The Fourteenth Amendment, ratiﬁed by the states in 1868, granted citizenship rights to blacks. The ﬁrst of its ﬁve sections deﬁned citizenship and guaranteed due process and equal protection of the law. The remaining sections penalized states for withholding the right to vote, disqualiﬁed certain ex-Confederates from public ofﬁce, and disallowed any claims resulting from the “loss or emancipation of any slave." Congress made ratiﬁcation of the amendment a condition for the readmission of Confederate states into the Union. Joseph Bliss James, The Framing of the Fourteenth Amendment (Urbana, Ill., 1956).
But this is not the hour for history or criticism. We meet for congratula-
tion and for gratitude. Let us forget the timid and remember the brave. In
the Senate Chamber ﬁrst, midst and last, there stood one man, great in
soul, as great in learning, a man whom no sophistry could mislead and no
power intimidate, calm, grand and patient as truth itself, (you anticipate
me) Charles Sumner. Praise is due in many directions, due to men of great
talents and to men whose talents are not great, men in the Senate and to men
out of the Senate; but where shall we find one man to whom the colored
citizens of the United States owe a larger debt of gratitude than to Charles
Sumner? His twenty years in the Senate, in all vicissitudes, with many or
with few, in victory or defeat, forms an unbroken line of service to liberty,
justice and humanity. Scoff and criticise who will, no man can dim in any
wise the brightness of this man’s record. He has demonstrated anew that
one man with the truth on his side is a majority against all the hosts of
darkness, and to-day has the proud satisfaction of seeing his very soul in
the image of the nation.
As in the Senate, so in the House, we had an advocate whose name will
be remembered by us through all our generations—one whose mental
vigor deﬁed the inﬁrmities of age, and the burdens of leadership; one who
fell with his face towards the enemy, and went to his grave with his armor
on, but not until his eye had caught the full assurance of victory. Let us
remember Thaddeus Stevens.
After Stevens, let us remember Wm. D. Kelley. No name in that great
House, of which he is a powerful member, has better right to honor on this
day and in this presence. To him belongs the credit of having a clear
understanding of this question from the beginning. He has been right,
through and through, and from beginning to end. All honor to Wm. D.
There, too, stands Benjamin F. Butler, the ﬁrst born of our grand
revolution—among the first to learn its great lesson of freedom, and to
possess the nerve and power to enforce that lesson—not more in New
Orleans than in the House of Representatives. Honor to B. F. Butler. We
honor him not only for the past, but we trust him for what is to come. (The
speaker proposed three cheers for Mr. Butler, which were given.)
Now let us go over to the White House. All honor to General Grant.6Ulysses S. Grant.
Fortunate in the Senate, fortunate in the House, fortunate in the army,
fortunate among the people, we are equally fortunate in our noble Presi-
dent. Who can tell how much we owe to General Grant? Though all else
had been for us, if he had been against us, we could not have met here to-
day. At the head of the Party, at the head of the Government, at the head of
the Nation, and in sight of Heaven and earth, he early proclaimed himself in
favor of the Fifteenth amendment. We honor the President, and we honor
Secretary Boutwell7Born in Brookline, Massachusetts, George Sewall Boutwell (1818-1905) served as a Democratic state representative and governor before reaching the age of thirty-five. Vehemently antislavery, Boutwell switched political afﬁliations in the 1850s and helped found his state's Republican party in 1855. The first commissioner of internal revenue (1862-63), Boutwell was elected three times as a Radical Republican to the U.S. House of Representatives (1863-69). There he served on the Joint Committee on Reconstruction, helped frame the Fourteenth Amendment, championed the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment, and was one of the House managers during the Senate impeachment trial of Andrew Johnson. Appointed secretary of the treasury by Ulysses S. Grant in 1873, Boutwell served for four years before being elected to the U.S. Senate. He later represented the United States as a diplomatic consul in Haiti (1885), Hawaii (1886), and Chile (1893-94). Sobel and Raimo, Biographical Directory of the Governors, 703-04; Sobel, Biographical Directory of the U.S. Executive Branch, 32-33; BDAC, 577; ACAB, 1: 331-32; NCAB, 4: 382-83; DAB, 2: 489-90. and all the members of the President’s Cabinet.
But this day calls up to memory the dead as well as the living: Owen
Lovejoy, Joshua R. Giddings, Henry Winter Davis, can never be forgotten.
With reverence, affection and gratitude let us remember Abraham Lincoln
and John Brown. This is their day as well as ours. The event we celebrate
will serve better than marble, brass, iron or granite, to keep their memories
fresh in the minds of their countrymen and mankind.
But what does this Fifteenth amendment mean to us? I will tell you. It
means that the colored people are now and will be held to be, by the whole
nation, responsible for their own existence and their well or ill being. It
means that we are placed upon an equal footing with all other men, and that
the glory or shame of our future is to be wholly our own. For one, I accept
this new situation gladly. I do so for myself and I do so for you; and I do so
in the full belief that the future will show that we are equal to the responsi-
bility which this great measure has imposed upon us.
What does this measure mean? I will tell you. It means progress,
civilization, knowledge, manhood. It means that you and I and all of us
shall leave the narrow places in which we now breathe, and live in the same
comfort and independence enjoyed by other men. It means industry, ap-
plication to business, economy in the use of our earnings, and the building
up of a solid character—one which will deserve and command the respect
of our fellow citizens of all races. It means that color is no longer to be a
calamity; that race is to be no longer a crime; and that liberty is to be the
right of all.
The black man has no longer an apology for lagging behind in the race
of civilization. If he rises the glory is to be his, if he falls the shame will be
his. He is to be the architect of his own fortunes. If we are despised, it is
because we make ourselves despicable, if we are honored it is because we
exhibit qualities deserving of honor. Character, not color, is to be the
criterion. A great many of the American people are disturbed about the
present state of things. They like a strong government. Carlyle says we are
rushing to ruin with cataract speed.8Douglass alludes to Thomas Carlyle’s essay “Shooting Niagara: And After?" in Carlyle, Critical and Miscellaneous Essays, 4: 339-92. Others are croakers in the mournful
style of Poe’s raven9“The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe. New York Evening Mirror, 29 January 1845.—we shall never again see such days as were the
earlier days of our republic, say they—never such statesmen as Clay,
Calhoun, Webster,10Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, and Daniel Webster. and others. The two races cannot work well together.
However, he would let the croakers croak on. He never felt more hopeful
than now, and the croakers do not disturb him. We had them during the war,
and we shall continue to have them. During the dark hours of the war, when
we needed strong words to hold us up, there were croakers. They said we
never would put down rebellion, or abolish slavery, or reconstruct the
South, and we have accomplished all. South Carolina has adopted all the
amendments.11South Carolina ratiﬁed the Thirteenth Amendment on 13 November 1865, the Fourteenth Amendment on 9 July 1868, and the Fifteenth Amendment on 11 March 1869. Long, Civil War Day by Day, 696; McPherson, History of Reconstruction, 428, 497-98.
He compassionated his Democratic brethren. They are in a state of
honest alarm, and we ought to say some word of comfort to them. He
would tell his Democratic friends, that Jefferson12Thomas Jefferson. wrote the Fourteenth
Amendment. That amendment is but the carrying out of Democratic doc-
trine—that all men are created equal, and have the inalienable right to life,
liberty and the pursuit of happiness.13Douglass quotes from the Declaration of Independence. We gave the credit to Garrison,
Lundy,14Benjamin Lundy. and others. When God told the children of Israel to go free, the
great truth had its origin.
We are a great nation—not we colored people particularly, but all of
us. We are all together now. We are fellow-citizens of a common country.
What a country—fortunate in its institutions, in its Fifteenth amendment,
in its future. We are made up of a variety of nations—Chinese, Jews,
Africans, Europeans, and all sorts. These different races give the Govern-
ment a powerful arm to defend it. They will vie with each other in hardship
and peril, and will be united in defending it from all its enemies, whether
from within or without. (Applause.)