1861: “Is He Not A Man?”

Gazette665 Blog Series 1861: In Their WordsSeptember 1861

…Our Presidents, Governors, Generals, and Secretaries are calling, with almost frantic vehemence, for men. – “Men! Men! Send us men!” they scream, or the cause of the Union is gone, the life of a great nation is ruthlessly sacrificed, and the hopes of a great nation go out in darkness…

…Why does the Government reject the Negro? Is he not a man? Can he not wield a sword, fire a gun, march and countermarch, and obey orders like any other? Is there the least reason to believe that a regiment of well-drilled Negroes would deport themselves less soldier-like on the battle field than the raw troops gathered up generally from the towns and cities of the State of New York? We do believe that such soldiers, if allowed now to take up arms in defence [defense] of the Government, and made to feel that they are hereafter to be recognized as persons having rights, would set the highest example of order and general good behavior to their fellow soldiers, and in way add to the national power…

Frederick Douglas, Newspaper Editorial, September 1861

Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass

Responding To Lincoln, Fremont, & Society

Today’s primary source was an editorial article in the Frederick Douglass’s newspaper, written by Frederick Douglass. The opinion was expressed in direct response to Lincoln’s public disapproval of John C. Fremont’s proclamation of emancipation. (See last week’s blog post).

The article points out the irony of leaders and society scrambling to recruit men for larger armies, but unwilling to accept the enlistment of African Americans. Just as foreign immigrant minority groups saw the Civil War as a way to gain society respect and acceptance, free African Americans wanted a chance to fight for their country and to battle for new reputations and societal welcome. Abolitionists argued that freeing the slaves in the America could give the North increased manpower for their armies if African Americans were allowed to enlist.

Unfortunately, the ideas were not popular in 1861. The war was still mostly about Union and hadn’t focused on the abolishment of slavery yet. Therefore, it would be months before African Americans would officially be allowed to serve in the armies and fight for their freedom and citizen rights.

Frederick Douglass

If something controversial needed to be said, Frederick Douglass would probably say it. As a bold social reformer, he advocated for equality and voting rights for ALL Americans. Douglass knew first-hand about oppression; he had been a slave. He escaped from bondage and eventually became one of the main leaders in the American abolition movement. His first auto-biography (published in 1845), Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, was a best-seller and his newspapers were strong voices for freedom and equality.

Frederick Douglass's first autobiography was published in 1845.
Frederick Douglass’s first autobiography was published in 1845.

During the Civil War, Frederick Douglass was an “un-official advisor” to President Lincoln, discussing abolition and enlistment of African Americans. Douglass and Lincoln did not always agree, but Douglass rejoiced when the Emancipation Proclamation was signed in 1863. His sons were active in African American regiments in the later part of the war, and Douglass helped with recruiting, giving pro-Union and anti-slavery speeches and writing.

Historical Musings

While Lincoln was intent on keep the focus on the war on Union vs. Secession (an interpretation of the Constitution), he faced pressure from abolition leaders to take the opportunity to address and change the American laws. In 1861, Lincoln was not ready for that step, but one year later emancipation would be part of his war strategy.

It’s significant that the abolitionists did not let Lincoln “get away” with the revocation of Fremont’s order. They took it as another opportunity to encourage and pressure the president and Federal government to do something to end slavery in America. Frederick Douglass and other abolitionists were going to change history because they were not willing to remain silent; they wrote, spoke, and educated for the cause they believed in – a cause stronger than Union or Secession: Freedom for the oppressed.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. What patriotic sentiments stand out to you in Douglass’s quote?

Frederick Douglass 1861




  1. […] Many have found employment, and are supporting themselves and their families. It would do your heart good to talk with some of these people. They are quick, intelligent, and full of the spirit of freedom. Some of them say to me, “The white men of the North have helped us thus far, and we want to help them. We would like to fight for them, if they would only treat us like men.” […]

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