Cup of wrath and fire
He all but thanked the secessionists for "preferring to be a large piece of nothing, to being any longer a small piece of something."
Few people in the North welcomed South Carolina's secession in December 1860, but Frederick Douglass, America's most prominent former slave and AfricanAmerican abolitionist, was one of them. From his editorial desk in Rochester, N.Y., Douglass heaped scorn on the Palmetto State's rash act, but he also relished it as an opportunity. He all but thanked the secessionists for "preferring to be a large piece of nothing, to being any longer a small piece of something."
To Douglass, secessionists provided what he initially hoped would be the long-awaited opening for the antislavery cause: disunion, political crisis, and some form of sanctioned military action against slavery and the South. He would get his wish, but only after the tremendous confusion and fear of the secession winter of 1860 and '61.
Douglass's reactions to secession represented nearly 20 years of pent-up personal travail and abolitionist struggle as slavery had grown across the cotton kingdom and into the American West, and as the antislavery cause seemingly failed in electoral politics, the Supreme Court and public opinion. Douglass and many of his fellow abolitionists had long yearned for a politics of disorder that might force the nation to confront, willingly or not, its future over slavery vs. freedom in a rapidly expanding republic. Was that prospect now at hand? "Her people [South Carolina's]," Douglass declared with anxious glee in his Douglass Monthly, "(except those of them held in slavery, which are more than half her population) have hailed the event as another and far more glorious Fourth of July, and are celebrating it with plenty of gunpowder and bad brandy, but as yet no balls, except those where perfumed ladies and gentlemen move their feet to the inspiring notes of the fiddle." With no veiled intent, Douglass wished for a fight. "Other balls may yet come," he wrote, "and unless South Carolina shall retreat, or the Federal Government shall abdicate its functions, they must come." And he lampooned what South Carolinians imagined as "peaceful secession," celebrated by "bonfires, pyrotechnics . . . music and dancing." He cautioned Carolinians over their confidence about "a thing as easily done," so he maintained they believed, "as the leaving of a society of Odd Fellows, or bidding good night to a spiritual circle."
Not that Douglass believed that South Carolina had a right to secede. The state, he wrote within a week of its actions, was "out of the Union" only "on paper" and in "resolutions and telegrams." Governments, he continued, "rest not upon paper, but upon power. They do not solicit obedience as a favor, but compel it as a duty." Douglass acknowledged the "right of revolution" for a state or a political group, but no constitutional "right of secession."
As a result, he believed, conflict was inevitable: "But revolution in this country is rebellion," he maintained, "and rebellion is treason, and treason is levying war against the United States, with something more than paper resolutions . . . there must be swords, guns, powder, balls, and men behind them to use them." Secession, therefore, was no abstract debate over federalism or states' rights, but a matter of power and guns. "The right of South Carolina to secede," declared the abolitionist, "depends upon her ability to do so, and to stay so." An unfolding history of the Civil War with photos and articles from the Times archive and ongoing commentary from Disunion contributors.
Douglass's sentiments were those of an antislavery activist who insisted that secession was intimately about slavery. He believed, as many reasonable Americans have ever since, that the significance of any exercise of states' rights doctrine is in the issue for which it is employed. The prospect of civil war frightened him, but by January and February 1861, he cast the dreaded prospect in positive and apocalyptic language: The "God in history everywhere pronouncing the doom of those nations which frame mischief by law," he declared, had caused a "concussion . . . against slavery which would now rock the land." National will and institutions had not solved the problem. "If there is not wisdom and virtue enough in the land to rid the country of slavery," he claimed, "then the next best thing is to let the South go . . . and be made to drink the wine cup of wrath and fire, which her long career of cruelty, barbarism and blood shall call down upon her guilty head." From the snowy isolation of upstate New York, Douglass could not easily define the course of disorder he sought as he watched several more Deep South states follow South Carolina out of the Union by Feb. 1.