Selections from Frederick Douglass editorials (1860-61)

For fifty years the country has taken the law from the lips of an exacting, haughty and imperious slave oligarchy. The masters of slaves have been masters of the Republic.


Less than ten years after his escape from slavery in 1838, Frederick Douglass had established himself as a leading abolitionist newspaper editor.  He launched The North Star from his new home in Rochester, New York in 1847.  This venture marked the beginning of his rupture with William Lloyd Garrison, his mentor and editor of nation’s best known abolitionist journal, The Liberator.  In the early 1850s, Douglass merged The North Star with a Liberty party newspaper and then renamed the venture as Frederick Douglass’s Paper.   During this period, Douglass became openly aligned with the Liberty Party or the political abolitionist movement, which was led by Gerrit Smith and which opposed or tried to ignore many of Garrison’s more radical  policy positions, such as pacifism and women’s rights.  By mid 1860, Douglass transformed his paper into a monthly periodical, something he continued until late 1863, when abandoned the newspaper business temporarily because he thought President Lincoln was about to name him as the nation’s first black army officer.   These excerpts from Douglass’s Monthly reflect his political evolution during the secession crisis.  Douglass had originally supported Gerrit Smith as the Liberty Party presidential nominee in 1860, though he always seemed to recognize the importance of having the Republicans as a moderate antislavery movement.  His December 1860 editorial suggests how he remained hopeful that Lincoln’s victory might ultimately break the power of the slaveholders over the nation’s future.  By May 1861, following the outbreak of Civil War, Douglass seemed even more hopeful that there had finally been “a revolution in Northern sentiment” not only for ending “the slaveholding rebellion,” but also slavery itself.   This optimism did not last long.  By September 1861, in a powerful rebuke of the Lincoln Administration, entitled, “Cast Off the Mill-Stone,” Douglass argued that the only way to preserve the nation was to destroy slavery. –something that President Lincoln had not yet acknowledged.  In the immediate aftermath of Lincoln’s decision to revoke an emancipation edict by Gen. John Fremont in Missouri, Douglass seemed especially scornful of Union efforts to placate the few remaining loyal slave or border states.

SOURCE FORMAT:  Newspaper editorials

WORD COUNT:  933 words

Excerpt from Douglass’s 1861 editorial, “Cast Off the Mill-Stone,” read and produced by Caroline Eagleton, ’23

“The Late Election,” Douglass’ Monthly, December 1860

What, then, has been gained to the anti-slavery cause by the election of Mr. Lincoln? Not much, in itself considered, but very much when viewed in the light of its relations and bearings. For fifty years the country has taken the law from the lips of an exacting, haughty and imperious slave oligarchy. The masters of slaves have been masters of the Republic. Their authority was almost undisputed, and their power irresistible. They were the President makers of the Republic, and no aspirant dared to hope for success against their frown. Lincoln’s election has vitiated their authority, and broken their power. It has taught the North its strength, and shown the South its weakness. More important still, it has demonstrated the possibility of electing, if not an Abolitionist, at least an anti-slavery reputation to the Presidency of the United States. The years are few since it was thought possible that the Northern people could be wrought up to the exercise of such startling courage. Hitherto the threat of disunion has been as potent over the politicians of the North, as the cat-o’-nine-tails is over the backs of the slaves. Mr. Lincoln’s election breaks this enchantment, dispels this terrible nightmare, and awakes the nation to the consciousness of new powers, and the possibility of a higher destiny than the perpetual bondage to an ignoble fear.

–Excerpted from “The Late Election,” Douglass’ Monthly, December 1860, FULL TEXT via University of Rochester

“Sudden Revolution in Northern Sentiment,” Douglass’ Monthly, May 1861

During the fast three weeks after the inauguration of Mr. Lincoln’s Administration, there was a general sentiment all over the North looking to a peaceful solution of the revolutionary crisis now upon the country.—The Government at Washington seemed to be paralyzed, the Border States were active in their efforts to avert civil war, partly by securing new and stronger guarantees for slavery, and partly by threats of disunion if the Government should attempt to defend itself by force against the rebel force of the so-called Confederate States. Fort Sumter was to be abandoned; other Southern forts were to follow in the same path, and the Secession States were to be acknowledged and to have an easy time generally. Southern Commissioners remained at Washington, and kept up the hopes of the Cotton States by sending encouraging telegrams over the country that things were working well and favorably to all their plans and purposes. Democrats were doing what they could all over the North to cripple and fetter the Republicans, and Republicans themselves were divided as between a policy of peace and a policy of war, each wing of the latter party claiming to represent the spirit and purposes of the Administration. In this general disjointed condition of facts, the Northern people stood apparently powerless.

But what a change now greets us! The Government is aroused, the dead North is alive, and its divided people united. Never was a change so sudden, so universal, and so portentous. The whole North, East and West is in arms. Drums are beating, men are enlisting, companies forming, regiments marching, banners are flying, and money is pouring into the national treasury to put an end to the slaveholding rebellion….

–Excerpted from “Sudden Revolution in Northern Sentiment,” Douglass’ Monthly, May 1861, FULL TEXT via University of Rochester

“CAST OFF THE MILL-STONE,” Douglass’ Monthly, September, 1861

We are determined that our readers shall have line upon line and precept upon precept. Ours is only one humble voice; but such as it is, we give it freely to our country, and to the cause of humanity. That honesty is the best policy, we all profess to believe, though our practice may often contradict the proverb. The present policy of our Government is evidently to put down the slaveholding rebellion, and at the same time protect and preserve slavery. This policy hangs like a mill-stone about the neck of our people. It carries disorder to the very sources of our national activities. Weakness, faint heartedness and inefficiency is the, natural result. The mental and moral machinery of mankind cannot long withstand such disorder without serious damage. This policy offends reason, wounds the sensibilities, and shocks the moral sentiments of men. It forces upon us inconsequent conclusions and painful contradictions, while the plain path of duty is obscured and thronged with multiplying difficulties. Let us look this slavery-preserving policy squarely in the face, and search it thoroughly.

Can the friends of that policy tell us why this should not be an abolition war? Is not abolition plainly forced upon the nation as a necessity of national existence? Are not the rebels determined to make the war on their part a war for the utter destruction of liberty and the complete mastery of slavery over every other right and interest in the land? And is not an abolition war on our part the natural and logical answer to be made to the rebels? We all know it is. But it is said that for the Government to adopt the abolition policy, would involve the loss of the support of the Union men of the Border Slave States. Grant it, and what is such friendship worth? We are stronger without than with such friendship. It arms the enemy, while it disarms its friends. The fact is indisputable, that so long as slavery is respected and protected by our Government, the slaveholders can carry on the rebellion, and no longer.— Slavery is the stomach of the rebellion. The bread that feeds the rebel army, the cotton that clothes them, and the money that arms them and keeps them supplied with powder and bullets, come from the slaves, who, if consulted as to the use which should be made of their hard earnings, would say, give it to the bottom of the sea rather than do with it this mischief. Strike here, cut off the connection between the fighting master and the working slave, and you at once put an end to this rebellion, because you destroy that which feeds, clothes and arms it. Shall this not be done, because we shall offend the Union men in the Border States?

CITATION:  Excerpted from “CAST OFF THE MILL-STONE,” Douglass’ Monthly, September, 1861, FULL TEXT via University of Rochester


  • According to Douglass, why did Lincoln’s election represent an important antislavery victory even though the president-elect was not a committed abolitionist?


  • In his editorial from May 1861, following the the outbreak of Civil War, Douglass sounded almost excited.  Why?


  • By September 1861, Douglass appeared frustrated over the lack of progress in the war effort.  Why did he believe that the abolition of slavery was necessary for Union military victory?


From the day the new President was inaugurated Frederick Douglass worried that Lincoln would cave in to proslavery pressure, which was far more powerful than abolitionism, even in the North, by announcing a new sectional compromise.  –James Oakes, The Radical and the Republican, p. 159