Douglass and his family— which grew to include five children— lived a comfortable life during the 1850s. But this was a time of great political tension in the United States. For years, the North and the South had been arguing over several issues, in-eluding slavery. Thanks to the efforts of Douglass and other abolitionists, growing numbers of Northerners believed that slavery was wrong. Some people wanted to outlaw it, while others wanted to prevent it from spreading beyond the Southern states where it was already allowed. But slavery played a big role in the Southern economy and culture. As a result, many Southerners felt threatened by Northern efforts to contain slavery. They believed that each state should decide for itself whether to allow slavery. They did not want the national government to pass laws that would interfere with their traditional way of life.
By 1861, this ongoing dispute had convinced several Southern states to secede from (leave) the United States and attempt to form a new country that allowed slavery, called the Confederate States of America. But Northern political leaders were determined to keep the Southern states in the Union. The two sides soon went to war. Douglass was glad to see the Civil War begin because he believed it would result in the abolition of slavery. From the start of the war, he pressured President Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865; see entry) to
make emancipation (granting freedom from slavery or oppression) the North's main priority. "This war with the slaveholders can never be brought to a desirable termination [end] until slavery, the guilty cause of all our national troubles, has been totally and forever abolished," he stated.
Douglass also argued that black men should be allowed to serve as soldiers in the Union Army. When the government finally accepted this idea in late 1862, Douglass became an active and effective recruiter of black soldiers. He spoke to crowds of free black men across the North to convince them to join the fight for freedom of their race. "I urge you to fly to arms and smite [strike] with death the power that would bury the government and your liberty in the same hopeless grave," he said. "He who would be free, themselves must strike the blow." Two of his first recruits were his own sons, Charles and Lewis, who joined the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts regiment. By the end of the Civil War, two hundred thousand black men had served the Union. They made up about 10 percent of the Union forces, fought in every major battle in the last two years of the conflict, and helped ensure victory for the North.
Was this article helpful?