The Work is Not Done: Frederick Douglass and Black Suffrage

31 Pages Posted: 5 Jan 2022

See all articles by Bradley Rebeiro

Bradley Rebeiro

Brigham Young University - J. Reuben Clark Law School

Date Written: January 4, 2022


Since antiquity, political theorists have tried to identify the proper balance between ideals and pragmatism in political and public life. Machiavelli and Aristotle both offered prudence as an approach, but with different ends in mind: stability and the good, respectively. Among the many contributions Kurt Lash’s two-volume set on the Reconstruction Amendments provides to present-day discourse, it supplies the careful reader an answer to this timeless question by highlighting the role of Frederick Douglass in public deliberation over the Fifteenth Amendment. In this essay I argue that American abolitionist, social reformer and statesman Frederick Douglass illustrates and enacts the Aristotelian approach. During the Reconstruction period, there was a tension between the ideal (civil rights) and practical reality (opposition to black suffrage). The general public’s lackluster desire for equal political rights, even at a time when there was a strong desire to secure natural and civil rights through constitutional amendment, presented little hope for black—let alone universal—suffrage. Further, blacks’ closest allies were not in lockstep in their political efforts during this critical period. Whether it was William Lloyd Garrison and the American Anti-Slavery Society seeking to declare anti-slavery work in the U.S. “complete,” or women leaders partnering with northern Democrats and championing the slogan “educated suffrage,” black suffrage efforts faced significant obstacles on every side. But Douglass remained undaunted. He realized that the abstract principles of natural right and justice would be insufficient in the face of such opposition. In its place Douglass, with great success, appealed to political expediency and the self-interest of Republicans. Douglass navigated this tension by abandoning, temporarily, his high ideal of universal suffrage and instead advocating for black suffrage at the expense of women’s suffrage. This decision was not an abandonment of principle. Rather, it was a deliberate, prudential choice to pursue, as Aristotle advised, the highest good—universal suffrage. Indeed, Douglass’s efforts to secure black suffrage during Reconstruction demonstrate both the precarious nature of public support for black suffrage and the need for political actors to sacrifice, at times,
the theoretically pure for the politically necessary.

Keywords: Frederick Douglass, suffrage, abolition, Aristotle, Machiavelli, pragmatism, the good, civil rights, black history, Reconstruction, 15th Amendment

Suggested Citation

Rebeiro, Bradley, The Work is Not Done: Frederick Douglass and Black Suffrage (January 4, 2022). 97 Notre Dame Law Review (forthcoming 2022), BYU Law Research Paper No. 22-01, Available at SSRN:

Bradley Rebeiro (Contact Author)

Brigham Young University - J. Reuben Clark Law School ( email )

430 JRCB
Brigham Young University
Provo, UT 84602
United States

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