SHORTLY AFTER THE Supreme Court handed down the Civil Rights Cases in 1883, a mass meeting was called for Lincoln Hall in the nation's capital. Two prominent Republican orators—one black and one white—were the featured speakers. Frederick Douglass—the runaway slave who had become an avid student of the Constitution in the course of his career as an abolitionist—spoke first. Robert G. Ingersoll—highly valued as a Republican orator despite his outspoken atheist views—closed the program. In some ways, the event was a political rally, similar to others that had characterized both the long battle against slavery and the heady early days of Reconstruction. But this day was different, for everyone present in the hall named for the nation's “Great Emancipator” knew that it marked the end of an era—and not a satisfying conclusion at that. It was a wake without any happy accompanying festivities.
Douglass sensed that new life would not quickly follow that being mourned. Resigned that a renewal of racial progress would occur only long after his lifetime, he urged his hearers to not react out of understandable anger. He specifically cautioned against violence. “Patient reform is better than violent revolution, ” Douglass said, sounding very much as he had in Glasgow when he had distanced himself from John Brown in the winter of 1859–60. 1 But in that prior event, he had been optimistic and looking forward to the election of an antislavery president. Progress had then been anticipated. Working within the constitutional system then promised that slavery itself might be destroyed. By contrast, in 1883, Douglass saw no grounds for immediate optimism, but still cautioned