Lift Every Voice: African American Oratory, 1787-1900

By Philip S. Foner; Robert James Branham | Go to book overview

89 COMPOSITE NATION

Frederick Douglass

This largely forgotten and previously unpublished speech offers perhaps the fullest expression of Douglass's views on the peculiar nature and possible futures of his country. In the aftermath of the Civil War, Douglass saw the United States "at the beginning of our ascent" toward a position of global "power, responsibility and duty." Douglass argued that its destiny could only be achieved if America adopted the principle of absolute equality and overcame the historical conflict between the composite character of its population and the "compromising spirit which controlled the ruling power of the country." "Every nation,"he insisted, "owing to its peculiar character and composition, has a definite mission in the world."In Douglass's view, the unique mission of the United States is to provide "the most perfect illustration of the unity and dignity of the human family, that the world has ever seen."

Douglass was especially forceful in arguing in support of equal rights for Chinese immigrants. Almost 300,000 Chinese arrived in the United States between 1849 (the year after gold was discovered in California) and 1882. Chinese laborers played a vital role in the development of many vital industries in the West. Upon the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, thousands of Chinese workers (who comprised 86 percent of the project's workforce) were laid off and migrated to various parts of the country in search of employment. The "Chinese problem" was treated as a national crisis. An editorialist for the New York Times warned on September 3, 1865, that if, in addition to the "four millions of degraded negroes in the South,"

there were to be a flood--tide of Chinese population--a population befouled with all the social vices, with no knowledge or appreciation of free institutions or constitutional liberty, with heathenish souls and heathenish propensities, whose character, and habits and modes of thought are firmly fixed by the consolidating influences of ages upon ages--we should be prepared to bid farewell to republicanism.

Hundreds of Chinese and Chinese-Americans were murdered, most by mob violence, in the 1870s, a period in which a nationwide campaign of lynching and other forms of violence and terrorism was also launched against African Americans. In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed by Congress, not to be repealed until the Second World War.

In this speech, Douglass urges that the United States welcome Chinese immigration and put aside its racist fears of "Yellow Peril." He endorses essentialist notions of racially based difference but argues that a

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