THERE WAS TO BE a brave new world. "Revolution," Ottilia called it; "Reconstruction" was the politicians' word. To the German revolutionary, the war had been worth the cost; it had brought about a step forward "which even fifty or even a hundred years of peace could not have produced." Indeed, she wrote, "in the whole century" nothing in Europe or America had been "more important" than the "revolution" which had been taking place "here in the last five years." She was eager for its consummation.
The war was over, emancipation had been won, and America would rebuild itself into a place of newer, greater equality and opportunity. Looking back, most observers would say that Assing had overstated her case. In our national embarrassment over having so firmly slammed the door on the freed people so soon after this moment of triumph, we tend to say that hopes were too high; the usual excuse is that times were not yet right for racial equality. Frederick Douglass and Ottilia Assing thought they had never been more right.
The Douglasses in their forties and their children in their twenties were eager to enter the city of which the family patriarch was not the least of the architects. African Americans, slave and free, were to be simply Americans. William Lloyd Garrison, another of the builders, thought no further construction was needed. For him, the job was done; liberation was the whole of it. In the spring of 1865, he called for the disbanding of the American Anti-Slavery Society. But others, Wendell Phillips and Douglass among them, knew that things were not yet secure enough for that.