By Senator Lena C. Taylor
In 1867, Frederick Douglass used a debate about immigration to make the following point: “We are a country of all extremes, ends and opposites; the most conspicuous example of composite nationality in the world … In races we range all the way from black to white, with intermediate shades which, as in the apocalyptic vision, no man can name or number.”
Coming off the heels of slavery, Douglass’ words were like a cool salve on an open wound. They were also a part of a speech, that the well-known poet, recited as he traveled the country. Realizing the racial and ethnic divide that threatened the fragile democracy, Douglass wanted to impress upon the nation that the beauty of this country was based in her diversity.
In the second paragraph of the aforementioned speech, the formerly enslaved author wrote, “The simple organization of a people into a National body, composite or otherwise, is of itself and impressive fact. As an original proceeding, it marks the point of departure of a people, from the darkness and chaos of unbridled barbarism, to the wholesome restraints of public law and society. It implies a willing surrender and subjection of individual aims and ends, often narrow and selfish, in the broader and better ones that arise out of society as a whole. It is both a sign and a result of civilization.”
Douglass understood that, in order to move forward, America had to move as a unit. Individualism would need to be absorbed, in part, into nationalism or the collective good. The principles of our country were the thread that bound us and the ideals intended to shape our growth. Yet, Douglass was keenly aware of divisive elements in the burgeoning republic.
To illustrate that point, Frederick says in the speech, “To those who doubt and deny the preponderance of good over evil in human nature; who think the few are made to rule, and many to serve; who put rank above brotherhood, and race above humanity; who attach more importance to ancient forms than to the living realities of the present; who worship power in whatever hands it may be lodged and by whatever means it may have been obtained; our Government is a mountain of sin, and, what is worse, its [sic] seems confirmed in its transgressions.”
He further said, “One of the latest and most potent European prophets, one who has felt himself called upon for a special deliverance concerning us and our destiny as a nation, was the late Thomas Carlyle. He described us as rushing to ruin, not only with determined purpose, but with desperate velocity.”
Often these days, it has felt like Carlyle’s words have never rang more true. Partisan politics, distrust, and intentional misinformation, threaten our system of government. As we approach the November 8th elections, many of us are apprehensive or downright worried. With the January 6th insurrection still visible in the rear view mirror, many are wondering if peaceful transitions of power, in our elections, are a thing of the past.
In closing his speech, Douglas declared. “I close these remarks as I began. If our action shall be in accordance with the principles of justice, liberty, and perfect human equality, no eloquence can adequately portray the greatness and grandeur of the future of the Republic.” If we are to survive as a nation, we must realize that then and now, we are a composite nation. We are made of different racial and ethnic backgrounds, that when combined, makes us stronger than any individual group.