“I Know of No Rights of Race Superior to the Rights of Humanity”: Frederick Douglass’s Composite Nation

It’s a weird time to be teaching Reconstruction. As I prepared the last lecture for my US Survey course, the connections between the backlash to Reconstruction and the backlash to Obama’s presidency were certainly apparent. As I wrote last week, historians will have a lot to work with in the Age of Trump. But I was especially struck with the irony of assigning portions of Frederick Douglass’s classic (and overlooked) 1869 speech, “Composite Nation” at a moment when immigration is such a hot issue. (Make sure to listen to this new track from the Hamilton mixtape, if you haven’t already.) You can read the entire speech here, which I wholly recommend. It is a voice from the past that speaks directly to the issues of the present. It’s funny how history works like that.

Douglass delivered the address in Boston as the nation was discussing the possibility of extending citizenship to Chinese immigrants. The Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, passed just a few years previous, dismantled the entrenched American belief that citizenship was reserved for the white race. The Naturalization Act of 1790, one of the first bills passed after the Constitution’s ratification, limited citizenship to white men. Triumph over that racist political tradition, only made possible through war, was a fete that cannot be overstated. But it was still just a step. Would other races be included? Thousands of immigrants from China were flooding America’s western states, and a number of radical politicians proposed making them naturalized citizens. Confronting opposition to this idea, Frederick Douglass argued that the American nation could not only withstand interracial immigration, but that the nation’s ideals necessitated it.

A few excerpts that lay the foundation for his argument:

The real trouble with us was never our system or form of Government, or the principles underlying it; but the peculiar composition of our people, the relations existing between them and the compromising spirit which controlled the ruling power of the country. We have for along time hesitated to adopt and may yet refuse to adopt, and carry out, the only principle which can solve that difficulty and give peace, strength and security to the Republic, and that is the principle of absolute equality

Heretofore the policy of our government has been governed by race pride, rather than by wisdom…[Now] a new race is making its appearance within our borders, and claiming attention. It is estimated that not less than one hundred thousand Chinamen, are now within the limits of the United States…

And then he addresses the issue of racial “self-preservation,” a concept that has unfortunately become prominent again today:

I have said that the Chinese will come, and have given some reasons why we may expect them in very large numbers in no very distant future. Do you ask, if I favor such immigration, I answer I would. Would you have them naturalized, and have them invested with all the rights of American citizenship? I would. Would you allow them to vote? I would. Would you allow them to hold office? I would. But are there not reasons against all this? Is there not such a law or principle as that of self-preservation? Does not every race owe something to itself? Should it not attend to the dictates of common sense? Should not a superior race protect itself from contact with inferior ones? Are not the white people the owners of this continent? Have they not the right to say, what kind of people shall be allowed to come here and settle? Is there not such a thing as being more generous than wise? In the effort to promote civilization may we not corrupt and destroy what we have? Is it best to take on board more passengers than the ship will carry?…

I submit that this question of Chinese immigration should be settled upon higher principles than those of a cold and selfish expediency. There are such things in the world as human rights. They rest upon no conventional foundation, but are external, universal, and indestructible. Among these, is the right of locomotion; the right of migration; the right which belongs to no particular race, but belongs alike to all and to all alike. It is the right you assert by staying here, and your fathers asserted by coming here. It is this great right that I assert for the Chinese and Japanese, and for all other varieties of men equally with yourselves, now and forever. I know of no rights of race superior to the rights of humanity, and when there is a supposed conflict between human and national rights, it is safe to go to the side of humanity. I have great respect for the blue eyed and light haired races of America. They are a mighty people. In any struggle for the good things of this world they need have no fear. They have no need to doubt that they will get their full share.

But I reject the arrogant and scornful theory by which they would limit migratory rights, or any other essential human rights to themselves, and which would make them the owners of this great continent to the exclusion of all other races of men. I want a home here not only for the negro, the mulatto and the Latin races; but I want the Asiatic to find a home here in the United States, and feel at home here, both for his sake and for ours. Right wrongs no man…

And here I hold that a liberal and brotherly welcome to all who are likely to come to the United states, is the only wise policy which this nation can adopt.

Douglass’s argument failed to win over the nation, at least not for another half-century. The Naturalization Act of 1870 limited citizenship to whites and people of African descent. A decade later, the Chinese Exclusion Act severely curtailed immigration from the nation, and was not repealed until World War II. Chinese Americans could finally become citizens in 1943.

It should be sobering that we are still dealing with these xenophobic concerns at the highest levels of government. Our president-elect’s campaign was founded upon castigating one race of immigrants and amplified when he promised to bar immigration for another. The catapulting of a white nationalist sub-culture—normalized through the serpentine label “alt-right”—both encapsulates a long and unfortunate American tradition as well as demonstrates that tradition’s ability to adapt to new times. Frederick Douglass’s words are just as relevant today as they have ever been.

I predict there will be a lot of work in the next few years dissecting the nativist elements within America’s nationalist tradition. But it will also be important to identify and magnify voices from the past that counter that narrative. Recovering prophetic indictments from the past may help us confront the ugliness of the present.


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