“The Republican Party is the ship, all else is the sea.”
This famous statement by Frederick Douglass was more than a casual observation. Douglass was a Republican in a time before the realignment of American political parties. After the American Civil War, he became one of the Party’s busiest, and strongest, campaigners, especially in New York.
Republican candidates counted on his oration skills to inspire voters – both black and white – through Reconstruction and after. In fact, in the late 1870s, the Republican State Committee relied on his campaign talents. This was the case in Jefferson County when Douglass rallied large gatherings in Adams in 1879, and Theresa in 1880, near the city of Watertown.
On October 29th, two days before Douglass spoke in Adams, the Watertown Daily Times – a Republican newspaper – predicted that a “monster gathering” of Republicans would assemble to hear him. When he appeared at the train depot on the 31st however, there was no huge assemblage, although the crowd gave him three cheers. That afternoon though, over 750 people heard his speech on his Party’s candidate for New York State Governor, Alonzo B. Cornell, who faced two other major candidates, Tammany-backed John Kelly, and Democratic incumbent Lucius Robinson. Cornell was an experienced politician, having been Speaker of the New York State Assembly, and Chairman of the Republican State Committee earlier in the decade.
As he had done earlier in the campaign in NYC and Binghamton, Douglass did not hold back. For an hour and a half he extolled the virtues of his Party, and its candidate for Governor. As he tried to conclude, the “audience called for more,” which he provided. He left for Oswego the following day. Cornell won, and Douglas returned to Jefferson County during the Presidential contest the following year to help generate another Republican victory.
“A Great Day at Theresa: Thousands in Line to Hear the Great American Orator.”
This was the title of the article in the Watertown Daily Times on October 29, 1880 the day after Douglass’ nearly two hour speech in support of James A. Garfield’s Presidential bid. Unlike his speech in Adams, there were “a great many Boys in Blue” in attendance. Once again Douglass gave a pointed oration, and he knew “right where to hit the Democratic Party. He assailed them at every point…. He showed their duplicity, animosity, and perfect disregard for any semblance of the truth… but he made no personal attack on their candidates.”
Later in the day as the “grand rally” reached its final moments, Douglass briefly addressed a smaller crowd after a torchlight procession. His speeches prompted the newspaper to opine, “Mr. Douglass drives a nail that will clinch solid for Garfield….” which he precisely did before Election Day on November 2 when he addressed other rallies in Whitney’s Point, Honeoye, and Fort Plain.
How invaluable was Douglass’ campaign voice? In Frederick Douglass, William Mcfeely offers the telling viewpoint of one of Douglass’ contemporaries. During the 1880 campaign, Marshall Jewel of the Republican National Committee had heard of Douglass’ temporary hoarseness, and wrote “when the….Party loses ‘Fred Douglass’ voice, it will be a heavy loss.”
“Old Man Eloquent,” as Frederick Douglass was sometimes called, respectfully and loyally promoted his Party for decades after the Civil War.
Portrait of Frederick Douglass (1879) courtesy National Archives and Records Administration.