That everybody speaks of Frederick Douglass as “Fred” Douglass is in itself an illustration of the unique position he occupied in our political life. It is noteworthy that he himself always resented the nickname, and his resentment was a punctilio that showed that he knew what it meant. It was, in truth, a sign of the patronage of the white race for a man of color who had done remarkably well, “considering.” It was a mark of the prejudice against which it is equally futile to argue and to pass statutes. Senator Sumner thought that the civil rights law would do something to dispel what he used to call the “accursed spirit of caste,” but it did nothing, for the reason that this spirit is entirely beyond the province of legislation. It is quite impossible to compel a man to associate with people with whom, for any good or bad reason, he does not choose to associate, and the very great majority of white men in this country will not associate with men of color, on equal terms, even if the men of color be their fellow-cadets at West Point or their fellow-members of the House of Representatives or the Senate. If Mr. Douglass had been a white man nobody would have thought of describing by a diminutive a personage of such conscious dignity of bearing and of so little disposition to familiarity. His resentment was quite natural, for the nickname denoted the prejudice which he had to meet and which made him, as we say, a figure quite unique.
There have been men of color who attained higher offices than Fred Douglass. At least one has been a Senator of the United States, and at a time when the Senate was a much more reputable body than it is now. But for quite half a century he was recognized as the representative man of his race, the man who would be named first by whoever might have been called upon to designate the most distinguished men of color in the country. Perhaps he owed this distinction in part to his very impressive personality, which grew more impressive with advancing years. Unlike many men of mixed blood who have become conspicuous, he bore the unmistakable evidence of African descent in his appearance. He might indeed have been taken for a full-blooded African, of a type which is very seldom reached. But the qualities by which he attained celebrity were such as no full-blooded African in our history has displayed in the same degree. He was ambitious, industrious, and provident, and by the manifestation of these qualities he drew apart from his race and was not really a representative “African American.” It was not surprising to learn that he was not altogether persona grata when he was appointed Minister to Haiti, although his appointment may have seemed to those who made it a stroke of policy. It is well known that the full-blooded blacks in Haiti are opposed to men of mixed race, of whom Douglass was one, and the Haitian rulers were disposed to resent the appointment that was expected to please them. In fact, a man like Douglass is in a painful and “impossible” position. Every step that he makes in advance of the inferior race from which he derives part of his ancestry is credited by the whites to his white blood, and indeed there is no conspicuous instance of such steps being taken by a full-blooded African. By taking them he separates himself from his “own people,” as both whites and blacks consider the blacks to be, and he is at home nowhere. It is significant that the blacks should generally have regarded his espousal of a white woman for his second wife as an act of “treason,” though indeed it was the natural consequence of his own development. He was a man of integrity, of intelligence, of dignity, of benevolence. But these qualities, instead of solving the “race question,” in his case simply served to propound that question more sharply. They made it appear that a man who differed from his race for the better was isolated and made unhappy by the difference, without being enabled to effect anything for the benefit of his race.