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(1864) Frederick Douglass On “The Mission Of The War”

On January 13, 1864, Frederick Douglass was invited to deliver a speech before the Women’s Loyal League at the Cooper Institute in New York City. He used the occasion to add his voice to the ongoing debate about the mission and meaning of the Civil War. In this address he reminded his audience that slavery was the cause of the war and that its abolition could not be complete until the former slaves had full citizenship rights. Douglass used this speech to frame the coming post-Civil War debate over the nature of a true and lasting peace even as Confederate and Union Armies were still engaged on the field of battle. The speech, reported in the New York Tribune, appears below.

Ladies and Gentlemen: By the mission of the war I mean nothing occult, arbitrary or difficult to be understood, but simply those great moral changes in the fundamental conditions of the people, demanded by the situation of the country plainly involved in the nature of the war, and which, if the war is conducted in accordance with its true character, it is naturally and logically fitted to accomplish.

Speaking in the name of Providence, some men tell me that slavery is already dead, that it expired with the first shot at Sumter. This may be so, but I do not share the confidence with which it is asserted. In a grand crisis like this, we should all prefer to look facts sternly in the face and to accept their verdict whether it bless or blast us. I look for no miraculous destruction of slavery. The war looms before me simply as a great national opportunity, which may be improved to national salvation, or neglected to national ruin. I hope much from the bravery of our soldiers, but in vain is the might of armies if our rulers fail to profit by experience and refuse to listen to the suggestions of wisdom and justice. The most hopeful fact of the hour is that we are now in a salutary school—the school of affliction. If sharp and signal retribution, long protracted, wide-sweeping and overwhelming, can teach a great nation respect for the

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