Douglass’s fight for voting rights

By Jake Clapp

In 1847, when Frederick Douglass moved to Rochester and started his newspaper, The North Star, five states allowed black men to vote: Massachusetts, Vermont, Maine, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island. New York also technically allowed them to vote, but strict residency and property ownership laws made it all but impossible.

Many of the Rochester area’s abolitionists with whom Douglass worked were also women’s rights supporters, and Douglass became active in the burgeoning women’s suffrage movement. Part of the abolitionist and women’s rights movements, says Alison Parker, a professor at The College at Brockport, was a demand for universal suffrage.

The idea is in the words: universal suffrage. “This is going to be something they demand for everyone,” Parker says.

Through the Western New York Anti-Slavery Society, Douglass met Elizabeth M’Clintock, who invited him to attend the First Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls in July 1848. One of only a few men and the only African American to attend the convention, Douglass spoke in support of and signed the Declaration of Sentiments, the foundational document that called for equality for women.

Soon after the convention, Douglass published a column, “The Rights of Women,” in The North Star, further solidifying his support for the movement. “All that distinguishes man as an intelligent and accountable being, is equally true of woman,” he wrote, “and if that government only is just which governs by the free consent of the governed, there can be no reason in the world for denying to woman the exercise of the elective franchise, or a hand in making and administrating the laws of the land.”

Douglass also attended the Rochester Women’s Rights Convention of 1848, again delivering a speech. Among many things, the convention is notable for being the first public meeting of both men and women to elect all women as presiding officers.

During this time, Douglass met the abolitionists Daniel and Lucy Anthony, and later, their daughter Susan. Douglass and Susan B. Anthony struck up a life-long friendship.


Following the Civil War and emancipation, Douglass pressed the urgency of granting the vote to black people, many of whom were living in hostile conditions in the South.

“No class of men can, without insulting their own nature, be content with any deprivation of their rights,” Douglass said in an 1865 speech, “What the Black Man Wants,” to the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society.

“By depriving us of suffrage,” Douglass said, “you affirm our incapacity to form an intelligent judgment respecting public men and public measures; you declare before the world that we are unfit to exercise the elective franchise, and by this means lead us to undervalue ourselves, to put a low estimate upon ourselves, and to feel that we have no possibilities like other men.

“Again, I want the elective franchise, for one, as a colored man, because ours is a peculiar government, based upon a peculiar idea, and that idea is universal suffrage.”

In 1866, Douglass joined Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony in starting the American Equal Rights Association, which demanded universal suffrage. But a rift began to quickly grow between factions of the suffrage movement, and tensions reached their peak when the Republican Party introduced the 15th Amendment. That amendment secured the right to vote for black men, and Douglass found himself opposite Stanton and Anthony in heated disagreement.

It was a tough, complicated decision for Douglass. He regretted that both men and women would not be enfranchised by this amendment, but in the post-Civil War political climate, black citizens had little political leverage, and he believed a universal suffrage amendment wouldn’t have the support needed to pass.


At the 1869 American Equal Rights Association annual meeting, shortly before the organization dissolved, Douglass reasserted his support for women’s suffrage, but he said that there was urgency in securing voting rights for black citizens, even if it was only for black men. Stanton and Anthony were firmly opposed to any amendment that didn’t also include women.

“When women, because they are women, are hunted down through the cities of New York and New Orleans,” Douglass said during the 1869 meeting, “when they are dragged from their houses and hung upon lamp-posts; when their children are torn from their arms, and their brains dashed out upon the pavement; when they are objects of insult and outrage at every turn; when they are in danger of having their homes burnt down over their heads; when their children are not allowed to enter schools; then they will have an urgency to obtain the ballot equal to our own.”

“When Mr. Douglass mentioned the black man first and the woman last,” Anthony said in her response, “if he had noticed he would have seen that it was the men that clapped and not the women. There is not the woman born who desires to eat the bread of dependence, no matter whether it be from the hand of father, husband, or brother; for any one who does so eat her bread places herself in the power of the person from whom she takes it.”

It was a difficult and painful argument, says Brockport’s Alison Parker. “This group of people who’ve been working together for decades has this huge rift over this question of women’s enfranchisement, and the hardest part was actually for black women who were stuck in between and didn’t feel like their voices were represented either way.”

The 15th Amendment was ratified, and for the rest of his life, Douglass worked diligently for women’s rights. Over the years, he and Anthony reconciled and continued to work together, but, says Parker, “I don’t think their relationship was probably ever as good as before that point.”

On the day of his death, February 20, 1895, Douglass addressed the National Council of Women. And during a funeral service at Washington’s Metropolitan AME Church, Susan B. Anthony delivered a eulogy for her friend.