Frederick Douglass and Chinese Immigration

A postcard with a black and white portrait of Frederick Douglass
1862 photograph of Frederick Douglass. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

A Composite Nation

In an 1869 speech for the Parker Fraternity Course in Boston, abolitionist and champion of civil and human rights Frederick Douglass challenged a growing tide of anti-Chinese prejudice. In contrast, he offered a vision a “Composite Nation”  that celebrated of diversity and the contribution of immigrants to the United States.

Douglass explained:

Handwritten copy of Frederick Douglass's composite nation speech.

Handwritten copy of Frederick Douglass’s composite nation speech.

As nations are among the largest and the most complete divisions into which society is formed, the grandest aggregations of organized human power; as they raise to observation and distinction the world’s greatest men, and call into requisition the highest order of talent and ability for their guidance, preservation and success, they are ever among the most attractive, instructive and useful subjects of thought, to those just entering upon the duties and activities of life.

The simple organization of a people into a National body, composite or otherwise, is of itself and impressive fact. As an original proceeding, it marks the point of departure of a people, from the darkness and chaos of unbridled barbarism, to the wholesome restraints of public law and society. It implies a willing surrender and subjection of individual aims and ends, often narrow and selfish, to the broader and better ones that arise out of society as a whole. It is both a sign and a result of civilization.

A knowledge of the character, resources and proceedings of other nations, affords us the means of comparison and criticism, without which progress would be feeble, tardy, and perhaps, impossible. It is by comparing one nation with another, and one learning from another, each competing with all, and all competing with each, that hurtful errors are exposed, great social truths discovered, and the wheels of civilization whirled onward.

I am especially to speak to you of the character and mission of the United States, with special reference to the question whether we are the better or the worse for being composed of different races of men. I propose to consider first, what we are, second, what we are likely to be, and, thirdly, what we ought to be.

Without undue vanity or unjust depreciation of others, we may claim to be, in many respects, the most fortunate of nations. We stand in relation to all others, as youth to age. Other nations have had their day of greatness and glory; we are yet to have our day, and that day is coming. The dawn is already upon us. It is bright and full of promise. Other nations have reached their culminating point. We are at the beginning of our ascent. They have apparently exhausted the conditions essential to their further growth and extension, while we are abundant in all the material essential to further national growth and greatness.

Turning to tensions surrounding Chinese immigration Douglass proclaimed,

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 human…

The apprehension that we shall be swamped or swallowed up by Mongolian civilization; that the Caucasian race may not be able to hold their own against that vast incoming population, does not seem entitled to much respect. Though they come as the waves come, we shall be stronger if we receive them as friends and give them a reason for loving our country and our institutions. They will find here a deeply rooted, indigenous, growing civilization, augmented by an ever increasing stream of immigration from Europe; and possession is nine points of the law in this case, as well as in others. They will come as strangers, we are at home. They will come to us, not we to them. They will come in their weakness, we shall meet them in our strength. They will come as individuals, we will meet them in multitudes, and with all the advantages of organization. Chinese children are in American schools in San Francisco, none of our children are in Chinese schools, and probably never will be, though in some things they might well teach us valuable lessons.

Writing in the Washington Post, Ilya Somin, the author of “Free to Move: Foot Voting, Migration and Political Freedom, ” notes that  some of the language Douglass used was dated, and occasionally carries prejudices that were common at the time of his address. However,  “Douglass also pointed out that the very fact that immigrants were willing to make a long journey and adjust to a new culture and society itself suggests that they are likely to make valuable contributions in their new home

The apprehension that we shall be swamped or swallowed up by Mongolian civilization; that the Caucasian race may not be able to hold their own against that vast incoming population, does not seem entitled to much respect. Though they come as the waves come, we shall be stronger if we receive them as friends and give them a reason for loving our country and our institutions. They will find here a deeply rooted, indigenous, growing civilization, augmented by an ever increasing stream of immigration from Europe; and possession is nine points of the law in this case, as well as in others. They will come as strangers, we are at home. They will come to us, not we to them. They will come in their weakness, we shall meet them in our strength. They will come as individuals, we will meet them in multitudes, and with all the advantages of organization. Chinese children are in American schools in San Francisco; none of our children are in Chinese schools, and probably never will be, though in some things they might well teach us valuable lessons.

Teaching Ideas

As students read Douglass’s text, ask them to underline works and phrases that interest them, make them curious, that they appreciate, or even do not understand. It can be helpful to share and discuss them with the class as a whole.

You might adapt the Connect-Extend-Challenge Project Zero thinking routine to encourage students to reflect on how Douglass’s arguments connect to their perspectives. Ask: 

  • How do Douglass’s words connect to what you know about immigrants and your perspective on migration? 
  • How do Douglass’s words extend your knowledge and understanding of immigrants and your perspective on migration?
  • How do Douglass’s words challenge what you know about immigrants and your perspective on migration?