On this day in 1877, President Rutherford B. Hayes appoints abolitionist, orator, statesman and escaped slave Frederick Douglass to the post of US Marshal for the District of Columbia. As such, Douglass became the first African American ever confirmed for any Presidential appointment by the US Senate.
Though President Hayes knew Douglass, valued and respected his opinions and consulted him at various times during his administration, this pairing is and was not without ironies. Hayes was a lawyer and staunch abolitionist who defended runaway slaves in court proceedings, and later fought and was seriously wounded serving in the Union Army during the American Civil War.
In an act of expediency, however, Hayes assumed the presidency at the end of the Reconstruction Era through the Compromise of 1877; this abdication of federal control in recalcitrant Southern states further encouraged Jim Crow abuses, disenfranchisement and death for ostensibly freed blacks. In office while he did exercise some critical vetoes, worked to promote civil service reform and reconcile the divisions left over from the War and Reconstruction, he is ranked among the average against his fellow Presidents.
Douglass himself is seen as the most influential African American of the nineteenth century, making a career of agitating the American conscience. He spoke and wrote on behalf of a variety of reform causes including women’s rights, temperance, peace, land reform, free public education, and the abolition of capital punishment. Douglass devoted the vast bulk of his time, immense talent, and boundless energy to ending slavery and gaining equal rights for African Americans. These were the central concerns of his long public career, and Douglass understood the struggle for emancipation and equality demanded forceful, persistent, and unyielding agitation.
In his capacity as Marshal, Douglass was not asked to perform one of the more public duties often assigned to the position–to formally introduce visiting dignitaries to the President. Though he was urged to resign in protest, Douglass did not and later wrote of his experiences at the White House “I was ever a welcome visitor at the Executive Mansion on state occasions and all others, while Rutherford B. Hayes was President of the United States. I have further to say that I have many times during his administration had the honor to introduce distinguished strangers to him, both of native and foreign birth, and never had reason to feel myself slighted by himself or his amiable wife. . . .”
Whilst the appointment upset some in Hayes’ Republican Party, he believed it “would speak loudest in protest against race prejudice of any place at my disposal.” Hayes also consulted with and likely ignored the advice of Douglass on policy toward the South, which was chafing through the end of Reconstruction and deep divisions with the North.
In accepting the appointment, Douglass wrote to his President, “Not wishing to trouble the President by repeated calls or by deputations of my friends, knowing as I do the pressure of business now upon him, I have felt it might be well to say to you that the United States marshalship for the District of Columbia with which my name has been coupled will be entirely agreeable to my wishes – and I believe will be gratifying to a large class of the American people of all colors and races.”