One of the invaluable compensations of the late Rebellion is the highly instructive disclosure it made of the true source of danger to republican government. Whatever may be tolerated in monarchical and despotic governments, no republic is safe that tolerates a privileged class, or denies to any of its citizens equal rights and equal means to maintain them. What was theory before the war has been made fact by the war.
There is cause to be thankful even for rebellion. It is an impressive teacher, though a stern and terrible one. In both characters it has come to us, and it was perhaps needed in both. It is an instructor never a day before its time, for it comes only when all other means of progress and enlightenment have failed. Whether the oppressed and despairing bondman, no longer able to repress his deep yearnings for manhood, or the tyrant, in his pride and impatience, takes the initiative, and strikes the blow for a firmer hold and a longer lease of oppression, the result is the same,—society is instructed, or may be.5
This wonderful sentence captures Douglass’s conception of history itself. He believed that cataclysms and transformations could instruct humankind, even if they ruined us to a degree. To Douglass, the Civil War had been a lesson in blood, a conflict he saw in Christian apocalyptic terms, a crisis of destruction and remaking with meaning. In retrospect, he wrote in 1881 that nations “are taught less by theories than by facts and events.” The hope energizing this 1866 essay is the idea that the nation now confronted a great, if difficult, education.
Such are the limitations of the common mind, and so thoroughly engrossing are the cares of common life, that only the few among men can discern through the glitter and dazzle of present prosperity the dark outlines of approaching disasters, even though they may have come up to our very gates, and are already within striking distance. The yawning seam and corroded bolt conceal their defects from the mariner until the storm calls all hands to the pumps. Prophets, indeed, were abundant before the war; but who cares for prophets while their predictions remain unfulfilled, and the calamities of which they tell are masked behind a blinding blaze of national prosperity?6
In his use of the maritime metaphor of unseen disaster at sea, and his suggestion that prophets are ignored or denounced until “calamities” strike, Douglass invites us into his thinking about history. It is waiting for us; it may break apart or flood the ship that has not been carefully inspected and repaired. And we usually never know which prophets are worth our attention until it is too late.