Our Composite Nation
Our Composite Nation
A digital family guide recommended for ages 8 and up and their families
In 1869, Frederick Douglass began a lecture tour across America. He delivered his new speech, “Composite Nation” to thousands of listeners. Explore the objects in this installation to discover the revolutionary ideas in the speech. Throughout your exploration, consider the question: How does Douglass’ vision for America remain relevant today?
Who wrote the speech?
Find this statue.
Look closely at the statue. What do you notice about this person’s facial expression and body language? What is he holding? What do these objects tell you about this person?
This is a statue of Frederick Douglass. He was the most photographed American in the 19th century (1800s)! Douglass was well known in his lifetime. What do you already know about Frederick Douglass? Share with your group before continuing.
What is the speech about?
Find this advertisement.
Read all the words that you recognize. What is being advertised?
A lecture is an educational speech, often delivered to a group of students or learners. Lectures are similar to speeches, but are often given more than once. In this guide, we use speech and lecture interchangeably. Composite means something made up of different parts. Douglass uses composite to mean diversity.
In his speech, “Composite Nation,” Douglass promoted diversity and equality for all Americans. As a man born enslaved, Douglass knew firsthand that America didn't always live up to its founding goals of freedom and equality for all. However, he believed that the era of Reconstruction (time after the Civil War) was a new chance. He wanted to share his vision with his fellow Americans. He believed that by celebrating diversity and treating all people as equal, we could reach our American ideals.
How did people fight for “Absolute Equality?”
Find this document.
Look closely at the document. What kinds of words are these? Can you figure out what kind of document this is? Read the label to check your answer. You can view a transcription of the document here.
A petition is a document that makes a request and has many signatures of support. Activists use the signatures on a petition to convince people in power that a change needs to be made. In this case, the petition argued for integrating the Philadelphia streetcars. Integration means allowing people of all skin colors to be together.
Find this object.
Look at the toy streetcar model. What details do you notice? How is this model similar to or different from a modern bus or subway?
In 1850s Philadelphia, horse-drawn streetcars did not allow Black people to ride. A Black abolitionist (someone trying to end slavery), William Still, organized more than 360 white Philadelphians to sign the petition you see here. Discuss with your family. Why would it be powerful for white people to sign a petition arguing for Black people to be allowed to ride the streetcars?
This petition failed. As did many other attempts to integrate the Philadelphia streetcars. However, activism is not a simple process and even failures help to make change. In 1867, the state of Pennsylvania passed a law to integrate the streetcars.
What does Douglass mean by “Composite Nationality?”
Find this image.
Look at the group of people. Read the words at the bottom of the drawing (only visible on your phone or screen). What is the message of this image? How has the artist communicated that message through images and text?
The artist Thomas Nast, an immigrant himself, drew this in 1869, the same year that Douglass began his “Composite Nation” lecture tour. Like Douglass, Nast believed in the possibility of unity among all Americans. Nast used stereotypes that are considered offensive today. However, the text in the bottom corners of the drawing shows us he did not intend to harm. Nast, like Douglass, wanted to inspire people to embrace and celebrate the diversity of the American population.
How does this drawing make you feel? Has the United States lived up to the spirit of this 1869 drawing?
Find the newspaper cover.
There are two languages on the cover. How are they different?
Find the large image of Wong Chin Foo.
Like Douglass, Wong Chin Foo was a lecturer and journalist. Wong used his voice to advocate for Chinese Americans to receive fair and equal treatment in the United States.
Douglass believed that America had a lot to offer to new immigrants and that new immigrants had a lot to offer America. In his speech, “Composite Nation,” Douglass identified Chinese immigration specifically as a good thing. This was an unpopular belief at the time. However, Douglass promoted the idea that like all people, Chinese immigrants should be welcomed to become citizens, vote, and run for office.
What was Douglass’ vision for the future?
Find these scrapbooks.
Look closely at the scrapbooks. Find a headline, phrase, or image that interests you. What does it tell you about Douglass? Why might someone have saved it? Share with your group.
A scrapbook is a handmade book of mementos (objects kept as reminders). Lewis Douglass, one of Frederick’s sons, began the process of collecting articles about his father. Because Douglass was so famous, it was a big job! By the 1880s, Lewis and his brothers hired a service to help keep track of all the articles. Today, the original scrapbooks are at The Beinecke Library of Yale University.
Think about something special that you want to remember. Some examples could be a special family trip or your favorite holiday traditions. What would you save in the scrapbook to represent this memory?
Bonus: When you get home, start your own scrapbook!
Find the large image of a woman and child.
Douglass remained hopeful about the United States and its future. This image is meant to make us think of hope. Read and discuss the following quote. Would you be hopeful in Douglass' shoes?
“We never had better reason to be hopeful than now. We are yet to have our day. We are at the beginning of our ascent.”
Douglass saw the many faults in the United States, yet he still believed the country was capable of doing better. In the 1880s and 1890s, new federal, state, and local laws made life more restrictive and challenging for communities of color. Yet, many people actively resisted the resurgence of racism and white supremacy.
What was Douglass’ lasting influence?
Find the maquette (small study for a larger sculpture).
Look at the maquette. Observe Douglass’ body language. Now, strike a pose like Douglass. How did it feel to pose like Douglass?
There are many layers of legacy and symbolism present in this maquette. Let’s play “I spy” to find them. Look closely to spot:
- Douglass’ first autobiography, his personal account of self-emancipation (freeing himself) from enslavement
- His waistcoat (vest), modeled after President Abraham Lincoln
- His cape, designed to look like one that fellow freedom fighter, Daniel O'Connell, might have worn
In 2014, the statuette was cast and presented to Congressman John Lewis. As many of you know, Lewis was an important civil rights leader and longtime activist for Black American freedom.
Read the quote on the wall behind the maquette.
"I call to mind a nation based upon brotherhood and the self-evident truths of liberty and equality. Banish the idea that one class must rule over another. Recognize the rights of the humblest citizen.”
This quote is from Douglass’ last speech, “Lessons of the Hour” (1894). What do you think he is trying to tell people by saying that no “one class must rule over another” and that we should “recognize the rights of the humblest citizen?” What is Douglass' vision for America?
We encourage you to continue discussing how Douglass’ vision for America remains relevant today. Consider visiting the following during your visit to New-York Historical:
- Find the We the People installation on the main staircase. Read the words out loud with your family. These are the first three words of the preamble to the U.S. Constitution. What is the artwork made out of? Read the label to learn more about where the materials came from.
- Continue to the second floor to explore the Monuments: Commemoration and Controversy exhibition using our digital family guide.
- Explore Picture the Dream on the second floor to see examples of 20th century struggles and hopes for civil rights.
- Check out New-York Historical’s Composite Nation curriculum for more information about the topics covered in this family guide.
- Explore the scrapbooks and other Douglass’ related documents.
Our Composite Nation has been made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Democracy Demands Wisdom.
Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this exhibition do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.