On April 14, 1876, prominent Americans, led by President Ulysses S. Grant, gathered to dedicate a monument that tells a story that we today do not entirely accept: an image of Abraham Lincoln freeing a representative slave, who (depending on one’s point of view) is rising or kneeling (note, however, the clenched right fist). Among those who offered a somewhat dissenting point of view was Frederick Doulgass. You may find his complete remarks here.
Let’s take a closer look at what Douglass had to say, both to us as well as his audience that spring day:
Few facts could better illustrate the vast and wonderful change which has taken place in our condition as a people than the fact of our assembling here for the purpose we have today. Harmless, beautiful, proper, and praiseworthy as this demonstration is, I cannot forget that no such demonstration would have been tolerated here twenty years ago. The spirit of slavery and barbarism, which still lingers to blight and destroy in some dark and distant parts of our country, would have made our assembling here the signal and excuse for opening upon us all the flood-gates of wrath and violence. That we are here in peace today is a compliment and a credit to American civilization, and a prophecy of still greater national enlightenment and progress in the future.
For Douglass, of course, much had changed over the past two decades. After all, nearly twenty years before this monument was dedicated, people were killing each other in Kansas over the fate of slavery there; blacks risked everything as they sought freedom, only to find that white southerners had enlisted to power of the federal government to stop them through the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850; and the nation would witness a southern congressman bludgeon a northern senator on the Senate floor. Far from being an institution on the verge of collapse, slavery was a thriving enterprise, so much so that some people wanted to reopen the transAtlantic slave trade so even more white people could own black people.
Now things were different. In front of members of Congress, the Supreme Court, and the President of the United States, Douglass wanted to remind the world that
… we, the colored people, newly emancipated and rejoicing in our blood-bought freedom, near the close of the first century in the life of this Republic, have now and here unveiled, set apart, and dedicated a monument of enduring granite and bronze, in every line, feature, and figure of which the men of this generation may read, and those of aftercoming generations may read, something of the exalted character and great works of Abraham Lincoln, the first martyr President of the United States.
Stop and think about what Douglass is saying, to whom he is speaking, and when he is speaking. Douglass declared that his people have “unveiled, set apart, and dedicated a monument,” so it’s not a white man’s monument, although it is a monument to the role played by a white man in emancipating the enslaved. But there, listening to him, were members of a Congress that no longer could pass legislation to protect the freedpeople; there were members of the very Suprme Court that had knocked down efforts to protect black freedom just weeks before in the Cruikshank and Reese cases; and there was the president of the United States, who had acknowledged the futility of attempting to protect black eqaulity in the face of increased opposition by the white American public. Talk about speaking truth to power, even when it’s merely implicit.
We fully comprehend the relation of Abraham Lincoln both to ourselves and to the white people of the United States. Truth is proper and beautiful at all times and in all places, and it is never more proper and beautiful in any case than when speaking of a great public man whose example is likely to be commended for honor and imitation long after his departure to the solemn shades, the silent continents of eternity. It must be admitted, truth compels me to admit, even here in the presence of the monument we have erected to his memory, Abraham Lincoln was not, in the fullest sense of the word, either our man or our model. In his interests, in his associations, in his habits of thought, and in his prejudices, he was a white man.
Usually one does not possess such audacity, but then one does if he is Frederick Douglass. To acknowledge that the man celebrated in bronze was less than perfect, even flawed, on the day that monument is dedicated, is remarkable, and no more so than when the subject is Abraham Lincoln.
He was preeminently the white man’s President, entirely devoted to the welfare of white men. He was ready and willing at any time during the first years of his administration to deny, postpone, and sacrifice the rights of humanity in the colored people to promote the welfare of the white people of this country. In all his education and feeling he was an American of the Americans. He came into the Presidential chair upon one principle alone, namely, opposition to the extension of slavery. His arguments in furtherance of this policy had their motive and mainspring in his patriotic devotion to the interests of his own race. To protect, defend, and perpetuate slavery in the states where it existed Abraham Lincoln was not less ready than any other President to draw the sword of the nation. He was ready to execute all the supposed guarantees of the United States Constitution in favor of the slave system anywhere inside the slave states. He was willing to pursue, recapture, and send back the fugitive slave to his master, and to suppress a slave rising for liberty, though his guilty master were already in arms against the Government.
Boom! And it’s all true, of course.
The race to which we belong were not the special objects of his consideration. Knowing this, I concede to you, my white fellow-citizens, a pre-eminence in this worship at once full and supreme. First, midst, and last, you and yours were the objects of his deepest affection and his most earnest solicitude. You are the children of Abraham Lincoln. We are at best only his step-children; children by adoption, children by forces of circumstances and necessity. To you it especially belongs to sound his praises, to preserve and perpetuate his memory, to multiply his statues, to hang his pictures high upon your walls, and commend his example, for to you he was a great and glorious friend and benefactor. Instead of supplanting you at his altar, we would exhort you to build high his monuments; let them be of the most costly material, of the most cunning workmanship; let their forms be symmetrical, beautiful, and perfect, let their bases be upon solid rocks, and their summits lean against the unchanging blue, overhanging sky, and let them endure forever! But while in the abundance of your wealth, and in the fullness of your just and patriotic devotion, you do all this, we entreat you to despise not the humble offering we this day unveil to view; for while Abraham Lincoln saved for you a country, he delivered us from a bondage, according to Jefferson, one hour of which was worse than ages of the oppression your fathers rose in rebellion to oppose.
Having defined Lincoln as the “white man’s president,” and having reminded his listners that African Americans were “at best only his step-children,” Douglass still says that it’s perfectly fine for whites to erect more monuments, more memorials … indeed, it sounds as if he’s describing the Lincoln Memorial of decades hence. Yet for Douglass, flawed hero though Lincoln might be, he was the president who struck a fatal blow against the peculiar institution, and for Douglass, that’s what matters.
Our faith in him was often taxed and strained to the uttermost, but it never failed. When he tarried long in the mountain; when he strangely told us that we were the cause of the war; when he still more strangely told us that we were to leave the land in which we were born; when he refused to employ our arms in defense of the Union; when, after accepting our services as colored soldiers, he refused to retaliate our murder and torture as colored prisoners; when he told us he would save the Union if he could with slavery; when he revoked the Proclamation of Emancipation of General Fremont; when he refused to remove the popular commander of the Army of the Potomac, in the days of its inaction and defeat, who was more zealous in his efforts to protect slavery than to suppress rebellion; when we saw all this, and more, we were at times grieved, stunned, and greatly bewildered; but our hearts believed while they ached and bled.
Note that critics of Lincoln who say as much lack Douglass’s moral authority. Note that they also lack Douglass’s ability to see beyond these shortcomings and to place them into context.
Despite the mist and haze that surrounded him; despite the tumult, the hurry, and confusion of the hour, we were able to take a comprehensive view of Abraham Lincoln, and to make reasonable allowance for the circumstances of his position. We saw him, measured him, and estimated him; not by stray utterances to injudicious and tedious delegations, who often tried his patience; not by isolated facts torn from their connection; not by any partial and imperfect glimpses, caught at inopportune moments; but by a broad survey, in the light of the stern logic of great events, and in view of that divinity which shapes our ends, rough hew them how we will, we came to the conclusion that the hour and the man of our redemption had somehow met in the person of Abraham Lincoln. It mattered little to us what language he might employ on special occasions; it mattered little to us, when we fully knew him, whether he was swift or slow in his movements; it was enough for us that Abraham Lincoln was at the head of a great movement, and was in living and earnest sympathy with that movement, which, in the nature of things, must go on until slavery should be utterly and forever abolished in the United States.
Given that Douglass himself did not hesitate to criticize Lincoln during the early years of the war, this is no mean admission, even if one suspects that his charity is enhanced by hindsight.
Nor shall I ever forget the outburst of joy and thanksgiving that rent the air when the lightning brought to us the emancipation proclamation. In that happy hour we forgot all delay, and forgot all tardiness, forgot that the President had bribed the rebels to lay down their arms by a promise to withhold the bolt which would smite the slave-system with destruction; and we were thenceforward willing to allow the President all the latitude of time, phraseology, and every honorable device that statesmanship might require for the achievement of a great and beneficent measure of liberty and progress.
That’s quite a reaction to a document which Richard Hofstadter once said had all the moral grandeur of a bill of lading. Sometimes it’s the act that counts.
Then Douglass turns to a theme that’s quite popular with Lincoln’s critics: Lincoln’s racism.
I have said that President Lincoln was a white man, and shared the prejudices common to his countrymen towards the colored race. Looking back to his times and to the condition of his country, we are compelled to admit that this unfriendly feeling on his part may be safely set down as one element of his wonderful success in organizing the loyal American people for the tremendous conflict before them, and bringing them safely through that conflict. His great mission was to accomplish two things: first, to save his country from dismemberment and ruin; and, second, to free his country from the great crime of slavery. To do one or the other, or both, he must have the earnest sympathy and the powerful cooperation of his loyal fellow-countrymen. Without this primary and essential condition to success his efforts must have been vain and utterly fruitless. Had he put the abolition of slavery before the salvation of the Union, he would have inevitably driven from him a powerful class of the American people and rendered resistance to rebellion impossible. Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent; but measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined.
If Douglass were to look at some of Lincoln’s critics today, especially those who remain quite fond of the Confederacy, he would not find them “swift, zealous, radical, and determined” on behalf of human equality. In some cases, he’d use those terms to describe their continuing commitment to white supremacy and privilege, especially those people who seem upset at critics of white supremacy and privilege. I don’t think he’d have any patience for those folks who whine about “political correctness,” either. Rather, as he suggests, often we must take people as they are, but we must never forget who they are.
And Douglass, unlike so many of Lincoln’s critics, knew who Lincoln was:
Though Mr. Lincoln shared the prejudices of his white fellow-countrymen against the Negro, it is hardly necessary to say that in his heart of hearts he loathed and hated slavery. The man who could say, “Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war shall soon pass away, yet if God wills it continue till all the wealth piled by two hundred years of bondage shall have been wasted, and each drop of blood drawn by the lash shall have been paid for by one drawn by the sword, the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether,” gives all needed proof of his feeling on the subject of slavery. He was willing, while the South was loyal, that it should have its pound of flesh, because he thought that it was so nominated in the bond; but farther than this no earthly power could make him go.
One could point out that a Native American speaker might have something to add to that: after all, Little Big Horn was about ten weeks away.
But now behold the change: the judgment of the present hour is, that taking him for all in all, measuring the tremendous magnitude of the work before him, considering the necessary means to ends, and surveying the end from the beginning, infinite wisdom has seldom sent any man into the world better fitted for his mission than Abraham Lincoln.
Douglass paid tribute to Lincoln the man and the president, reminding people of the task before him and the critics who assailed him … although Douglass did not remind the audience that he had been among those critics at one time. Them after detailing Lincoln’s murder, Douglass came to his concluding remarks:
Fellow-citizens, I end, as I began, with congratulations. We have done a good work for our race today. In doing honor to the memory of our friend and liberator, we have been doing highest honors to ourselves and those who come after us; we have been fastening ourselves to a name and fame imperishable and immortal; we have also been defending ourselves from a blighting scandal. When now it shall be said that the colored man is soulless, that he has no appreciation of benefits or benefactors; when the foul reproach of ingratitude is hurled at us, and it is attempted to scourge us beyond the range of human brotherhood, we may calmly point to the monument we have this day erected to the memory of Abraham Lincoln.
Douglass came to mind last night as I watched events on television. I recalled that although he was an advocate of women’s rights, he defended the need to prioritize black rights first. He was, after all, a flawed hero, too. But imagine what he might have thought. What would he have made of our nation’s first black president endorsing and embracing the first female to be nominated for president by a major political party? That scene might well have interested the man who once (without his approval) was nominated for vice president on a ticket that featured the first woman, Victoria Woodhull, to be nominated for president, albeit by a minor party (both Douglass and Susan B. Anthony preferred Ulysses S. Grant for four more years). He might be forgiven for expressing astonishment that it was none other than the party of the slave power who was now moving in a direction even he could never have anticipated.
I speculate that for Douglass the scene in Philadelphia, birthplace of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, would have made him smile. He might observe that it certainly had taken a long time, but that, like Lincoln, some people, however flawed, were at least on the right track.