Lincoln & Frederick Douglass: Abolitionist Gave Speech Dedicating Emancipation Memorial

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Fredrick Douglass, circa 1879 (National Archives and Records Administration/Image via Wikimedia )

As I noted in today’s Morning Jolt — which I’m writing this week while the inestimable Jim Geraghty is on vacation — the latest “anti-racist” campaign targeting statues for forcible erasure is being directed at the Emancipation Memorial, also known as the Freedmen’s Memorial.

This effort, announced publicly by a mob that intends to tear down the monument tomorrow evening, is also being backed by D.C.’s non-voting congresswoman, Eleanor Holmes Norton, who has raised several ill-founded objections to the memorial’s continued presence in Lincoln Park on Capitol Hill.

The memorial, Holmes Norton avers, is no longer a fitting monument for our times because it failed to “take into account the views of African Americans.” The memorial, it is worth noting, was underwritten by freed slaves; this is, apparently, insufficient evidence that African-American perspectives were consulted in its construction.

Holmes Norton went on to invoke Frederick Douglass himself as a supporter of her cause, insisting that the abolitionist had “in his keynote address at the unveiling of this statue . . . expressed his displeasure with the statue.” The National Parks Service website asserts, too, that Douglass believed the statue perpetuated negative stereotypes, although it offers no citation to clarify what this claim refers to.

The congresswoman appears either to have misread or entirely failed to read the keynote oration that Douglass delivered at the unveiling of the memorial, which was dedicated on the eleventh anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination. Or, perhaps, Holmes Norton simply prefers to ignore the substance and complexity of Douglass’s message in favor of twisting his meaning to suit her purposes.

Here’s just a bit of what Douglass had to say during that oration, which is well worth reading in full:

Let it be told in every part of the Republic; let men of all parties and opinions hear it; let those who despise us, not less than those who respect us, know that now and here, in the spirit of liberty, loyalty, and gratitude, let it be known everywhere, and by everybody who takes an interest in human progress and in the amelioration of the condition of mankind, 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 after-coming generations may read, something of the exalted character and great works of Abraham Lincoln, the first martyr President of the United States. . . .

Fellow-citizens, ours is no new-born zeal and devotion — merely a thing of this moment. The name of Abraham Lincoln was near and dear to our hearts in the darkest and most perilous hours of the Republic. We were no more ashamed of him when shrouded in clouds of darkness, of doubt, and defeat than when we saw him crowned with victory, honor, and glory. Our faith in him was often taxed and strained to the uttermost, but it never failed. . . . 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.

His remarks were not an entirely uncritical commentary on Lincoln’s career, to be sure. Douglass says, for instance:

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. He was pre-eminent 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.

Perhaps this is what Holmes Norton is gesturing at when she claims that Douglass decried the statue. But his speech concludes with this line: “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.”

Are we really meant to believe that these are the words of a man who opposed the existence of the monument or was in some way displeased with it?

Douglass’s remarks need not have been entirely uncritical toward Lincoln for Holmes Norton to be wrong in invoking him as a reason to remove the memorial. And in Douglass’s speech we might find some additional wisdom for our tumultuous moment — chiefly, that history and the men who move it are almost never as simple as angry, indiscriminate mobs would have us believe.





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