Frederick Douglass Appealing to President Lincoln by William Edouard Scott
This mural depicts Frederick Douglass asking President Abraham Lincoln to allow black soldiers to serve in the Union army during the Civil War. Gideon Welles, the Secretary of the Navy, and Salmon P. Chase, Secretary of the Treasury, are the two men standing in the back. The image surely depicts a fictional event: although Lincoln and Douglass met three times at the White House, those meetings took place after Congress approved the use of blacks as soldiers in the Union armed forces.
On April 14, 1865, president Abraham Lincoln was fatally shot by John Wilkes Booth in Washington, DC. On April 15, Lincoln passed away, becoming the first president to be assassinated in office.
On April 14, 1876, Frederick Douglass, perhaps the most prominent African American of his time, gave an “Oration in Memory of Abraham Lincoln.” This was done in Washington, DC, at the unveiling of The Freedmen’s Monument which had been commissioned by African Americans to honor the late president.
Douglass’s speech remains one of the most thoughtful, critical, and honorific summaries of Lincoln’s role in achieving racial progress during his time in office.
Douglass says that Lincoln was the black man’s “friend” and “liberator,” and that “the name of Abraham Lincoln was near and dear to our hearts in the darkest and most perilous hours of the Republic.” But he also says Lincoln was “preeminently the white man’s President, entirely devoted to the welfare of white men,” that “the race to which we belong were not the special objects of his consideration,” and that “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.”
Douglass eschewed simplicity in discussing Lincoln. Lincoln’s policies toward and relations with African American were complex, and in his long speech, Douglass laid out those complexities in detail.
But I think this one comment from that speech sums it up: “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.”
Douglass understood that Lincoln was a man, a white man, of his times. But that is why Douglass was ultimately thankful for Lincoln, enough to see Lincoln as a hero for African Americans. Because despite his own prejudices, and those of the nation, Lincoln found cause to condemn slavery as evil, and to use the Civil War as a means to destroy the institution. Lincoln was a man of his times who rose above his times, to do something revolutionary. Douglass, and African Americans, were “appreciators of his benefits.”
Of special interest to me is the portion of the speech where Douglass says “under his rule, Lincoln did this” or “Lincoln did that.” (See the italicized text below.) To those who might claim Lincoln did little or nothing for the cause of African American freedom and advancement, and that Lincoln’s supporters were moved by “a blind and unreasoning superstition,” Douglass lists a bill of particulars, to use a phrase, about Lincoln’s achievements, a list that withstands the scrutiny of time.
I also found it interesting that in speaking of Lincoln’s humble origins, Douglass said that as “a son of toil himself, he was linked in brotherly sympathy with the sons of toil in every loyal part of the Republic.” Douglass seemed to feel that being a “common man,” Lincoln was uniquely poised to represent all working people, of any background, as he executed his duties.
These are excerpts from Douglass’s speech, and there is a lot of text here. We bloggers are sometimes told to avoid making posts with such length, as it may be too tedious for readers. But it has a lot to offer about how Douglass, and perhaps many other African Americans of the era, viewed the president. Enjoy the read:
Friends and Fellow-citizens:
I warmly congratulate you upon the highly interesting object (the Freedmen’s Monument in Lincoln Park, Washington, DC,) which has caused you to assemble in such numbers and spirit as you have today. This occasion is in some respects remarkable. Wise and thoughtful men of our race, who shall come after us, and study the lesson of our history in the United States; who shall survey the long and dreary spaces over which we have traveled; who shall count the links in the great chain of events by which we have reached our present position, will make a note of this occasion; they will think of it and speak of it with a sense of manly pride and complacency.
We stand today at the national center to perform something like a national act — an act which is to go into history; and we are here where every pulsation of the national heart can be heard, felt, and reciprocated. A thousand wires, fed with thought and winged with lightning, put us in instantaneous communication with the loyal and true men all over the country.
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… In view, then, of the past, the present, and the future, with the long and dark history of our bondage behind us, and with liberty, progress, and enlightenment before us, I again congratulate you upon this auspicious day and hour. Continue reading