Frederick Douglass Wanted Abraham Lincoln to be More Woke
Just because Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation does not mean he was free from all racial prejudice
All I want for Christmas is for conservative critics of the woke to spend a few hours with a Frederick Douglass speech. Not just any Douglass speech, but the 1876 “Oration in Memory of Abraham Lincoln” that he delivered to dedicate a statue in memory of the slain president.
This statue, called the Emancipation Memorial (or the Freedman’s Memorial) is located in Lincoln Park, a few blocks from the U.S. Capitol. It generated protests by activists last year who demanded its removal—and equally vehement rejoinders by their conservative critics.
The critics found the idea of protesting a Lincoln statue absurd, and they clearly felt they had an ace up their sleeve: The statue had been primarily paid for by freed Black people.
National Review’s Rich Lowry opined: “We haven’t reached peak insanity, but setting an appointment to tear down an Abraham Lincoln statue known as the Emancipation Memorial in the name of racial equity has to be getting close.” Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, tweeted: “They're coming for Lincoln? This isn't complicated. If the mob tears down statues of Lincoln then @TheJusticeDept needs to lock them up for a long time.” Congressman Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas, declared that the protesters were trying to erase “America herself.” American Conservative’s Rod Dreher fumed that if these events didn’t bring you around to your “Woke Breaking Point,” then “there is no hope for you left.”
But the fact is that although the statue was conceived and funded by formerly enslaved people, its design has been controversial from Day One. Indeed, if a letter that Douglass wrote to the National Republican that recently came to light is any indication, he didn’t like it much more than the “woke” activists because, as he put it, “the negro,” over whom a benevolent Lincoln stands tall, “though rising is still on his knees and nude.” He longed for a monument, he said, in which a Black person was represented “not couchant and on his knees like a four-footed animal, but erect on his feet like a man.”
The question, then, is this: Why did Douglass, who escaped from slavery with very great difficulty and became one of the most distinguished intellects and orators of the 19th century, commemorate a statue he did not like? In my view, one reason is that he wanted to use the occasion—and his stature—to reassess Lincoln from a Black point of view. Douglass’ relationship to Lincoln was complicated. There were times in the lead-up to the Civil War when Douglass was extremely critical of Lincoln. And there were times when Douglass spoke very highly of the president. In this speech, he combines high praise with scathing criticism.
The speech was delivered in 1876, 11 years after Lincoln’s assassination, before a largely Black audience and numerous white officials and dignitaries, including President Ulysses Grant. Douglass clearly thought it fit to use this occasion to take a full, frank and sober measure of Lincoln, laying out the many ways in which the president managed to rise above the prejudices of his time—but also the crucial ways in which he was shaped by them and even succumbed to them. It almost appears that Douglass came determined that day to make sure that the country—especially future Black generations—would not feel compelled to remain silent about their true feelings in the face of a simplistic Lincoln hagiography.
If this is the case, then, at the very least, critics of “wokeness” should stop enlisting Douglass on their side and appropriating his words (just as they do Martin Luther King Jr.’s ) to suggest that social justice activists today are too racially obsessed or too divisive or too cynical about the Founding or too inaccurate in their account of the past. Douglass might have had his quarrels with them. But if “wokeness” is about understanding how America’s history of racial injustice affects the past and present, then Douglass’ critique of Lincoln—the Great Emancipator —offers some very powerful evidence that if he were alive today, he’d be on the side of the “woke.” Indeed, he would vehemently oppose anti-woke efforts to flatten history and peddle a false consensus about the past.
It is impossible to do justice in a brief space to a speech as complex and layered as Douglass’ “Oration in Honor of Abraham Lincoln.” But it is worth highlighting some of Douglass’ most powerful arguments and claims. (Note: I have a paper forthcoming with the Niskanen Center where I undertake a fuller analysis, so consider this a teaser).
Douglass’ candor is startling, especially to contemporary ears. He refers to Lincoln as “preeminently the white man’s president, entirely devoted to the welfare of white men.” Nor was this some off-hand remark. Douglass argued that Lincoln’s actions demonstrated that he cared more about preserving the Union than about liberating the enslaved. Stunningly for a commemoration speech, he accused Lincoln of being “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.”
To illustrate this point, Douglass rattles off a long list of Lincoln’s actions: His willingness to defend and perpetuate slavery in the Southern states, his willingness to uphold the Fugitive Slave Act, his recommendations for Black exile and colonization, his early refusals to employ Black men in the Union army. “The Union was more to him than our freedom or our future,” he laments. (The historian James Oakes rightly calls the list a “scandalous rehearsal” of every criticism Douglass had ever made of Lincoln.)
Given all this, one would need to have blinkers on to not see that Douglass’ purpose in the speech was both radical and irreverent. He wanted to paint a picture of the deeply ingrained racist sentiments of his time and situate Lincoln squarely within that historical reality. It’s difficult to read this speech and not see resonance with the contemporary woke movement.
Douglass did not doubt that Lincoln truly hated slavery. But Douglass also could see that it was possible to hate slavery in the mid-19th Century and still view the world from the standpoint of white interest. In fact, it wasn’t just possible, it was normal. Douglass suggests that this racial prejudice informed nearly every stage of Lincoln’s political career.
Hence, when Lincoln’s actions eventually did turn more radical during the course of the war, in Douglass’ view it was because at that point there was a fortuitous confluence of Lincoln's patriotic principles and the aims of the abolitionists. “[T]he hour and the man of our redemption had somehow met in the person of Abraham Lincoln,” he poignantly notes. This coincidence, he fully understands, was incredible and had momentous consequences. He acknowledges that Lincoln’s prudent statecraft was successful where a more zealous abolitionist approach would have faltered:
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.
But this beautiful line, which is sometimes quoted by conservatives as though it offered total exoneration of Lincoln’s prejudices, does no such thing. That’s clear when the line is read in the context of the full paragraph whose very first sentence notes that the sentiments that Lincoln “was bound as a statesman to consult” were racist sentiments. (“I have said that President Lincoln was a white man, and shared the prejudices common to his countrymen towards the colored race.”)
Douglass readily admits that this prejudice “may safely [be] set down as one element of his [Lincoln’s] wonderful success in organizing the loyal American people for the tremendous conflict before them, and bringing them safely through that conflict.” He accepts that Lincoln’s statecraft safeguarded Black people at that time more than the genuine abolitionist approach ever could.
But Douglass also believed that recognizing the necessity of this statecraft did not mean papering over the frustration and disappointments of Black people and abolitionists. Such statecraft might have been necessary, but that didn’t render it noble. Even while respecting the memory of Lincoln, Douglass wanted to remind everyone that it was a perverse twist of history that made racial prejudice into a tool for noble ends.
There are things about Lincoln that Douglass clearly believed were worth celebrating. In addition to his hatred of slavery, Douglass admired Lincoln for his humble origins, his depth and transparency, his strength and gentleness, his toleration and his patience. Lincoln was a “great and good man” with a “high mission in the world.” And, despite his accusations against Lincoln, Douglass appreciated all the times that Lincoln acted on behalf of humanity and in defiance of his own racial sympathies. He:
Enforced the law against the foreign slave trade, allowing a white man and trader, Nathaniel Gordon, to be hung “like any other pirate or murderer.”
Worked with General Ulysses Grant to see the Confederate States “battered to pieces and scattered to the four winds.”
Signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
By the end of the war, Lincoln had proven himself worthy in Douglass’ eyes. “Though we waited long, we saw all this and more,” he said.
But it isn’t clear that Douglass is so magnanimous toward America or its founding. My sense is that Douglass held that the end of slavery could never mean the restoration of justice; it was merely the end of a gross injustice. At one point, Douglass invokes a famous line of Thomas Jefferson:
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.’
Douglass had referenced this line previously in his famous 1852 Fourth of July speech. Why bring it up again some 24 years later? One reason is that it so vividly conveys the moral agony of the American Founding: Jefferson’s pang of conscience is an acknowledgement that on some level he understood his own hypocrisy, and knew that fighting for freedom while engaging in chattel slavery is perverse. When Douglass uses the line to take the measure of Lincoln’s action, he pays considerable homage to the good achieved by Lincoln. But he is, at the same time, subjecting the American Founding to withering criticism.
Given all this, it is hard to imagine that Douglass would not have had real sympathy for The New York Times 1619 project, whatever its flaws. This project provocatively invites a reconsideration of America’s origins and history with a view to slavery and its legacy. It has been widely panned by conservatives. One such critic, Princeton University’s Allen Guelzo, argues that the purpose of the 1619 Project is not history but “evangelism for a gospel of disenchantment whose ultimate purpose is the hollowing out of the meaning of freedom.” But it is impossible to absorb the line from Jefferson and not become at least somewhat disenchanted with America’s founding.
It is also impossible to absorb that sentence and hold that Douglass believed that white America could ask those touched by slavery and its legacy to be grateful to the Founding Fathers or even to Abraham Lincoln. Yet Guelzo demands that. He insists that “in no human society [besides America’s] has an enslaved people suddenly found itself vaulted into positions of such privilege, and with the consent—even the approbation—of those who were once the enslavers.” And then he invokes Douglass and other Black leaders:
The 156 years since emancipation are less than a second on human history’s long clock, so that such a transformation is more in the nature of a miracle to be celebrated than a failure to be deplored for any seeming slowness. It is a miracle Frederick Douglass celebrated; it is a miracle Sergeant William Carney celebrated on the ramparts of Fort Wagner; it is a miracle Dorie Miller and the Tuskegee Airmen celebrated; and it is a miracle Colin Powell and Ben Carson have celebrated. Why not the 1619 Project?
Douglass’ speech anticipates this demand for gratitude from Black people. And he makes it crystal clear in the conclusion of his speech that he wants to absolve future generations of African Americans of any need to respond to such pressures. To be more precise, Douglass makes it clear that he considers the creation of the Emancipation Memorial already to be more than adequate when he issues this blasting reproach to such future demands:
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.
In 1876, Douglass offered a powerful but frank tribute to Lincoln. And in the course of doing so, he shined an unsparing light on Lincoln’s moral shortcomings mainly to expose the corrupting effect of slavery on America, the toll it took on America’s humanity.
Douglass’ speech, in the end, was an effort to carve out space for Blacks to offer their own account of American history as they experienced it. The 1619 project is one attempt to fill that space 145 years later. That it has received such an aggressive and hostile reaction is dispiriting. America has made a lot of progress in the intervening years, of course, but clearly, it still has a long way to go.
Frederick Douglass’ speech works as a powerful primer for this history as well as a newer, more balanced, historiography. It is very much worth reading in full.
Laura K. Field is a Scholar in Residence at American University and a Senior Fellow at the Niskanen Center in Washington, D.C.
Photo Credit: Library of Congress