A "Worship, Full and Supreme": Frederick Douglass Remembers Abraham Lincoln
A Statue of Limitations
On April 14, 1876, Frederick Douglass delivered the keynote address for the unveiling of Freedman's Memorial in Lincoln Park, Washington D.C. It was the centennial year of U.S. independence and although emancipation and the end of the Civil War were only a little more than a decade before, the nation had turned heartily toward the celebration of independence with little thought of the end of slavery. According to history blogger Josh Brown, the lavish, expansive Philadelphia Centennial Exposition had been "more about the future than the past, heralding the nation’s triumphant recovery and dynamic growth since its bloody civil war." Yet the Philadelphia Exposition reflected the larger attitude of white America in that little mention was made of black emancipation and Reconstruction.1
The April 14 event that same year was obviously attuned to remembrance of Lincoln's assassination, which took place on the same date in 1865. Perhaps the Freedman's Memorial statue is familiar to most people, with its legendary image of a standing Lincoln with a kneeling black man at his feet. In the right hand of Lincoln is the Emancipation Proclamation, while his left hand is salvifically extended over--but not touching--the gratefully obeisant black man. Douglass himself disliked the statue. Although he said nothing about it in his address, he was overheard saying that “it showed the Negro on his knee when a more manly attitude would have been indicative of freedom.”2 What makes Douglass's remarks all the more profound is the fact that the Freedman's Memorial statue was the only image manifested in what had been a larger plan in tribute to black freedom. Josh Brown informs us that the original plan--primarily funded and supported by blacks--was an ambitious exhibit that was to be executed by New England sculptor Harriet Hosmer. This planned memorial had attracted the interest and support of black war veterans, but also white liberals who were excited to see a memorial commemorating "the African-American experience from slavery to freedom, culminating with the figure of a black soldier brandishing a rifle." This was a radical concept, especially in the 19th century, and perhaps it's no wonder that it never came to fruition despite serious efforts to attract more support. "Moving through a succession of plans and artists, the designs grew more fragmented and unfocused," writes Brown.
The Ideals of Black Obeisance
Ultimately, all that came of this worthy plan was the standing Lincoln-kneeling black man, a statue executed by sculptor Thomas Ball. The portrayal of the liberated black man was boastfully authentic, having been based upon the photographic image of a real person, a former slave named Archer Alexander.3 But as Douglass himself recognized, it was anything but the image that had been intended, showing the progress of blacks from slavery to militant self-emancipation. The black man in the Freedman's Monument is not a strong soldier who has fought for black liberation as much as for the Union. Instead, the preferred image is of black servile gratitude--the exchange of "Massa" for the Christlike mythology of the so-called Great Emancipator. Historians may be quick to point out that toward the end of his life, Lincoln entered the fallen Confederate capitol of Richmond, Virginia, and was greeted by grateful former slaves, including one black man who knelt before him. If I'm not mistaken, however, Lincoln had the good sense to be embarrassed by the man's posture and admonished him to stand. Not so in the Freedman's Monument, which suggests Lincoln, like Jesus, receiving the worship of a true believer while bestowing his grace upon the kneeling black.
Of course this is an image that warmed the hearts of white people then and probably still resonates with emotional affirmation for many whites today. Generally speaking, white society has always assumed that blacks should be grateful for any kindness showed to them, while at the same time, white society long feared (and perhaps still does) the image of strong black men with guns, even when they were fighting on the same side. In 1863, when Douglass had his first meeting with Lincoln, he was informed by the President (in Douglass's words) that "the wisdom of making colored men soldiers was still doubted," and that "their enlistment was a serious offense to popular prejudice." Lincoln himself believed that since blacks had "larger motives" to enter the army, they should "be willing to enter the service upon any conditions," which apparently meant not being armed, not being paid the same as white soldiers, and not being afforded the same protections as whites when taken as prisoners of war.4 To be sure, there is a complex of friendly/useful black images embedded in the mind of white society, from black maids to mystical-therapeutic characters, all of which come to the aid of troubled white heroes and heroines. But at the core of these images is the paradigm of the black man kneeling before the Jesus of "American" Civil Religion. In post-Civil War terms, for blacks to have refused to bow before Lincoln would have been much like early Christians refusing to offer an oblation to the genius of Caesar. Treason.
Lincoln and Messianic Mythology
In today's New York Times (11 Feb. 2012), a museum review by Edward Rothstein highlights a $60 million "transformation" of Ford's Theater in Washington, D.C., where Lincoln was assassinated in 1865. There has been a museum there devoted to Lincoln for years, but now there will be a 10-story building called the Ford's Theater Center for Education and Leadership next to the Peterson House, across the street from Ford's Theater, where Lincoln died. Whatever else the Center will offer, it will feature an "extensive exhibition" about Lincoln and his times, with a special focus upon the assassination--a exhibit consisting of "careful narrative, well-chosen images, and informative touch screens." It also features a 34-foot tree-like sculpture comprised completely of books about Lincoln.5 While this is completely consistent with the larger scope of Lincoln's portrayal in U.S. history, as well as the fact that we have entered the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, it is also indicative of the reverential mythology of Lincoln the slain messiah of the nation and the "Great Emancipator" of black people. Yet the question remains whether all of this Lincoln adoration is grounded in history.
The messianic Lincoln mythology is undoubtedly a phenomenon of nationalistic self-interest, although it also represents the cooperation and collaboration of 19th century white liberals as well as the black community following Lincoln's assassination. Historian Leon Litwack writes:
Despite the disappointment over Lincoln's lenient amnesty program, his misplaced confidence in southern Unionists, and his "moderate" experiments in state reconstruction, the assassination of the President silenced his black critics and threw a stunned black community into deep mourning, as though it had lost its only white friend and protector. The President's initial doubts about the wisdom of emancipation and the enlistment of blacks were not forgotten, his equivocations on civil rights ignored, his schemes of colonization, expatriation, and reconstruction forgiven.6
Litwack goes onto describe how black people fell into place, mourning for the dead Lincoln and declaring him a martyr. One black newspaperman declared Lincoln "the only President who ever had the courage to acknowledge the true manhood of the negro," concluding that he was "the greatest earthly friend of the colored race."7 In a scene that anticipates naive blacks weeping over the assassinated John F. Kennedy ninety-eight years later, The Freedman (a white antislavery publication) noted one elderly black woman crying unabashedly as the President's funeral cortege passed through New York City. Wringing her hands and weeping, the tearful woman kept lamenting aloud, "He died for me, he died for me!" The story was entirely pleasing to the white Christian editors of The Freedman, who turned the incident into a black love fest for Lincoln:
How many thousands of her race have felt and said the same,--"He died for me!" and may truly have added, "How we loved him while he lived, and how precious is his memory now that he is dead!" Yes; you loved him. Why? Because he so loved your people that he was willing to die for them. If President Lincoln could have foreseen his death, do you not think he would cheerfully have given himself a sacrifice to the cause of liberty and justice? I think he would. . . .I do not believe he would have hesitated or shrunk back in the least. You have reason, yes, we all have reason, to honor and love the name of Abraham Lincoln.
As if this weren't enough, the editor goes all the way to the cross: "Do you not think of Jesus, the blessed Son of God, our Redeemer and Saviour? He suffered for us. He died for us. Do our tears fall when we think of his great love?"8 Obviously there was a missionary agenda in the article since The Freedman was published by a Christian antislavery organization, The American Tract Society. However, the redemptive language was clearly deliberate--at least as deliberate as Emerson's "gallows glorious" rhetoric had been drawn to connect John Brown to Christ after his hanging in 1859. But Emerson was no evangelical and the cross represented moral example, not blood propitiation to him. The evangelical ratification of Lincoln as the greater Christ figure of the Republic at best demoted John Brown to the role of John the Baptist, his biblical doppelganger. With the martyred Lincoln freshly enshrined in the glories above, Old Brown was now reinterpreted as the one who had gone before Lincoln, making straight the path before the coming Lord. Brown's brief stint as Jesus was over. He was now, at best, co-martyr with Lincoln; but all of the energies of antislavery society now began to move toward the apotheosis of Lincoln far above Brown.
This is evident in the same issue of The Freedman, its lead article picturing a woodcut engraving of the popular Matthew Brady photograph of the President and his youngest son, Tad, at his side. The grief of the nation is quite evident in these words, but also the inclination to enshrine the dead Lincoln in a salvific aura, especially for black people:
And of all the people in this nation, none feel the blow more deeply than the freed men and women, who, by the firm, strong, just hand of Abraham Lincoln have just been recued from the iron grasp of the oppressor. He was your EMANCIPATOR, your FRIEND. God raised him up, and gave to him alone, of all the good and great men of our land, the privilege and honor of unbinding your fetters, and bidding you go free. This one act will cover his name with distinction and glory, and make his memory sweet and precious to you forever.9
The Gospel According to Frederick Douglass
In light of the mythology of Lincoln the messianic emancipator, it is interesting how Frederick Douglass is often referenced in relation to Lincoln, and yet his actual criticism of the President is rarely discussed by historians and journalists. To be sure, Douglass did appreciate the President, as it were, always making lemonade from the lemon that had been served up to black people in the person of Lincoln. Despite his distaste for the Freedman's Monument and his in depth criticism of Lincoln as a benign racist and paternalist, Douglass did honor him as the man who ultimately became the instrument of breaking down the prison house of slavery through the might of the federal government. "[F]or no man who knew Abraham Lincoln could hate him," Douglass had concluded, "but because of his fidelity to union and liberty, he is doubly dear to us, and his memory will be precious forever.” Why was Lincoln "doubly dear"? Douglass's rationale is clear: assuming white supremacy, he was still appreciative that despite Lincoln's white priorities, he ultimately addressed the issue of slavery by wedding it to the concept of saving the Union--something that he had not first upheld. Notwithstanding his actual political record, Douglass maintained that "it was enough for us that Abraham Lincoln was at the head of a great movement" resulting in the end of slavery. As the foremost leader of white people, he was thus able to use the power of white society in the North to crush the power of the slavocracy. Furthermore, Lincoln, while hardly free of racial prejudice, was at least devoted to the end of slavery, Douglass concluded, and it was his constitutional disdain for human bondage that made Lincoln a redeemable figure in his eyes.10
But if historians and journalists merely concentrate on the best face that Douglass could put on the President, they do a great disservice to the truth. For it was also the witness of generous Frederick Douglass that weighs heavily against Lincoln in the broader judgment of humanity and history. Let Douglass's words from the same address ring out, loud and true, as to the real nature of Abraham Lincoln "the Great Emancipator":
. . .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 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. . . .
Speaking to white people in the audience, Douglass is even more pointed:
Knowing this, I concede to you, my white fellow citizens, a preeminence 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 force of circumstances and necessity.11
It is a mark of the genius of Douglass (in my opinion, the most brilliant figure in 19th century U.S. history) that he could expose the truth of Lincoln so drastically without failing to appreciate how the President had inadvertently stumbled into history as a useful tool of freedom despite himself. Douglass was kind, but there is no deception in his words. He was likewise truthful in uplifting John Brown as the man who could die for the slave in contrast to himself, the man who could live for the slave. The truth of Douglass's doctrine was substantial, although in the case of John Brown, it counterbalanced a drama of two men with very different ideas and plans. Of course, Douglass was not looking for a white messiah, and his own ego as a leader should not be missed by the historian either. Yet a comparison of Douglass's words regarding John Brown and Abraham Lincoln would lead us to conclude that it was the latter who fell short of the former with respect to black emancipation.
The worship of Lincoln, "full and supreme," continues as the staple of "American" history. Although he died like an emperor seated in a theater box while watching a comedy, one would think that Lincoln had died on Calvary, and that from the wound in his head there had flowed blood and water--the redemption of the nation and the life giving stream of the emancipated slave. This is a far cry from the way that John Brown is remembered. While we hardly need to make a messiah of either man, it is interesting that between the two of them, it was Brown who set out to die if need be, from the onset of his liberation struggle. Between the two of them also, it was Brown who died like a martyr--surrounded by his enemies, with all the powers of the state against him, and with prayer, not laughter, on his lips.
1 Josh Brown, “Another View of the ‘Statue of Emancipation.’” Picturing History (Jul. 10, 2010). Retrieved from: http://picturinghistory.gc.cuny.edu/?p=1045
3 Ibid. Josh Brown seems to have derived his information from the Kirk Savage's book, Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War, and Monument in Nineteenth-Century America (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1998/99.
4 The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (Hartford: Park Publishing, 1881; rpt. Seacaucus, N.J.: Citadel Press, 1983), pp. 352-53.
5 Edward Rothstein, "Lincoln Museum, Acts II, the Morning After the Death," New York Times (11 Feb. 2012), C1, 5.
6 Leon F. Litwack, Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery (New York: Knopf, 1979), 527.
8 "He Died For Me," The Freedman [Boston: American Tract Society] (July 1865), p. 32.
9 "Abraham Lincoln, Our Emancipator," The Freedman, p. 1.
10 The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, pp. 494-95, 497-98.
11 Ibid., 492-93.