February is not only Black History Month, it’s also Lincoln’s month: birthday (the 12th); holiday (the 15th, tho he currently shares it with some old & about-to-be-canceled slaveholder named Washington).
Lincoln is an endlessly fascinating and enigmatic character. (And speaking of canceling, he just got tossed as namesake of San Francisco high school by a “progressive” school board.) And I’ve been learning some more about him recently from historian David Blight.
Lincoln is a major figure in the middle section of Blight’s Frederick Douglass, Prophet of Freedom. The book won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography last year, and deserved it.
The book is deeply researched, consistently insightful, splendidly written, and blessed with an endlessly quotable subject. Nevertheless, I haven’t been able to finish it.
Not yet, that is.
To be sure, Douglass was an imperfect person, and Blight does not disguise this. But he was one of the finest writers and orators in English of his era.
Scarcely a paragraph quoted by Blight in the first twenty chapters is less than eloquent and gripping. They take him from childhood on a Maryland plantation, his daring escape, and his career as a star abolitionist speaker and newspaper publisher, as well as a family man in Rochester, New York, up to The middle of 1864, a crisis year of the Civil War.
Of course, every year of that war was full of crises. It’s been slow going; it took several weeks with the book to make it this far.
This is no criticism of Blight, or his work. It’s mainly been because the history he recounts feels so real and so close it has often been overwhelming. Douglass’s post-escape career unfolded in the years when the nation in which he sought to live and raise a family of free Americans was being torn apart and dragged into war over exactly that issue.
Torn apart? Dragged into civil war? Does that ring any bells?
Douglass too was torn by all this, and he did some of the tearing. As he did so, irony and ambivalence were major themes in his speaking and pen, and not merely as literary or rhetorical devices.
For instance, Blight tells of Frederick Douglass writing to William Lloyd Garrison on January 1, 1846 after spending several months in Ireland.
Blight asks, “Did any American exile in the long history of this story of the scorned expatriate ever express such feelings of a man without a country any better?
Douglass: ‘I have . . . no creed to uphold, no government to defend; and as a nation, I belong to none . . . The land of my birth welcomes me to her shores only as a slave.’
It was as if the deep sadness of Irish songs had entered his bones. Then Douglass turned, as he so often did in his writing, to metaphors of nature to find the beauty and the agony in his story.
‘In thinking of America, I sometimes find myself admiring her bright blue sky,’ he rhapsodized, ‘her grand old woods—her fertile fields—her beautiful rivers . . . her star-crowned mountains.’
We can read him anticipating Walt Whitman, Langston Hughes, or Woody Guthrie.
‘But my rapture is soon checked, my joy is soon turned to mourning. When I remember that all is cursed with the infernal spirit of slaveholding . . . when I remember that with the waters of her noblest rivers, the tears of my brethren are borne to the ocean . . . and that her most fertile fields drink daily of the warm blood of my outraged sisters, I am filled with unutterable loathing.’
Douglass displays here what he would express repeatedly in his public life. He desperately wanted to belong in his own country, to make its stated creeds his own, but as he concluded, ‘America will not allow her children to love her.’
[For Douglass] Hatred and love of country, impossible condition mixed with plausible hope, brutally racist law met with resistance born of secular and religious faith—these were forever the literary and intellectual wellsprings of this great ironist’s work.”
In his early abolitionist years, Douglass imbibed and articulated the idealistic nonresistant pacifism of the movement’s white leadership, many of them Quakers. But this non-violence was beaten out of him by more than one mob attack on antislavery meetings. Eventually he broke with the pacifists and was ultimately drawn toward John Brown’s scheme to spark a southern slave rebellion.
At a secret meeting in August 1859, Brown spent two days urging and pleading with Douglass to join his planned attack on the federal arsenal in Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. Brown insisted that a successful assault would set off a slave uprising which would spread and become unstoppable.
But after examining the plan, Douglass concluded it was doomed and suicidal, and refused.
Douglass was no coward. He had often risked death in abolitionist work, and would support an actual war to end slavery, but did not seek to share Brown’s path of martyrdom.
Nevertheless, Brown got his martyr’s rope, and Douglass soon had the war. Although he did not enlist, Douglass backed the Union war effort vigorously and agonized as Abraham Lincoln hesitated in the war’s first year-plus to make ending slavery its main object.
This is a familiar story. But even so, the uncertain course of the struggle, both in battle and in Lincoln’s temporizing, echoed so loudly for me through the last days of 2020 and into these first weeks of 2021 that the impact of Blight’s narrative came to feel almost physical; I have had to take breaks to keep my balance.
I usually open Blight in the predawn hours, when sleep escapes me, as it so often has in these past five years. And it was still dark when I began the account of Douglass’s all-night vigil in Boston on December 31, 1862.
He was part of a large crowd waiting for and then sleeplessly celebrating news of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation — an action Douglass and so many others had been demanding since the start of the war.
Then as I closed the book, it was after dawn of January 6, and a new insurrection was gathering and played itself out in real time.
I was unable to pick up Blight again until almost three weeks later, after the U. S. Capitol had been besieged but now seemed (temporarily) safe, and the White House had changed hands, though as I write several thousand troops still remain deployed around both. The renewed national agony, so familiar in Blight’s pages, continues willy-billy, as it had for Douglass, Lincoln, and millions of others.
During my furlough from Blight, I found from another source how that unforgettable New Year’s Day of 1863, and the many layers of irony that are paved into the twisting, blood-soaked journey to it, still shaped Douglass’s thought thirteen years later, in his oration at the unveiling of the Freedmen’s statue of Lincoln unshackling a slave in Washington DC, April 14, 1876. The statue, by the way, was financed mainly by donations from freed people of modest means.
His reflections on the president who trod the path to the proclamation were particularly striking and insightful. In 2021, as the calendar turns toward Black History Month, and the annual holiday in Lincoln’s memory, Douglass’s forthrightness and depth seem particularly timely.
Douglass: 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.
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. 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.
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. 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.
Nor was this, even at that time, a blind and unreasoning superstition. 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.
When, therefore, it shall be asked what we have to do with the memory of Abraham Lincoln, or what Abraham Lincoln had to do with us, the answer is ready, full, and complete.
Though he loved Caesar less than Rome, though the Union was more to him than our freedom or our future, under his wise and beneficent rule we saw ourselves gradually lifted from the depths of slavery to the heights of liberty and manhood; under his wise and beneficent rule, and by measures approved and vigorously pressed by him, we saw that the handwriting of ages, in the form of prejudice and proscription, was rapidly fading away from the face of our whole country;
— under his rule, and in due time, about as soon after all as the country could tolerate the strange spectacle, we saw our brave sons and brothers laying off the rags of bondage, and being clothed all over in the blue uniforms of the soldiers of the United States; under his rule we saw two hundred thousand of our dark and dusky people responding to the call of Abraham Lincoln, and with muskets on their shoulders, and eagles on their buttons, timing their high footsteps to liberty and union under the national flag;
— under his rule we saw the independence of the black republic of Haiti, the special object of slave-holding aversion and horror, fully recognized, and her minister, a colored gentleman, duly received here in the city of Washington; under his rule we saw the internal slave-trade, which so long disgraced the nation, abolished, and slavery abolished in the District of Columbia; under his rule we saw for the first time the law enforced against the foreign slave trade, and the first slave-trader hanged like any other pirate or murderer; under his rule, assisted by the greatest captain of our age, and his inspiration, we saw the Confederate States, based upon the idea that our race must be slaves, and slaves forever, battered to pieces and scattered to the four winds;
— under his rule, and in the fullness of time, we saw Abraham Lincoln, after giving the slave-holders three months’ grace in which to save their hateful slave system, penning the immortal paper, which, though special in its language, was general in its principles and effect, making slavery forever impossible in the United States.
Though we waited long, we saw all this and more.
Can any colored man, or any white man friendly to the freedom of all men, ever forget the night which followed the first day of January, 1863, when the world was to see if Abraham Lincoln would prove to be as good as his word?
I shall never forget that memorable night, when in a distant city I waited and watched at a public meeting, with three thousand others not less anxious than myself, for the word of deliverance which we have heard read today. 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. . . .”
As he spoke that day, Douglass, the master ironist, was well aware that tides of violent reaction were undermining the efforts of Lincoln and Reconstruction to secure “the heights of liberty and manhood” for Black Americans on every side.
Still, his public career was largely devoted to using symbols and history as spurs to endurance and work to retain and regain the hard-won advances. The statue unveiled that day in1876, which may be problematic to some modern viewers, was for him one such sign of indomitable endurance.
We have much need of this endurance still today, and few if any besides Frederick Douglass to voice it any better. I am grateful to David Blight for bringing him to our aid again, and don’t begrudge him the fact that he tells a story, much of which is still terrifying so many decades later.