Liberty Matters

Douglass on Lincoln

Following up on my previous post, I turn to the second subject of George H. Smith's 5/26 post, concerning Douglass's judgment of Abraham Lincoln. Smith asserts in summary that Douglass did not share the high opinion I expressed of Lincoln in my initial post in this forum, regarding Lincoln as one of 19th-century America's two preeminent apostles of the natural-rights doctrine. Douglass, he says, probably would have accorded that honor to another abolitionist, such as perhaps William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, or Gerrit Smith.
To that list, for what it's worth, I would add Charles Sumner —"our peerless Charles Sumner," Douglass, who did tend to be somewhat free in his use of superlatives, called him. Another time he described Sumner as higher than the highest and better than the best of our statesmen. On the general point, Smith is likely correct in opining that my estimation of Lincoln is higher than Douglass's estimation of Lincoln and that Douglass held the greatest among the abolitionists in special esteem.
Smith goes further, however, in saying that Douglass harbored an actually diminishing opinion of Lincoln, regarding him "as the proverbial Great Man who was compelled by the forces of history to do the right thing." Granted, Douglass said things here and there about Lincoln that would seem to corroborate that opinion, especially in the Freedmen's Monument speech upon which Smith relies. For that matter, Lincoln himself conveyed that impression when he stated that "events have controlled me."[81] Nonetheless I think that judgment of Lincoln is mistaken, and I also think it was not, in fact, Douglass's considered judgment.
I have written elsewhere at greater length about the Douglass-Lincoln relationship, focusing especially on Douglass's judgment of Lincoln.[82] Here I can only mention a few salient points.
It is well known that Douglass was harshly critical of Lincoln for roughly the first half of Lincoln's presidency. He thought Lincoln indifferent to the moral question of slavery and sluggish in his prosecution of the war. This is the critique of Lincoln that he reprised in the Freedmen's Monument speech, and Smith takes that critique as representative of Douglass's considered, comprehensive judgment of Lincoln. Therein, I think, lies his mistake.
In that speech Douglass spoke, as he did in another of his greatest speeches, his Fourth of July oration in 1852, in more than one voice, from more than one perspective. He called the perspective critical of Lincoln "the genuine abolition ground," and he contrasted that perspective with the perspective of the "statesman," the man charged with taking a comprehensive view of the country's well-being. It is clear in context that Douglass considered the latter the superior perspective, and from that point of view Lincoln appeared "swift, zealous, radical, and determined" in the cause—for it was, as Lincoln saw and Douglass came to see, a single cause—of opposition to slavery and preservation of the Union.[83]
If Douglass judged the statesman's perspective superior, then why—in a speech, after all, on an occasion that called for a pure, glowing eulogy of Lincoln—did Douglass give voice to the abolitionist critique at all? Why, especially, did he call Lincoln "pre-eminently the white man's president" on an occasion dedicating a monument that, as the monument's inscription says, the "emancipated citizens" of the nation commissioned in gratitude to their fallen liberator?
I don't think Douglass ever quite relinquished that "genuine abolition ground," as his enduring praise for John Brown attests. Still, it is helpful here to know that Douglass's statement appears as a reversal of the judgment that Douglass himself had expressed in a eulogy of Lincoln 11 years previous to the 1876 occasion. In that June 1865 eulogy, Douglass stated, "Abraham Lincoln ... was ... in a sense hitherto without example, emphatically the black man's president."[84] There is no reason to think Douglass reversed this judgment between 1865 and 1876. More likely, Douglass judged it for some reason unwise or imprudent to say in 1876 about Lincoln what he had said in 1865.
The key to answering the question I put in the preceding paragraph appears at the close of the 1876 speech. Douglass said in closing, "Fellow citizens … [w]e have done a good work for our race to-day."[85] What was that good work? In brief, I submit that to advance the cause of liberty for black Americans, Douglass found it necessary at once to exalt and to diminish the luster of Lincoln's heroism.
Douglass wanted Lincoln to serve as a model to whites, which required Douglass to downplay the degree to which he thought Lincoln transcended race prejudice. The idea was that if someone who also shared some of that prejudice could overcome it to perform a great public service for a despised group, so could they. On the other hand, for black Americans Lincoln could be no more than a uniquely beneficent "step-father," because absent voting rights for all, the very greatest democratic statesmen can never be more than stepfathers or accidental benefactors. Douglass's ambivalence in that speech reflects his twofold purpose to venerate Lincoln and to deplore the condition that reduced blacks to a dependency on a savior-figure such as Lincoln—and so to remind them of their urgent need and responsibility to strive to overcome that condition.
One final, complicating note. Robert S. Levine, professor of English at the University of Maryland, has a new literary biography of Douglass (The Lives of Frederick Douglass) that presents, among many other interesting things, a challenging interpretation of the Douglass-Lincoln relation juxtaposed with the Douglass-John Brown relation. I confess his argument complicates my understanding of the relation a bit, but those interested in the subject can read it and come to their own judgments.
[81.] Lincoln to Albert G. Hodges, April 4, 1864, Collected Works vol. 7, 281.
[82.] See Peter C. Myers, "Stepfather Abraham: Frederick Douglass's Contribution to Lincoln Lore," Lincoln Lore 1901 (Fall 2012), 8-15, and "'A Good Work for Our Race To-Day': Interests, Virtues, and the Achievement of Justice in Frederick Douglass's Freedmen's Monument Speech," American Political Science Review vol. 104, no. 2 (May 2010), 209-225.
[83.] Douglass, "Oration on the Occasion of the Unveiling of the Freedmen's Monument in Memory of Abraham Lincoln," April 14, 1876, in The Essential Douglass, edited by Nicholas Buccola (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2016), p. 245.
[84.] "Lincoln, Abraham, folder 3, Page 12," Douglass Papers at the Library of Congress,  (author's emphasis).
[85.] Douglass, "Freedmen's Monument," 248.