Saturday, February 16, 2013

Lincoln Douglass

Frederick Douglass that is, not Stephen Douglas.

Last year I joined the Civil War Roundtable of Fairfield County which features speakers on Civil War topics about eight times a year.  This week, Larry (this Larry, not that Larry) and I saw David Blight, Professor of American History at Yale and Director of the Gilder-Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition, who spoke on the relationship between Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln.
 (Prof Blight)
Douglass is one of those figures in American history about whom I've always meant to read more about.  Several months ago I read Narrative Of The Life Of Frederick Douglass, a small 100 page book, which Douglass wrote in the early 1840s, several years after escaping from slavery in Maryland.  It opens with these words:

"I was born in Tuckahoe, near Hillsborough, and about twelve miles from Easton, in Talbot County, Maryland.  I have no accurate knowledge of my age, never having seen any authentic record containing it.  By far the larger part of the slaves know as little of their ages as horses know of theirs, and it is the wish of most masters within my knowledge to keep their slaves thus ignorant."

By the start of the Civil War, twenty years later, Frederick Douglass was a leading abolitionist and the most famous black man in America and indeed, in the entire Western World.  Professor Blight is one of the leading experts on Douglass (I believe he would consider himself the leading expert) and has a new biography coming out on him in 2014 which I'll certainly purchase.

Blight spoke to Douglass' reaction to Lincoln at different points in time and it was a reaction that varied from suspicion, frustration, anger and disappointment to admiration, appreciation, support and even a little starstruck.  He also told us of the three Lincoln-Douglass meetings.  The first in 1863 when Douglass showed up unannounced at the White House and had a forty minute conversation with the President in which he urged Lincoln to equalize the pay of blacks in the Union Army with the pay of white soldiers.  The second, at Lincoln's invitation, in August 1864 when the President feared he would not be reelected and asked Douglass, to his astonishment, to organize an effort to smuggle as many slaves as possible out of the South before George McClellan became President.  The final meeting was in March 1865, when Douglass decided to attend Lincoln's inauguration and they met at the White House, where Lincoln asked him what he thought about his speech.  Of those meetings Douglass later wrote:

“in his company I was never in any way reminded of my humble origin, or of my unpopular color."

Shortly thereafter, he was invited by the President to join him for tea in a one on one meeting which Douglass declined because of a speaking engagement, a decision he later regretted.  Blight used the three eulogies Douglass gave for Lincoln, in 1865, 1876 and 1893 to show both how his view of Lincoln changed or perhaps, more accurately, why he chose the particular Lincoln to speak about in each eulogy.  Most interestingly in the 1865 and 1893 speeches he called Lincoln "the black man's President" while in the 1876 speech, given at the unveiling of a Lincoln statute in Washington DC with an audience including President Grant, his Cabinet and most of the members of Congress he used different terminology:

He was preeminently the white man’s President, entirely devoted to the welfare of white men . . .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.(Statue dedicated in 1876)
According to Blight, Douglass took this approach to try to shame the political attendees into taking action to protect the freed blacks in the South who were being threatened with violence (in the worst of these episodes about 100 blacks were killed in a massacre at Colfax, Louisiana).  This effort was unsuccessful as the last vestiges of Reconstruction ended in early 1877.

Professor Blight has a wonderful presentation style.  He's obviously very practiced in public speaking but comes across as very informal, throwing in funny asides, modulating his voice and conveying the complexity and emotion of the relationship between the President and the former slave.

In doing a little research for this post I came across two items, one touching and the other disturbing. 

The former was that after Lincoln's assassination, Mary Todd Lincoln gave Frederick Douglass the President's favorite walking cane, a gift treasured by Douglass and still on display in his home in Washington.  A gift from the daughter of a slave-holding family who had several brothers and half-brothers fighting for the Confederacy.

The disturbing item was stumbling across a document called African American Voices Lessons Plans with a specific lesson plan entitled Spinning Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln intended for 11th and 12th graders in the Miami-Dade Country School District in Florida. Admittedly, I may be missing some context (the lesson plan is, for instance, undated) since I could not find the larger file from which this came as most were password-protected but here's what the lesson plan does:

  • Its focus is on identifying inconsistent political messages from Lincoln and Douglass in which students play the role of "spin doctors" [the lesson plan uses this terminology] to reinterpret "historic statements they made for the purpose of maintaining their good public image".

  • The lesson plan asks the teacher to explain to students the role of public relations experts and "how in American politics public relations experts are cynically regarding as 'spin doctors'".
  •  The lesson plan goes on to link to "other documents concerning Douglass' public statements about President Lincoln and President Lincoln's ever changing views on slavery and race relations".  One link takes you to Douglass' 1876 eulogy in which he refers to Lincoln as "preeminently the white man's President" but not to his 1865 and 1893 eulogies in which he calls him "the black man's President".  
  •  A second link takes you to the website of the Lew Rockwell Institute, an extreme libertarian organization which has a compendium of hostile and embarrassing quotes with no context or sense of chronology about, and made by, Lincoln on many subjects including race and slavery.

  • The lesson plan concludes with two pages of quotes from the Rockwell Institute, all of which are Lincoln remarks hostile to slave emancipation and against equality.    

The net effect is to show a Lincoln who is unambiguously hostile to blacks and raising the question of whether Douglass was a hypocrite to deal with him.  It's indoctrination, not education.  Did Lincoln say different things at different times?  Yes.  Did he say some  things that were offensive to Douglass and that would be considered so today?  Yes.  But this lesson plan only shows one limited set of these views and provides no context of what was going on in the Civil War at the time or of Lincoln's arguments against slavery going back to the 1850.  A student would have no idea why Lincoln and Douglass acted the way they did at different times.

With the release of the movie Lincoln and some of the discussion around it I've become aware that there are several different strands of Lincoln hatred and negativity.  They come from across the political spectrum but what they have in common is their refusal to accept that slavery was the cause of the Civil War.  You have the Southern heritage crowd who view the Confederacy as a Noble Cause and insist slavery wasn't really that bad or, at least, no worse than the plight of Northern "wage slaves".  Then you have a subsection of libertarians who view Lincoln as a dictator and the father of big government who wanted the war.  There's a branch of progressives, including some historians and African-Americans, who see Lincoln as driven by capitalist ambitions and a desire to see Northern industrialists triumph over working people (they like to refer to him as a "railroad lawyer") and who didn't really care about race or slavery issues.

Sometimes it's hard to tell who is from which of these groups.  I had a recent online encounter with someone viciously hostile to Lincoln (they said they were "neutral" on whether his assassination was good or bad) who at first I thought came from the Southern heritage crowd before realizing he was on the extreme left (he thought Occupy Wall Street was too moderate) and viewed Lincoln as a representative of oligarchic capitalism - sort of a proto-dictator.  That's how you can end up with an African American history lesson plan linking to the Rockwell Institute.  It's the worldview of someone like Howard Zinn in A People's History Of The United States which was described by a liberal historian as "cynicism masquerading as history" and that's what the Miami-Dad lesson plan is designed to instill - cynicism.

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