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Frederick Douglass delivered a Lincoln reality check at Emancipation Memorial unveiling

The Emancipation Memorial in Washington's Lincoln Park depicts a freed slave kneeling at the feet of President Abraham Lincoln. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

On April 14, 1876, Frederick Douglass arrived at the unveiling ceremony for the Emancipation Memorial, the statue now under attack by some protesters in Washington’s Lincoln Park.

A crowd of 25,000, many of them African American, had gathered to hear Douglass speak on the 11th anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination.

By all accounts, Douglass, the great orator and abolitionist, was not pleased with the monument, which depicted Lincoln holding a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation while towering over a kneeling black man who had broken his chains.

Douglass, who commanded audiences across the world with his dignified poise and intellect, extended polite platitudes in the speech about the beauty of the monument, which had been designed and sculpted by Thomas Ball and had been financed mostly by donations from formerly enslaved people.

Then Douglass, a tall man with a nearly white crown of hair, launched into a 32-minute rapid-fire discourse on the conflicted legacy of Lincoln, who issued the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863, as the country moved into the third year of the Civil War. Lincoln’s proclamation had declared “that all persons held as slaves” within the rebellious states “are, and henceforward shall be free.”

As great as the proclamation was, Douglass explained, Lincoln had issued the document of freedom reluctantly.

Lincoln’s motivation was to save the union. According to the Library of Congress, in response to a challenge in the New York Tribune by the journalist Horace Greeley that he take a clear stance on abolition, Lincoln had provided a response stating, “If I could save the union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that.”

In his speech at the 1876 statue unveiling, Douglass exposed Lincoln’s legacy. “Truth compels me to admit, even here in the presence of the monument we have erected to his memory,” Douglass said, “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.”

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Douglass, who had met Lincoln on several occasions at the White House, said that Lincoln was not a president for black people and that Lincoln’s motivation above all was to save the union, even if it meant keeping black people in bondage.

“He was preeminently the white man’s president, entirely devoted to the welfare of white men,” Douglass said, according to the speech stored at the Library of Congress. “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.”

More than 144 years later, the controversy surrounding Lincoln’s legacy and the “Emancipation Monument” has erupted again. This week, protesters demanded the removal of the monument, which is also called the Freedmen’s Monument. Police built barriers around the monument to protect it after some protesters threatened to tear it down. On Thursday, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) announced that the city should debate the removal of the statue, and “not have a mob decide they want to pull it down.”

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Historians say the threats offer an opportunity to explain Lincoln’s complicated legacy to general audiences that know only the simplistic view of Lincoln as the president who freed the slaves.

C.R. Gibbs, a historian and author of “Black, Copper & Bright: The District of Columbia’s Black Civil War Regiment,” explained that the kneeling slave depicted in the Emancipation Monument was most likely inspired by an old abolitionist image used to fight for freedom for enslaved black people. “It was probable that the white sculptor was influenced by the poster with the words, ‘Am I Not a Man and Brother’ over a kneeling slave,” Gibbs said.

At the time of the monument’s commissioning, Harriet Hosmer, who was considered one of the first female professional sculptors, designed an alternative sculpture that would have depicted several figures, including a black Union soldier.

“Some scholars and historians believe that would have been too revolutionary,” Gibbs said, “and perhaps too expensive. But it was an opportunity missed.”

Douglass used his speech at the unveiling, Gibbs said, "to clean up and clarify exactly what Lincoln’s contributions were with respect to black people.”

“For black people, Lincoln was neither our man nor our model,” Gibbs said, echoing Douglass. In his speech, Gibbs said, Douglass told the crowd that Lincoln “was important in the struggle and we honor that. But Douglass wanted Lincoln to emerge from the myth.”

In August 1862, Lincoln told a group of black leaders during a visit to the White House that they were to blame for the Civil War. “He said, ‘But for your presence amongst us, there would be no war.’ ”

“Basically, he was saying, ‘you all are the cause of the war,’ ” Gibbs said. “Lincoln had said he was not an abolitionist. When we say Lincoln freed the slaves, we leave out the agency and sacrifice of U.S. colored troops and those in the Navy who fought and died for this freedom.”

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According to the Library of Congress, “Lincoln honored Douglass with three invitations to the White House, including an invitation to Lincoln’s second inauguration. During his first visit, Douglass petitioned Lincoln to pay African American Union soldiers as much as their white counterparts. Lincoln answered that African American soldiers would get their fair wages when the time was right, which frustrated Douglass, although he came to understand Lincoln’s reasoning.”

In the speech at the unveiling of the monument, Douglass gives the audience an idea of how complicated his relationship with Lincoln was.

“The name of Abraham Lincoln was near and dear to our hearts in the darkest and most perilous hours of the republic,” Douglass said. “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.”

Douglass criticized Lincoln as not moving fast enough to free thousands of enslaved black people:

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.

Douglass also said that Lincoln’s slow pace was frustrating and bewildering. In short, Douglass said, Lincoln tried the patience of abolitionists who wanted a speedy end to slavery:

“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,” Douglass said. “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.”

Douglass said abolitionists cared little about how Lincoln proclaimed emancipation.

“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.”

In the speech, Douglass concluded that despite Lincoln’s failings, he should be remembered for the great accomplishment of freeing thousands of enslaved people.

“Though he loved Caesar less than Rome, though the union was more to him than our freedom or our future,” Douglass said, “under his wise and beneficent rule we saw ourselves gradually lifted from the depths of slavery to the heights of liberty and manhood.”

Then Douglass recalled the scenes of black people waiting for the emancipation to take effect.

“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?” Douglass asked. “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.”

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