Sunday, March 11, 2012

Frederick Douglass' Unfinished Revolution

"Frederick Douglass appealing to President Lincoln and his cabinet to enlist Negroes," mural by William Edouard Scott, at the Recorder of Deeds building, built in 1943. 515 D St., NW, Washington, D.C. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Frederick Douglass knew what the Civil War was about before it even started. Throughout the conflict, he battled in a struggle of words while his sons matched Confederates on the field of battle. Douglass' efforts of the Civil War became as much a conflict over memory as for equality and citizenship. Unlike his ideological foes Jefferson Davis and Alexander Stephens, Douglass remained consistent with the same perceptions of the war's causes both before and after Union victory. On Decoration Day 1894, he made his case clear in a public oration: "Fellow citizens: I am not indifferent to the claims of a generous forgetfulness, but whatever else I may forget, I shall never forget the difference between those who fought for liberty and those who fought for slavery; between those who fought to save the Republic and those who fought to destroy it." Despite the large degree of truth in Douglass' sentiments, his pro-emancipation version of history was not the one to prevail in the postwar era. In the following article by Dr. Milton Sernett, Douglass' path to emancipation and suffrage are traced.

But has Frederick Douglass' dream been realized? Only recently, I interviewed an African American veteran who served in the Vietnam War. The Civil War came up in our discussion. He admittedly cannot recognize the relevance of the Civil War. In his view, continued racial disparity, class injustice, and the strongly celebrated Confederate Cause make it difficult for him to reconcile with the promises of Union triumph. When people refuse to ignore the root causes and achievements of the Civil War, they also ignore the transgressions that preceded and followed it. And that is unfair. "Abraham's dream is dead and Martin's dream is dead," he noted despondently to me. I politely replied I hoped he was wrong. But if noting else, Frederick Douglass revealed that accepting the status quo of society never brought advancement to anybody. It is with these thoughts in mind that we too can alter something for the collective better.

A Freedom War: Frederick Douglass and the second American Revolution
Milton C. Sernett, Ph.D. / Special to The Post-Standard

Frederick Douglass, the abolitionist writer and orator, urged freed slaves to fight for the Union. Two of his sons answered the call.

When the Civil War began in April 1861 after the firing upon Fort Sumter, Frederick Douglass welcomed the onset of the great national conflict. A refugee himself from slavery’s dark prison, he hoped against hope that a new day of freedom was about to dawn. Yet, as he warned the congregation of Rochester’s Zion Church when Union troops were struggling against Confederate rebels, “we cannot see the end from the beginning.”

Interpretations of the causes of the Civil War, the political and military strategies of President Abraham Lincoln, and of the moral and historical meaning of America’s bloodiest conflict weigh down my library shelves. The Civil War has been variously termed “the unnecessary war,” “the war of northern aggression,” “the war of the rebellion,” “the war for abolitionism” and “the war of the lost cause” — to name but a few of the catchall phrases. Some of these labels are locked in the labyrinth of ideas about race, region and historical memory that make clarity of thinking about the Civil War difficult even at this date.

When I want to regain my moorings in reflecting on the Civil War, I often turn to Frederick Douglass. Though he could not “see the end from the beginning” in 1861, he had the prophetic insight to locate abolitionism at the core of the conflict. Though many Yankee soldiers set off for the battlefield with the aim of simply thumping the Boys in Grey, Douglass wanted the Union forces to be a liberation army. He appealed to the Lincoln administration to allow free blacks to fight and sought to rally his contemporaries with the cry: “Men of Color to Arms.” Two of his sons, Charles and Lewis, answered the call.

Douglass welcomed Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Some abolitionists faulted Lincoln for not freeing all of the enslaved everywhere on Jan. 1, 1863. Lincoln critics today point out that the Emancipation Proclamation can be seen primarily as a military measure, as it did not liberate those held in slavery in the Border States such as Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland and Missouri. But Douglass understood that half a loaf of bread was better than no bread at all. When news of Lincoln’s Proclamation reached Tremont Temple in Boston on Jan. 1, 1863, Douglass joined in a massive celebration. He saw God’s hand in history working for the deliverance of the oppressed. The Civil War may have begun as a war simply to restore the fractured union, but now the conflict was a holy war — a freedom war.

Combatants on both sides of the Civil War carried their Bibles, had their chaplains and said their prayers for victory. While the cannons still boomed, the providential verdict was uncertain. Douglass vacillated between hope and despair.

What if the American Apocalypse, the hoped-for dawn of a new day of freedom, descended into the American Armageddon, remembered many years later only for the suffering and the carnage? The problem with all millennialist interpretations of war is that the winners get to write the valedictorian’s address. Losers are relegated to the footnotes.

Douglass’s hopes were renewed upon hearing Lincoln give his Second Inaugural Address, on March 4, 1865. The president spoke of his desire that “this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away,” but he would not have it so without the end of “the bondman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil.” “Every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid for by another.” Douglass and Lincoln were now of a like mind. The Civil War had become an Abolition War.

Then Lincoln spoke those words that even now make the heart beat faster. “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.” Douglass tells us that he clapped his hands in gladness.

All was not in keeping with this moment of exhilaration. While waiting for the inaugural ceremonies to begin, Douglass caught Vice President Andrew Johnson observing him with a look of “bitter contempt and aversion.” Douglass thought then that Johnson was “no friend of our race.” The assassination of Abraham Lincoln on Good Friday, April 14, 1865, would put Johnson into the executive office. African-Americans and their allies now entered into a new struggle during Reconstruction and thereafter to preserve and protect the rights of African-Americans throughout the nation.

If we learn nothing else from the odyssey of Frederick Douglass (1818-1895), let us remember the Civil War not only as the Second American Revolution but also as a call to be ever diligent in keeping faith with freedom’s flame.

Milton C. Sernett, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of African-American Studies and History and Adjunct Professor of Religion at Syracuse University.

This "Afro-American Monument" printed in 1897 offers an interesting illustrated and symbolic timeline beginning at Jamestown in 1619 and ending at the eve of the 20th Century--toward a world of bountiful equality. But have we come close to such lofty aspirations? How might this illustrative timeline be extended into the modern age? That question is as much up to us as it is to the historical record.

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