Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. Dubos on Lincoln's legacy

Gary Pavela

Jul 4, 2020
A colleague here recently posted this published letter from Frederick Douglass (also appearing in the national media today). It's quintessential Douglass. Tough-minded and fair-minded at the same time. His reference to President U.S. Grant is an important corrective to the way Grant's presidency is typically taught. The opening of the letter also reflects Douglass's caution (especially later in life) about all claims to full and perfect knowledge--artistic or otherwise.

Lately there has been too much dualistic discussion about Lincoln--he's either all good or all evil. Douglass certainly didn't see him that way, and neither did W.E.B. Du Bois.

Even as he criticised Lincoln, Du Bois also wrote:

>>"Abraham Lincoln was perhaps the greatest figure of the nineteenth century. Certainly of the five masters,–Napoleon, Bismarck, Victoria, Browning and Lincoln, Lincoln is to me the most human and lovable. And I love him not because he was perfect but because he was not and yet triumphed. The world is full of illegitimate children. The world is full of folk whose taste was educated in the gutter. The world is full of people born hating and despising their fellows. To these I love to say: See this man. He was one of you and yet he became Abraham Lincoln." <<

Douglass offered a similar perspective in his "Oration in Memory of Abraham Lincoln"

>>"I have said that President Lincoln was a white man, and shared the prejudices common to his countrymen towards the colored race. Looking back to his times and to the condition of his country, we are compelled to admit that this unfriendly feeling on his part may be safely set down as one element of his wonderful success in organizing the loyal American people for the tremendous conflict before them, and bringing them safely through that conflict. His great mission was to accomplish two things: first, to save his country from dismemberment and ruin; and, second, to free his country from the great crime of slavery. To do one or the other, or both, he must have the earnest sympathy and the powerful cooperation of his loyal fellow-countrymen. Without this primary and essential condition to success his efforts must have been vain and utterly fruitless. Had he put the abolition of slavery before the salvation of the Union, he would have inevitably driven from him a powerful class of the American people and rendered resistance to rebellion impossible. Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent; but measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined . . . Though Mr. Lincoln shared the prejudices of his white fellow-countrymen against the Negro, it is hardly necessary to say that in his heart of hearts he loathed and hated slavery."<<


> Douglass visits Lincoln in the White House

> What speech by Abraham Lincoln led to his assassination? [Reading #2]

> What Frederick Douglass Can Teach Contemporary College Students
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