The sentiment appropriate to Presidents’ Day is one of gratitude for the great men who have shaped the moral experiment that is the United States: the first country founded on the premise that all men are created equal, a premise at times not realized, most especially in the antebellum and Jim Crow South.
Our gratitude to the great presidents should not be hagiographic: as all we well know, our great presidents were not without their flaws. The question is how to hold together an intellectually honest assessment of their strengths and faults along with an appropriate sentiment of gratitude.
To that end, we can do no better than to consult Frederick Douglass’s bearing toward Abraham Lincoln, which is the subject of a recent essay, “Learning to Love Lincoln: Frederick Douglass’ Journey from Grievance to Gratitude,” by Loyola University of Maryland political science professor Diana J. Schaub. I spoke with Professor Schaub last week, and she told me that “Frederick Douglass shows us how we can see limitations in presidents and statesmen and yet regard them with gratitude as great men.”
As Schaub relates in her essay, Douglass frequently criticized President Lincoln for his willingness to tolerate slavery in the states where it was already established, his reluctance to allow black troops to fight for the Union, and the tardiness of his own Emancipation Proclamation. However, after Lincoln’s assassination, Douglass repeatedly spoke of his gratitude to Lincoln.
Schaub highlights three aspects of Douglass’s views about how gratitude should be expressed to Lincoln. First, Douglass insisted that a memorial to Lincoln take the form of a monument that simply expressed praise of Lincoln. He rejected the suggestion that a memorial should be combined with other projects such as a black college named in Lincoln’s honor. Douglass wrote
For a monument, by itself, and upon its own merits, I say good. For a college by itself . . . I say good. But for a college-monument, or for a monument-college, I do not say good. . . . The whole scheme is derogatory to the character of the colored people of the United States. . . . I am not so enterprising as to think of turning the nation’s veneration for our martyred President into a means of advantage to the colored people, and of sending around the hat to a mourning public.
Douglass wants to keep gratitude pure of “enterprise” on behalf of worthy projects; in our own day when weddings, birthday parties, and memorial services are regularly accompanied by requests to give to some worthy cause (a phenomenon Naomi Schaefer Riley recently wrote about in this space), we can appreciate Douglass’s nice scruples on this point.
Second, Douglass -- who otherwise aimed at integrated institutions in which black and white citizens would learn and work together -- insisted that the Freedmen’s Memorial to Lincoln in Washington, D.C., should be the “act and deed” of blacks alone. True to Douglass’s vision, the Freedmen’s Memorial was funded entirely by subscriptions from black citizens. Professor Schaub interprets Douglass’s insistence that blacks alone should pay for the memorial as arising from his determination to display to prejudged whites that blacks are capable of “the holiest sentiments of the human heart” and ready to contribute to public life independently of white assistance.
Third, Douglass modeled how we can simultaneously remember great men’s limits and acknowledge them as great statesmen. Douglass himself gave the main speech at the unveiling of the Freedmen’s Memorial. In that speech, he rehearsed his complaints against Lincoln. Addressing the portion of his audience made of blacks, he asserted
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. . . . He was ready and willing at any time during the last years of his administration to deny, postpone and sacrifice the rights of humanity in the colored people.
However, Douglass counters
we were able to take a comprehensive view of Abraham Lincoln . . . [and] came to the conclusion that the hour and the man of our redemption had met in the person of Abraham Lincoln. . . . 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.
Douglass then offers an encomium of Lincoln, whose “wise and beneficent rule” helped to realize the promise of the United States as a country of free men. Douglass repeatedly refers to Lincoln as a “statesman” whose personal greatness transformed his country. Douglass’s assessment of Lincoln -- simultaneously clear-sighted about Lincoln’s limits and his great qualities -- is a model for all of us in our assessments of the presidents we honor this Presidents’ Day.