On a brisk April morning in 1876, spectators gathered in Washington DC's Capitol Hill district for the unveiling of the new Emancipation Memorial.
It had been a decade since the end of the American Civil War, and money had been raised – in large part by African-American veterans of the Union army – to build a monument to Abraham Lincoln in the nation's capital.
The keynote speaker was Frederick Douglass. He was at this point almost 60 years old and one of the best known abolitionists and egalitarians in the United States.
Unfaltering as ever in his commitment to the truth, Douglass would not allow himself to brush over Lincoln’s many moral and political flaws. He pointed out just how late Lincoln had been in his conversion from opposing the mere expansion of US slavery to supporting its abolition, and how, even when eliminating slavery, “Mr Lincoln shared the prejudices of his white fellow-countrymen against the Negro .”
But Douglass ended with the praise he believed the late president had earned, reminding his listeners of how unforgettable it had been for all of them to experience Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation on July 1st, 1863. “It is hardly necessary,” Douglass concluded,“to say that in his heart of hearts he loathed and hated slavery.”
In its balance and rhythm, Douglass' speech was the kind of oratorical masterclass he had become known for since beginning as a preacher for the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in New York (which counted other black abolitionists like Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman among its members).
Above: The house in Southeast Washington DC where Douglass, born into slavery in Maryland, lived out the last 18 years of his life
Photo credit: United States Library of Congress
Douglass's outspoken criticisms of Lincoln
Despite the speech's hefty criticisms of the former president, both Lincoln's widow, Mary Todd Lincoln, and the current president, General Ulysses S. Grant, joined the standing ovation at the end.
As well as being rhetorically impressive, Douglass' words also struck at a central truth of the Civil War era: left to his own devices, the Abraham Lincoln of 1861 – and most of his Republican Party – would happily have sacrificed the goal of abolition to the priority of bringing the southern states back into the Union.
As late as August 1862 (less than a year before the Emancipation Proclamation), Lincoln had written to the editor of the New York Tribune “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union…If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it.”
If not for Frederick Douglass and his fellow radical abolitionists, then, Lincoln might have restored peace at the price of sustaining American slavery into the 1880s (it lasted until 1888 in Brazil), or perhaps even longer.
It wasn’t, in other words, a given that the US Civil War would be one of abolition – the president was happy for it to be about nothing more than territorial reun ification.
Today, the hundreds of thousands of Union boys who died at Antietam, Gettysburg and all the others can be remembered as the men who ended the horror of slavery because radicals like Frederick Douglass made sure that that's what their sacrifice was for.
Douglass and the fight to abolish slavery in America
From the outbreak of war in 1861, Douglass had campaigned for the Union forces to recruit black soldiers.
He knew that what kept Lincoln back from recruiting free blacks and freedmen was the very same prioritization of “preserving the Union” which threatened to keep abolition off the list of Northern war aims (the president believed the sight of black troops in the army would push the still-loyal slaveowners who controlled the border states over to the Confederacy).
But Douglass recognized that, if the war against the South was to be one of black liberation and equal rights, then black troops would have to be involved in fighting it:
“Once the black man gets upon his person the brass letters ‘U.S.’, an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket, there is no power on earth that can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship.”
The pressure exerted by radical abolitionists like Douglass on the White House made sure Lincoln agreed to recruit African Americans to fight the Confederacy – a process Douglass played a personal role in as recruiter for the 54th Massachusetts Infantry (he’d surely have fought himself if he had been young enough).
By the end of the war, 178,000 black troops had served in Lincoln’s army – including two of Douglass’s own sons. Their role in defeating the Confederacy and its armed defense of human bondage was massive.
What’s more, the success of these wartime campaigns in pushing Lincoln toward a more abolitionist position had been made possible by decades of agitation and protest which prepared the cultural ground for the kind of popular support for abolition which more tepid opponents of slavery couldn’t ignore.
Putting Lincoln on the path to the 13th Amendment
Frederick Douglass had, unsurprisingly, been huge in this project as well, not least with his abolition ist newspaper, the North Star. Set up in 1847, its banner motto was: “Right is of no Sex – Truth is of no Color – God is the Father of us all, and we are all brethren.”
It must be put beyond dispute that Lincoln did not abolish slavery due to his will alone but because of the radical abolitionists whose political pressure ultimately channelled him in that direction.
While not the only one of these abolitionists by any means (names such as Sojourner Truth, Phillis Wheatley and Thaddeus Stevens cannot be left out of the conversation), Frederick Douglass was probably the best known and had overcome the most in the process, having escaped his own enslavement and fled to New York in 1838.
So if we are to remember President Abraham Lincoln as the man who destroyed slavery in the United States, we should do so knowing that the Lincoln who is revered today was in an important way ‘created’ by the efforts of Douglass and his radical comrades.
Douglass never knew his actual birthday – the owner of the slave plantation where he was born didn’t care enough to make a note of it. So Douglass chose February 14th himself.
It's possibly the most important birthday in the history of American freedom.