Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Iconoclast Frenzy

Prior to the Charlottesville debacle regarding a Confederate general’s statue in summer 2017, I had been researching for some time on the life of Frederick Douglass.  Before the uproar over the Robert E. Lee’s likeness in a public park in Old Dominion, I had taken up Douglass scholarship to learn about America’s slave past, the Civil War, and its aftermath, because so much in our current civic discussion has been affected by the historical reality of slavery.  I was interested in developing a theatrical work about Douglass’ life, which I believed would entertain the audience, while elevating public discourse about race relations in America.

The first element of Douglass’ life that caught my attention, and which I had not known previously, was that he had a personal, albeit limited, friendship with Abraham Lincoln.  They first met face-to-face during Douglass’ unannounced visit to the White House in August 1863, a few weeks after the Massachusetts 54th Regiment composed of black soldiers (recruited largely by Douglass himself) had fought a brutal campaign against the Confederates at Fort Wagner.  Douglass had gone to the White House to complain to Lincoln that these troops were not receiving the same pay as white soldiers.  Of this encounter, Douglass later reported that Lincoln was the first white man to treat him without either condescension or flattery, but merely as one man to another.  A year hence in August 1864, Lincoln made a direct request to have Douglass come to Washington, D.C. to provide him counsel on a policy matter during his re-election run.  Their final meeting occurred on the evening of March 4, 1865, when Douglass (despite police interference) managed to make his way into the executive mansion for Lincoln’s second inaugural ball.  Upon seeing the abolitionist, the president spoke up loudly enough for his Caucasian well-wishers to hear him: “Here comes my friend Douglass.”  Honest Abe proceeded to ask Douglass for his thoughts on his inaugural address given earlier that day.  Douglass replied to Lincoln that the president’s speech was a sacred endeavor.

On April 14, 1876, Douglass was called upon to give the keynote address at the unveiling of the Freedmen’s Monument in Washington, D.C.  This statue, also known by the name “Emancipation,” was commissioned by the Western Sanitary Commission (a private charity that assisted with the care of Civil War soldiers) and paid for by donations of some $17,000 largely from black donors—the first of whom was a former slave named Charlotte Scott, who gave $5 to initiate the effort to build a monument to Lincoln’s memory after his assassination.  The artwork was controversial even in the Reconstruction era as it features Lincoln with an outstretched hand blessing a freed black man—whose likeness was based on an actual escaped slave named Archer Alexander—just starting to rise from his chains: 

Image credit: David, via Flickr


Douglass did not particularly like the image of the emancipated slave still kneeling before a white man, but he understood that the image expressed the condition of the age, and his keynote address contained both critiques and praises of Lincoln.  Throughout Douglass’ last three decades of life he routinely invoked Lincoln as an icon of justice and progress, even with his imperfections and slowness to arrive at the point of openly supporting emancipation.

I knew in 2017 when the riot in Charlottesville took place over the Robert E. Lee statue that the Freedman’s Monument, as evocative as it is of the slave experience, would at some point come under attack.  My concerns were heightened less than a week after Charlottesville when a report emerged that a bust of Lincoln (dating back to 1926) was burned in Chicago. 

About two years later, I was perusing Facebook and noticed the following post, of which I took a screenshot:

Image credit: John Steinreich / Facebook

The individual who posted this item was mistaken about the statue’s location (there is however a statue of Lincoln on the University of Wisconsin campus).  But the fact that the Freedmen’s Monument had inspired a question to a group of some 9,000 mostly black conservatives regarding their thoughts about this depiction of “a slave on his knees” before Honest Abe caused me consternation.  Robert E. Lee had been taken down (and understandably so in the modern context, given that he had fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War); Lincoln’s bust was burned (in the state where he started his political career) in spite of heroic status.  Now, as I had feared two years earlier, Lincoln and Archer Alexander were coming under scrutiny.  Would desecration be next?

Less than a year after this post, during the national uproar over racial injustice, my prediction that the Freedmen’s Monument would become an object of the iconoclasts’ wrathful frenzy became a reality.  A replica of the Freedmen’s Monument has stood in Boston since 1879: 

Image credit: Yeowatsup, via Wikimedia Commons

Today’s political left—far removed from the times in which the statue was built, and rejecting any historical context—has decided that this artwork (which was cautiously supported by the greatest black intellectual of the 19th century and personal friend of the one president who had the will to do something to stop slavery) must be taken down.  It is now just too offensive for some people to look at a metallic Lincoln standing tall next to a barely rising black man.  If Christopher Columbus is no longer welcome in Beantown where American liberty was birthed, how then can this woke metropolis possibly let Lincoln stand up with a black man crouching in front of him? 

The ahistorical mob confirmed my fears; they have come after the Freedmen’s Monument.  These woke puritans have deemed that none of America’s iconography is worth displaying in our era of absolute political correctness.  Even Lincoln, who consistently polls in the top 10 of American presidents, cannot be allowed to keep his place of veneration.  While fair-minded progressives may indeed take offense at Mr. Archer kneeling before our 16th President, the true object of leftist wrath is the Great Emancipator.  If Lincoln’s image is allowed to remain, it might cause some people to think fondly of American history, since this backwoods railsplitter came to power to usher in an age when two and a half centuries of chattel slavery would be ended.  If America’s heroes with both their beauties and blemishes are allowed to stand, the political left—which is counting on the erasure of American history as a tactical instrument in its pursuit of power—will be blunted.

After removing the Freedmen’s Monument, perhaps the left will dismantle statues of Frederick Douglass as well.  Why do I say this?  Because his take on race relations is out of step with our times.  In the twilight of his life, the great orator made a statement that could easily be interpreted as violating modern orthodoxy: 

My cause was and is that of the black man; not because he is black, but because he is a man.

In our age, when we are encouraged to give ourselves over to the basest and most hysterical of our emotions, even the greatest among America’s statesmen must be jettisoned because they do not qualify as woke.  May we be well prepared to have history, replete with its strife and suffering, revisit us.

John Steinreich has an M.A. in Church History from Colorado Theological Seminary.  He has authored two Christian-themed books available on Kindle: “The Words of God?” and “A Great Cloud of Witnesses.” His works are also on Lulu Press.  He is currently writing a non-fiction work on and developing a stage production about the life of Frederick Douglass