On Tuesday, the District of Columbia’s delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives Eleanor Holmes Norton announced her intention to seek the removal of the Emancipation Memorial from D.C.’s Lincoln Park. Unlike the lawless people who say they’ll tear down the statue “by any means necessary,” Holmes seeks only to transfer it to a museum. But that would be a mistake.

Let me begin by acknowledging that it’s not a well-executed work, and the objections to it have not been invented by the radical left. The sculptor, Thomas Ball, gives us a standing Lincoln, towering over and emancipating a nearly naked slave. The all-white group that commissioned the statue—freed slaves funded it—looked at Ball’s original design, found the black figure “too passive,” and requested that he be depicted as “helping to break the chain that had bound” him.

As the historian Kirk Savage explains, Ball made small changes that seem to have satisfied the commissioners. Yet the monument doesn’t escape the limitations of its original design. As Douglass is reported to have said, Ball “showed the Negro on his knees when a more manly attitude would have been indicative of freedom.” It is a far cry from this claim to the unjust conclusion that the Emancipation Memorial, or Freedmen’s Monument, is a “monument to white supremacy.” But there is a reason it has long inspired controversy.

Norton has Douglass criticizing the Freedmen’s Monument in his 1876 address on the occasion of its unveiling, “The Oration in Memory of Abraham Lincoln.” That’s inaccurate. But one welcomes the opportunity to reread this extraordinary speech in which Douglass confronts the problem that now besets us, how to think about a history made by human beings who, however great their achievements, were entangled in crimes.

Lincoln, Douglass says, was “preeminently the white man’s president,” opposed to the extension of slavery but “not less ready than any other president” to “draw the sword of the nation” to defend slavery where the law still supported its existence. Lincoln, Douglass affirms, delivered “us from a bondage, according to Jefferson, one hour of which was worse than ages of the oppression your fathers rose in rebellion to oppose.”

Yet his policy, even for a time after war broke out, was to restore that original understanding according to which slavery, contained, would disappear only eventually. Douglass, in the greatest tribute to Lincoln I know of, avows that anyone who “put the abolition of slavery before the salvation of the Union” could not have ended slavery. Moreover, Lincoln was “bound as a statesman to consult” the “sentiment of his country,” compared to which he was a “zealous, radical, and determined” opponent of slavery. Amid Lincoln’s sometimes dispiriting utterances about slavery, Douglass says, black people took the “comprehensive view,” informed by reflection on the “divinity which shapes our ends, rough hew them how we will,” that “the hour and the man of our redemption had somehow met in the person of Abraham Lincoln.” In a way, Douglass suggests, black people knew Lincoln better than Lincoln knew himself.

Whatever the merit of that assertion, it is one way that Douglass answered a question that preoccupied him for much of his career: on what terms might a people, treated with unforgettable injustice and cruelty, join as fellow citizens the perpetrators of that injustice and cruelty? His answer seems to have been to articulate that “comprehensive view,” in which neither the national principles that Lincoln vindicated nor the nation’s responsibility for slavery—so deeply embedded that a great American statesman could not end it by ordinary means—is forgotten.

Douglass may have disapproved of aspects of its design, but he saw the Freedmen’s Monument as well as the interracial ceremony of its unveiling as a momentous occasion in American history. It was the first time in that history that black citizens, under the eyes of the President, the members of the Supreme Court, and other luminaries, took the lead in “doing honor to an American great man.” Douglass imagined that “wise and thoughtful men of our race, who shall come after us, and study the lesson of our history in the United States . . . will make a note of this occasion; they will think of it and speak of it with a sense of manly pride.”

Douglass had his critics and he is not the final arbiter of what black or white people should think of monuments in the 21st Century. But the “Oration in Memory of Abraham Lincoln” may be the best attempt we have by a great American to draw together the worst and finest parts of our past. There is more than one reason for keeping the Freedmen’s Monument in public view, but that it occasioned Douglass’s speech is among the strongest.

Remembering Lincoln via @commentarymagazine
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