This is a guest post by Bernice Ramirez. Bernice is working with the education team at the Library of Congress as part of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU) Internship Program.
The 150th anniversary of President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation at the start of the year was a great opportunity to commemorate the efforts that ended slavery in the United States. African American History Month is another perfect time to celebrate the abolitionist efforts of white and black Americans alike, and to examine the relationship between the Proclamation’s author and one of the greatest American abolitionists.
Although President Lincoln is sometimes credited with freeing enslaved African Americans with the signing of his Emancipation Proclamation, this event was possible thanks to the writings, demonstrations and work of many abolitionists. Frederick Douglass is perhaps the most recognized abolitionist of the antebellum period. In his last autobiography, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, Douglass noted that Lincoln considered him a friend, although at times Douglass was critical of the late president.
Lincoln honored Douglass with three invitations to the White House, including an invitation to Lincoln’s second inauguration. During his first visit, Douglass petitioned Lincoln to pay African American Union soldiers as much as their white counterparts. Lincoln answered that African American soldiers would get their fair wages when the time was right, which frustrated Douglass, although he came to understand Lincoln’s reasoning. This Speech on the 79th Anniversary of Lincoln’s Birth gives clues to the nuanced relationship between these two given the contentious issues surrounding them.
Douglass’ writings indicate deep respect for Lincoln. In this early eulogy of the President delivered in 1865, Douglass indicates an appreciation of Lincoln’s decision to free slaves in Union states. Douglass writes that Lincoln “was emphatically the black man’s President: the first to show any respect to their rights as men.”
Later, in a speech at the unveiling of the Freedmen’s Monument in 1876, Douglass continues to praise his friend and writes that Lincoln was “pre-eminently the white man’s President.” Douglass goes on to explain, “While Abraham Lincoln saved for you a country, he 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.” Although these two great men had, at times, opposing views, they shared the belief that the country would be made greater by ridding it of slavery.
- Teachers can have students write a journal entry from the perspective of an audience member at the unveiling of the Freedmen’s monument reacting to Douglass’s oration. Students should explain who wrote the journal entries and provide a profile of the audience member. For example, students can play the role of journalists who report on the speech being delivered. They might brainstorm a list of who else might have been at each event.
- In his Freedmen’s Monument speech, what does Douglass mean when he describes Lincoln as the “white man’s President”? How about when Douglass names him “the black man’s President,” in his eulogy of Lincoln?
- Frederick Douglass was a well known orator and accomplished advocate, but he acknowledged that he would not have been as successful without the support of other men and women who shared his goal of ending slavery. Teachers can lead students through a discussion on the relevance of Douglass’ speech commemorating Lincoln’s 79th birthday to the celebration of African American History Month. Why is it important to remember the efforts of black and white abolitionists to free slaves?
Guiding students through a close reading of Douglass’ speeches will help students appreciate the compassion both he and Lincoln exercised in the events leading up to the abolition of slavery. What else can students gain from exploring the complicated relationship between these two great men? How is this relevant to current civil rights issues?