Thursday, July 20, 2017

Frederick Douglass -- Criticism of Abraham Lincoln
“We must … reach the slaveholder’s conscience through his fear of personal danger.  We must make him feel that there is death in the air around him, that there is death in the pot before him, that there is death all around him.  … I believe in agitation.  … The only way to make the Fugitive Slave Law a dead letter, is to make a few dead slave catchers.”  Douglass called for all methods that would eliminate slavery, including war.  A year after John Brown’s hanging, Douglass was but one of many that used Brown’s martyrdom to advance their cause.  Yet, much racial hatred persisted in the North.  In December, for example, an anti-slavery lecture in Boston conducted by Douglass and Wendell Phillips was interrupted by chair-throwing demonstrators who resented the idea that a war might be fought to benefit the Negro.
Despite the considerable anti-Negro sentiment that existed, Douglass hoped that the election of a Republican President would accelerate the changes he demanded.  Abraham Lincoln was elected, but the war which followed, the war which ultimately liberated all slaves, was instigated by the South, not by the Republican President, who had sought to reach yet another compromise to preserve the Union.  Only when most of the Southern states seceded from the Union in the early months of 1861 did President Lincoln call for the raising of a large volunteer army to put down their rebellion.  Douglass insisted persistently and continuously that the war had to be one of emancipation.  Additionally, “Let the slaves and free colored people be called into service and formed into a liberating army, to march into the South and raise the banner of Emancipation among the slaves” (Bontemps 224).
Abraham Lincoln was aggravatingly slow in doing that.  Perhaps Douglass did not understand the President’s difficult position.  Lincoln needed to placate the border states of Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri, for they had elected to remain in the Union.  And while popular sentiment in the North favored a forcible means of dealing with the Southern states that had seceded, that sentiment did not include the immediate liberation of slaves.  Following the surrender of the federal garrison at Fort Sumter, the President needed every source of support he could garner to wage what proved to be a seemingly unsuccessful, unending, and increasingly ghastly, unpopular war.  Anti-slavery advocates, including Frederick Douglass, could see only that Lincoln was not responding as they had wished.
“… not a slave should be left a slave in the returning footprints of the American army gone to put down their slave-holding rebellion.  Sound policy, not less that humanity, demands the instant liberation of every slave in the rebel states,” Douglass declared in a speech in Rochester June 16, 1861.  In a January speech the following year Douglass “vigorously objected to the Lincoln administration policy of returning runaway slaves to their master, and to the president’s rescinding of General John C. Fremont’s order emancipating slaves in Missouri.”  Lincoln was fighting the enemy with one hand!  “We are striking the guilty rebels with our soft, white hand, when we should be striking with the iron hand of the black man” (McFeely 212).
One month later the President began to show favorable signs of change.  Lincoln refused to stop the sentenced hanging of the captain, deemed a pirate, of a captured slave ship.  In the middle of March he signed a bill that ordered the army and navy not to return runaway slaves.  Afterwards, he signed into law a bill that outlawed slavery in the District of Columbia.  Encouraged, Douglass stated that the President as “tall and strong but he is not done growing.”
But in July, Douglass criticized Lincoln again for not making emancipation the aim of the war.  Americans, Douglass insisted, had “a right to hold Abraham Lincoln sternly responsible for any disaster or failure attending the suppression of this rebellion” (McFeely 214).  Lincoln, however, had already decided to espouse emancipation.  He had drafted a proclamation of emancipation that same month, and he presented it secretly to his cabinet on the 22nd.  Advised by his Secretary of State, William Seward, to delay its announcement until after a Union victory in the field, so that the announcement would not seem a desperate measure to counter persistent military failure, Lincoln kept his intention a secret until after the qualified Union victory at Antietam Creek in September.  At that time he announced that on January 1, 1863, he would issue a proclamation that would free slaves in the rebellious states.
Works cited:
Bontempts, Arna, Free at Last, the Life of Frederick Douglass, New York, Dodd, Mead & Company, 1971.  Print.
McFeely, William S.  Frederick Douglass.  New York, W. W. Norton & Company, 1991.  Print.