Freedmen’s Monument Speech Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Eleven years after the assignation of Abraham Lincoln, the first public memorial to him was unveiled in Lincoln Park in Washington, D.C. The Freedmen's Memorial Monument was the result of the African-American community raising the necessary money for the creation of a statue commemorating Lincoln's role in the freeing of the slaves. As the preeminent African-American orator, Frederick Douglass delivered this speech as the central address of the day. All the national political leaders, from President Grant on down, were in attendance, as were Mrs. Lincoln and leaders of the African-American community. Douglass had the ability and freedom to speak his mind regarding Lincoln's views on slavery and his actions, but also to examine what had transpired since the adoption of the 13th Amendment prohibiting slavery. In this speech, Douglass gave a realistic picture of Lincoln and American society.

Summary Overview

Eleven years after the assignation of Abraham Lincoln, the first public memorial to him was unveiled in Lincoln Park in Washington, D.C. The Freedmen's Memorial Monument was the result of the African-American community raising the necessary money for the creation of a statue commemorating Lincoln's role in the freeing of the slaves. As the preeminent African-American orator, Frederick Douglass delivered this speech as the central address of the day. All the national political leaders, from President Grant on down, were in attendance, as were Mrs. Lincoln and leaders of the African-American community. Douglass had the ability and freedom to speak his mind regarding Lincoln's views on slavery and his actions, but also to examine what had transpired since the adoption of the 13th Amendment prohibiting slavery. In this speech, Douglass gave a realistic picture of Lincoln and American society.

Defining Moment

By 1876, the Reconstruction Era in American history was drawing to a close. The hope for equality by African Americans living in the Southern states was still a distant dream. Even those who lived in other regions of the United States had not seen the fulfillment of their hopes. And yet, even in the midst of the ongoing struggle, the fact that slavery had been abolished was still a landmark in the lives of former slaves. The Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment guaranteed that there was no going back. Thus many in the African-American community sought to recognize this landmark and the president who had made it possible. As stated on the monument's plaque, when Charlotte Scott, a former slave living in Virginia, heard about Lincoln's death, she made a “contribution of five dollars… .her first earnings in freedom … to build a monument to his memory.” An agency run by white men to help former slaves, soon took control of the collection effort and commissioned the statue in accordance to their viewpoint, rather than that of the freed slaves who made the donations.

For those organizing the unveiling, Frederick Douglass was the obvious choice as the keynote speaker. He had been born a slave and once free, he had campaigned vigorously for slavery's abolition. In all regions and among all races, Douglass was a leader in the African-American community. He had been both a supporter and critic of President Lincoln, advising him on African-American issues, but supporting the Democratic candidate in the 1864 election when Lincoln was not willing to promise to make voting rights for Blacks a priority after the war. It was with great anticipation that the large crowd gathered on that day to hear his speech. His realistic portrayal of Lincoln garnered him accolades from the crowd. His skills as a speech writer, orator, and analyst of Lincoln and the political crisis which he had faced, demonstrated that African Americans were not inherently inferior to whites. However, just as the statue demonstrated an outdated view of the relationship between the races, Douglass' speech was unable to move American society forward in the area of race relations. The Civil War was not that many years removed, and hard feelings still predominated in both North and South. While Douglass would live for almost two more decades, actively pushing for racial and gender equality, this speech, and others like it, have made him an enduring symbol of the struggle in the decades since his death.

Author Biography

Frederick Douglass believed he had been born in February, 1818, although since he was a slave, there were no records of his birth. At his birth in Maryland, his mother, Harriet Bailey named him Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, later telling him that his father was white. Frederick took the name Douglass after he escaped from slavery in 1838. He married Anna Murray, a free Black woman, less than two weeks after she helped him escape. They had five children. Anna died in 1882. Two years later he married Helen Pitts, who was white. Frederick died on February 20, 1895.

He taught himself to read while a slave, and his reading created a foundation for his later view of what society should be. After gaining his freedom, he became a church leader and was then asked to speak at anti-slavery meetings. In 1845 he wrote his first autobiography, and traveled in Europe and the United States, speaking out against slavery, and working for equality. During and after the Civil War, he held a variety of governmental positions, as well as publishing a newspaper.master–to do as he is told to do. Learning will spoil [original emphasis] the best [slave] in the world. Now…if you teach that [slave] (speaking of myself) how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy (177).

Fortunately in this case, we know just how well educated Douglass eventually became.

Douglass' personal life led him to become both a husband and a father. He and his first wife, Anna, whom he married in 1838 at the approximate age of 20, had five children together. Frederick and Anna were married for roughly forty-four years, and he remarried–to a white woman, Helen Pitts–following Anna's death in 1882. Helen was at his side until his own passing in 1895.

Document Analysis

Frederick Douglass understood the dual purpose of the celebration which was taking place in Lincoln Park. The statue was the Freedmen's Memorial Monument to Abraham Lincoln, and, for Douglass, the celebration lifted up the accomplishments of Lincoln and of freedmen. He was able to eloquently depict Lincoln both as a man of his time and as one who had a vision which went beyond many others. Douglass asserted creating the monument demonstrated that former slaves were the equals of whites.

Depicting the setting in terms of an ancient temple, Douglass set forth a picture of all the people gathered to celebrate the civic religion of the United States. He stated that just “twenty years ago” riot police would have broken up such a gathering, rather than the president and civic leaders joining with the freedmen to remember what had been accomplished during Lincoln's administration. However, Douglass was not blind to the problems of the last few decades or the ones which continued at that time. He believed the day was important because it demonstrated to all types of people, nationwide, that the African-American community was the equal of all others and that their aspirations were the same as those of whites.

As regarded Lincoln, Douglass thought the best way to praise him and to illustrate his accomplishments was to follow the ideal that one should always speak the truth. Thus, Douglass asserted that Lincoln was a “white man” and “devoted to the welfare of white men.” Douglass understood that, unlike many, Lincoln opposed slavery, even though this was not the focus to his actions in the first months of the Civil War. As Douglass recalled, Lincoln wanted to preserve the Union and was willing to let slavery continue in the South to do so. As president, Lincoln was not a radical. However, Douglass pointed out, it was this very moderate stance which allowed Lincoln to accomplish so much. Douglass stated that “sharing prejudices with his fellow white-countrymen,” allowed Lincoln not only to relate to them, but allowed them to support his actions which ultimately led to the freeing of the slaves. Lincoln moved slower than the staunch abolitionists would have liked, but he was able to push the issue forward in such a way that slavery ended far sooner than might otherwise have been the case. Douglass praised Lincoln for this ability and his accomplishments, even while wishing more could have been done. Douglass understood that while Lincoln's violent death kept him from accomplishing all he intended, it did make certain that pro-slavery forces could never again gain widespread support.

Essential Themes

Frederick Douglass' speech was a major step forward for African Americans, as was the Freedmen's Memorial Monument. Being invited to be the principal speaker, rather than President Grant, demonstrated Douglass' stature. Just as he seemed to be the right man for the occasion, one of the main points of his speech was that Lincoln was the right man to lead the United States during the crisis which resulted in the Civil War. To Douglass, Lincoln was a man of the people. This meant that he held some of the prejudices of his time, but it also meant that Lincoln could relate to the struggles of many Americans. Even though from Douglass' perspective, Lincoln was not perfect, Douglass recognized that Lincoln held strong beliefs about the evils of slavery and was slowly working toward its eradication. For Douglass, being a man of one's time did not mean that one had to go along with all the current beliefs and not to push for changes which would improve the condition of people and society. In Lincoln, Douglass saw just such a man, who went beyond the norms of the day.

Though it seemed to be a slow pace of change, Douglass understood that in terms of governmental action, Lincoln was “swift” in pushing for the changes which freed the slaves. The changes which Douglass had witnessed in recent decades were monumental. Douglass understood that Lincoln had to make the preservation of the Union his top priority, and ending slavery second, in order to get the necessary support from the northern population. The fact that for the first few years of the war, the president offered reconciliation and slavery to the South, if it ended the war, was ultimately less important to Douglass than the fact that in the end Lincoln did free the slaves. The Emancipation Proclamation, which, in the statue, Lincoln holds in one hand, was, for Douglass, a brave act which could never be diminished. Because many saw the monument, with the freedman kneeling at the feet of Lincoln, as racist, as do many today, its significance and that of Frederick Douglass' speech have often been overlooked. However, Douglass' speech was a brilliant exposition of the struggle for freedom and the vital role which Lincoln had played. Douglass' straightforward, yet lofty, approach in his speeches, has often been compared to speeches made by Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Douglass, Frederick. The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. [Copy of the, Boston: De Wolfe & Fiske Co., 1892, edition.] Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, 2003. Print.
  • Frederick Douglass Institute. University of Rochester: Frederick Douglass Project, Rochester, New York: Frederick Douglass Project. Web. 20 March 2014.
  • Inaugural Ceremonies of the Freedmen's Memorial Monument to Abraham Lincoln. Saint Louis: Levison & Blythe, Printers, Stationers and Blank Book Manufacturers, 1876. Digitized, San Francisco: Internet Archive, 2001. Web. 20 March 2014.
  • Myers, Peter C. “Frederick Douglass's America: Race, Justice, and the Promise of the Founding.” Washington, D.C.: The Heritage Foundation, 2011. Web. 20 March 2014.
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