Freedmen’s Monument Speech Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Frederick Douglass–the name immediately brings to mind the stalwart man who broke the chains of his own enslavement, a man who chose to speak out for his brethren, and was not deterred. On April 14, 1876, there was no one better suited than Douglass to deliver an address at the unveiling of the Freedmen’s monument in Washington, D.C. The time, the location, the subject, and the speaker–all combined into a remarkable event, one that Douglass praises within his speech. His eloquence, an undeniable gift in a man once denied the right to an education, resounds from the page, and his voice is powerfully heard. He utilized the occasion of the event for reflection of past events, for the celebration of what had been accomplished, and for the veneration of a man, President Abraham Lincoln, whose life was cut short. Those who were present as Douglass delivered his address were in an enviable position. For, as powerful and evocative as his words are when read, they must have been even more so when heard directly from the man himself.

Summary Overview

Frederick Douglass–the name immediately brings to mind the stalwart man who broke the chains of his own enslavement, a man who chose to speak out for his brethren, and was not deterred. On April 14, 1876, there was no one better suited than Douglass to deliver an address at the unveiling of the Freedmen’s monument in Washington, D.C. The time, the location, the subject, and the speaker–all combined into a remarkable event, one that Douglass praises within his speech. His eloquence, an undeniable gift in a man once denied the right to an education, resounds from the page, and his voice is powerfully heard. He utilized the occasion of the event for reflection of past events, for the celebration of what had been accomplished, and for the veneration of a man, President Abraham Lincoln, whose life was cut short. Those who were present as Douglass delivered his address were in an enviable position. For, as powerful and evocative as his words are when read, they must have been even more so when heard directly from the man himself.

Defining Moment

The monument depicts a standing Abraham Lincoln, while at his feet a crouched, shackled slave looks imploringly up at the president. The image is highly suggestive even from a twenty-first-century perspective; a nineteenth-century interpretation could have inferred that the slave sat at Lincoln’s feet, trusting him to break his bonds, to tear asunder the existence given him because of the color of his skin. The slave’s kneeling position also physically highlights an element of subordination; he is physically far lower than the proudly standing Lincoln, who merely looks benevolently down at the man at his feet.

In the quote mentioned above, “Though the Union was more to him than our freedom or our future, under his wise and beneficent rule we saw ourselves gradually lifted from the depths of slavery to the heights of liberty and manhood,” Douglass reveals that he is fully cognizant of Lincoln’s imperfections. He recognises that, while the central aim of the Lincoln administration–up until midway through the Civil War–was not the abolition of slavery, there were enough changes, large and small, to illustrate to Douglass and countless others that Lincoln was on the right path. What changes did he mean? One giant step forward, the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, had implications that would shift the battle cry of the Union Army from ‘preservation’ to ‘freedom.’ This piece of legislation maintained that, from then on, in the eyes of the federal government, slaves were “forever free (McPherson. 563. 1988).” Although the Proclamation was an immediate source of debate, it nevertheless displayed to the African American community, free and enslaved, that a promise of things to come had been made. There was also legislation that “sanctioned the enlistment of black soldiers and sailors in Union forces (563).” The opportunity to take an active role in the Civil War, particularly in light of the success of the first black regiment, the 54th Massachusetts, led by Bostonian Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, represented another great leap forward for the black community.

Author Biography

With the possible exceptions of Harriet Jacobs and Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass must still be the most well known former slave. He was born in 1818 to a slave woman, Harriet Bailey, and states in his autobiography that his father was, in fact, his (white) master. Historian Maurice S. Lee offers a useful quote from Douglass’ autobiography:

I was born in Tuckahow, near Hillsborough, and about twelve miles from Easton, in Talbot County, Maryland. I have no accurate knowledge of my age, never having seen any authentic record containing it. By far the larger part of the slaves know as little of their age as horses know of theirs, and it is the wish of most masters within my knowledge to keep their slaves thus ignorant. I do not remember to have ever met a slave who could tell of his birthday. They seldom come nearer to it than planting-time, harvest-time, cherry-time, spring-time, or fall-time (175. 2009).

In this passage, Douglass makes use of an animal analogy–a horse–to describe his (and others’) level of awareness of the world as a slave. Even the basic right of knowing the date of one’s birthday was one withheld from those in bondage.

Education, so fundamentally tied in the story of Frederick Douglass, was denied to him early on; literacy, in a slave, was virtually unthinkable, and could have serious negative consequences. Although a start in his education was given by the kind wife of his overseer, a Mrs. Auld, this was quickly stopped by her husband; Lee offers Douglass’s words again:

A [slave] should know nothing but to obey his 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

The unveiling of the Freedman’s Monument on that April day in 1876 was well timed, and in more ways than one. Firstly, it was the eleventh anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, over a decade since the dreadful night at Ford’s Theater when Lincoln and his wife sat watching the play, Our American Cousin before John Wilkes Booth changed the course of history. Secondly, it was the year 1876, a year that saw countless celebrations in honour of the centennial of the United States of America. Given all that had transpired during the Civil War and after, the centennial was all the more venerated. Thirdly, it was fifteen years ago, in the month of April, that the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter in South Carolina, prompting President Lincoln to call for volunteers for the Union Army.

An Objective Stance on Lincoln

Douglass’s choice of words in his speech are intriguing, and causes one to reflect on how racially mixed the audience was; he specifically mentions the white people present, and also addresses those of his own race. Douglass wrote:

It must be admitted, truth compels me to admit, even here in the presence of the monument we have erected for his memory, Abraham Lincoln was not, in the fullest sense of the word, either our man or model. In his interests, in his associations, in his habits of thought, and in his prejudices, he was a white man.

There is truth in what Douglass wrote. At the start of the war, and for a time during its early years, the Lincoln administration was far more concerned with the preservation of the Union; slavery, at that time, was not the issue it would later become for Lincoln and his administration. There has been some argument amongst historians on when this change occurred; some have suggested that the turning point was Gettysburg, others have said it was the Emancipation Proclamation. Whenever it was, the delay does not appear to have detracted from the overall perception of Lincoln held by Douglass. He accepts the president for who he is. There is admiration in Douglass when he writes that Lincoln began his own life not in the lap of luxury but rather as one “born and reared among the lowly…compelled to grapple singlehanded with the flintiest hardship of life, from tender youth to sturdy manhood.”

It is useful to ask why Frederick Douglass chose this occasion to speak of issues that did not necessarily gild the memory of the slain president. There are elements of harshness in his remembrances, even while most of what he says is justified. Douglass wrote:

…When he strangely told us to leave the land in which we were born; when he refused to employ our arms in defence of the Union; when, after accepting our services as colored soldiers, he refused to retaliate our murder and torture as colored prisoners; when he told us he would save the Union if he could with slavery…

There is pain in this recounting, and there is also truth. In the 1850s, African Americans were encouraged to leave the United States and emigrate to the African colony of Liberia. Historian Peter Kolchin discusses this in his work on American slavery. Kolchin writes that despite all the encouragement blacks received, this was not a widely accepted idea and that many “rejected the notion of emigrating to Africa, for they saw themselves as…quintessentially American and looked upon Africa as a distant and savage land (84-85. 1995).”

Although it has always been a source of admiration when one volunteers for military service, the thought that an African American would do so during the Civil War was a novel one and had potentially life-threatening consequences. The act of black enlistment within the Union Army was viewed by the South as the federal government’s approval of mutiny; Southern slaves, it was thought, would be incited to rebel against their owners upon seeing the uniformed black Union soldiers. The very concept of regiments made up of both free and formerly enslaved men was foreign to the Confederacy, and something they intended to react to–through punishment–if men from such regiments were captured in battle. In her work Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War, historian Drew Gilpin Faust recounts the experiences of Southern women who witnessed the arrival of black troops:

Mary Lee of Winchester, Virginia, came “near to fainting,” when the troops appeared; she felt “more unnerved than by any sight I have seen since the war [began].” (60. 1996).

Lincoln’s Assassination

The assassination of Abraham Lincoln, on that day back in 1865, was a dark day for everyone in the country. Douglass himself had the privilege not only of meeting with the president, but also of discussing the enlistment of black men as soldiers and sailors with him. The relevant passage from his autobiographical writings is rather long; however, it is significant and worth reading in relation to his Freedmen’s Monument Speech. This meeting occurred in the summer of 1863, and was the first to which Douglass was treated:

The room bore the marks of business, and the persons in it, the president included, appeared to be much overworked and tired. Long lines of care were already deeply written on Mr. Lincoln’s brow, and his strong face, full of earnestness, lighted up as soon as my name was mentioned. As I approached and was introduced to him, he rose and extended his hand, and bade me welcome. I at once felt myself in the present of an honest man… Proceeding to tell him who I was, and what I was doing, he promptly, but kindly, stopped me, saying, ‘I know who you are, Mr. Douglass…Sit down. I am glad to see you.’ I then told him the object of my visit; that I was assisting to raise colored troops; that several months before I had been very successful in getting men to enlist, but now it was not easy to induce the colored me to enter the service, because there was a feeling among them that the government did not deal fairly with them in several respects. Mr. Lincoln asked me to state particulars. I replied that there were three particulars which I wished to bring to his attention. First that colored soldiers ought to receive the same wages as those paid to white soldiers. Second, that colored soldiers ought to receive the same protection when taken prisoners, and be exchanged as readily, and on the same terms, as any other prisoners, and if Jefferson Davis should shoot or hang colored soldiers in cold blood, the United States government should retaliate in kind and degree without dely upon Confederate prisoners in its hands. Third, when colored soldiers, seeking the ‘bauble-reputation at the cannon’s mouth,’ performed great and uncommon service on the battlefield, they should be rewarded by distinction and promotion, precisely as white soldiers are rewarded for like services.

In laying out these specifications for the treatment of black enlistees, Frederick Douglass was clearly demonstrating how equality had to work for soldiers, that race simply could not be a factor. The men, white or black, would both face the dangers on the battlefield; both endeavored to serve their country at the highest level possible. In the end, a large part of Douglass’s own mourning for President Lincoln may have rested in the fact that Lincoln allowed him an audience to discuss the issue of black soldiers and sailors; the president did not have to speak with Douglass at all, or he could have chosen to restrict the discussion points.

In writing of the assassination, Douglass in his Freedmen’s Monument address writes as though the issue is something he cannot quite get past, particularly because Lincoln was not allowed to die a natural death. If the latter had been the case, writes Douglass, “we should still have been smitten with a heavy grief, and treasured his name lovingly”–but perhaps with not so much sadness as now. Douglass felt that the assassination of Abraham Lincoln was all the more grievous because the country had only so recently come through a bloody war, one that had wreaked havoc upon nearly every family. Douglass writes that the assassination “ was the simple gratification of a hell-black spirit of revenge.”

At the conclusion of his speech, Douglass attempts to bring light to the darkness caused by Abraham Lincoln’s absence, saying that the president’s murder, if anything, was now forever associated with slavery and the rebellion–and in being so, allowed “a deeper love for the great liberator.”

Essential Themes

Frederick Douglass, in his Freedmen’s Monument Speech, makes recurring references to the event’s date of April 1876 and its associations with Lincoln, as well as the fact that the event itself was being held in Washington, D. C., where Lincoln had once held office. For those of Douglass’ generation, it must have been an association that would live on in them. The language regarding the assassination is strikingly different from the tones used earlier; the speaker’s words are violent and powerful, displaying an undiminished anger toward the actions of Wilkes Booth eleven years after the fact. Douglass observes that

It was on the evening of this day, while a fierce and sanguinary rebellion was in the last stages of its desolating power; while its armies were broken and scattered before the invincible armies of Grant and Sherman; while a great nation, torn and rent by war, was already beginning to raise to the skies loud anthems of joy at the dawn of peace, it was startled, amazed, and overwhelmed by the crowning crime of slavery–the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

There is still a measure of disbelief in what had happened, a sense that, given all that they had faced during the war, the success of the Union could only be capped by the death of their leader–for contemporaries, the shocking truth must have been incomprehensible.

Having had the opportunity to meet with President Lincoln and openly discuss his vision for the black troops who paved the way for future African Americans in the armed services, delivering an address before a new monument to the fallen president must have been bittersweet for Douglass. He respected Lincoln for his opinions and his faults–he respected Lincoln for the man the president was; and, despite their differences, he did not allow his admiration to be marred by Lincoln’s departure from life.

Bibliography
  • Carlson, Peter. “Abraham Lincoln Meets Frederick Douglass,” American History 45 6 (Feb. 2011), p. 28-29. Print.
  • Foner, Philip S. The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, IV, Reconstruction and After. New York: International Publishers, 1955. Print.
  • Kolchin, Peter. American Slavery: 1619-1877. London: Penguin Books, 1995. Print.
  • Lee, Maurice S. The Cambridge Companion to Frederick Douglass. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2009. Print.
  • Lincoln Institute. “Frederick Douglass.” Mr. Lincoln and Freedom [project]. Web.
  • McPherson, James M. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. New York: Oxford UP, 1988. Print.
Additional Reading
  • Clark-Lewis, Elizabeth. First Freed: Washington, D.C. in the Emancipation Era. Washington, DC: Howard UP, 2002. Print.
  • Douglass, Frederick. My Bondage and my Freedom. New Haven: Yale UP, 2014. Print.
  • Oakes, James. The Radical Republicans: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics. New York: Norton, 2007. Print.
  • Stauffer, John. The Black Hearts of Men: Radical Abolitionists and the Transformation of Race. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2001. Print.
  • Stephens, George E. and Donald Yacovone. A Voice of Thunder: A Black Soldier’s Civil War. Champaign: U of Illinois P, 1999. Print.
Categories: History Content