A thousand years hence, when the solid marble that held his remains shall have crumbled; when hundreds of military heroes who have risen under his administration shall have been forgotten; when even the details of the late tremendous war shall have faded from the pages of history, and the war itself shall seem but as a speck up the long vista of ages, then Abraham Lincoln, like dear old John Brown, will find eloquent tongues to rehearse his history, and commend his philanthropy and virtues as a standard to the rulers of nations. Wherever freedom has an advocate, or humanity a friend, his name will be held as an auxiliary. 

Frederick Douglass, 
The Assassination and Its Lessons,” Brooklyn Academy of Music, 1866 

If 2019 was the year of the 1619 Project and 2020 was a year of racial reckoning in the streets, then 2021 proved to be the year of conservative backlash. It began, unforgettably, with the January 6 insurrection, where a mob hurling racist taunts at beleaguered Capitol police officers rioted with impunity only months after peaceful Black Lives Matter protestors were met with overwhelming displays of force. Then came President Trump’s 1776 Report, intended as an official rebuttal of the 1619 Project, and then the growing momentum behind state-level efforts to control public education on race. 

One common move in the turn against the 1619 Project (and against what many now refer to as “wokeness”) is to invoke the words and person of Frederick Douglass. The orator and activist who escaped slavery and went on to lead the abolitionist cause initially condemned the U.S. Constitution but eventually came to interpret and present it as an anti-slavery document; he famously broke with his abolitionist friend William Lloyd Garrison over the question of how best to conceive of the founding text. Thanks to this history, and to Douglass’ own varied and prolific writings, critics of the 1619 Project find a convenient friend in the 19th century’s foremost thinker on the Black experience in America. 

An example: In his 1852 speech “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?”—probably his most famous speech—Douglass refers to the Constitution as a “GLORIOUS LIBERTY DOCUMENT.” Critics from across the political spectrum often use this phrase as a rejoinder to 1619 Project lead Nikole Hannah-Jones, or to the alleged “woke” movement more generally. The five prominent historians who responded to the 1619 Project invoke Douglass’ line, and so do the authors of the 1776 Report, presenting Douglass’ attitude as a point of contrast with “progressivism.” Writing for The Bulwark in February 2020, Cathy Young critiqued the 1619 Project (and echoes the words of Martin Luther King Jr.) by noting that both Douglass and King treated the Founding as a “promissory note of freedom and justice for African-Americans” (Young links to Douglass’ July 4th speech). 

In an especially egregious distortion, the conservative nonprofit PragerU recently published a short video in which Frederick Douglass is presented as a moderate incrementalist, in sharp juxtaposition to Garrison the dangerous “radical” and his modern-day, activist counterparts. Inevitably, PragerU’s scriptwriters invoke the “glorious liberty document,” too. 

The quality of these critiques varies enormously. But, in each instance, critics pit Frederick Douglass, the elder, more authoritative Black voice and statesman, against a younger, more controversial one, who in Nikole Hannah-Jones’ case happens also to be a Black woman. 

Reference to older voices like Douglass or King (whose work is so often quoted selectively, too, by people from across the political spectrum; of course I am hardly the first to observe this phenomenon) is a powerful rhetorical choice. It serves to undercut the credibility of contemporary thinkers by presenting their work as a radical departure from what has come before, while at the same time flattering the self-conception of the audience (“See, I’m not racist, I side with MLK”). 

But it’s usually wrong.

Consider: Taken as a whole, Frederick Douglass’ Fourth of July speech was not primarily about the glories of the Constitution. He opens with a discussion of the constitutional convention and concludes with a treatment of the Constitution, but he vehemently emphasizes the present (“We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and to the future… But now is the time, the important time.”). The bulk of the speech is about slavery (“My subject, then, fellow-citizens, is AMERICAN SLAVERY”), and offers a scorching indictment of American hypocrisy: “The existence of slavery in this country brands your republicanism as a sham, your humanity as a base pretence, and your Christianity as a lie.” Douglass’ 1852 speech juxtaposes the horrors of slavery with that “glorious liberty document,” and so exposes the vast, lying gulf that separates the text from the reality. In 1852 Douglass understood the Constitution to be an anti-slavery document—or at least that was the way he chose to present the matter, which is still a subject of discussion and controversy—but he also believed that American practices made an absolute mockery of that truth: 

At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed. O! had I the ability, and could I reach the nation’s ear, I would, to-day, pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.

Critics like to portray today’s “woke” activists and intellectuals as departing dramatically from all that has come before, but the reality isn’t anywhere near so simple. The bitter irony manifest in Douglass’ 1852 speech brings him much closer to the spirit of Nikole Hannah-Jones than critics let on. 

This is a point worth dwelling on given the controversy that has accompanied the 1619 Project and given all that is at stake: vital civic questions about the legacy of racism and ongoing racial inequalities, about historical interpretation and how to educate children truthfully about the past, and about the meaning of America moving forward. 

And to unpack that point, I want to focus on a less famous speech by Frederick Douglass. Delivered more than a decade after the Civil War, it allows us to reflect on our battles over “wokeness” with the benefits of Douglass’ hindsight. Anti-woke commentators have also cherry-picked this one for quotes favorable to their cause—but a full reading of the text reveals that Douglass himself was making precisely the kinds of argument they now invoke his authority to attack. 

1876: Frederick Douglass on Abraham Lincoln

Douglass’ famous Fourth of July speech was given nearly a decade before the Civil War, as the institution of slavery was still growing. However, the speech I want to discuss took place nearly a decade after the war’s end, during the twilight years of Reconstruction. It is known as the “Oration in Memory of Abraham Lincoln.” The 1876 speech is less famous than Douglass’ searing 1852 speech, perhaps because it takes on a subject that is arguably even more sacred than the Founding—the person and memory of Abraham Lincoln—and does so critically. 

Douglass gave this speech on April 14, 1876, at the dedication ceremony for the Emancipation Memorial in Washington, D.C.—which is a controversial statue that depicts President Lincoln standing over a newly emancipated Black man (it is also known as the Freedman’s Memorial). The speech critiques Lincoln in terms so provocative and racialized that it would in all likelihood be banned by some of the new laws against “critical race theory” (CRT). 

None of this has stopped critics of today’s “woke” intellectuals from co-opting ideas in the speech—places where Douglass praises Lincoln, or implies that the trajectory of American history has been swift and just—as evidence for their side, much as they have with the “glorious liberty document” line from 1852.

A flagrant example comes from Princeton scholar and Claremont Institute fellow Allen Guelzo, in his December 2019 critique of the 1619 Project for City Journal. The upshot of Guelzo’s argument is that the writers of the 1619 Project show insufficient gratitude for the fact that Black people have, in such a meager time, advanced to such positions of high authority: “It is the bitterest of ironies that the 1619 Project dispenses this malediction from the chair of ultimate cultural privilege in America, because in no human society has an enslaved people suddenly found itself vaulted into positions of such privilege, and with the consent—even the approbation—of those who were once the enslavers.” Guelzo goes on to argue that “the 156 years since emancipation are less than a second on human history’s long clock, so that such a transformation is more in the nature of a miracle to be celebrated than a failure to be deplored for any seeming slowness.” He asserts that “it is a miracle Frederick Douglass celebrated” along with several other Black authorities. With respect to Douglass, this is a strange claim, since he lived for only 30 years after Emancipation. But, even so, Douglass’ 1876 speech takes on the pace of historical change as one of its major themes. And he does at one point argue that Abraham Lincoln’s actions were, when viewed from the perspective of a 19th-century American statesman, “swift, zealous, radical, and determined.” As we will see, however, the full story here is much more complicated. 

Another example comes from Lucas Morel, a Lincoln scholar at Washington and Lee University, who, in a discussion with the Claremont Institute in April 2020, brings up Douglass’ 1876 speech explicitly. Morel, who is Black, accuses Nikole Hannah-Jones of engaging in something like calumny-by-omission in her brief treatment of Abraham Lincoln (Guelzo published a version of this argument as an op-ed for the New York Post, the headline of which was “The 1619 Project’s outrageous, lying slander of Abe Lincoln”). Morel also blames Hannah-Jones for not discussing Douglass at all (Douglass comes up elsewhere in the original 1619 Project, in the essay on music and the blackface minstrelsy by Wesley Morris; he plays a more prominent role in the expanded book version of the project). Morel then makes the following appeal, referring now explicitly to the 1876 speech. From the transcript: 

[Douglass], in one of his most masterful speeches in 1876, Oration on the Dedication of the Freedman’s Memorial in D.C., he shows the perspective of an abolitionist towards Lincoln. Why is he going so slow? But then ultimately concludes in his own speech that Lincoln’s action when viewed from the vantage point of a statesman—not of an abolitionist who’s got one particular important issue and axe to grind, but of a statesman the well-being of an entire nation—from that perspective, even the abolitionist Frederick Douglass acknowledges that Lincoln’s actions were swift, zealous, radical, and determined. It’s quite a remarkable speech as Douglass in a way reenacts his own journey in appreciation for the work that Lincoln did, not just for blacks, but for whites in this country.

Morel is right that the 1876 speech by Frederick Douglass is remarkable and masterful. But, even as a quick summary, this is too simplistic a gloss on the speech, and on Douglass’ outlook. Elsewhere, Morel argues that the 1876 speech is an acknowledgment by Douglass (he calls it a confession) that Lincoln had greater overall judgment than he himself did. This is a very thorny question. It is so difficult because it is impossible to think of an American who embodies the unsettled tensions of high political life—tensions between idealism and pragmatism, principle and action—as much as Frederick Douglass (except, perhaps, for Abraham Lincoln). Morel’s interpretation elides several crucial tensions and challenges presented by Douglass’ life, and by his speech in honor of Lincoln. 

Indeed, I would go further: It isn’t an exaggeration to say that, to the extent that one takes Frederick Douglass as an authority on such matters, his 1876 speech fully exonerates Nikole Hannah-Jones and others for their failure to adequately lionize Abraham Lincoln or America’s Founding Fathers.

Critics of “wokenessoften make vague and sweeping accusations against their opponents, and they are not always clear about their precise concerns (which has, in turn, made for some very confusing anti-CRT laws). But if they object to the argument that Black people’s experiences give them distinctive insights into American politics; if they object to a sharp focus on how inequalities and injustice persist, rather than on the progress that has been made; and if they object to the emphasis on moral failings and hypocrisy, as opposed to necessity and political realism, as an explanation for the long-enduring gap between American ideals and practices—then they should know that these ideas have a long lineage, going back to Frederick Douglass himself. What’s more, Douglass anticipated their critique. 

Douglass’ 1876 speech is essential reading today because it presents, in a manner that would move any thoughtful person, ideas that many on the right today reject out of hand and are trying to ban from schools. It is perfectly reasonable to grapple with these ideas and ultimately to disagree with them, and there are ways to do so productively. But even if in the end one disagrees—with Douglass, or with the 1619 Project’s initiator, Nikole Hannah-Jones—their ideas are not a break with American tradition, let alone with American ideals. 

Before turning to the speech, though, it is important to be clear about some of the language being deployed here, and to underscore just how extreme and distortive the anti-woke attacks have become.