“I at once felt myself in the present of an honest man — on whom I could love, honor and trust without reserve or doubt.”
~Frederick Douglass after his first meeting with President Abraham Lincoln
In my view, some overly critical activists on the Left are not anything like Frederick Douglass. In fact, it is difficult to consider the extreme left who are engaged in this holier than thou mantra, criticizing President Obama for anything departing their sheltered ideologies, as progressives. These so called “progressives” simply just lack to understand a pragmatist approach to getting things done and are definitely not Frederick Douglass type of ‘activists’ in any practical sense of the word because most don’t think pragmatically as Douglass did.
In fact, the extreme left has demonstrated time and time again that they would rather act against their best interests than build on what is achievable today. They fail to understand the historic limitation of Presidencies but are ready to call for abandoning our President when the President tries to pass the best Health Care reform ever in a generation because it did not include the Public Option or when he pass financial reform because he did it without breaking up banks or when he compromise on the tax deal to get unemployment benefits with all the goodies because he did not raise taxes on the rich.
Frederick Douglass, a slave who escaped slavery to freedom and championed the abolitionist movement working within the political space afforded to him, pushed for anti-slavery policies all his life and was a pragmatic thinker who understood and appreciated Abraham Lincoln’s vision of saving the Union first is the key to his life long dream of freeing the Colored men, abolishing slavery. Frederick Douglass understood without the Union being saved first, there was not going to be the Emancipation Proclamation; therefore worked tirelessly to convince and assemble a negro army that were wrested from the enemy (confederate line) to give Lincoln the means and power to save the Union. Douglass’ activism was not just taunting anti-slavery end results but the means to the end result by helping strategize a way on how Lincoln would be effective in his quest to save the Union and in the process make it possible to declare the Emancipation Proclamation.
I can not imagine or did not hear Douglass calling President Lincoln an appeaser or the kinds of names President Obama has been called for not making freeing slaves his key objective or motivation for wanting to win the civil war as Lincoln notes in his 1962 letter to Horace Greeley:
My paramount object in this struggle [the civil war] is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause. I shall try to correct errors when shown to be errors; and I shall adopt new views so fast as they shall appear to be true views.
In fact, Frederick Douglass understood Lincoln’s long-term intention to abolish slavery without Lincoln stating it explicitly. Douglass’s recollection of the first meeting with Abraham Lincoln, has been documented that recalls the respect and admiration Douglass had for President Lincoln:
Frederick Douglass first met with Mr. Lincoln in the summer of 1863 and as he later recalled “saw at a glance the justice of the popular estimate of his qualities expressed in the prefix Honest to the name Abraham Lincoln.”1 Mr. Lincoln explained his policies on black soldiers and defended his incremental steps toward black rights. Unlike with many of his white abolitionist contemporaries, the proud former slave found no hint of condescension in President Lincoln’s demeanor. Douglass later recalled:
I shall never forget my first interview with this great man. I was accompanied to the executive mansion and introduced to President Lincoln by Senator [Samuel] Pomeroy. The room in which he received visitors was the one now used by the President’s secretaries. I entered it with a moderate estimate of my own consequence, and yet there was to talk with, and even to advise, the head man of a great nation. Happily for me, there was no vain pomp and ceremony about him. I was never more quickly or more completely put at ease in the presence of a great man, than in that of Abraham Lincoln. He was seated, when I entered, in a low arm chair, with his feet extended to the floor, surrounded by a large number of documents, and several busy secretaries. 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 — on whom I could love, honor and trust without reserve or doubt. 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; Mr. Seward has told me all about you. 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.
After reading the exchange and especially this statement made by Douglass speaking of Lincoln — “I at once felt myself in the present of an honest man — on whom I could love, honor and trust without reserve or doubt”, I am inclined to guess that today’s activists will say Frederick Douglass is blinded by his “hero worship” for the President, who lacked to understand that Lincoln primary objective was not to freeing slaves but the union. Today’s activists would call Lincoln an appeaser for suppressing Douglass’s civil and equal rights for his admission that he will first save the Union without freeing any slave if he had to.
Douglass was not a proponent of any compromise where slavery was concerned, but his interaction with Mr. Lincoln convinced him over time of the wisdom of the President’s deliberate movements toward emancipation.//snip
[Historian David W. ]Blight wrote: “In this encounter, narrated to an audience in early December 1863, Douglass constructed his own proud mutuality with Lincoln. However falteringly, by whatever unjust means blacks had to die in uniform to be acknowledged as men, Douglass was determined to demonstrate that his own ideological war aims had now become Lincoln’s as well. The ‘rebirth’ they were imagining was one both clearly understood as a terrible ordeal, but one from which there was no turning back. Douglass came away from this extraordinary meeting with the conclusions that Lincoln’s position was ‘reasonable,’ but more important, that he would go down in history as ‘Honest Abraham.’
Frederick Douglass was a man of conviction who understood his limitations but knew all alone what his callings were — to work through the system to ensure that the Constitution is a ‘protection against, rather than a sanction for slavery’. His activism took him to be a circle of William Lloyd Garrison and the American Anti-Slavery Society, to giving speeches on anti-slavery movement in many churches and communities around the world ‘denouncing colonization and deportation of black slaves’, and starting his own newspaper to share his ideologies and speaking against slavery that made him a prominent and respected abolitionist. He also knew the good from the bad and backed Lincoln for the Presidency with reservation because the Democratic candidate Stephen Douglass, about whom he said after his death, “No man of his time has done more than he to intensify hatred of the negro.” While his reservation for Lincoln was short lived because of Lincoln’s approach to emancipation, the civil war was a defining moment for Douglass to appreciate and respect Abraham Lincoln not because he was always right but Douglass though he was the most reasonable pragmatic thinker.
Douglas’s respect for Mr. Lincoln’s leadership was deeply felt. Morel wrote: “Just two years after his 1876 oration, Douglass spoke at Union Square, New York, to the Lincoln Post of the Grand Army of the Republic. There he called Lincoln ‘the best man, truest patriot, and wisest statesman of his time and country.’ Given the host and venue, this comes as no surprise. But Douglass repeated this high praise of Lincoln five years alter in a fiery speech titled ‘The United States Cannot Remain Half-Slave and Half Free.’ After observing that Lincoln’s name ‘should never be spoken but with reverence, gratitude, and affection,’ Douglass called him ‘the greatest statesman that ever presided over the destinies of this Republic.”
I have been fascinated by the life of Frederick Douglass for a long time when I first started digging into his history and I must say he is indeed the kind of model we need to be an effective activist. He is everything what today’s activists who personally insult and demean President Obama are not. He is everything like those who are able to respect the man while disagreeing with some of President Obama’s choices but continue to support their President and protect Democratic political position in order to shape our political agenda. If reading Douglass was any indication, I bet he would look at what President Obama has been able to achieve to date and appreciate him in a profound way for the Undeniable Progress That Can’t Be Buried. However, something tells me that a clear understanding of how pragmatic Frederick Douglass was and what he stood for might cause today’s activities a discomfort and would more likely force some activists to chase him out of progressive country clubs.
All of us progressives can do a little growing up to find success in activism. The success of ones’ activism can only be measured if we have results to show for. Frederick Douglass fought for emancipation, liberty and equality but he fought it pragmatically reasoning all the pro’s and con’s, strategizing and working with President Lincoln to pave the way so that his activism bear fruit. He achieved success in his activism because he was not naive and knew both his and Lincoln’s limitation in relation to where the country was. In the moment of activism, Douglass was able to do a pretty darn good job of judging the politician Lincoln to align himself to succeed in his role as an activist.
I think liberals who want to be the tea-party of the Left need to “grow up” and stop the over the top criticism of the President. Yes, we may not be happy about some things but we also have to be reminded about what we are dealing with today. Let us not forget that we are dealing with Teaparty nation that is urging businesses to stop hiring to hurt President Obama. We are dealing with people who are obsessed with power that they are willing to shut down the Federal Government over the debt limit to take down Obama’s Presidency even if it hurts the United States of America. We are dealing with people who are willing take America back into recession rejecting Obama’s job plan that would have likely add 1.9 million jobs and grow the economy by 2 percent. We are dealing with extremists, racists, homophobes and anti-emigrant white supremacist party that is self-centered beyond repair.
As Ryan Lizza writes in the New Yorker, we are dealing with a Republican party that “has become an insurgent outlier—ideologically extreme, contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime, scornful of compromise, unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science, and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”
So today, we must draw the line to foster a more productive relationship amongst ourselves by learning a thing or two from Frederick Douglass so that our activism also can bear fruit. Booman sums it up here:
…we can have a more productive relationship with the Establishment Left. It would start by getting clear where the line is between advocacy for issues and protecting our political position in Washington. We know we cannot afford to lose the presidential election in 2012. We could improve things considerably if we reserved our attacks on our own political leaders for areas where they at least have the freedom of acting otherwise.
I have met President a couple of time during the Primary campaigns and I share the centiment of Douglass felt towards President Lincoln. “I [too] at once felt myself in the present of an honest man — on whom I could love, honor and trust without reserve or doubt.” As Frank Shaffer notes it in his article, Obama Is Now and Will Be a Great President,
“We Americans are very lucky people. A sane and compassionate president is in charge.“
Let’s get out and work hard in this upcoming election to help re-elect President Obama and change America for the better like Frederick Douglass helped Abraham Lincoln save the Union and declared the Emancipation Proclamation.