We are entering Black History Month with Kobe Bryant gone, a president impeached and on trial, and ghosts of Frederick Douglass and Tarheel native Andrew Johnson rattling around in my head.
Based on my limited exposure to Frederick Douglass, I’ve come to believe he was as Republican as Reagan, a real bootstrapper. After the Civil War, he advised his fellow freedmen not to look for handouts. Freed slaves were as free as the next guy. Quit whining. Get a job.
The modern GOP hail this radical abolitionist as a “prophet of individualism.” In 2013 Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan and other GOP elite wore “Frederick Douglass was a Republican” buttons to an event honoring him. Ol’ 45 hailed Douglass as “embodying Republican values.” Of course, despite the high ideals and many good people in the GOP’s rank and file, had today’s leadership been around prior to the Civil War, they would have cut taxes on plantation owners, deregulated chain manufacturers, and pointed to a booming economy rather than fight to abolish slavery.
When I shared my ignorance about Frederick Douglass with a knowledgeable friend, he suggested I check out historian David Blight’s “Prophet of Freedom.” The biography of Frederick Douglass won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for History.
I have yet to read the book, but I watched David Blight lecture on his work at Politics and Prose Bookstore in Washington. (In April 2019 a group of young self-identified white nationalists staged a peaceful protest while Jonathan M. Metzl, a psychiatrist and director of the Center for Medicine, Health, and Society at Vanderbilt University, discussed his book, “Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment is Killing America’s Heartland.”)
According to Blight, Douglass and a group of freedmen met with President Andrew Johnson in 1866 to advocate for voting rights, aggressive federal measures to ensure civil rights for all, including amendments to the Constitution. The transcript of the meeting was less than “perfect.”
Johnson’s response was to shut down activists down. He didn’t like the idea of being talked down to by a man like Douglass. He explained to the activists he didn’t want a “race war” and that real victims of the Civil War were poor white Southerners. According to the record, President Johnson said, “[T]he colored man and his master conspired against the poor white man and made him their slave.” Finally, he suggested freed blacks be sent back to Africa or set themselves up in a colony of their own somewhere.
Douglass was unable to convince Johnson the country had already been through a “race war.” In response to what he perceived as a dangerous situation, he penned and delivered a series of speeches titled “Sources of Danger to the Republic.” According to Blight, the speeches skewered the soon-to-be impeached president. Douglass called Johnson an “unmitigated calamity of a President,” “a disgrace to the nation,” and lamented the country at least temporarily must, “stagger under his rule.”
I thought Blight was exaggerating. The published version of the speech I unearthed online is more eloquent and direct. After Abraham Lincoln led the country through the Civil War, Douglass expressed gratitude “that other embodiment of political treachery, meanness, baseness, ingratitude, the vilest of the vile, the basest of the base, the most execrable of the execrable of modern times-he who shall remain nameless (President Johnson)” was not in charge. I thought JK Rowling invented that device to identify and not name the “he who must not be named” (Lord Voldemort) of her Harry Potter story universe.
Until learning a little more about Douglass and Johnson, and listening to Alan Dershowitz’s testimony in the Senate last week, I really hadn’t grasped why Ol’ 45 has so many defenders in the Old South and corporation boardrooms. There are a lot of people that will defend the rights of power and seem unconcerned about what Douglass wanted: “Government so shaped that even when in the hands of a bad man, we will be safe.”