Neighborhoods

‘The Clouds That Lower At This Time On The Political Sky’: When Frederick Douglass Spoke at BAM

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Frederick Douglass came to the Brooklyn Academy of Music (then located in Brooklyn Heights) in late January of 1866, where he presented “The Assassination and Its Lessons.” Soon after assuming the presidency in April 1865, Andrew Johnson backtracked on the fight for full black equality that Lincoln had begun late in the Civil War. Among other controversial actions, Johnson made peace with former Confederate leaders, appointing several as provisional governors. In December 1865, he began to push for Presidential Reconstruction, which did not secure blacks’ right to vote or end the restrictive Black Codes passed by Southern states. In the speech, Douglass thus warmly extolled the virtues of Lincoln, and bitterly critiqued the work of Johnson, in order to mobilize public opinion in support of the more progressive Congressional Reconstruction. Here is a condensed and lightly edited of the Brooklyn Eagle’s transcription of the speech:

The subject of this evening’s discourse filled the national heart with unspeakable anguish, bitterness and mortification. For it was the inauguration of a new crime in our land, a stranger to these latitudes, alien to our institutions. Assassination of the nation’s chief magistrate! We had heard of assassinations elsewhere, under other institutions. But we had not supposed that in the land where free institutions were established, where the right to vote and freedom of speech were general, that there could be anything amongst us to foment such a giant conspiracy as that disclosed by the assassination and the attempted wholesale assassinations at Washington.

We mourned and we are mourning his loss. We are now passing into another year, and it remains to be seen what this year may have in store for us. Many may feel hopeful and predict very favorable results from present indications, but from my standpoint, judging from the clouds that lower at this time on the political sky, I feel some fear, and have some apprehensions that this year may rival its predecessor by taking upon itself features even darker and more deplorable than either assassination or rebellion.

The crime of crimes which now threatens us is nothing less than the base and wanton betrayal by a triumphant nation of its only allies and friends, placing them back again into the hands of their common enemies. I say that this is what I apprehend and what the signs of the times, according to my outlook, threaten. But more of this by and by.

The American people ought to be instructed. They have suffered a great deal during this war. They have experienced many shakes, some of them heavy and terrible in the extreme, causing the very pillars of the state to tremble and the boldest hearts among us to quail in view of the possible future of the Republic. But the heaviest shock of all, the most instructive of all, was the assassination of President Lincoln.

You all remember the effect produced by it. I cannot describe it; you cannot describe it; no man can describe the effect produced by that result. It was as if some grand convulsion in nature had occurred, as if the solid earth had opened, or the graves had burst beneath our feet. The consternation could not have been more profound. A hush fell upon the land—a solemn stillness, as if each man on it had heard a voice from heaven and paused to learn its meaning. The calamity was so sudden, so out of joint with the general sense of security. There unfolded a transition so vast from one extreme of feeling to the other—from victory to the very dust and ashes of sorrow and mourning—that few among us could believe the dreadful news to be true.

As at no time before or during the war, the loyal people of the land had been rejoicing in the great and decisive victories over the rebels. Richmond, so long besieged and so sternly and desperately defended, had fallen. Mobile and Wilmington were in our hands. South Carolina had received her proper chastisement at the hands of General Sherman. Everywhere we were victorious. The loyal armies were disbanded. Everywhere hopes of peace were indicated. General Lee, the patrician, with his so-called invincible army, made up of the elite of Virginia, had surrendered to General Grant, the plebian. (Applause.) Loyal black troops with iron arms and steel fingers were upholding our flag at Charleston and timing their footsteps to the tune of “Old John Brown.” (Applause.)

At the same time the loyal people of the North were parting with their just indignation against the insolent rebels, and were beginning to speak of them no longer as deadly foes, but simply as our erring brothers. Southern generals were becoming decidedly popular all over North. Lee was spoken of with as much respect as General Grant. But what did it avail? Whom did it appease? What Southern heart was softened? Was the Slave Power conciliated by it? I answer, no! It was not then, it is not now, and it never will be by such means. Nothing, nothing short of the iron hand of federal power will command respect. (Applause.) In the moment when the great North was laying aside its armor, sick of blood, weary of war; when the whole Northern sky was fringed with the golden hue of peace; when the whole North was meditating mercy towards the vanquished. In that moment, when nothing was to be gained by it, they gave us this indication of their deadly hate, manifesting this, their intense malignity, by striking their first blow at President Lincoln. They could not conquer, but they could [assassinate], thus showing the deadly spirit with which we have to contend.

***

From what I have now said you will readily perceive that I am not here for the purpose of treating you to a lecture on the life and character of our lamented president. That is already a well-trodden field. The pulpit, the platform, poetry and art in all their developments have been engaged since the hour of his death to illustrating the character of this good man, and in commending his virtues to the people. There is a charm, however, about the life of this man that will never lose its power over the American people—never! It will never grow old. 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.

One thing about Abraham Lincoln will always make him dear to the struggles for fame. He was indebted to himself for himself—largely the architect of his own fortune. So far as man can be he was a self-made man. A worker, a toiler; the captain of a flat boat; a craftsman; a worker in wood, in iron, on the soil. A man who took life at the roughest, with brave hands grappled with it and conquered; a man who traveled far, but made the road on which he traveled; who ascended high, but built the ladder on which he climbed. Flung overboard as it were in the midnight storm and left without oars or life preservers, he swam in safety to shore, where other men would have despaired and gone down. (Applause.)

It was my exceedingly great privilege to know Abraham Lincoln personally. I saw him often during the war and conversed with him freely on subjects connected with the suppression of the rebellion. I can say of him that I never met a man with whom I more readily felt myself at home. A true man. Never a man more solid, never a man more transparent. Some men have two sides, some more. Abraham Lincoln had but one side. Some men have a long side and a short side, an amiable side and a jolly side, but Abraham Lincoln was the same man from whichever side you viewed him.

Perhaps you would like to know how I came to visit Abraham Lincoln. I will tell you that, too. He invited me to the White House (applause)—and the fact that he could invite a black man to the White House is, itself, indicative of what would have been his course this day. By inviting a Negro to visit him, Lincoln said, “I am president of all the people of the United States—not merely of white people, but of black people, and of all the people. And I regard the rights of all people, and respect the feelings of all the people.” It was a telling rebuke to popular prejudice that this man could invite the Negro not to the White House only, or to the soldiers’ home, but to the table of the President of the United States (applause).

I saw Mr. Lincoln, as I said, often. On one occasion, as I was visiting him Governor [William] Buckingham [of Connecticut] came and desired an interview with the president. “Tell the governor to wait,” said the president. “I have my friend Douglass here, and I want to have a long talk with him.” This was the first time, I think, when the president of the United States refused admission to the governor of a great state, while a Negro was with him, or when the governor of a little state on a similar occasion had to stand out in the cold. It was a telling rebuke to popular prejudice, and showed the moral courage of the man.

***

I have said that Mr. Lincoln would have been in favor of the enfranchisement of the colored race. I tell you, he was a progressive man; he never took any step backwards. He did not begin by playing the role of Moses and end by playing that of Pharaoh; he began rather by playing Pharaoh and ending by that of Moses. Yes, what shall be said of Andrew Johnson? (Hisses and cheers.) Of the man who holds that treason is a crime and must be punished—that treason must be made odious by punishment? What shall be said of Andrew Johnson if instead of punishing traitors, he signalizes his administration by pardoning the guiltiest of traitors?

What shall be said of the man who said that he would be the Moses of the black race? What shall be said of him if he comes out in his inaugural address and says that in his opinion the Negroes will sooner receive their rights from their former masters than from Northern men, from loyal men? (Cries of “Never” and “Shame.”) What shall be said of him if he intends to exalt our enemies and depress our friends—our only friends? A man who wants to enfranchise our enemies and disfranchise our friends?

What shall be said of him if instead of accepting the opportunity of settling the Negro question forever, he hands it down to coming generations, to foster future rebellions and breed other assassinations? If the Negro does not obtain equal rights, the community is going to be agitated, for while there is any injustice left, the black man will not keep silent.

The preceding is an excerpt from Frederick Douglass in Brooklyn, edited by Theodore Hamm, just published by Akashic Books.