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Oration On The Occasion Of The Unveiling Of Freedmen's Monument


[Note 15: Oration delivered by Frederick Douglass on the occasion of
the unveiling of the Freedmen's Monument, in memory of Abraham Lincoln,
in Lincoln Park, Washington, D. C., April 14, 1876.]

Friends and Fellow Citizens:

I warmly congratulate you upon the highly interesting object which has
caused you to assemble in such numbers and spirit as you have to-day.
This occasion is, in some respects, remarkable. Wise and thoughtful men
of our race, who shall come after us and study the lesson of our history
in the United States; who shall survey the long and dreary spaces over
which we have traveled; who shall count the links in the great chain of
events by which we have reached our present position, will make a note
of this occasion; they will think of it and speak of it with a sense of
manly pride and complacency.

I congratulate you, also, upon the very favorable circumstances in which
we meet to-day. They are high, inspiring, and uncommon. They lend grace,
glory, and significance to the object for which we have met. Nowhere
else in this great country, with its uncounted towns and cities,
unlimited wealth, and immeasurable territory extending from sea to sea,
could conditions be found more favorable to the success of this occasion
than at this place.

We stand to-day at the national center to perform something like a
national act--an act which is to go into history; and we are here where
every pulsation of the national heart can be heard, felt, and
reciprocated. A thousand wires, fed with thought and winged with
lightning, put us in instantaneous communication with the loyal and true
men over this country.

Few facts could better illustrate the vast and wonderful change which
has taken place in our condition as a people than the fact of our
assembling here for the purpose we have to-day. Harmless, beautiful,
proper, and praiseworthy as this demonstration is, I cannot forget that
no such demonstration would have been tolerated here twenty years ago.
The spirit of slavery and barbarism, which still lingers to blight and
destroy in some dark and distant parts of our country, would have made
our assembling here the signal and excuse for opening upon us the
flood-gates of wrath and violence. That we are here in peace to-day is a
compliment and a credit to American civilization, and a prophecy of
still greater enlightenment and progress in the future. I refer to the
past, not in malice, but simply to place more distinctly in front the
gratifying and glorious change which has come both to our white fellow
citizens and ourselves, and to congratulate all upon the contrast
between now and then; the new dispensation of freedom with its thousand
blessings to both races, and the old dispensation of slavery with its
ten thousand evils to both races--white and black. In view, then, of the
past, the present, and the future, with the long and dark history of our
bondage behind us, and with liberty, progress, and enlightenment before
us, I again congratulate you upon this auspicious day and hour.

Friends and fellow citizens, the story of our presence here is soon and
easily told. We are here in the District of Columbia, here in the City
of Washington, the most luminous point of American territory, a city
recently transformed and made beautiful in its body and in its spirit;
we are here, in the place where the ablest and best men of the country
are sent to devise the policy, enact the laws, and shape the destiny of
the Republic; we are here, with the stately pillars and majestic dome of
the Capitol of the nation looking down upon us; we are here, with the
broad earth freshly adorned with the foliage and flowers of spring for
our church, and all races, colors, and conditions of men for our
congregation--in a word, we are here to express, as best we may, by
appropriate forms and ceremonies, our grateful sense of the vast, high,
and pre-eminent services rendered to ourselves, to our race, to our
country, and to the whole world by Abraham Lincoln.

The sentiment that brings us here to-day is one of the noblest that can
stir and thrill the human heart. It has crowned and made glorious the
high places of all civilized nations with the grandest and most enduring
works of art, designed to illustrate the characters and perpetuate the
memories of great public men. It is the sentiment, which from year to
year adorns with fragrant and beautiful flowers the graves of our loyal,
brave, and patriotic soldiers who fell in defense of the Union and
Liberty. It is the sentiment of gratitude and appreciation, which often,
in the presence of many who hear me, has filled yonder heights of
Arlington with the eloquence of eulogy and the sublime enthusiasm of
poetry and song; a sentiment which can never die while the Republic

For the first time in the history of our people, and in the history of
the whole American people, we join in this high worship, and march
conspicuously in the line of this time-honored custom. First things are
always interesting, and this is one of our first things. It is the first
time that, in this form and manner, we have sought to do honor to an
American great man, however deserving and illustrious. I commend the
fact to notice; let it be told in every part of the Republic; let men of
all parties and opinions hear it; let those who despise us, not less
than those who respect us, know that now and here, in the spirit of
liberty, loyalty, and gratitude, let it be known everywhere, and by
everybody who takes an interest in human progress and in the
amelioration of the condition of mankind, that, in the presence and with
the approval of the members of the American House of Representatives,
reflecting the general sentiment of the country; that in the presence of
that august body, the American Senate, representing the highest
intelligence and the calmest judgment in the country; in the presence of
the Supreme Court and Chief Justice of the United States, to whose
decisions we all patriotically bow; in the presence and under the
steady eye of the honored and trusted President of the United States,
with the members of his wise and patriotic Cabinet, we, the colored
people, newly emancipated and rejoicing in our blood-bought freedom,
near the close of the first century in the life of this Republic, have
now and here unveiled, set apart, and dedicated a monument of enduring
granite and bronze, in every line, feature, and figure of which the men
of this generation may read, and those of after-coming generations may
read, something of the exalted character and great works of Abraham
Lincoln, the first martyr President of the United States.

Fellow citizens, in what we have said and done today, and in what we may
say and do hereafter, we disclaim everything like arrogance and
assumption. We claim for ourselves no superior devotion to the
character, history, and memory of the illustrious name whose monument we
have here dedicated to-day. We fully comprehend the relations of Abraham
Lincoln, both to ourselves and to the white people of the United States.
Truth is proper and beautiful at all times and in all places, and it is
never more proper and beautiful in any case than when speaking of a
great public man whose example is likely to be commended for honor and
imitation long after his departure to the solemn shades--the silent
continents of eternity. It must be admitted, truth compels me to admit,
even here in the presence of the monument we have erected to his memory,
Abraham Lincoln was not, in the fullest sense of the word, either our
man or our model. In his interests, in his associations, in his habits
of thought, and in his prejudices, he was a white man.

He was pre-eminently the white man's President, entirely devoted to the
welfare of the white man. He was ready and willing at any time during
the first years of his administration to deny, postpone, and sacrifice
the rights of humanity in the colored people to promote the welfare of
the white people of this country. In all his education and feeling he
was an American of the Americans. He came into the Presidential chair
upon one principle alone, namely, opposition to the extension of
slavery. His arguments in furtherance of this policy had their motive
and mainspring in his patriotic devotion to the interests of his own
race. To protect, defend, and perpetuate slavery in the States where it
existed Abraham Lincoln was not less ready than any other President to
draw the sword of the nation. He was ready to execute all the supposed
constitutional guarantees of the United States Constitution in favor of
the slave system anywhere inside of the slave States. He was willing to
pursue, re-capture, and send back the fugitive slave to his master, and
to suppress a slave rising for liberty, though his guilty master were
already in arms against the Government. The race to which we belong was
not the special object of his consideration. Knowing this, I concede to
you, my white fellow citizens, a pre-eminence in this worship at once
full and supreme. First, midst, and last, you and yours were the objects
of his deepest affection and his most earnest solicitude. You are the
children of Abraham Lincoln. We are at best, only his step-children;
children by adoption, children by force of circumstances and necessity.
To you it especially belongs to sound his praises, to preserve and
perpetuate his memory, to multiply his statues, to hang his pictures
high upon your walls, and commend his example, for to you he was a great
and glorious friend and benefactor. Instead of supplanting you at this
altar, we would exhort you to build high his monuments; let them be of
the most costly material, of the most cunning workmanship; let their
forms be symmetrical, beautiful, and perfect; let their bases be upon
solid rocks, and their summits lean against the unchanging blue,
overhanging sky, and let them endure forever! But while, in the
abundance of your wealth, and in the fullness of your just and patriotic
devotion, you do all this, we entreat you to despise not the humble
offering we this day unveil to view; for while Abraham Lincoln saved for
you a country, he delivered us from a bondage, according to Jefferson,
one hour of which was worse than ages of the oppression your fathers
rose in rebellion to oppose.

Fellow citizens, ours is no new-born zeal and devotion--merely a thing
of the moment. The name of Abraham Lincoln was near and dear to our
hearts in the darkest and most perilous hours of the Republic. We were
no more ashamed of him when shrouded in clouds of darkness, of doubt and
defeat, than when we saw him crowned with victory, honor, and glory. Our
faith in him was often taxed and strained to the uttermost, but it never
failed. When he tarried long in the mountains; when he strangely told us
that we were the cause of the war; when he still more strangely told us
to leave the land in which we were born; when he refused to employ our
arms in defense 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; when he revoked the Proclamation of Emancipation of
General Fremont; when he refused to remove the popular Commander of the
Army of the Potomac, in the days of its inaction and defeat, who was
more zealous in his efforts to protect slavery than to suppress
rebellion; when we saw all this and more, we were at times grieved,
stunned, and greatly bewildered, but our hearts believed, while they
ached and bled. Nor was this, at that time, a blind and unreasoning
superstition. Despite the mist and haze that surround him; despite the
tumult, the hurry, and confusion of the hour, we were able to take a
comprehensive view of Abraham Lincoln, and to make reasonable allowance
for the circumstances of his position. We saw him, measured him, and
estimated him; not by stray utterances to injudicious and tedious
delegations, who often tried his patience; not by isolated facts, torn
from their connection; not by partial and imperfect glimpses caught at
inopportune moments; but by a broad survey, in the light of the stern
logic of great events, and in view of that divinity which "shapes our
ends, rough hew them as we will," we came to the conclusion that the
hour and the man of our redemption had somehow met in the person of
Abraham Lincoln. It mattered little to us what language he might employ
on special occasions; it mattered little to us when we fully knew him,
whether he was swift or slow in his movements; it was enough for us that
Abraham Lincoln was at the head of a great movement, and was in living
and earnest sympathy with that movement, which, in the nature of things,
must go on until slavery should be utterly and forever abolished in the
United States.

When, therefore, it shall be asked what we have to do with the memory of
Abraham Lincoln, or what Abraham Lincoln had to do with us, the answer
is ready, full, and complete. Though he loved Caesar less than Rome,
though the Union was more to him than our freedom or our future, under
his wise and beneficent rule, and by measures approved and vigorously
pressed by him, we saw that the handwriting of ages, in the form of
prejudice and proscription, was rapidly fading away from the face of our
whole country; under his rule, and in due time, about as soon, after
all, as the country could tolerate the strange spectacle, we saw our
brave sons and brothers laying off the rags of bondage, and being
clothed all over in the blue uniforms of the soldiers of the United
States; under his rule, we saw two hundred thousand of our dark and
dusky people responding to the call of Abraham Lincoln, and with muskets
on their shoulders, and eagles on their buttons, timing their high
footsteps to liberty and union under the national flag; under his rule,
we saw the independence of the black Republic of Haiti, the special
object of slave-holding aversion and horror, fully recognized, and her
minister, a colored gentleman, duly received here in the City of
Washington; under his rule, we saw the internal slave-trade, which so
long disgraced the nation, abolished, and slavery abolished in the
District of Columbia; under his rule, we saw, for the first time, the
law enforced against the foreign slave-trade, and the first slave-trader
hanged like any other pirate or murderer; under his rule, assisted by
the greatest captain of our age, and his inspiration, we saw the
Confederate States, based upon the idea that our race must be slaves,
and slaves forever, battered to pieces and scattered to the four winds;
under his rule, and in the fullness of time, we saw Abraham Lincoln,
after giving the slave-holders three months' grace in which to save
their hateful slave system, penning the immortal paper, which, though
special in its language, was general in its principles and effect,
making slavery forever impossible in the United States. Though we waited
long, we saw all this and more.

Can any colored man, or any white man friendly to the freedom of all
men, ever forget the night which followed the first day of January,
1863, when the world was to see if Abraham Lincoln would prove to be as
good as his word? I shall never forget that memorable night, when in a
distant city, I waited and watched at a public meeting, with three
thousand others not less anxious than myself, for the word of
deliverance which we have heard read to-day. Nor shall I ever forget the
outburst of joy and thanksgiving that rent the air when the lightning
brought to us the Emancipation Proclamation. In that happy hour we
forgot all delay, and forgot all tardiness, forgot that the President
had bribed the rebels to lay down their arms by a promise to withhold
the bolt that should smite the slave-system with destruction; and we
were thenceforward willing to allow the President all the latitude of
time, phraseology, and every honorable device that statesmanship might
require for the achievement of a great and beneficent measure of liberty
and progress.

Fellow citizens, there is little necessity on this occasion to speak at
length and critically of this great and good man, and of his high
mission in the world. That ground has been fully occupied and completely
covered both here and elsewhere. The whole field of fact and fancy has
been gleaned and garnered. Any man can say things that are true of
Abraham Lincoln, but no man can say anything that is new of Abraham
Lincoln. His personal traits and public acts are better known to the
American people than are those of any other man of his age. He was a
mystery to no man who saw and heard him. Though high in position, the
humblest could approach him and feel at home in his presence. Though
deep, he was transparent; though strong, he was gentle; though decided
and pronounced in his convictions, he was tolerant towards those who
differed from him, and patient under reproaches. Even those who only
knew him through his public utterances obtained a tolerably clear idea
of his character and personality. The image of the man went out with his
words, and those who read them knew him.

I have said that President Lincoln was a white man and shared the
prejudices common to his countrymen towards the colored race. Looking
back to his times and to the condition of his country, we are compelled
to admit that this unfriendly feeling on his part may safely be set down
as one element of his wonderful success in organizing the loyal American
people for the tremendous conflict before them, and bringing them safely
through that conflict. His great mission was to accomplish two things:
first, to save his country from dismemberment and ruin; and secondly, to
free his country from the great crime of slavery. To do one or the
other, or both, he must have the earnest sympathy and the powerful
co-operation of his loyal fellow countrymen. Without this primary and
essential condition to success his efforts must have been vain and
utterly fruitless. Had he put the abolition of slavery before the
salvation of the Union, he would have inevitably driven from him a
powerful class of American people and rendered resistance to rebellion
impossible. Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed
tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent; but measuring him by the sentiment
of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he
was swift, zealous, radical, and determined.

Though Mr. Lincoln shared the prejudices of his white countrymen against
the Negro, it is hardly necessary to say that in his heart of hearts he
loathed and hated slavery. The man who could say "Fondly do we hope,
fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war shall soon pass
away, yet if God wills it continue till all the wealth piled by two
hundred years of bondage shall have been wasted, and each drop of blood
drawn by the lash shall have been paid for by one drawn by the sword,
the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether," gives all
needed proof of his feeling on the subject of slavery. He was willing,
while the South was loyal, that it should have its pound of flesh,
because he thought it was so nominated in the bond; but farther than
this, no earthly power could make him go.

[Note 16: "I am naturally anti-slavery. If slavery is not wrong,
nothing is wrong. I cannot remember when I did not so think and
feel."--Letter of Mr. Lincoln to Mr. Hodges of Kentucky, April 4, 1864.]

Fellow citizens, whatever else in the world may be partial, unjust, and
uncertain, time--time--is impartial, just, and certain in its action. In
the realm of mind, as well as in the realm of matter, it is a great
worker, and often works wonders. The honest and comprehensive statesman,
clearly discerning the needs of his country, and earnestly endeavoring
to do his whole duty, though covered and blistered with reproaches, may
safely leave his course to the silent judgment of time. Few great public
men have ever been the victims of fiercer denunciation than Abraham
Lincoln was during his administration. He was often wounded in the house
of his friends. Reproaches came thick and fast from within and from
without, and from opposite quarters. He was assailed by abolitionists;
he was assailed by slave-holders; he was assailed by the men who were
for peace at any price; he was assailed by those who were for a more
vigorous prosecution of the way; he was assailed for not making the war
an abolition war; and he was most bitterly assailed for making the war
an abolition war.

But now behold the change; the judgment of the present hour is, that
taking him for all in all, measuring the tremendous magnitude of the
work before him, considering the necessary means to ends, and surveying
the end from the beginning, infinite wisdom has seldom sent any man into
the world better fitted for his mission than Abraham Lincoln. His birth,
his training, and his natural endowments, both mental and physical, were
strongly in his favor. Born and reared among the lowly, a stranger to
wealth and luxury, compelled to grapple single-handed with the flintiest
hardships of life, from tender youth to sturdy manhood, he grew strong
in the manly and heroic qualities demanded by the great mission to which
he was called by the votes of his countrymen. The hard condition of his
early life, which would have depressed and broken down weaker men, only
gave greater life, vigor, and buoyancy to the heroic spirit of Abraham
Lincoln. He was ready for any kind and quality of work. What other young
men dreaded in the shape of toil, he took hold of with the utmost

"A spade, a rake, a hoe,
A pick-axe, or a bill,
A hook to reap, a scythe to mow
A flail, or what you will."

All day long he could split heavy rails in the woods, and half the night
long he could study his English Grammar by the uncertain flare and glare
of the light made by a pine-knot. He was at home on the land with his
axe, with his maul, with gluts, and his wedges; and he was equally at
home on water, with his oars, with his poles, with his planks, and with
his boat-hooks. And whether in his flat-boat on the Mississippi River,
or on the fireside of his frontier cabin, he was a man of work. A son of
toil himself, he was linked in brotherly sympathy with the sons of toil
in every loyal part of the Republic. This very fact gave him tremendous
power with the American people, and materially contributed not only to
selecting him to the Presidency, but in sustaining his administration of
the Government.

Upon his inauguration as President of the United States, an office, even
where assumed under the most favorable conditions, fitted to tax and
strain the largest abilities, Abraham Lincoln was met by a tremendous
crisis. He was called upon, not merely to administer the government, but
to decide in the face of terrible odds, the fate of the Republic.

A formidable rebellion rose in his path before him; the Union was
practically dissolved; his country was torn and rent asunder at the
center. Hostile armies were already organized against the Republic,
armed with the munitions of war which the Republic had provided for its
own defense. The tremendous question for him to decide was whether his
country should survive the crisis and flourish, or be dismembered and
perish. His predecessor in office had already decided the question in
favor of national dismemberment, by denying to it the right of
self-defense and self-preservation--a right which belongs to the meanest

Happily for the country, happily for you and me, the judgment of James
Buchanan, the patrician, was not the judgment of Abraham Lincoln, the
plebeian. He brought his strong common sense, sharpened in the school of
adversity, to bear upon the question. He did not hesitate, he did not
doubt, he did not falter but at once resolved, at whatever peril, at
whatever cost, the Union of the States should be preserved. A patriot
himself, his faith was strong and unwavering in the patriotism of his
countrymen. Timid men said, before Mr. Lincoln's inauguration, that we
had seen the last President of the United States. A voice in influential
quarters said, "Let the Union slide." Some said that a Union maintained
by the sword was worthless. Others said that a rebellion of 8,000,000,
cannot be suppressed; but in the midst of all this tumult and timidity,
and against all this, Abraham Lincoln was clear in his duty, and had an
oath in heaven. He calmly and bravely heard the voice of doubt and fear
all around him; but he had an oath in heaven, and there was not power
enough on earth to make this honest boatman, backwoodsman, and
broad-handed splitter of rails evade or violate that sacred oath. He had
not been schooled in the ethics of slavery; his plain life had favored
his love of truth. He had not been taught that treason and perjury were
the proofs of honor and honesty. His moral training was against his
saying one thing when he meant another. The trust which Abraham Lincoln
had in himself and in the people was surprising and grand, but it was
also enlightened and well-founded. He knew the American people better
than they knew themselves, and his truth was based upon this knowledge.

Fellow citizens, the fourteenth day of April, 1865, of which this is the
eleventh anniversary, is now, and will ever remain a memorable day in
the annals of this Republic. 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. It was a new
crime, a pure act of malice. No purpose of the rebellion was to be
served by it. It was the simple gratification of a hell-black spirit of
revenge. But it has done good, after all. It has filled the country with
a deeper abhorrence of slavery and a deep love for the great liberator.

Had Abraham Lincoln died from any of the numerous ills to which flesh is
heir; had he reached that good old age of which his vigorous
constitution and his temperate habits gave promise; had he been
permitted to see the end of his great work; had the solemn curtain of
death come down but gradually--we should still have been smitten with a
heavy grief, and treasured his name lovingly. But dying, as he did die,
by the red hand of violence, killed, assassinated, taken off without
warning, not because of personal hate,--for no man who knew Abraham
Lincoln could hate him--but because of his fidelity to union and
liberty, he is doubly dear to us, and his memory will be precious

Fellow citizens, I end, as I began, with congratulations. We have done a
good work for our race to-day. In doing honor to the memory of our
friend and liberator, we have been doing highest honors to ourselves and
those who come after us; we have been fastening ourselves to a name and
fame imperishable and immortal; we have also been defending ourselves
from a blighting scandal. When now it shall be said that the colored man
is soulless, that he has no appreciation of benefits or benefactors;
when the foul reproach of ingratitude is hurled at us, and it is
attempted to scourge us beyond the range of human brotherhood, we may
calmly point to the monument we have this day erected to the memory of
Abraham Lincoln.

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