Sunday, February 9, 2020

Eulogy for Abraham Lincoln

Frederick Douglass (1818–1895)

Lincoln funeral procession at the corner of Broadway and Union Square in New York City, April 25, 1865. Photograph by Robert N. Dennis. The two children visible in the window at the upper left are believed to be six-year-old Theodore Roosevelt and his brother Elliott, watching from their grandfather’s house. The exclusion of African Americans from the procession led to the planning of a separate memorial organized by black leaders, to which Frederick Douglass was invited to speak. Photo courtesy of the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site.
Frederick Douglass was spending the Saturday of Easter weekend at home in Rochester, New York, when news of the assassination of President Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth reached the city. The mayor called for a public gathering at 3:00 and stunned citizens congregated at City Hall as the city’s bells tolled. Hundreds were unable to enter the packed building to hear speakers mourn the president, and Douglass was among those in the crowd at the very back of the room. Another person in attendance who knew him later related to a biographer that “he told me he should not speak because he was not invited,” but soon “his name burst upon the air from every side, and filled the house.” Douglass acceded to the calls of his neighbors and went to the platform.

“It is a day for silence and meditation; for grief and tears,” he lamented in relatively brief comments, which were reported in the next issue of the Rochester Daily Democrat. He recounted for his audience his visit to the White House after the second inauguration only a few weeks before. (He didn’t mention, however, that Lincoln had to intervene personally when his own guards refused to admit Douglass because he was black.) He denounced the treasonous “spirit that gave birth” to the assassin and predicted the act would only encourage the victorious Union even more to “exact ample security for the future.” Douglass’s neighbor concluded his recollection of the afternoon with praise: “I have heard Webster and Clay in their best moments; Channing and Beecher in their highest inspirations; I never heard truer eloquence! I never saw profounder impression. When he finished the meeting was done.” As Douglass reminisced in his autobiography Life and Times, the event was a turning point in his relationship with the townspeople:
I had resided long in Rochester, and had made many speeches there which had more or less touched the hearts of my hearers, but never till this day was I brought into such close accord with them. We shared in common a terrible calamity, and this “touch of nature made us” more than countrymen, it made us “kin.”
The camaraderie in Rochester was a far cry from what was occurring three hundred miles to the southeast. New York City was still haunted by memories of the draft riots two years earlier, when as many as 120 people had been killed, including at least eleven African American men lynched by white mobs, and the Colored Orphans Asylum had been looted and torched. In the period following the riots, ostensibly to maintain order, black participants had been banned from several public events and parades. Similarly, the City Council announced its decision to exclude African Americans from Lincoln’s funeral procession. The New-York Tribune mocked the ban, noting the irony of excluding black participants from a “pageant devised and engineered by men who always opposed and never even professed to honor and respect our late President until they were quite sure he was dead.” The outraged editor of The Anglo-African pointed out that three thousand black troops marched safely and without incident in the funeral procession in Washington and that significant contingents had also taken part in the pageants in Baltimore and Philadelphia.

In response to the council’s action, a group of black leaders announced their own event commemorating Lincoln’s life and death, and Frederick Douglass agreed to be the featured speaker. The New York Times reported that the oration, held at Cooper Union on June 1 (which had been declared a National Day of Mourning by Congress), “drew an immense mixed audience, persons of color predominating. Every seat was filled, and several hundred persons were compelled to stand.” The occasion was widely reported, and summaries of the much-heralded speech were printed in both the Times and the Tribune. Yet in the century and a half after the event, the speech had never been reprinted in full, even though Douglass’s manuscript has been among his papers in the Library of Congress, seen only by a small number of scholars and biographers. Five years ago, however, it was carefully transcribed and reprinted in the Library of America collection President Lincoln Assassinated!!, edited by Harold Holzer, and we present it here as this week’s selection.

Notes: The attempted assassination mentioned on page 317 refers to the infamous incident on the floor of the Senate on May 22, 1856, when Democratic congressman Preston Brooks of South Carolina attacked Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts with a cane, nearly killing him in retaliation for a speech criticizing one of Brooks’s relatives and other slaveholders. On the next page, Douglass lists several people by their last names. Pierre Gustave Toutant-Beauregard left the U.S. Army to become the first prominent general of the Confederate Army; William Payne rose through the Confederate ranks to become a brigadier general. George Andrew Atzerodt (spelled Adzerot by Douglass) was one of John Wilkes Booth’s co-conspirators; he was assigned to kill Vice President Andrew Johnson but spent the night drinking and lost his nerve. John C. Breckinridge was Vice President during the Buchanan administration; he enrolled in the Confederate Army when the war broke out, eventually becoming the Confederate secretary of war..

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I come before you this evening with much diffidence: The rarest gifts, the best eloquence, the highest order of genius to which the nation has given birth, might well be employed here and now, and yet fail of justice to the dignity. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.