Leave the Emancipation Memorial Alone

The Emancipation Memorial in Lincoln Park, Washington, D.C., June 19, 2020. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
It deserves to stand forever, a silent monument whose history and character speak louder than anyone who would destroy it.

In a quiet, tree-lined area about a mile from the U.S. Capitol building, a statue has stood since 1876. Unveiled eleven years after Abraham Lincoln’s death, it depicts the 16th president holding the Emancipation Proclamation as a freed slave kneels below, his bonds being severed. Congress originally named the site of the statue, called the Freedman’s Memorial on the plaque affixed to it, Lincoln Square, making it “the first site to bear the name of the martyred president,” according to the National Park Service. It is also known as the Emancipation Memorial.

Lincoln Park’s typical quiet was broken on Tuesday by an increasingly familiar sight: a crowd seeking a statue to tear down. The more such groups deviate further from anything resembling legitimate protest against the unjust death of George Floyd, the more one questions their historical literacy. Indeed, it seems clear at this point that any old-looking statue will do: Figures of everyone from the Union general and racially progressive president Ulysses S. Grant to the abolitionist Hans Christian Heg have gotten the treatment. But if the protesters knew anything about the history and a character of the Emancipation Memorial, they would abandon their stated promise to tear the statue down.

It’s worth starting with an aspect of the statue that those who recently flocked to it in the hopes of consigning it to oblivion have the least excuse for not knowing. The man who appears to be leading these efforts on the ground proclaimed on Tuesday that he sees them as part of a campaign of consciousness-raising. “We are going to show up and wake these rich white people up,” he said while standing in front of the statue. If he had turned around, he might have noticed a plaque at the statue’s base that reads as follows:

In grateful memory of Abraham Lincoln, this monument was erected by the Western Sanitary Commission of Saint Louis MO: With funds contributed solely by emancipated citizens of the United States, declared free by his proclamation, January 1st A.D. 1863. The first contribution of five dollars was made by Charlotte Scott, a freed woman of Virginia, being her first earnings in freedom and consecrated by her succession and request on the day she heard of President Lincoln’s death to build a monument to his memory.

So, just to make it absolutely clear: The statue in question here owes its existence not to “rich white people,” but to newly freed slaves, the first of whom contributed to it her first-ever earnings as a free citizen of the United States. To tear it down would be a grave insult to the memory of those who created it.

The protests and activism that have followed in the wake of Floyd’s death deserve to be taken seriously precisely to the extent that they attempt to reckon honestly with America’s present and past injustices. Seeking the destruction of the Emancipation Memorial fails this test, not least because the statue’s own history supplies a far better model for reckoning with America’s sins. When it was dedicated in 1876, Frederick Douglass, the famous former slave, abolitionist, and orator, spoke at the ceremony. Grant, then the president, was present, as were many others. Over the years, Douglass, who had been skeptical of Lincoln initially, had come to befriend and respect the Great Emancipator. So it is likely that most of those assembled for this ceremony expected him to deliver a rather straightforward praise of Lincoln’s legacy.

Instead, he gave a speech that is timely because it is timeless: an honest assessment of Lincoln’s role and legacy, of the evil he fought and the evils he could not vanquish. Speaking on behalf of freed slaves, Douglass said that “we claim for ourselves no superior devotion to the character, history, and memory of the illustrious name whose monument we have here dedicated today.” For Lincoln was not either “our man or our model” and was instead “a white man” and . . .

. . . preeminently the white man’s President, entirely devoted to the welfare of white men. 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.

Douglass went on to assert that white men were the true children of Lincoln, and that for all he’d done for black Americans, “we are at best only his step-children; children by adoption, children by forces of circumstances and necessity.” Yet despite all this, Douglass retained an affection for the president that stands the test of time:

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.

Douglass knew that it was Lincoln, for all his flaws, who’d saved the Union and destroyed slavery. He also knew that the nation Lincoln left us could correct its own evils. Not for nothing did the former slave break with the likes of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, who called the U.S. Constitution “a pact with the devil,” ultimately coming to believe that the Constitution was instead an “anti-slavery” document. The statue is not only a commemoration of the legacy of those who made it possible, and of those it honors. It is also a reminder of our nation’s sins, and a testament to our endless quest to correct them.

Douglass was modest in describing the monument he dedicated. He contrasted it with the great monuments he expected other Americans to spearhead, calling it “the humble offering we this day unveil to view.” But he was grand in his vision of what it would come to mean:

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.

The Emancipation Memorial should symbolize all that Douglass hoped it would. It should be a place where the weight of history bears down upon us. It can be a place for righteous anger, for honest examination of American injustice. But it must not be a place for satisfying the formless rage of the mob, the spirit that seeks destruction and shouts down dissent. The ignorance and nihilism of those who would tear the statue down dishonor the freed slaves who created it and are remembered by it, the man who dedicated it, and the president who freed them. It deserves to stand forever, a silent monument whose history and character speak louder than anyone who would destroy it.

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