On Being Remarkably Illogical and Untimely In One's Utterances
“The President of the United States seems to possess an ever-increasing passion for making himself appear silly and ridiculous, if nothing worse. Since the publication of our last number, he has been unusually garrulous, characteristically foggy, remarkably illogical and untimely in his utterances, often saying that which nobody wanted to hear, and studiously leaving unsaid about the only things which the country and the times imperatively demand of him”.
The president to whom, you’ll be shocked to learn, the foregoing paragraph was addressed was none other than America’s finest—the great and immortal Abraham Lincoln. It was addressed in the year 1862 to the man against whom, from his time until ours, every fleeting occupant of the Oval Office has been so unfavorably measured. Seldom is it that we, as ardent patriots and modern readers, encounter so harsh and candid a list epithets attributed to so exalted and historic a man. To us, Lincoln is all but unimpeachable, indeed, very nearly mythological, and any unkind word by which his memory might be dimmed will be read with an invidious eye over which a doubtful brow is raised. It’ll be read as though it were a nasty and personal affront, the type for which we haven’t a shred of tolerance.
From whom, then, we ask, does their attribution derive? Surely, he must’ve been an especially salty fellow, perhaps one from whose bosom the bonds of a Confederate empathy sprang. Perhaps he was a supporter of the agenda of Jefferson Davis and Alexander Stephens?—that malign duo between whom, among so many of their rebellious and intractable brethren, a vent of odium and racism violently swirled. This would be the ilk from whom we’d expect so harsh a criticism of Lincoln, but from whom else? Maybe he gave ear to the clamorous shouts of those northern “peace”-Democrats, a reactionary group to whom the preservation of the Union (preferably with its continuance of chattel slavery), was of such vital importance?
This question impresses upon our shared curiosity an urgency equal in weight to the first. The critic by whom those lines were written, unmatched in the acerbity of their style and the acuity of heir wit, was also, as it happens, one of America’s finest men. His esteem, I think, deservedly and actively competes with that of the first. More trenchant than decent, more scathing than servile, less conciliatory in his creed and his willingness to wait, the critic from whose saturated pen these brilliant words dripped was none other than the great Frederick Douglass. He was a man, we’d come to know, who’d be no less revered than that president against whom he so abusively railed.
But why, we must ask, did he speak about President Lincoln with such scorn and vituperation? Lincoln was, after all, the idealized Republican leader, the apotheosis of the Abolitionist for whom, during the course of the Civil War, a black man like Douglass would be expected to have nothing but the utmost affinity. He was imagined to be the grand Mosaic figure, the intrepid and venturing prophet behind whom an enslaved mass of Israelites could flock. We neglect to remember that Lincoln, not unlike that Egyptian-reared Moses to whom he was so frequently compared, was irreducibly human. As such, he was possessed of all humankind's faults, for which he might justifiably be called out. Perhaps, from time to time, Douglass’s contempt for him was a fiery response, a kindled reaction of which President Lincoln was completely deserving.
This seems to have been the case when he wrote those lines. He published them in a biting response to a communication delivered by Lincoln in the White House “before a committee of colored men assembled by his invitation”. To this group of leading black men, from which, due to the inconveniences of long distance and the conflict of schedules, Douglass was excluded, Lincoln spoke about his advocacy for colonization. This was a remedy to the so-called “negro problem”, the unsolvable “black question” of which, for the majority of the war’s duration, if not for many years prior, Lincoln was wholeheartedly convinced. He believed not only in its practicability, but in the inherent fairness of its cause. He thought that colonization of the blacks to their “native” environment, along with just compensation for the “property” of which the slaveholders’ would now be deprived, would be the least invidious way to bring to an end the war, and to smolder the flames of fraternal hate. He thought it the most expedient and fruitful maneuver by which the war’s end might be hastened, and every side appeased.
Douglass found in this proposal nothing about which to cheer. It was deserving of his scorn only. “Mr. Lincoln assumes the language and arguments of an itinerant Colonization lecturer”, said Douglass, “showing all his inconsistencies, his pride of race and blood, his contempt for negroes, and his canting hypocrisy”. These were harsh words, indeed, for the man who’d become, eventually, the emancipator of his very race.
Yet Douglass went on. Lincoln, he said, “Is as timid as a sheep when required to live up to a single one of his anti-slavery testimonies. He is scrupulous to the very letter of the law in favor of slavery (a reference to the federal enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law, a national act by whose continued application the entire white abolitionist movement was painfully chagrined), and a perfect latitudinarian as to the discharge of his duties under a law favoring freedom”. He is, Douglass thought, “always brave and resolute in his interferences in favor of slavery, remarkably unconcerned about the wishes and opinions of the people of the North; apparently wholly indifferent to the moral sentiment of civilized Europe”. Though he was “elected as an anti-slavery man by Republican and Abolitionist voters, Lincoln is quite a genuine representative of American prejudice and Negro hatred and far more concerned for the preservation of slavery, and the favor of the border slave states, than for any sentiment of magnanimity or principle of justice and humanity”.
Surely, these aren’t the feelings of a critic inclined toward subtlety and reticence, one tied to the poles of constraint and tact. He was, at this point—not only in body but in speech—completely unfettered, as we’d want him especially, but any critic to be. So eloquently liberated to speak the sentiments of his bursting mind, Douglass proved to be as passionate as he was brilliant, as sharp as he was frank. He showed that one could be a critic of a man, and, in this fraught case, a divided nation’s leader, of whom he’d eventually be supportive in the pursuit of a shared aim. That didn’t stop him, however, from pummeling Lincoln beneath the weighty rubble of his words at that particular moment in time, just when the assault was needed.
I was reminded of the quotation with which this humble article began after reading the latest string of tweets of which our current president, Donald Trump—not quite in competition with the esteem of a Lincoln—was the author. In them, he indulges the appetite of his conspiratorial fancy, the world of salacious and unverified gossip from which he finds it impossible to disentangle himself. In so doing, he made himself appear “silly and ridiculous”, as is his wont, while saying that which “nobody wanted to hear”. True. Douglass was prescient in his assessment of Lincoln; the same words could be applied to Trump. In the process, as we claw our way out of the destruction left by a global pandemic, as did Lincoln through the ravages of war, Trump “studiously leaves unsaid” those things which the “country and the times imperatively demand of him”—namely, when we’re to re-open the economy, how we’re to mitigate infection and risk, and where we’re to look for future medical acumen and guidance.
We might, as Douglass said, “also criticize the style adopted, so exceedingly plain and coarse, threaded as to make the impression that (Mr. Trump) has such a low estimate of the intelligence of his audience, as to think any but the simplest phrases and constructions would be above our power of comprehension”. This assumes that our low intelligence is a rung on the ladder to which our President can descend. I think we meet him where he is. In all his tweets, he's “manifested a decided awkwardness in the management of the English language, and we do not think there is any intention in this respect, but only the incapacity to do better”. Yet better is that goal for which we, conservatives and liberals alike, all jointly wait.
Lincoln proved himself amenable to change. Perhaps this is a Lincoln-esque posture, an Abrahamic facade, in which Trump, mirroring the master, can carry himself.