A speech that encapsulates my feelings towards this country is one that Frederick Douglass delivered in honor of Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1876. Frederick Douglass saw in Lincoln the qualities that he saw America: a man of flaws who was capable of changing for the better. Lincoln was always against slavery, but before the Civil War, he held many of the same racist views on racial equality that many of his fellow white Americans felt. During the Civil War, though, Lincoln’s views on race began to change, as he saw the courage of black Union soldiers in battle, and as he met intelligent African American leaders like Frederick Douglass. By the end of the Civil War, Lincoln’s views on race were much changed.
In Frederick Douglass’s speech, he acknowledges Lincoln’s faults but also praises him for his capacity to change. Here is an excerpt of that speech:
“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 be safely 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, second, 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 cooperation 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 the 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…
…Fellow-citizens, I end, as I began, with congratulations. We have done a good work for our race today. 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.”