This morning I finished listening to an audiobook about the complex relationship between Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. I’m still trying to wrap my head around Douglass — I have his autobiography coming from the library — but he seems to have been a prophet, the conscience of the nation even and especially when white northerners weren’t interested in having their consciences pricked.
More than ever, what I appreciate about Lincoln is that he was a learner. Though he long abhorred slavery, Lincoln held many of the racist views of his time. He was maddeningly slow in allowing black soldiers to fight, dragged his feet on equal pay for black soldiers, and was about three years behind Douglass in recognizing the Civil War as an abolition war that required an abolition peace. Still, Lincoln made progress. The Lincoln who in 1861 supported a thirteenth constitutional amendment to protect slavery (and hopefully save the union) became the Lincoln in 1865 who helped push through the actual Thirteenth Amendment that abolished slavery. He made progress, in part, I believe, because he made efforts to actually talk with and befriend Douglass and other black leaders. Lincoln died in process. I like how W.E.B. DuBois put it:
“And I love him not because he was perfect but because he was not and yet triumphed. The world is full of illegitimate children. The world is full of folk whose taste was educated in the gutter. The world is full of people born hating and despising their fellows. To these I love to say: See this man. He was one of you and yet he became Abraham Lincoln…But personally I revere him the more because up out of his contradictions and inconsistencies he fought his way to the pinnacles of earth and his fight was within as well as without.”
Lincoln’s simple but profound eloquence at Gettysburg and in his Second Inaugural came from a man who had allowed himself to be changed by the “mighty currents” of history (Douglass’s words). I’m reminded of this passage from Isaiah 50:
The Lord God has given me
the tongue of those who are taught,
that I may know how to sustain with a word
him who is weary.
Morning by morning he awakens;
he awakens my ear
to hear as those who are taught.
The Lord God has opened my ear,
and I was not rebellious;
I turned not backward.
I gave my back to those who strike,
and my cheeks to those who pull out the beard;
I hid not my face
from disgrace and spitting.