Wavemaker Conversations 2021

Inaugural Edition: Lincoln, Douglass and Biden Together, Featuring Yale history professor David Blight

January 19, 2021 Michael Schulder
Inaugural Edition: Lincoln, Douglass and Biden Together, Featuring Yale history professor David Blight
Wavemaker Conversations 2021
More Info
Wavemaker Conversations 2021
Inaugural Edition: Lincoln, Douglass and Biden Together, Featuring Yale history professor David Blight
Jan 19, 2021
Michael Schulder

If Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass could visit Joe Biden today, and advise him on his inaugural address, what would they say?

David Blight: I do think the best comparison, if we have to have one, of Biden's inauguration this week, is the 1861 inauguration of Lincoln. Biden is inheriting an obviously extremely divided country that has just experienced an overt assault on that building, and on our very democracy led by the sitting president of the United States. Can you believe, we're still saying that? Now, Lincoln, of course, was inheriting a situation of seven seceded states - seven states of the deep South that all seceded by February 1st. He did a 12-day railroad tour from Springfield, Illinois to get to Washington DC all across the Midwest, the Northeast, and then down the coast. He gave speech after speech after speech in all sorts of towns. He spoke in some state legislatures on the way. He kept, kind of, laying out olive branches everywhere he went. He kept trying to say to people, “Oh, it's going to be all right. The hot heads in the South, they're going to come to their senses. There's really nothing to worry about.” He really, you know, was trying to preach a kind of a  unity and harmony as best he could. Now, famously though, as he got closer to Washington, I think it was in Philadelphia, the Pinkerton detectives came to him and said, “Sir, there's a plot to kill you here, especially in Maryland. When you go through Baltimore, there's a plot. We know about it.” Now, Lincoln at first didn't want to believe any of this. He said, “Never mind, just get me on the train.” Then, actually, William Seward came to him, uh, his soon to be secretary of state and said, “No, you know, Mr. President elect, there is a plot out there. So we're going to have to send you on the train in the middle of the night in some disguise.” And they actually did. Lincoln,  in effect, went through Baltimore on the, in the, in the middle of the night and got into DC, uh, early AM, was quickly taken, I believe to the Wormley hotel, and he was disguised in some kind of big fur hat and a cape or something. He had to sort of sneak in, which later on, he got pilloried for, from all directions. Now, but at that inaugural, the first inaugural address is a remarkable speech, but it is full of olive branches to the South. He's- he’s all but begging them to come back, to come to their senses, to not worry. He embraces again and again, as he had before, what was known as the federal consensus. That just meant that- the belief that constitutionally, the federal government could not attack slavery where it already existed in a state, because of property rights, but they could stop it in the West. They could stop it wherever the federal government had jurisdiction. He also came out very directly in favor of returning fugitive slaves back to the South, which was a big issue. And so this speech, even though it ends with that beautiful poetry about, uh, you know, “the better angels of our nature, the mystic chords of memory will draw us back and once again, we will be led by the better angels of our nature,” which is from Shakespeare. It has a beautiful ending as Lincoln speeches often did, but most of it is an olive branch to the South over and over and over. And I can tell you for one, Frederick Douglass hated that speech. He hated it. He called Lincoln the most powerful slave hunter and slave catcher in the land. He called the speech “double tongued,” I just looked it up this morning. He reminded Lincoln of his house divided speech, and that Lincoln had promised to put slavery on a course of “ultimate extinction.” And then he said, toward the end of Douglass’ long editorial about it, he said “To parlay with traders is but to increase their insolence and audacity.” Now, I have to say, Michael, I'm hoping that Biden's speech writing team is not channeling Lincoln's first inaugural. I hope they're channeling the second inaugural which, by the way, Frederick Douglass loved. The second inaugural, obviously four horrible bloody terrible years later, is where Lincoln so forthrightly declared this war all about slavery,  and that it would be completed to its bitter end no matter what. “Every drop of blood shed by the last shall be paid by blood shed by the sword.” Too many people, I think, point only to the last paragraph of Lincoln's second inaugural, the charity- “malice toward none and charity for all” language, which is Lincoln the healer. Now it's possible Biden will draw on that too, ‘cause- as Obama did, by the way. Obama always appealed or drew upon Lincoln the healer, not Lincoln- not the Lincoln of retributive justice against the South, because the whole long third paragraph of Lincoln's second inaugural, greatest speech ever given by an American president, is the clenched fist. So, what I'm looking for this week from Biden's speech writers is, is the- is it going to be only about olive branches to this, to this Trumpian segment of the country, which is so large? He has to preach unity and healing. He's going to be the president of United States, that's part of his job description. But it's also got to have a clenched fist, because what happened at the Capitol on six January is simply not forgivable. You don't heal with people who in effect invade the most sacred space of the government desecrate it, and kill people. There has to be justice in some kind of balance with healing. That was the essential lesson of that book I wrote on civil war memory years ago. 

Michael Schulder: So tell us that. There has to be a balance. You have to have some measure of justice in order to have healing. Point to a specific anecdote from your research that illustrates why we need to believe that. We want to believe that, why do we need to? 

David Blight: Well, for lots of historical reasons, in context we could go into if we had time, virtually no leaders of the Confederacy were ever truly tried for what was, by any definition, treason against the United States. They led an all-out war to sever, divide and destroy the United States. Jefferson Davis was arrested. He was in prison for two years at Fortress Monroe in Virginia. But he was never formally indicted, which is why he was finally released in April of 1867. They either had to indict him and put him on trial at that point or release him. And he was released on bond or bail paid by wealthy northerners as an act of reconciliation. Alexander Stevens, the vice president of the Confederacy was arrested and jailed up in Boston, actually, or Charlestown, in a jail or prison for three or four months. He was released in late summer of 1865 and just returned back to Georgia with no repercussions. The only Confederate leader who was actually prosecuted and hanged was the superintendent of Andersonville prison. And that was done based on what was called war crimes because of all the union soldiers who died there. Now, there were other Confederates, um, you know, for a short period of time taken into custody, but very, very few, and eventually released and almost all former Confederates were, in effect, pardoned by the federal government by about 1870. Now, in retrospect, you know, I'm not a- I'm not a, you know, a voice of, of retribution, you know, always, by any means, nor are lots of other people. But we've looked back on that over time and we've wondered would the counter attack on reconstruction, would this defeat of reconstruction been as thorough and complete as it was by the 1870s, if there had truly been some prosecutions, retributions. In the 19th century, unfortunately, they hanged people. So it might've ended up that way. But to what extent could you have done that and left a message, left a history, left a warning that this is never ever going to happen again. Now that's one of the things that we're facing now. Think of another example: 2009, in the wake of the economic collapse caused by a lot of skullduggery, uh, in high places on Wall Street, no one was really ever prosecuted. Now I know the Obama administration and Eric Holder had a terrible situation they faced. You know, they had to- they had to revive the American economy. And if they got into one prosecution after another of the titans of Wall Street, it might've taken the political air out of their recovery and they knew they only had probably two years to do it. So I understand the reticence that went on there. But if we think back on that, you know, maybe some people should have been prosecuted for the crimes of setting up that mortgage system that drove the American economy absolutely into the tank. And there are other cases in our history. Now, if we let six January go with a lot of hands slapped, it would be a terrible mistake. So I'm hopeful that Joe Biden and his team will come in doing what he has to do, which is appealing to healing, unity, to our history of those moments when we have found some healing in unity and justice, but also ready with a clenched fist to let people know that Trumpism and its radical right vanguard, particularly what they did last week will not only be unacceptable, it's going to be prosecuted.
Michael Schulder: Here's the impact we can have right now. I want you, as a final final- I say final question multiple times in every interview, but I know you're, I know you're busy and I want to let you go… As a final exercise in the power of imagination and imagination, you know, you need to let your mind wander freely, but great imaginations are also rooted in facts. 

David Blight: Yes. 

Michael Schulder: Let's transport Frederick Douglass, maybe we bring Frederick Douglass along with Abraham Lincoln into Delaware where Biden is preparing his speech. How do you imagine that conversation going? 

David Blight: Wow. Wouldn't that be fun? Uh, well, okay, I'll say this. I suspect Lincoln would probably take Biden aside and say a little bit of the version of you- what you just said about that book that Samantha Power was using. He might take Biden aside and say, “What are three things you think you can achieve in these next months? What are three things you absolutely have to achieve?” Now-

Michael Schulder: Wait, wait, wait. Why do you think, based on your understanding of Lincoln, why do you think Lincoln would say that to Biden? 

David Blight: Lincoln was an incrementalist. Lincoln was a gradualist. Lincoln was an old Henry Clay moderate, let's remember, about all kinds of issues about, uh, particularly about slavery and its future. But Lincoln learned through the ultimate crisis, the Civil War, uh, the ultimate challenge, uh, that he had to act more radically than he'd ever believed he would before, but he started incrementally. And that's why Douglass was attacking him for that first inaugural, uh, ‘cause the first inaugural is not very anti-slavery, let's face it. Um,-

Michael Schulder: So, so let me, let me pause you there. So when Abraham Lincoln gives that advice that you just channeled to Joseph Biden, Frederick Douglass is in the room, does he say “amen” or does he try to- what does he say?

David Blight: Oh, he would be sympathetic, because he had lived that same history. He saw Lincoln grow from the most powerful slave hunting and slave catcher in the land, as he called him, to Lincoln the emancipator who, who Douglass honored and respected enormously by late ‘64 and then in 1865. But I think this is, I mean, who knows what he would do, but, but what Douglass would also do is he'd say, “Mr. President Biden, bring the people back to the creeds. Bring them back to the natural rights tradition, bring them back to the four first principles of the declaration of independence. Bring them back to section one of the 14th amendment. Bring them back to why the 13th amendment ever had to be passed in the first place. Bring them back to the Voting Rights Act. Go for the renewal of the Voting Rights Act, sir.” And I know Douglass would say this because Douglass believed that the right to vote was the single most important right in any democracy, he may have even overstressed it. But Douglass would demand “Come back to the creeds, come back to the meaning of what this experiment, this thing called America is supposed to be,” because Douglass, at the end of the day, especially because of emancipation and the civil war became a kind of a radical patriot. Douglass would push Biden to be tough on his country. Give them tough love, remind them of, of the meaning of this place and push them to something. Take them somewhere. Don't just expect them to come along. And I'm sure Douglas would insist on a clenched fist as well as olive branches, when Biden addresses history out there for the inaugural. I'm praying that Biden does not give just a healing speech. I know he has to, it has to begin that way, it probably has to end that way. But in the middle, um, I'm hoping for like a third paragraph of the second inaugural of Lincoln, if he channels Lincoln. But you know what? He might channel FDR, because FDR faced perhaps the next greatest challenge in his inaugural of 1932, and then even again in ‘36, because by ‘36, the New Deal was really being challenged by right-wing industrialists and Southern white supremacists. So, you know, the Biden team may be looking for a few lines from FDR to, to put in there as well. At least I hope they are. 

Michael Schulder: I hope that we will read your critique of the Biden inaugural address the day, a few days after in the New York Times.

David Blight: Well, I'll, I'll be, I'll be waiting for it. I don't know if I'll be inspired enough, but I'll try, I'll try one, Michael. You gave me the challenge. 

Michael Schulder: Well, David Blight, thank you for this exercise in imagination, for helping us shrink the change, those of us citizens who would like to make positive change. And, uh, we'll see where these stories lead, but, boy, “radical patriot and radical pragmatist,” the way you described Frederick Douglass: radical pragmatist. That's something I want to share. Thank you so much. 

David Blight: Well, it's a very important kind of concept. You know, a pragmatist doesn't have to be just the person who gets something done, that's workable. A radical pragmatist is a person who is willing to work with people, but push them, push them, stretch them, make them think beyond their own box and their own limits.

Michael Schulder: David Blight, thank you so much for joining me on this Wavemaker conversation. 

David Blight: Okay. Thank you, Michael. Enjoyed it.