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Let Abraham Lincoln stand

Let Abraham Lincoln stand
© Getty Images

In 1838, a young Abraham Lincoln warned the country that a “mobocratic spirit” could bring ruin to the United States. “If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher,” Lincoln declared. “As a nation of free men, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”

Now that mobocratic spirit is coming for Lincoln. Protesters have vowed to destroy the Emancipation Statue that stands in Lincoln Park on Capitol Hill. The national monument was unveiled in 1876 on the anniversary of his assassination. It was remarkable because it had been originally conceived of and funded by freed people. Erecting such a monument to Lincoln, said Martin Delany, would be “a just and appropriate tribute of the respect and lasting gratitude from the colored people of the United States.”

The National Lincoln Monument Association counted among the leaders some of the most prominent African Americans of the era. They included Frederick Douglass, Henry Highland Garnet, Robert Smalls, Daniel Payne, and Delany. To be sure, a white organization had eventually taken on the organizing process and design selection, but the statue was something that the Black community of Washington took great pride in.

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The first donation for the statue came from a former slave in Ohio named Charlotte Scott. She handed five dollars to her former enslaver and said, “The colored people have lost their best friend on earth. Lincoln was our best friend and I will give five dollars of my wages toward erecting a new monument to his memory.” Word of her remarkable gesture made it into the newspapers, and soon others made similar contributions.

When the monument was finally dedicated in 1876, African American civic organization members paraded through the streets of Washington for two hours before it was unveiled in Lincoln Park. For the dedication ceremony, a young black woman named Henrietta Cordelia Ray read a poem she had written for the occasion that offered the statue as “a loving tribute.” In his address, Douglass offered an eloquent analysis of the Civil War success of Lincoln. Sitting in the audience listening to them were President Grant as well as many members of Congress and the Supreme Court.

The symbol of the Emancipation Statue is offensive to modern sensibilities because it features Lincoln standing above an enslaved man. But this pose has important historical origins. It was modeled after the famous “Am I not a man and a brother?” image that had marked an important symbol of the British and American abolitionist movements since the 1780s.

It is true that Douglass disliked the final design for the statue, however, even African Americans embraced a similar depiction of Lincoln during the Civil War. In 1864, the Black community of Baltimore had presented him with an elegant pulpit bible. On the front cover was a golden plate featuring Lincoln removing shackles from an enslaved man.

Douglass closed his dedication remarks with words of congratulations to the audience. “We have done good work for our race today,” he said. “In doing honor to the memory of our friend and liberator, we are doing the highest honors to ourselves and those who come after us. We have been fastening ourselves to a name and fame imperishable and immortal.” He wished that when future generations slandered African Americans, “we can calmly point to the monument we have this day erected.”

In this time when we long for sound political leadership, let us remember the words of Douglass and the actions of freed people like Scott, and not take down this monument they erected in tribute to Lincoln.

Jonathan White is a professor of American studies at Christopher Newport University in Virginia. You can follow his updates on Twitter @CivilWarJon.