Tuesday, May 26, 2020
May 26, 2020: Decoration Day Histories: Frederick Douglass
[Following up Monday’s Memorial Day special, a series on some of the complex American histories connected to the holiday’s original identity as Decoration Day.]
On one of the great American speeches, and why it’d be so important to add to our collective memories.
In a long-ago guest post on Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Atlantic blog, Civil War historian Andy Hall highlighted Frederick Douglass’s amazing 1871 Decoration Day speech (full text available at that first hyperlink). Delivered at Virginia’s Arlington National Cemetery, then as now the single largest resting place of U.S. soldiers, Douglass’s short but incredibly (if not surprisingly) eloquent and pointed speech has to be ranked as one of the most impressive in American history. I’m going to end this first paragraph here so you can read the speech in full (again, it’s at the first hyperlink above), and I’ll see you in a few.
Welcome back! If I were to close-read Douglass’s speech, I could find choices worth extended attention in every paragraph and every line. But I agree with Hall’s final point, that the start of Douglass’s concluding paragraph—“But we are not here to applaud manly courage, save as it has been displayed in a noble cause. We must never forget that victory to the rebellion meant death to the republic”—is particularly noteworthy and striking. Granted, this was not yet the era that would come to be dominated by narratives of reunion and reconciliation between the regions, and then by ones of conversation to the Southern perspective (on all of which, see tomorrow’s post); an era in which Douglass’s ideas would be no less true, nor in which (I believe) he would have hesitated to share them, but in which a Decoration Day organizing committee might well have chosen not to invite a speaker who would articulate such a clear and convincing take on the causes and meanings of the Civil War. Yet even in 1871, to put that position so bluntly and powerfully at such an occasion would have been impressive for even a white speaker, much less an African American one.
If we were to better remember Douglass’s Decoration Day speech, that would be one overt and important effect: to push back on so many of the narratives of the Civil War that have developed in the subsequent century and a half. One of the most frequent such narratives is that there was bravery and sacrifice on both sides, as if to produce a leveling effect on our perspective on the war—but as Douglass notes in the paragraph before that conclusion, recognizing individual bravery in combat is not at all the same as remembering a war: “The essence and significance of our devotions here today are not to be found in the fact that the men whose remains fill these graves were brave in battle.” I believe Douglass here can be connected to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and its own concluding notion of honoring the dead through completing “the unfinished work”: “It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us.” That work and task remained unfinished and great long after the Civil War’s end, after all—and indeed remain so to this day in many ways. Just another reason to better remember Frederick Douglass’s Decoration Day speech.
Next Decoration Day history tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?