Time to give Douglass his proper place

By Ken Blackwell and Bob Morrison

With the announcement in Annapolis of a major expansion of Maryland State Archives, the time is ripe to move the statue of Chief Justice Roger B. Taney (pronounced TAW-nee) from its prominent place in front of the historic Old State House to the new State Archives site. This would enable Maryland, without disrespect to Taney, to give pride of place to the greatest Marylander, Frederick Douglass.

A citizens group in Easton, Maryland, has come forward with a plan to honor Frederick Douglass in the county where he was born. They’ve engaged one of America’s great sculptors, Jay Hall Carpenter, to do a statue of the great nineteenth century author, editor, and orator. They are right to want to honor Douglass, but Annapolis is the better venue to assure that hundreds of thousands will see his statue and learn from his great example.

The case can be made that Frederick Douglass stands with Abraham Lincoln as one of the two greatest political thinkers of their age. Douglass, we should remember, was far better known throughout the nation and the world in 1857 than Abraham Lincoln was. Only with the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates in Illinois in 1858 would this former one-term Congressman gain national prominence. Stephen A. Douglas, the racist U.S. Senator from Illinois won that election, but Lincoln’s carefully reasoned arguments against the spread of slavery into the territories persuaded tens of thousands. They gained him a national following.

So did the arguments of Frederick Douglass. In a flood of books, newspaper editorials, and speeches, Frederick Douglass argued for freedom and justice. He even disagreed strongly and publicly with President Lincoln. Facing the most serious threat to the Union in U.S. history, Lincoln proceeded with great caution. He could not afford to alienate slaveholding states like Missouri, Kentucky, and Maryland, Lincoln argued. These states had resisted disunion but their loyalty would be sorely tested if Lincoln moved too soon on Emancipation.

Douglass thought two hundred fifty years of injustice, of slavery, was enough. He pointed out passionately that slavery was the root cause of the Civil War. He could never accept an end to the war that might leave slavery in place.

When Lincoln finally issued his Emancipation Proclamation, purely as a military measure to help put down rebellion, Douglass demanded that freed slaves be enlisted for the Union armies. Don’t try to fight the rebels with one hand tied behind your back, he publicly appealed to Lincoln. Douglass urged the President, as he poetically put it, to “employ your strong Sable Arm.”

Over the course of the terrible war, Lincoln moved toward Douglass’ position on every disputed point: Unconditional emancipation, non-colonization of the freed slaves, recruitment of black soldiers, affirming U.S. citizenship for freed people, and voting rights for freedmen.

By the war’s end, there were nearly two hundred thousand black soldiers and sailors serving the United States, a greater number than whites serving in the Confederate armies and navy. It was a strong Sable Arm, indeed.

Ever since the 1800 slave insurrection in Haiti, with its 100,000 deaths, white Southerners dreaded their own slaves. “We have a wolf by the ears,” wrote Thomas Jefferson, “and can neither safely hold on or let him go.” Jefferson recognized the injustice of slavery and said if there were ever a race war in America, God would not side with the slaveholders.