Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Frederick Douglass on Remembering the Civil War, 1877

Frederick Douglass on Remembering the Civil War, 1877 Americans came together after the Civil War largely by collectively forgetting what the war was about. Celebrations honored the bravery of both armies, and the meaning of the war faded. Frederick Douglass and other black leaders engaged with Confederate sympathizers in a battle of historical memory. In this speech, Douglass calls on Americans to remember the war for what it was—a struggle between an army fighting to protect slavery and a nation reluctantly transformed into a force for liberation.

"Nevertheless, we must NOT be asked to say that the South was right in the rebellion, or to say the North was wrong. We must NOT be asked to put no difference between those who fought for the Union and those who fought against it, or between loyalty and treason… But the sectional character of this war was merely accidental and its least significant feature.

It was a war of ideas, a battle of principles and ideas which united one section and divided the other; a war between the old and new, slavery and freedom, barbarism and civilization; between a government based upon the broadest and grandest declaration of human rights the world ever heard or read, and another pretended government, based upon an open, bold and shocking denial of all rights, except the right of the strongest.

Good, wise, and generous men at the North, is power and out of power, for whose good intentions and patriotism we must all have the highest respect, doubt the wisdom of observing this memorial day, and would have us forget and forgive, strew flowers alike and lovingly, on rebel and on loyal graves. This sentiment is noble and generous, worthy of all honor as such; but it is only a sentiment after all, and must submit to its own rational limitations.

There was a right side and a wrong side in the late war, which no sentiment ought to cause us to forget, and while today we should have malice toward none, and charity toward all, it is no part of our duty to confound right with wrong, or loyalty with treason.”

If the observance of this memorial days has any apology, office, or significance, it’s derived from the moral character of this war, from the far-reaching, unchangeable eternal principles in dispute, and for which our sons and brothers encountered hardship, danger, and death…"

Frederick Douglass, “Speech delivered in Madison Square, New York, Decoration Day.

1877. Library of Congress, Manuscript Division