One hundred fifty years ago today, when Frederick Douglass stepped to the rostrum at Arlington National Cemetery to give the address that is reproduced in full below, he looked out on a country in the midst of moving on. It was Decoration Day, a ritualized annual return to decorate the graves of the war dead—begun by former slaves in Charleston in 1865—that would eventually become our modern Memorial Day. But by then, the Civil War was six years over, legally-recognized chattel slavery was six years dead, the Fifteenth Amendment addressing black Americans’ voting rights—the last and least-abided-by of the post-Civil War constitutional amendments—had been ratified the previous year (amidst celebrations that tended toward an unearned triumphalism), and the egalitarian social experiment called Reconstruction, though still years from its final collapse, had passed its high water mark.
While President Ulysses S. Grant, Secretary of War William Belknap, and Secretary of War George Robeson were reportedly in Douglass’s audience, he did not have much of the nation’s attention. On front pages the following day, the big headlines told of the bloody suppression of the Paris Commune—a revolutionary socialist government that had seized control of the French capital earlier in 1871—and the investigation of a deadly coal mining accident in Pennsylvania. In the New York Times, a one-paragraph account of Decoration Day at Arlington was tucked between a report on Vice President Schuyler Colfax’s precarious health and the President’s summer vacation plans; none of the speakers, including Douglass, wass named and nothing of what they said was reprinted. (Even today, the text of Douglass’s speech is a little hard to find outside of door-stopping anthologies.)
Nevertheless, what Douglass said that day belongs, in my opinion, in the top tier of speeches ever given in the United States. Had more of America paid attention, it might have become one of the most timely and important.
“We are sometimes asked, in the name of patriotism, to forget the merits of this fearful struggle,” Douglass said, “and to remember with equal admiration those who struck at the nation’s life and those who struck to save it, those who fought for slavery and those who fought for liberty and justice.”
Douglass’s text puts squarely before its audience the question of American public memory, its importance to the future, and the continuing relevance of the Civil War as a furious conflict between different ideas of America.
As the historian Eric Foner wrote:
Two understandings of how the Civil War should be remembered collided in post-bellum America. One was the “emancipationist” vision hinted at by Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address when he spoke of the war as bringing a rebirth of the republic in the name of freedom and equality. The other was a “reconciliationist” memory that emphasized what the two sides shared in common, particularly the valor of individual soldiers, and suppressed thoughts of the war's causes and the unfinished legacy of emancipation. By the end of the century, in a segregated society where blacks' subordination was taken for granted North and South, “the forces of reconciliation” had “overwhelmed the emancipationist vision.”
The growth of the vaseline-lensed reconciliationist vision of the Civil War in post-war America gave Jim Crow and the Lost Cause mythology the space to grow and prosper. In the moment when this tragic transition was gathering force, Douglass addressed it head on.
I’ve long thought it was worth trying to plant this extraordinary speech a little more firmly in the public record. I hope you’ll take a few minutes to read it or reread it.
The Unknown Loyal Dead
Frederick Douglass, Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia,
Decoration Day, May 30, 1871
Friends and Fellow Citizens:
Tarry here for a moment. My words shall be few and simple. The solemn rites of this hour and place call for no lengthened speech. There is, in the very air of this resting-ground of the unknown dead a silent, subtle and all-pervading eloquence, far more touching, impressive, and thrilling than living lips have ever uttered. Into the measureless depths of every loyal soul it is now whispering lessons of all that is precious, priceless, holiest, and most enduring in human existence.
Dark and sad will be the hour to this nation when it forgets to pay grateful homage to its greatest benefactors. The offering we bring to-day is due alike to the patriot soldiers dead and their noble comrades who still live; for, whether living or dead, whether in time or eternity, the loyal soldiers who imperiled all for country and freedom are one and inseparable.
Those unknown heroes whose whitened bones have been piously gathered here, and whose green graves we now strew with sweet and beautiful flowers, choice emblems alike of pure hearts and brave spirits, reached, in their glorious career that last highest point of nobleness beyond which human power cannot go. They died for their country.
No loftier tribute can be paid to the most illustrious of all the benefactors of mankind than we pay to these unrecognized soldiers when we write above their graves this shining epitaph.
When the dark and vengeful spirit of slavery, always ambitious, preferring to rule in hell than to serve in heaven, fired the Southern heart and stirred all the malign elements of discord, when our great Republic, the hope of freedom and self-government throughout the world, had reached the point of supreme peril, when the Union of these states was torn and rent asunder at the center, and the armies of a gigantic rebellion came forth with broad blades and bloody hands to destroy the very foundations of American society, the unknown braves who flung themselves into the yawning chasm, where cannon roared and bullets whistled, fought and fell. They died for their country.
We are sometimes asked, in the name of patriotism, to forget the merits of this fearful struggle, and to remember with equal admiration those who struck at the nation’s life and those who struck to save it, those who fought for slavery and those who fought for liberty and justice.
I am no minister of malice. I would not strike the fallen. I would not repel the repentant; but may my “right hand forget her cunning and my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth,” if I forget the difference between the parties to that terrible, protracted, and bloody conflict.
If we ought to forget a war which has filled our land with widows and orphans; which has made stumps of men of the very flower of our youth; which has sent them on the journey of life armless, legless, maimed and mutilated; which has piled up a debt heavier than a mountain of gold, swept uncounted thousands of men into bloody graves and planted agony at a million hearthstones – I say, if this war is to be forgotten, I ask, in the name of all things sacred, what shall men remember?
The essence and significance of our devotions here to-day are not to be found in the fact that the men whose remains fill these graves were brave in battle. If we met simply to show our sense of bravery, we should find enough on both sides to kindle admiration. In the raging storm of fire and blood, in the fierce torrent of shot and shell, of sword and bayonet, whether on foot or on horse, unflinching courage marked the rebel not less than the loyal soldier.
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. We must never forget that the loyal soldiers who rest beneath this sod flung themselves between the nation and the nation’s destroyers. If today we have a country not boiling in an agony of blood, like France, if now we have a united country, no longer cursed by the hell-black system of human bondage, if the American name is no longer a by-word and a hissing to a mocking earth, if the star-spangled banner floats only over free American citizens in every quarter of the land, and our country has before it a long and glorious career of justice, liberty, and civilization, we are indebted to the unselfish devotion of the noble army who rest in these honored graves all around us.