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Alan Singer

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Lincoln and Douglass Would Be Angry

Posted: 01/05/12 04:50 PM ET

Life sized bronze statues of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass stand at the entrances to the New-York Historical Society (N-YHS) greeting visitors. The Society placed the statutes there to make a statement about the focus of many of its exhibits on the history of slavery in the United States and campaigns to abolish it.

Unfortunately, the Society's new exhibit, "Revolution! The Atlantic World Reborn," is rife with platitudes, inaccuracies, and fairy tales. I think Lincoln and Douglass would probably standing at the gates to picket against the exhibits. They would want to warn New Yorkers and the American public that the N-YHS has hijacked the past and if they do enter, they should be careful about the untruths inside.

I plan to take groups of teachers to the Atlantic World exhibit, from my classes at Hofstra University and participants in a Teaching American History Grant, but I will always issue a warning in advance: The exhibits at the New-York Historical Society are ideological driven and plagued by historical inaccuracy. View critically and use at your own risk. Be suspicious when White men tell the story about how they made the world better for Black people.

As a teacher and a historian I agree that the trans-Atlantic slave trade and New World slavery as well as the revolutionary movements at the end of the 19th century played major roles in shaping the modern world. I was pleased that the slave rebellion in Santo Domingue that led to the creation an independent Haiti received prominent place along with revolutions in British North America, France, and Great Britain. However, other than the coverage of the struggle in Haiti, I was very disappointed when I visited the exhibit.

A major theme of the exhibit is that "The Age of Revolution made us all citizens of the world as well as our own nation, loyal to global ideals as well as local and group bonds." I only wish this were true. If it were, slavery in the United States might not have continued into the 1860s until it ended after a bloody Civil War; European imperialists might not have sub-divided and colonized Africa and Asia in the 19th century; the United States and other countries might not have virtually exterminated their indigenous populations; and the world might have avoided World War I, World War II, a series of genocides, and the nuclear arms race.

The exhibit maintains that "gradually during and after the revolution, and particularly in the Bill of Rights rights were defined as "universal." Actually, the Bill of Rights, which placed limits on the ability of Congress to interfere with religious practice, speech, assembly, and the press, placed no similar or restrictions on state governments, hence the legality of slavery, which is unmentioned in the Constitution, remains up to the individual states. It is not until the 14th amendment, approved after the Civil War in 1868, that states were forced to respect the rights of citizens of the United States.

The exhibit concludes with the statement about what the modern world owes to the Age of Revolution. It claims the Age of Revolution "created several 'new normals.'" They included that "slavery was fundamentally inhuman and had to be abolished;" "Nations should have the right to govern themselves;" and "Even the poor and weak should be treated with dignity." But of course, these were not "normals" for much of the 19th and 20th centuries and are still not "normals" in the world today where the more than 20 million people live in bondage, more than half of whom are children.

The exhibit also minimizes the extent of racism in what would become the United States during and after the Revolution. One panel states, "Despite early misgivings, the Continental Army also began recruiting enslaved men with offers of liberty." However, twice as many African Americans fought on the British side during the War for Independence. While some New England militias and regiments made efforts to recruit Black soldiers from the start of the war, and Alexander Hamilton advocated for the enlistment of freed Blacks, George Washington ordered recruiters for the Continental Army not to enroll any deserters from the British army, vagabonds, or Negroes.

While "Revolution! The Atlantic World Reborn" claims to be about the revolutions in British North America, France, and Saint-Domingue (Haiti), it actually treats British anti-slavery campaigns as a fourth "revolution." Here, I think the exhibit give too much credit for the end of slavery in the British Empire to idealists, religious dissenters, and parliamentary reformers.

According to the exhibit, "Britain's economic interests weighed against abolition. But culturally and politically, slavery became objectionable to large segments of the British public." In addition, "Eradicating the slave trade, and ultimately emancipating all the empire's slaves, would assure Britons... were a people loyal to a principle as well as a homeland... Abolition wrapped British nationhood in both moral and imperial glory."

These statements, at best, are debatable. Great Britain ended slavery because of the cost of suppressing slave rebellions and fear that sooner or later a British colony would become the next Haiti. In the early 19th century there were major slave rebellions in the British colonies of Barbados, Guyana, and Jamaica. In Barbados in 1816, 20,000 Africans from over 70 plantations drove Whites off the plantations during "Bussa's Rebellion." In Guyana in 1823 the East Coast Demerara Rebellion was fueled by the belief among enslaved Africans that the planters were deliberately withholding news of the impending freedom of the slaves.

While the N-YHS argues that the American Revolution and the Declaration of Independence defined freedom as a universal concept, 82 years later Abraham Lincoln, in his "House Divided' speech, made it clear that it was not. He warned: "A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free."

Meanwhile, in July 1852 Frederick Douglass demanded to know:

What to the American slave is your Fourth of July? I answer, a day that reveals to him more than all other days of the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass-fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are to him mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy-a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation of the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of these United States at this very hour.

Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass would be very angry with this exhibit and they way their legacy has been misused.