At first glance, President Trump’s present-tense declaration on the first day of Black History Month that Frederick Douglass “has done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more” seems ridiculous. And it deservedly sparked a firestorm of denunciation and ridicule on social media.
But one can also make a case that Trump was, most unwittingly, correct. Douglass’s legacy is alive and well and in the current era, it may very well become “more and more” relevant.
Though he has toned down his anti-black rhetoric, Trump’s rise to political prominence began with his racist birther assault on Obama. His most powerful Cabinet appointee, Jeff Sessions, has deep affinities for the Confederacy and has been credited by Steve Bannon as the founding father of the white nationalist alt-right.
Douglass observed first-hand an earlier version of this swing from racial progress to racist reaction in the White House when a figure he admired, Abe Lincoln, gave way to a successor he despised, Andrew Johnson.
Lincoln was assassinated a week after the Confederacy conceded in April 1865, and Douglass quickly became one of the most outspoken critics of Johnson. The nation’s foremost black leader drove home his views of the transition in two memorable speeches he delivered in Brooklyn.
In “The assassination and its lessons,” presented at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in late January 1866, Douglass waxed poetically about the fallen president, with whom he had met in the White House on two occasions (and spoken to on one other notable occasion). Abe, he recalled, was “a man who took life at the roughest, with brave hands grappled with it and conquered.”
Johnson, however, had retreated from the commitment to full black equality that Lincoln had begun to display late in the war. Among the worst of the new president’s many actions, for Douglass, was the appointment of former Confederate leaders as provisional governors of Southern states.
“What shall be said … [of a] man who wants to enfranchise our enemies and disfranchise our friends?” Douglass thus asked. The question answered itself.
Shortly after the BAM speech, Douglass led a delegation that met with Johnson at the White House, during which the president, unlike his predecessor, treated his black guests with condescension — and dismissed their call for full black voting rights. The New York Times, then a Republican Party organ, followed suit, arguing in an editorial that Douglass should be more “humble” and insisting, rather absurdly, that “no one has the welfare of the emancipated class more thoroughly at heart than President Johnson.”
Johnson’s actions quickly proved Douglass, not the Times, to be correct about the president’s character, as he vetoed both the Freedmen’s Bureau Bill and the Civil Rights Bill, two central pieces of Reconstruction legislation.
When Douglass returned to Brooklyn in December of 1866, his ire against Johnson’s betrayal of Lincoln’s legacy had by no means subsided. At Henry Ward Beecher’s Plymouth Church in Brooklyn Heights, the great orator delivered “Sources of danger to the Republic,” which he had debuted a few days earlier in Hoboken.
This time Douglass dispensed with the rhetorical devices and instead issued more direct fire. The biggest source of danger to the republic, he declared, was the power invested by our constitution in the executive branch — because when the White House fell into the wrong hands, the entire nation would suffer the consequences.
As Douglass explained what he viewed as design flaws in the Constitution — including too much power in the executive branch, a needless office of vice president and the veto power — it’s not hard to figure out the real target of his wrath.
After ticking off the names of presidents despised by abolitionists — Franklin Pierce, Millard Fillmore and James Buchanan — Douglass then singled out “the vilest of the vile, the basest of the base, the most execrable of the execrable — he who shall be nameless.”
It didn’t take long for Douglass to utter that name, however. “We are under great obligations to Andrew Johnson,” he said, “for disclosing to us the unwisdom” of excessive executive power.
Just over 150 years later, we can thank Douglass for a truly “amazing job” of speaking to the future.