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State of American History, Civics, and Politics

Cancel Frederick Douglass: Where Do You Stand on Purifying American History?

A statue of Frederick Douglass has been ripped from its base in Rochester on the anniversary of one of his most famous speeches. (Credit: WHEC)

July is Frederick Douglass’s time of year. Around July 4 every year multiple history organizations have a reading of the Douglass speech of July 5, 1852, delivered in Rochester entitled “What to the slave is the fourth of July.” Even descendants may voice the words of their illustrious ancestor. This year, many of the recitations were online [I received many announcements] so there was ample opportunity to listen to a slew of speeches. Nonetheless, despite the venerated stature in which he is held, his statues must be judged by the same Woke standards that have led to the toppling of so many other statues so far this year. An examination of his record shows conclusively that he was not pure and deserves the fate of other former heroes.


Depend upon it, the savage chiefs on the western coast of Africa, who for ages have been accustomed to selling their captives into bondage, and pocketing the ready cash for them, will not more readily see and accept our moral and economical ideas, than the slave-traders of Maryland and Virginia. We are, therefore, less inclined to go to Africa to work against the slave-traders, than to stay here to work against it. (“African Civilization Society,” February 1859)

This comment by Douglass has been used before in these blogs (Happy 1619, Not July 4th, Birthday: All the History Fit to Print that the NYT Omitted). It contradicts one of the most sacred myths within the BLM and Woke movements: the belief that Middle Passage people were stolen from Africa. Douglass knew the real story and expressed it. None-the-less, there is no excuse for telling the unacceptable and uncomfortable truth. Douglass needs to be held accountable for this impurity. STRIKE ONE.

Now consider the word used to describe the African sellers of Africans to Europeans: “savages.” Is this the type of word that is acceptable under Woke standards? Far from it. There is a series on National Geographic called “Savage Kingdom.” It’s not about people.

Brave New World, a TV version premiered on the NBCUniversal on July 15, also has a “savage” component. One of the novel’s worlds is the “Savage Reservation” in New Mexico. The people and customs of the Savage Reservation are said to be modeled loosely on the traditions of Zuñi.

In a recent online “Conversation” offered by American Association for State and Local History (AASLH) (July 9), Dr. Estevan Rael-Gálvez, anthropologist, historian and cultural consultant, voiced his displeasure over a plaque in Sante Fe. The objection was not to the any image or statue but to the word used to describe the Apaches. The word was “savage.” The participant said if there was one change he would like to make it is to that sign and that word.

In another recent online presentation, “Foundations for Teaching and Learning about Native Americans” by the National Museum of the American Indian (July 21), the word “savage” was featured as a derogatory term in primary sources and in textbooks. There can be no excuse for Douglass using that term even if the people referred to weren’t American. The word is unacceptable. STRIKE TWO.

Freedman’s Memorial

The Freedman’s Memorial in Washington has been a source of contention in the current quest to purify American history.  It depicts Abraham Lincoln standing above a kneeling freed black man. President Ulysses S. Grant, the cabinet and the Supreme Court were in attendance. This blog is not about the Memorial itself but about Douglass’s legitimation of it by speaking at the dedication. He delivered the keynote speech at the unveiling of original statue on April 14, 1876, 11 years after the assassination of Lincoln. At that time, Douglass asked listeners to look through the eyes of enslaved people seeking freedom:

Despite the mist and haze that surrounded him; despite the tumult, the hurry, and confusion of the hour, we were able to take a comprehensive view of Abraham Lincoln, and to make reasonable allowance for the circumstances of his position. We saw him, measured him, and estimated him.

See how Douglass is making allowances for the impurity of Lincoln. See how he is asking us to judge the person in the context of times, to examine him in his entirety, to measure him not by one’s standards of today but to stand back and see the totality of the person. These admonitions are intolerable and inexcusable. Either you are pure or you are not. So what if Douglass had misgivings about the statue. So what if he wanted a second statue to be erected. He was there at the dedication and spoke then. There can be no context, no nuance, no looking at the life of a person in the world in which he lived. If you are not pure then you are toppled, cleansed, erased. No excuses. No exemptions.  Not for Jefferson. Not for Lincoln. Not for Douglass. STRIKE THREE. YOU ARE OUT.

WHOOPS. When I Initially thought of writing this blog, I intended to stop here. However, I became aware of a counteraction to the effort to cleanse Douglass from American history due to his impurity. I received this notice describing a contrary position:

Help Erect a Statue of Frederick Douglass to Commemorate his 1870 Visit

To celebrate the passing of the 15th Amendment in August of 1870, Frederick Douglass spoke at Washington’s Headquarters and the AME Zion Church in Newburgh and led the crowd on a peaceful march through the city. On the occasion of the 150th anniversary, money is being raised to commission a statue commemorating Frederick Douglass’ famous visit. The committee is asking for members of the public to donate to the cause. Can you spare $15 in appreciation of the 15th Amendment?

This group in Orange County, NY, attests that despite the Douglass violations of Woke standards, he still is regarded as a heroic person. My Spidey sense tells me that the American public is not likely to impose Woke standards on Douglass either. He will be viewed as an individual human being and measured on that basis. I suspect that consensus extends to other Americans who helped create this country or acted to fulfill its vision. So I conclude that statues of Douglass will not be toppled.

WHOOPS AGAIN. Even as I was planning this conclusion the blog, a statue of Douglass in Rochester was toppled on July 5. The fact that it was a 7-foot plastic replica made to look like the bronze of the 25-foot original bronze statue located elsewhere in the city doesn’t change the action…it does make it easier to understand how the topplers could drag it 50 feet!  The people responsible for this extralegal act have not been identified nor have they identified themselves. Was it Woke people judging Douglass as impure who took the law into their own hands as is their wont? Or was it anti-Woke people engaged in payback. If you commit an extralegal act to topple my statue, then you have granted me a license to commit an extralegal act against your statue.  The Woke now have unleashed the right of all people to act against statues based on their own values.

It’s easy to see where this will end. The BLM paints its name on streets in prominent places. The anti-BLM cover up the painting. Back and forth it goes including in front of Trump Tower in Manhattan. Now everyone can claim a license to topple, a license to paint. Where will it end?  Which incident will be the American Sarajevo? Which one will be the new Fort Sumter? Which one will elevate the current culture war to the next level as America’s Third Civil War ratchets up? Just as no one knew that it would be George Floyd that provided the spark, no one knows which confrontation will turn fatal. [Note: this was written before the attempt to occupy Portland.]

WHOOPS AGAIN AGAIN. Even as I was still planning this blog, something else happened in this very fluid situation.  According to the article in my local paper “New Douglas Statue Erected,” a new statue was erected on July 18 replacing the one which had been toppled on July 5. According to the caption of the photograph it was a “reinstallment” of the toppled statue. It was one of the replicas held in storage making it easy to replace the toppled one. The reinstallation was a community action in the light of day and not a toppling in the dark of night. This open action probably provides a better sense of where the community in Rochester stands…with the statue!

Where does that leave us today? According to David Blight, author of Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom (2018), in an interview with the New-York Historical Society (June 25, 2020):

… Douglass was a patriot. In my book, I call him a radical patriot. He deeply believed in the first principles of the Declaration of Independence—equality, popular sovereignty, natural rights, and the right of revolution. He believed in the creeds and principles; it was the practices that he fought against. Douglass believed the preserved and re-invented U.S. that emerged out of the Civil War and emancipation had given the nation and all of its people the opportunity to create a multi-racial, multi-religious country. He saw America as an idea—a nation made up of all the peoples of the earth, living under equality before the law.

According to Blight in an earlier interview at the New-York Historian Society (January 11, 2020), Douglass saw America as a place with some kind destiny on some of kind trajectory in history designed by the divine. What’s next? American exceptionalism? America as a City on a Hill? Is there really a place in a Woke society for someone like that?

15 thoughts on “Cancel Frederick Douglass: Where Do You Stand on Purifying American History?

  1. If a person is captured by someone and then sold to someone else, they’re still stolen. This take is so simplistic and terrible it boggles the mind.

    It also presents “BLM and Woke” as a monolith, which it fundamentally isn’t. But let’s say it is. If a person is abducted in their homeland by a rival group and then sold into slavery to an outside nation thousands of miles away, are you arguing (and Douglass certainly did not) that the outside nation doesn’t bare responsibility for that?

    1. Yes, if the Nazis steal art and it ends up in a museum, it is still stolen property and should be returned. But the museum is not the one who committed the crime. In addition, buying and selling people was not illegal then. Neither the African sellers nor the European buyers broke the law. Are you suggesting just as stolen Nazi art should be returned to its rigthful owners that Middle Passage people should be returned to their African owners?

      You are right that BLM and Woke are not identical. I wrote about that in my blog Schuyler Owned People: Should Schuylerville Change Its Name? back in June.

      The President of the United States had called upon people to liberate their states (from Democratic governors). He operated under the naturally short-sighted thinking that only his people would do the liberating and not the other side. Welcome to the real world.One might think that the Seattle autonomous zone was about George Floyd. Perhaps it was at first but that is not how purification works. Moe’ Neyah Dene Holland, a Black Lives Matter activist in Seattle said:

      We should focus on just this one thing first. The other things can follow suit. Because honestly, black men are dying and this is the thing we should be focusing on. 

      The reference is to the expanded agenda of purification which had been identified. First, three demands were posted on a wall. Then five were posted on a fence. Then there were 39 online. That’s the way the purification process works. Where does it end?

      1. Peter,

        “Are you suggesting just as stolen Nazi art should be returned to its rightful owners that Middle Passage people should be returned to their African owners?”

        Considering the descendants of those Middle Passage people who landed in America are now natural born citizens, their ancestral “property” is now deceased, and the stolen art, is still stolen. That analogy does not work.

        If you believe the art should be returned but the museum has no responsibility to return it because they didn’t steal it, then whose responsibility is it?


  2. “Purifying” should be our aim for food, water and air, but one recurring lesson in history is that those who want to “purify” society, politics or history itself tend to cause much more harm than good. Rather than “purifying,” how about correcting counterfactual stories, learning from, building upon?

    Incidentally, I object to the idea that being “Woke” requires judges to call balls or strikes based on a self-defined rules. It is a mistake for reasonable people to buy into the idea that “cancel culture” is a thing. When reasonable ideas or broached, or reasonable criticism is raised, we see how easy it is for those in the wrong to ignore the real issues, and go on the attack against “cancel culture.” (For instance, see recent tone deaf Wall Street Journal Editorial board attack on nearly 300 WSJ reporters who in good faith offered well reasoned constructive criticism and suggestions.)

    I understand that this essay was meant to be provocative, but I think parts are too clever. You point out a self-evident truth, “Douglass knew the real story and expressed it.” Yes. But your next statement is the opposite, when you say: “None-the-less, there is no excuse for telling the unacceptable and uncomfortable truth. Douglass needs to be held accountable for this impurity.” It is an uncomfortable truth, and the reality is morally unacceptable to us. But this is not the French Revolution. Only a small fringe of the “Woke” movement wants to punish the innocent bearer of truth. We should not push people into that extreme by limiting more reasoned dialog and nuance.

    The phrase “savage chiefs” is a far cry from “Savage chiefs.” It is a useful adjective for those engaged in the business of slavery. If Douglass elsewhere referred to Native Americans or Africans generally as “Savages,” that would be another story, which could and should be discussed based on content and context. But here, he is not guilty.

    About Douglass and Lincoln, you state that “these admonitions are intolerable and inexcusable. Either you are pure or you are not.” I suspect the author doesn’t actually believe this, I know he is smart enough to understand what satire actually is, and he is making this claim satirically. But by doing so, it implies that this is the real position among those who are Woke. On the other hand, I can consistently say I am for understanding and nuance relating to the past as well as the present. I don’t think one should tarnish a whole movement based on a presumed extreme stance of a few.

    Rather than accepting a fake definition of extreme Woke standards, we might want to have a discussion about what appropriate standards should now be. After more than a century of appropriate but ineffective protest against certain statues that were built for the purpose of oppression, we are seeing welcome movement, but that does not mean that anyone has “license” to commit extralegal acts. Going back in history, George Washington did not object to the removal of the equestrian statue of King George III in New York right after the Declaration of Independence was read; he objected to the way it was toppled. Now that we know that statues can fall, we should remember that the most powerful to take them down is by the vote of one’s fellow citizens or duly elected representatives. Government and society was complicit in their being built, and should acknowledge and correct the error.

    David Blight’s portrayal of Frederick Douglass as a radical patriot, and Douglass’ portrayal of Lincoln, could not be more accurate. Hopefully, four-score years from now, we will see new Woke leaders who will be recognized not just as radicals, but also as patriots and humanitarians.

    1. Hi Seth,

      Thanks for writing. “Purification”is an appropriate term especially in a country founded in part by Puritans. There is a strong religious component to the effort to cleanse America of its “Original Sin.” I don’t know how many Woke want to topple Washington and Jefferson but I suspect that Americans who support the removal of Confederate statutes to people who sought to destroy the country does not carry over to the people who created it. But for a true zealot, that is a slippery slope. I addressed this issue in To Topple or Not to Topple Statues: “Come Let Us Reason Together” versus “abso-fricking-lutely!” using the contray views of two NYT op-ed columnists.

  3. Exceptional article, Peter. Thank you.

    As an “Italian American,” I really don’t feel any connection to Christopher Columbus and haven’t reacted negatively or positively to his statues being removed. I get the history, starting with the violence against Italian immigrants in Louisiana. In an attempt to generate Italian pride, many civic minded people proposed Columbus (who happened to be born in Genoa, but was an explorer for Spain) as a model immigrant Italians could feel proud of. A stretch, I think. Nonetheless, even Frances Xavier Cabrini (Italian missionary nun and first American canonized a Catholic saint) named a lot of her hospitals and schools for Italian immigrants after Columbus in her effort to instill pride among that population and to make them feel “real American.” After all, Columbus “discovered” America, or at least a few islands south of the current USA.

    How Columbus Day became Italian Pride Day is beyond me. I like that in Port Chester, Columbus Day has become the day that all the different Central and South American cultures march, along with the obligatory fake Santa Maria and the Knights of Columbus.

    See you sometime soon, I hope,
    Paul Zacc

  4. An addition to the discussion: C-Span 3 had an interesting program recorded in early July: “Debating and Removing Monuments” with David Blight, a biographer of Frederick Douglass and Annette Gordon-Reed, a biographer of Jefferson. One of the statues they discuss is the Freedmen’s Memorial or Emancipation Monument in D.C. which was erected with funds raised by local Blacks. Here’s the link:…/debating-removing-monuments
    Natalie Naylor

  5. This is irresponsible, fallacious, and misleading propaganda under the guise of “history.” Shameful.

  6. Peter,

    The Douglass quote of savages is a false equivalence.

    He was calling the African slave sellers savages as a comparison to slave masters in America. As such, it is a description of their behavior engaging in the trade, toward the enslaved, and their focus on profit. It wasn’t meant as a description of a people’s intrinsic character or culture, which was then used as a justification for enslavement or religious conversion.

    Furthermore, in response to the statue Douglass stated that this one could stay, but there was room for another one, “The Negro here, though rising is still on his knees and nude.” What I want to see… is a monument representing the Negro, not couchant on his knees like a four-footed animal, but erect on his feet like a man.” (published in the National Republican). I know you mentioned he didn’t like the statue, but I thought the full quote was pertinent to the modern cause to remove it.

    Yes, in that speech Douglass eloquently advocated for contextual understanding; acknowledging Lincoln’s racial prejudices, duty to the Union and his eventual path to Emancipation.

    “His great mission was to accomplish two things: first, to save his country from
    dismemberment and ruin; and second, to free his country from the great
    crime of slavery.”


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