Honest Abe? Racist Abe?

“My subject, then, fellow-citizens, is American slavery,” declaimed Maryann Ott. “Standing there, identified with the American bondman—making his wrongs mine—I do not hesitate to declare…that…this nation never looked blacker to me than on this 4th of July!”

Monday evening, Ott delivered excerpts from Frederick Douglass’s Corinthian Hall Oration at the Institute Library on Chapel Street, as part of the library’s second annual reading on Abraham Lincoln’s birthday.

Held to coincide with the conjectured 200th anniversary of Douglass’s birth—slavery erased the true date from history— five presenters recited abbreviated letters, speeches, and stories the two men had penned from 1852 to 1876. Home-made chocolate cake made the Civil War seminar into a proper party.

The event has its origins in a still-unsubstantiated tale about Douglass' stop at the Institute Library on a nation-wide speaking tour. As lore has it, Douglass received a number of threats from confederate sympathizers when he came to speak in New Haven. So the members of the then-dubbed Young Men’s Institute Library grabbed their pistols, and stationed themselves on the street corners of New Haven.   

“I think even hothead rednecks would know there’s nothing more fearsome than armed librarians,” said podcaster, presenter, pig roaster and Amateur Hour host Jack Hitt to considerable laughter. 

Hitt said no scholarship on Douglass has confirmed that anecdote yet. But the library’s holding out hope that a forthcoming bicentennial biography on Douglass will finally clarify this anecdote.

Organizer Frank Cochran added Douglass onto the evening’s syllabus not simply because it made sense to celebrate the two February birthdays together. Cochran described how a participant had smuggled in a longer version of Douglass’s Corinthian Oration at the first reading, two years ago.

“I didn’t know it was going to happen,” he said. “It stimulated a lot of talk about Lincoln as a racist.” Surprise Douglass became something of a theme that evening: Hitt also prefaced his recitation with a similar account. A guest at his family Independence Day barbecue responded to the traditional Declaration reading with an equal and opposite Corinthian Oration.

“She stood up and said, ‘I think we should read this also,’” he recalled. “Douglass is a nice antidote to the aspirational tone of the founding fathers."

He promptly joked that Donald Trump’s off-color remark that “Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is getting recognized more and more, I notice,” remains the only topic on which he agrees with the current President.

In response to audience talk-back at the first annual birthday reading, Cochran sat down and figured out what texts might best address the theme of Lincoln’s crypto-Calhounism this year.

“I really wanted to deal with this letter to Horace Greely,” he said, referencing the infamous 1862 document where the emancipator-in-chief argued “my paramount objective is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy slavery.” The night’s readings swung like a pendulum between the competing histories of Lincoln: backsliding conservative constitutionalist; well-intentioned white man.

Storyteller Arnold Pritchard began with the latter. He prepared a letter Lincoln forwarded to a group of so-called “unconditional Union-Men” who requested the President’s attendance at a gathering on his old stomping grounds—the state capital in Springfield, Ill.

“But to be plain, you are dissatisfied with me about the Negro,” Prichard read. “Quite likely there is a difference of opinion between you and myself upon that subject. I certainly wish that all men could be free, while I suppose you do not.”

In the letter, Lincoln lists how he’s followed the law to the letter. In his pre-war proposals for gradual emancipation effected by slave buy-outs and market forces, in his use of war powers. The President drops the mic on matters of mortal combat.

“You say you will not fight to free Negroes,” Pritchard proclaimed:

Some of them seem willing to fight for you, but no matter…there will be some Black men who can remember that, with silent tongue, and clenched teeth, and steady eye, and well-poised bayonet, they have helped mankind on to this great consummation; while I fear, there will be some white ones, unable to forget that—with malignant heart and deceitful speech—they strove to hinder it.

The crowd was having none of it, however. Several attendees pointed out that slavery kept the textile mills—all that Chicago industry—churning in the wartime North, processing the cotton that managed to make it up through the battle zone. They doubted the “great consummation” Lincoln trumpets, pointing out that the Thirteenth  Amendment protects slavery in jails today.

“Your rights are given up by going to prison! If you have Netflix, just watch 13th.”

Cochran clinched this line of argument with Douglass’s skeptical commemoration speech before the Freedmen’s Memorial Monument to Lincoln in D.C. At the foot of an outsize Abe blessing a barely-clothed Black man, Douglass declared how “truth is proper and beautiful at all times and truth…compels me to admit, even here—in the presence of the monument we have erected to his memory—Abraham Lincoln was not…our man.”

In his interests, in his associations, in his habits of thought, and in his prejudices, he was a white man. He was preeminently the white man’s President, entirely devoted to the welfare of white men. He was ready and willing at any time during the first years of his administration to deny, postpone, and sacrifice the rights of humanity in the colored people to promote the welfare of the white people of this country.

“Please go look at it,” Hitt cut in abruptly. “Douglass hated that statue. It’s a ridiculous statue! Douglass is slamming the statue as he dedicates it.”

One of the evening’s earlier presenters, Ed Shaw had picked up on this notion of Douglass’s “proper and beautiful truth.” Commenting on the metronomic debate playing out over Lincoln’s presidency and the ultimate success of emancipation, Shaw thanked God “that we live in a country where we can discover these things and get closer to the truth.”

“When Trump talks about Making America Great—when was America ever great?” he asked.

A murmur of “I hear that!” floated up off the audience.

“I’d think sometime close to 1840,” Shaw scoffed, shuffling his script and clearing his throat to speak.