Ask a schoolchild who freed the slaves, and nine times out of 10, at least, the answer you're going to get is Lincoln; Lincoln freed the slaves. He is known as the Great Emancipator. If nobody knows anything else about American history, certainly that's something that they think they know. Time and again in historical memory it's how Lincoln is depicted; it's how he's remembered. There is a statue that was unveiled on April 14, 1876, the anniversary of his assassination. It was a monument to the freedmen after the event. And it captures perfectly this sense of Lincoln the Great Emancipator. He is standing there, his hand stretched out over a kneeling slave, the Emancipation Proclamation, that critical document, in his other hand. The slave is kneeling, shackles broken. That's the idea; that's the image.
But maybe, just maybe, that story is too simple, a little bit too reductionist. After all, we know that for a long time Lincoln defended the constitutionality of slavery. He consistently supported the idea of colonization -- of removing the black presence from the United States, relocating them elsewhere, either in Africa or in Central America. He wanted to compensate slaveholders for the loss of their property.
There is no question he was opposed to the expansion of slavery into new territories. But is that the same thing as being opposed to slavery as an institution? Many people pushed for emancipation long before, it seems, Lincoln did -- congressmen, abolitionists, military leaders, the enslaved themselves.
Frederick Douglass, for one -- Frederick Douglass, the great abolitionist, the runaway slave who wrote the famous memoir about his experiences as a slave. He, for one, challenged this mythology, this iron-cast mythology of the freedmen statue. He did not like that it showed a black man on his knees, a supplicant for freedom. Douglass had his issues with Lincoln, and in a speech in 1876 he said he was the white man's president, entirely devoted to the welfare of the white man. According to Douglass, Lincoln denied, he delayed, he postponed, and he prevaricated, did basically everything he could not to free the slaves until finally, pressed from all sides, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation. And even that document, while advancing bold new general principles, Douglass thought, was couched in a language that was a little bit too special, a little bit too particular.