Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., loves the great African American leader Frederick Douglass. He has a portrait of the former slave in his office at the U.S. Capitol. Does that make you feel any better?
Just now many Americans are weary of, indeed fed up with, Republicans’ venality, hypocrisy and lies. But if we were hoping for at least a weekend off after the second impeachment trial ground to its inevitable end, it was not to be.
Instead, as a spoiler, up stepped McCarthy, the House Republican leader, just in time for Valentine’s Day in a gesture of goodwill for Black History Month, to deliver a tribute to the master orator and writer, Douglass. In a one-minute video, as well as a longer narrative statement, McCarthy and his staff served up a tasteless batch of historical pablum. Lame, inaccurate history can seem merely insipid, but it can also be dangerous.
In the video McCarthy speaks of Douglass as a great American who overcame terrible odds. We love those stories, and Douglass certainly did that. He went through many “tribulations,” says the congressman, and escaped from slavery when 19 years old (actually 20, a fact easily located). He “won his freedom” and endured many “discriminations,” a nice word for 19th century forms of brutal racism (Douglass was Jim-Crowed more times than he could count).
Douglass had “every reason to hate America,” says an earnest McCarthy. “Instead, he became one of the greatest champions of its ideals.” According to McCarthy, “He did not allow himself to be corrupted by hatred or hopelessness.”
Well, yes and no.
In the first quarter of his public life until the Civil War (1841-65), no American laid down a more compelling chastisement of the tyranny at the heart of America’s institutions and social character than Douglass. When he returned from his extraordinary 19-month tour of the British Isles in 1847, where English abolitionists purchased his freedom and he experienced a degree of equality unimaginable in America, he let it be known that “home” or “country” were utterly ambivalent ideas to him.
“I have no love for America,” as such, Douglass announced, “I have no patriotism. I have no country.” He unleashed his righteous anger at a seemingly endless pro-slavery America. “The institutions of this country do not know me, do not recognize me as a man,” he declared, “except as a piece of property.” The only thing attaching him to his native land was his “family” and his deeply felt ties to the “three millions of my fellow creatures groaning beneath the iron rod… with… stripes upon their backs.” Such a country, Douglass said, he could not love. “I desire to see it overthrown as speedily as possible, and its Constitution shivered in a thousand fragments.”
After claiming that Douglass once “burned the Constitution,” McCarthy claims the abolitionist learned to celebrate the “Founding” as a source of “liberty.” Afraid not. Douglass never burned the Constitution; that was William Lloyd Garrison, an early mentor to the former slave.
By 1853, just after Douglass had indeed embraced the anti-slavery interpretation of the Constitution, and begun to employ its due process clause and the egalitarian impulses of the Bill of Rights against human bondage, he spoke eloquently about just who could be an American. “The Hungarian, the Italian, the Irishman, the Jew and the Gentile,” he announced, “all find in this goodly land a home.” But “my white fellow-countrymen… have no other use for us [blacks] whatever than to coin dollars out of our blood.” Demanding his birthright as an American at a moment when slavery’s expansion threatened to tear apart the Union, he felt like only the “veriest stranger and sojourner.”
McCarthy’s office should read a little beyond the mere surface of Douglass’ legend before appropriating him to their political ends.
And that is exactly the purpose of the Feb. 14 statement. McCarthy even uses Douglass to shill for the Trump White House’s appalling 1776 Commission. “Today we live at a time when the principles Douglass stood for are increasingly neglected or maligned,” McCarthy writes. “Our children are being alienated from our past and taught that Americans are racist, hateful, and evil.”
No, congressman, that is not how most of us teach American history. Teaching hard tragedies and complex triumphs is so much more interesting than candy-coated Tootsie Pops.
McCarthy cannot invoke Douglass without taking ugly shots at “the left – encouraged by the silence of Democrat leaders, including the Speaker of the House – [who] are trying to erase our story.” Those of us who teach American history did not know that Nancy Pelosi is such a threat to our curriculums.
He goes so far as to say that “the mobs that Democrats encourage destroy property.”
“Mobs,” Congressman McCarthy? You should leave that topic alone now.
When emancipation came in the midst of the ghastly slaughter of the Civil War, Douglass’ vision of America’s promise changed. Indeed, he experienced transformation in Union victory and the three great constitutional amendments of Reconstruction. Douglass advanced a vision of America he called in 1869, the “composite nation,” a newly invented second republic rooted in a multi-racial, multi-religious, and multi-ethnic pluralism. From blood and agony and terrible sacrifice came an apocalyptic remaking of the nation. His nation was born in a second founding.
But before he died in 1895, he would live to see the stunning promises of freedom to 4 million slaves, equality before law, and the right to vote all but crushed in the white South’s and the Confederate Lost Cause’s counterrevolution for white supremacy. Douglass knew tragedy and he knew triumph; he knew humiliation and despair survived through courage and faith. And he knew mobs. Douglass was a radical patriot who believed so deeply in the natural rights tradition that it never died in his mind and soul.
His life shouldn’t be used by Republicans if they cannot begin to fathom the genius of this prose poet of American democracy.
Congressman McCarthy, cherish your portrait of Douglass, but leave his history alone.
David W. Blight, a professor of American history at Yale University, is the author of “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom,” which won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for history.
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