On the Eve of a New Administration: Frederick Douglass on Civic Virtue in Turbulent Times

Frederick_Douglas_NYHS_c1866-for-WEB.jpeg
Frederick Douglass. Image from VermontHumanities.org.

 

Frederick Douglass is alive.

 

At least, that was the impression given by the 45th President of the United States when he praised Douglass at a recent Black History Month event, saying: “Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is getting recognized more and more, I notice.” The Atlantic, Feb 1 2017.

 

Douglass, one of the most important figures in the anti-slavery movement and one of the greatest orators America has ever produced, died February 20, 1895, and the widespread public amusement at Donald Trump’s remarks about him came from a sense that the President had almost no idea who Douglass was. However, if Mr. Trump read one of Douglass’s Reconstruction-era speeches on virtue and political change, he might almost be forgiven for believing that the greatest Black American leader of the 19th century still walks among us.

 

April 16, 1885 was the 23rd anniversary of the emancipation of slaves in the District of Columbia. President Grover Cleveland reviewed a parade of over 5,000 people marching near the White House, and that evening, Frederick Douglass gave a speech, “We are Confronted by a New Administration,” at the Lincoln Memorial Congregational Church.

 

The occasion of Douglass’s speech was ominous. The Republican party had lost power after 25 years of running a post-Civil War government the emancipated slaves had come to rely on. Faced with the prospect of diminished freedoms and the great work of Reconstruction left undone, Douglass spoke of the election as a bitter defeat: “We do not stand where we stood one year ago. We are confronted by a new administration. The term of steady, unbroken successful Republican rule, is ended. The great Republican party that carried the country safely through the late war against the rebellion, emancipated the slave, saved the Union, reconstructed the government of the southern states, enfranchised the freedmen, raised the national credit, improved the currency, decreased the national debt, and did more for the honor, prosperity and glory of the American people, than was ever done before in the same length of time by any party in any country, under similar circumstances, has been defeated, humiliated, and driven from place and power.”

 

For Douglass, this election is not just the defeat of a good cause, but the triumph of those opposed to justice: “For the first time since the chains fell from the limbs of the slaves of the District of Columbia; for the first time since slaves were raised from chattels to men; for the first time since they were clothed with the dignity of American citizenship, they find themselves under the rule of a political party which steadily opposed their every step from bondage to freedom; and this may well give a peculiar coloring to the thoughts and feelings with which this anniversary of emancipation is celebrated.”

 

He acknowledges that slavery and racial oppression do not exist apart from the social structures that justify and maintain them, “Like any other embodiment of social and material interest peculiar to a given community, slavery generated its own sentiments, its own morals, manners, and religion, and begot a character in all around it in favor of its own existence.”

 

Such attitudes are not those of a morally strong and healthy nation; Douglass praises the wisdom in the rejection of a two-nation system, one slave and one free, “hostile civilizations side by side, with a chafing bloody border between them,” in favor of “one country, one citizenship, and one liberty for all the people.”

 

Insisting that the divisions that led to the Civil War were moral, he suggests the solution to the unfinished business of Reconstruction lies in the cultivation of virtue: “There never was any physical reason for the dissolution of the Union. The geographical and topographical conditions of the country all serve to unite rather than to divide the two sections. It was moral, not physical dynamite that blew the two sections asunder.”

 

Douglass explains that: “Twelve hundred more colored votes in the state of New York would have saved that party from defeat,” and suspects these votes were lost because the campaign did not address moral issues: “Little was said, thought, or felt, about national integrity, the importance of maintaining good faith with the freedman or the Indian, or the protection of the Constitutional rights of American citizens, except where such rights were in no danger . . . No nation, no party, no man, can live long and flourish, on falsehood, deceit, injustice, and broken pledges.”

 

“On the other hand,” he notes, “where good faith is maintained, where justice is upheld, where truth and right prevail, the government will be like the wise man’s house, in scripture: the winds may blow, the rains may descend, the flood may come and beat upon it, but it will stand, because it is founded upon the solid rock of principle. I speak this, not only for the Republican party, but for all parties.”

 

Attempting to find common ground with Democrats, he appeals to democratic ideals of citizenship, “We boast of our riches, power, and glory, as a nation, and we have reason to do so. But what is prosperity, what is power, what is national glory, when national honor, national good faith, and national protection to the rights of our citizens are denied?”

 

Warning that the social unrest of the European under classes could just as easily happen in American, Douglass urges politicians not to abandon oppressed peoples, writing: “Who could blame the negro if, when he is driven from the ballot box, the jury box, and from the school house, denied equal rights on railroads and steamboats, called out of his bed at midnight and whipped by regulators, compelled to live in rags and wretchedness, and his wages kept back by fraud, he shall imitate the example of other oppressed classes, and invoke some terrible explosive power as a means of bringing his oppressors to their senses, and making them respect the claims of justice.” To this typed passage Douglass has added, in script, “denied a fair trial when accused of crime,” and, “This would be madness, but oppression will make even wise men mad.” Although he hastens to assure his audience that he does not hope for or approve violent means, his edits suggest he believes that repeated injustices inevitably produce violent outcomes.

 

Yet Douglass seems to sense that he is standing on the eve of a terrible era. One of the speech’s most chilling passages concerns the “recent” Supreme Court decision that Douglass says “came upon the country like a clap of thunder from a clear sky . . . a surprise to enemies, and a bitter disappointment to friends.” Douglass is referring to the Supreme Court’s ruling in The Civil Rights cases of 1883, a decision that would usher in 80 years of Jim Crow racial segregation and pave the way for the infamous “separate but equal” ruling of Plessy v. Fergusen (1896), as well as widespread lynching and other forms of racist terrorism. The Civil Rights cases of 1883 laid the groundwork for Plessy by ruling that public accommodations were not reached by the Fourteenth Amendment, and that Congress and the courts could not stop hotels, clubs, and restaurants from discriminating on the basis of race. Justice John M. Harlan was the sole dissenting voice, and Douglass praises him for being a “grand representative of American Justice standing alone.” Harlan’s famous dissent in the Civil Rights cases would someday serve as the basis for civil rights jurisprudence—but not until after World War II.

 

Despite his sense that the lives of Black Americans were about to get much worse, Douglass speaks to the “soul of the nation” and its virtues, the “spiritual side of Humanity” that cannot be burnt or drowned so long as it holds fast to its moral ideals, declaring: “The life of the nation is secure only while the nation is honest, truthful, and virtuous, for upon these conditions depends the life [o]f its life.” He talks about the great Chicago fire as one that left the city in ashes, yet could not eradicate the ideals of its inhabitants because they were possessed of civic virtue: “[T]here remained the invisible soul of a great people, full of energy, enterprise, and faith, and hence, out of the ashes and hollow desolation, a grander Chicago than the one destroyed, arose as if by magic.”

 

Douglass’s speech concludes with an appeal to civic virtue and civic involvement as crucial to surviving political change, not just as because civic virtue cultivates the self, but because it helps form a democratic community of brave and just citizens. As we celebrate Black History Month, we might take to heart his sense that a morally virtuous citizenry is the bedrock of a flourishing democracy. Quoting a poem by Sir William Jones that asks, “What constitutes a state?” Douglass answers with lines emphasizing courage and justice as virtues that carry the nation even in its most turbulent eras: “Men who their duties know,/ But know their rights, and, knowing, dare maintain.”

 

For the full text of Douglass’ speech, visit “Speech on the 23rd Anniversary of Emancipation in the District of Columbia,” also known as “We are Confronted by a New Administration” here.

 


Jaime Hovey is Associate Program Director for Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.

The Job of Saints: Joan of Arc, 604 Years On

 

Joan of Arc in Wellington church, New Zealand
Joan of Arc in Wellington church, New Zealand

This week marks the birthday of St. Joan of Arc, a devout farm girl born more than 600 years ago whose virtues of faith, chastity, and courage helped make her one of the patron saints of France, and of soldiers in the trenches of World War One. We know her birthday—January 6—more accurately than we do the exact year of her birth, which was somewhere around 1412. (Joan testified at her trial that she believed herself to be 19 years old.) People from her village who knew her remembered her being born on Epiphany, the holiday that celebrates the moment when the Magi finally find the Christ Child they have been seeking.

 

Joan would have been an extraordinary person in any era, but in 15th century France, she was nothing short of mythic. Three years after she was born, Henry V achieved his decisive victory at Agincourt, and from then on England occupied France in earnest. The effect on the country was devastating, with some sources saying that this occupation reduced France’s population by as much as half. A story foretold that France would be lost by a woman and saved by a woman, or in other versions, that France would be lost by a fallen woman and saved by a virgin from the forests of Lorraine. Many of Joan’s contemporaries thought the Dauphin’s mother, reputed to have gotten her son from her husband the King’s brother, was the fallen woman who had lost France by signing away her son’s kingdom. Sometime in her teens, Joan came to believe that she was the Maid who would get it back.

 

Joan began hearing the voices of three particular saints when she was 13. They belonged to Michael the Archangel, Catharine of Alexandria, and Margaret of Antioch, and according to Marina Warner’s Joan of Arc: The Image of Female Heroism (UC Press 1981), they express her mission perfectly. St. Michael, leader of the armies of heaven, was the emblem of French resistance to English rule, whose image was painted on the standards of the Dauphin’s soldiers. St. Catharine confounded the scholars of the Emperor Maximus with her wisdom, spurned his marriage proposal, and was beheaded for her faith, becoming the protector of unmarried women and philosophers, as well as the patron saint of Maxey, the village nearest Joan’s own Domremy. St. Margaret, the patron saint of mothers and childbirth, also refused to marry, entered a monastery disguised in men’s clothes, and once leapt off a high building to preserve her chastity. She was later eaten by a dragon and disgorged miraculously unharmed (though she was eventually beheaded). All three saints carry swords; all three also prefigure things Joan would do before her death (though the dragon story ends differently for her, alas).

Statue of Joan of Arc. Domremy is her born town.
Statue of Joan of Arc in Domremy, her birth town.

By the time Joan turned 16, she was badgering the local garrison commander for an escort to take her to the court of the disinherited Dauphin of France, the future Charles VII, whose claim to the throne had been invalidated by his mother’s treaty with the English. At the garrison and later at court, Joan’s persistence, prophetic abilities, and courage convinced everyone she met that she was sent by God. Charles believed her–reportedly because she told him the contents of a prayer he had once made in private–and granted her an army. Joan dressed as a man for the remaining years of her short life, and never married or took a lover. The soldiers who fought and slept by her side considered her a holy being, beyond earthly forms of love or sexual attraction, and claimed to lose all desire around her. They respected her devotion and insistence that they confess and hear Mass daily, and her piety helped further convince them of the justness of their holy cause.

 

As proof of this, and although she had no prior military experience, Joan defeated the English at Orleans and crowned Charles King. At one point she was even shot in the chest with an arrow, yet bravely fought on. Charles became more interested in treaties than battles, however, and when an impatient Joan led troops into Compiegne without his support, she was captured by the Burgundians. Like her beloved St. Margaret, Joan is said to have leapt from a tower in an attempt to escape her captors, in this case the 70-foot tower of Beaurevoir Castle, but she was recaptured. Unwilling to pay her ransom, Charles allowed her to be sold to the English, who desired her execution and thus immediately put her on trial for heresy.

 

The record of Joan’s trial is one of the most detailed trial records of the Middle Ages, providing a rare example of a genuine voice from the era. While most trials exist in one copy, if at all, there are dozens of copies of Joan’s (The Trial of Joan of Arc, Trans. Daniel Hobbins, Harvard UP 2005). Joan was already a celebrity by the time she was captured, and it is thought that the many copies of the transcripts were intended for widespread distribution after the trial in order to justify its unjust outcome. These efforts indicate a great deal of anxiety, stemming no doubt from certain knowledge that these proceedings were largely political rather than spiritual in nature.

 

As a result, we have a record in multiple copies of a brave, belligerent, and surprisingly canny voice. At one point, when asked for information about the voices of her saints, Joan blatantly refuses to answer her inquisitors: “I’ll answer you no further about that. I’ll gladly answer where I have leave to speak.” Another time, plainly impatient at being asked the same questions over and over about how she knows her voices are from God, she answers: “I’ve told you often enough that they are Saint Catherine and Saint Margaret; believe me if you wish.”

 

Imagine a 19 year-old young woman, captured in battle, exhausted from the hardships of prison and going days without food, standing before military and church authorities, all men, who question her relentlessly over and over, day after day. Marvel at her poised and self-contained answers. She doesn’t care what they think. She feels no urgency to defend herself, or explain her motivations. In one famous instance, she startles her Inquisitors when they demand to know whether she is in God’s grace, a trick question meant to have her fall into heresy: “If I am not, may God put me there; if I am, may God so keep me.” It was a brilliant answer, since Church doctrine held that no one could be sure of God’s grace, and Joan neatly sidesteps it, convincing many then and later that her inspiration was Divine. Its tone is sure of itself, unrattled, almost nonchalant. This is a person possessed of great faith in herself and her cause, and well as in the guiding forces that brought her to this place.

 

Although the Church had approved her crossdressing while she fought for Charles in battle, after her capture the English settled on Joan’s masculine dress as the crime they would use to execute her. At one point she signed a confession and was spared the stake, but in a final act of courage, she recanted, unwilling to repudiate her voices and spend her life in prison, where she feared sexual assault. Burned alive in 1431, she was celebrated publicly in France within two years of her death, and the religious plays that sprung up in her honor quickly became official sites of pilgrimage. 22 years after her martyrdom the English were expelled from most of France, and in 25, she was completely exonerated, well within what might have been her lifetime.

Antwerp -  Saint Joan of Arc judgment in the cathedral
Antwerp – Saint Joan of Arc’s judgment in the cathedral

Joan had become a popular romantic figure by the nineteenth century, and a symbol of French nationalism by the twentieth. Her beatification in 1909, on the eve of the Great War, made her even more accessible as a personification of French courage when that war began, and by 1916, she had become a symbol of both the French and English soldiers fighting together in the trenches against Germany. In Cecil B. DeMille’s 1916 film Joan the Woman, she is a knight whose self-transcendence makes her a great warrior, a figure of both sacrifice and brave aggression. In 1920 she was canonized a saint, and 100,000 British subjects celebrated at Westminster Cathedral. In his 1924 play Saint Joan, George Bernard Shaw sees her as very like the young soldiers treated as cannon fodder by the military commanders of the Great War, a figure of forthright goodness crushed by the corrupt institutional and political machinations of old men.

 

In her speculative biography Saint Joan of Arc (Doubleday 1991 [1936]), Vita Sackville-West writes of Joan’s mother, “It was by no fault of Isabelle Romee, if, instead of a chicken, she had hatched an eagle.” Sackville-West seems pleased that unlike some other saints, Joan never used expressions like “my heavenly Spouse,” or “my Betrothed.” She writes: “I think that possibly she had no need thus to sublimate her earthly desires in this pseudo-sexual fashion, since she found her outlet in her ardent devotion to the Dauphin and to the cause of France. She is the least sentimental of saints, and the most practical . . .She is too heroic and bracing to appeal intimately to the average mind. She makes the mistake of being always something over life-size; something which, however much she may command admiration and respect, can never be loved in quite the same personal way as the more human saints.”

 

Here Sackville-West humorously inverts virtue to change our perspective on the nature of saints. Instead of beginning with Joan’s superhuman qualities, Sackville-West accuses her of missing the mark, of “making a mistake” in being too heroic and not small and human enough to love in a “personal way.” But of course, as this makes us realize, saints are not about the personal at all, but about magnificently impersonal things like justice and the greater good. Saints are little girls who strive to be more than human, who cultivate the will to defy convention, the courage to accost powerful men, and the vision to oppose crushing political orders. In the end Joan fascinates us because she decides to be something more than merely human, choosing to be burnt alive rather than spend her life in prison, or betray her faith and go against her moral principles. It may be that the job of saints is to model something greater than human frailty. It may be that the job of saints is to make us marvel at, and emulate, the courage of eagles.

 


 

Jaime Hovey is Associate Program Director for Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.