Asked about the significance of Lincoln’s first election to the presidency in 1860, Frederick Douglass, the great people’s leader of the 19th century, said:
“Not much, in itself considered, but very much when viewed in the light of its relations and bearings. For fifty years the country has taken the law from the lips of an exacting, haughty, and imperious slave oligarchy. The masters of slaves have been the masters of the Republic. Their authority was almost undisputed, and their power irresistible. They were the President-makers of the Republic, and no aspirant dared to hope for success against their frown. Lincoln’s election has vitiated their authority, and broken their power. It has taught the North its strength and the South its weakness. More important still, it has demonstrated the possibility of electing, if not an Abolitionist, at least an anti-slavery reputation to the Presidency of the United States.”
“Mr. Lincoln’s election,” Douglass went on to say, “breaks the enchantment, dispels this terrible nightmare, and awakes the nation to the consciousness of new powers and the possibility of a higher destiny than the perpetual bondage to an ignoble fear” (Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, Vol. 2, p. 528, Philip Foner).
My purpose, in quoting Douglass at such length, isn’t so much to suggest an analogy between the elections then and now, or between Abe and Hillary, although some analogous features can be found. Instead, I want to bring attention to Douglass’ wide-angled, reality-grounded, and dialectical method of understanding events and personalities in his time and suggest that a similar methodology would come in handy today.
But to bring some heft to this point (rather than simply assert it), let me go into Douglass’ thinking in more detail.
Douglass wasn’t over the moon about Lincoln. He wasn’t the first choice of this great abolitionist. After all, Lincoln wasn’t a consistent anti-slavery candidate. While he opposed slavery’s expansion to new territories, he expressed no desire whatsoever to challenge this odious system where it existed.
If Douglass had had his way, the Republican Party would have fielded someone who supported the complete and immediate abolition of slavery. But the Republicans, who gathered for their convention in Chicago, had other ideas. They chose Lincoln over his rivals, including the abolitionist Salmon Chase.
Douglass could easily have thrown up his hands in despair over the nomination of the inconsistent Lincoln, but he didn’t. His deep appreciation of the dynamics of the historical process, and his political imagination, allowed him to anticipate that the slaveowners would not tolerate a president who had anti-slavery inclinations, and certainly not Lincoln, who, as mentioned above, resisted efforts to bring slavery into new territories and states.
Subsequent events proved Douglass’ right. For no sooner had Lincoln been elected – and before his arrival in Washington for his inauguration – a process began that resulted in southern secession and rebellion, civil war, and the eventual abolition of slavery. What probably surprised Douglass was how quickly this happened.
But more than a few abolitionists didn’t appreciate this dynamic. Unlike Douglass, Lincoln’s less-than-sterling antislavery credentials were their singular focus. Nothing else mattered to them. Not the reaction of the slaveowners. Not the posture of the larger anti-slavery movement in the North. Not the millions who would vote for a president with “an anti-slavery reputation.”
As a result, these abolitionists missed the bigger picture and sat out the 1860 elections.
Is any of this relevant today? Can we glean any insights from Douglass’ method of analysis that have application to the current election campaign?
Clearly, I say yes.
One insight is that it is a mistake to decouple Hillary Clinton and her candidacy from the wider dynamics of this election. But that is what is happening in much of the progressive and left social media. It is awash with criticism of Hillary that is narrowly-framed, and often really nasty. Traces of male supremacy are noticeable too. Some critics compare Clinton to the presumptive GOP nominee Trump; a few say she is worse.
For these commentators, broader considerations rarely come into view. Not the real threats presented by a Trump presidency. Not the danger of a right-wing takeover of the entire federal government. Not the readiness of tens of millions of struggling people and their social organizations to support the Democratic Party nominee. Not the capacity of the people’s movement to move a Clinton presidency in a progressive direction.
In short, they look at Hillary Clinton alone, apart from the larger dynamics, social forces, and stakes of this election.
Is this smart and strategic? Shouldn’t the entire range of factors that surround Hillary and her candidacy be taken into account? Shouldn’t any critique be embedded in the dynamics of this election? And isn’t the overarching imperative to defeat Trump and right-wing extremism? Maybe some don’t think so. But tens of millions do, because their very lives depend upon it!
Keep in mind, it isn’t the force of criticism that ultimately wins elections and makes social change; it is the force of a united and very broad people’s movement.