In the midst of the current controversies over the Martin Luther King and Dwight Eisenhower memorials in Washington, it’s worth examining the human impulse toward memorialization, so that we can appreciate what is at stake in the inevitable battles—aesthetic and moral—over the shapes our collective memory will take. The best guide for this inquiry, to my mind, is Frederick Douglass, the great 19th-century abolitionist and agitator, who for all his radicalism was also, in key respects, profoundly conservative.
After the Civil War, and even as he campaigned for expanded rights for blacks and women, Douglass devoted great efforts to remembrance of things past. He was a master of the eulogy and the anniversary address. The most important of these performances was his 1876 “Oration in Memory of Abraham Lincoln,” delivered at the dedication of the Freedmen’s Monument in Lincoln Park, one mile due east of the U.S. Capitol. This was one of the very first statues of Lincoln to be unveiled, and it bears the further distinction of having been paid for with money donated by newly freed slaves. Although there was a separate attempt by Congress to commission a national memorial to Lincoln, that effort took almost half a century to come to fruition.
Douglass often began his com-memorative addresses by reflecting on the significance of the act of commemoration. In a typical passage, he said that the desire to erect monuments
is native to the human heart, and among the holiest of all. It is composed of two elements, pious gratitude on the one hand, and an earnest desire to perpetuate illustrious examples of “whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are of good report” [Phil. 4:8] and to make them the property of posterity.
According to Douglass, what moves us is the twofold motive of gratitude and perpetuation. Memorialization is an act in the present that expresses our debt to the past and our gift to the future. In acknowledging the nation’s ancestral benefactors, we enshrine examples that can be emulated by generations to come. Thus, memorialization accomplishes the task of cultural transmission.
Douglass pointed out that this faculty is unique to human beings and calls it “the highest attribute of man’s nature.” Other “creatures of earth” possess minds, but only humans are capable of re-minding by translating our “subjective consciousness” into “objective form.”
Of course, the use of this sublime faculty is not always welcome or wise. As he said, “tyrants and oppressors . . . who . . . rode to high places upon the necks of fallen millions . . . have their monuments” (usually erected at their own instigation). The last two decades have seen hundreds of objectifications of Lenin and Stalin and Saddam Hussein and now Qaddafi toppled and dragged and dismembered. While the desecration of the human body, living or dead, is always wrong, the same can’t be said of the demolition of a statue. The monuments of tyranny deserve their ignominious fate. (Even the Lenin statue rescued from a scrapyard in Slovakia by an enterprising American and now erected in Seattle has become the favored target of pranksters, protesters, and performance artists.)
In an interesting speech from 1861, early in the Civil War, entitled “Pictures and Progress,” Douglass described how this expressive faculty, which he called the “picture making faculty,” becomes a battleground of “contending interests and forces.” He testified to the power of the imagination for both good and evil; as he said, “the master we obey in making our subjective nature objective, giving it form, color, space, action and utterance, is the all important thing. . . . [I]t will either lift us . . . or sink us.” According to Douglass, our civic life is decisively shaped by “symbols and songs.” It matters who and what and how we memorialize.
The Freedmen’s Monument was dedicated on Good Friday on the eleventh anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination. Speaking before a racially mixed crowd of 25,000 which included President Grant and numerous members of the Supreme Court and Congress, Douglass made clear that he thought Lincoln worthy of honor, and worthy of honor in particular from blacks, for the act of emancipation. However, he also had serious reservations about the execution of the monument—reservations that were shared by others at the time and have only become more pronounced since. The sculpture by Thomas Ball depicts Lincoln, Emancipation Proclamation in one hand, extending his other hand over the crouching figure of a nearly naked black slave. Douglass was reported to have departed from his written text to criticize the slave’s submissive posture, remarking that “a more manly attitude would have been indicative of freedom.”