It is no part of our duty to confound right with wrong

Speaking in New York City in 1878, Frederick Douglass had a warning for white northerners about how they remembered the Civil War. “Good, wise, and generous men at the North,” Douglass observed, “would have us forget and forgive, strew flowers alike and lovingly, on rebel and on loyal graves.” A group of white veterans had invited Douglass to speak at a ceremony commemorating Decoration Day—the holiday, later known as Memorial Day, for remembrance of the Civil War’s Union dead. In the shadow of Abraham Lincoln’s statue in Union Square, Douglass invoked Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address as he tried to arrest the drift of northern opinion and national politics. “There was a right side and a wrong side in the late war, which no sentiment ought to cause us to forget,” Douglass declared. “[W]hile to-day we should have malice toward none, and charity toward all, it is no part of our duty to confound right with wrong, or loyalty with treason.”[1]

Douglass’s words will resonate with many Americans today, after the divisive 2020 election and especially the trauma of the January 6 insurrection. We too hear invocations of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural and calls for healing, unity, and reconciliation. At the same time, we hear worries that those appeals—sometimes made sincerely, but often cynically—will forestall a reckoning with the divisions and wrongs that landed us here. The post-Civil War years teach us the perils of heeding calls for reconciliation while ignoring those for justice. It also provides us, in Douglass’s 1878 speech, a powerful example of how to combine them

The backdrop for Douglass’s speech was another contested presidential election that has been in the

— source journalofthecivilwarera.org | Stephen West | Jan 26, 2021

Nullius in verba


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