Coates Versus Douglass

Ta-Nehesi Coates has a new essay out about Trump that is generating a lot of buzz, entitled “The First White President.” Here are a couple of excerpts about what he has to say about Trump:

He is preeminently the white man’s President, entirely devoted to the welfare of white men. He is ready and willing at any time during the first year of his administration to deny, postpone, and sacrifice the rights of humanity in the colored people to promote the welfare of the white people of this country. In all his education and feeling he is an American of the Americans. He came into the Presidential chair upon one principle alone, namely, opposition to the extension of immigration. His arguments in furtherance of this policy have their motive and mainspring in his patriotic devotion to the interests of his own race. To protect, defend, and perpetuate slavery in the states where it existed Donald Trump is not less ready than any other President to draw the sword of the nation. . . Knowing this, I concede to you, my white fellow-citizens, a pre-eminence in this worship at once full and supreme.

Oh wait a minute. That’s not Coates; that’s Frederick Douglass, speaking about Abraham Lincoln at the dedication of the Freedman’s Monument in Washington DC on April 14, 1876. I took the small liberty of changing the verb tenses, swapping out “immigration” for “slavery” in the fourth sentence, and swapping “Trump” for “Lincoln” in the last sentence. None of these changes alter the argument of the passage. In other words, we have here Douglass arguing that Lincoln is pre-eminently a “white president,” and not the first by any means.

Of course, if you read the whole of Douglass’s oration, he makes out the case of why Lincoln should be honored, and by extension why the country he led is good and just, despite its obvious failings and mistakes. By comparison Douglass reveals Coates to be the superficial thinker that he is. Because of course many contemporary black thinkers—I suspect Coates is among them—believe Lincoln was a “white supremacist” pure and simple, no better or different than the Confederate leaders whose statues are being removed. A “Black Lives Matter” protest a couple years back featured signs proclaiming “Lincoln was a racist,” and demanding that Lincoln be removed from the five-dollar bill. This is not a brand new charge. Ebony magazine in 1968 published an article entitled “Was Lincoln a White Supremacist?” (Answer: yes.)

Let’s take in a bit more of Douglass:

Despite the mist and haze that surrounded him; despite the tumult, the hurry, and confusion of the hour, we were able to take a comprehensive view of Abraham Lincoln, and to make reasonable allowance for the circumstances of his position. We saw him, measured him, and estimated him; not by stray utterances to injudicious and tedious delegations, who often tried his patience; not by isolated facts torn from their connection; not by any partial and imperfect glimpses, caught at inopportune moments; but by a broad survey, in the light of the stern logic of great events, and in view of that divinity which shapes our ends, rough hew them how we will, we came to the conclusion that the hour and the man of our redemption had somehow met in the person of Abraham Lincoln. It mattered little to us what language he might employ on special occasions; it mattered little to us, when we fully knew him, whether he was swift or slow in his movements; it was enough for us that Abraham Lincoln was at the head of a great movement, and was in living and earnest sympathy with that movement, which, in the nature of things, must go on until slavery should be utterly and forever abolished in the United States. . .

I have said that President Lincoln was a white man, and shared the prejudices common to his countrymen towards the colored race. Looking back to his times and to the condition of his country, we are compelled to admit that this unfriendly feeling on his part may be safely set down as one element of his wonderful success in organizing the loyal American people for the tremendous conflict before them, and bringing them safely through that conflict. His great mission was to accomplish two things: first, to save his country from dismemberment and ruin; and, second, to free his country from the great crime of slavery. To do one or the other, or both, he must have the earnest sympathy and the powerful cooperation of his loyal fellow-countrymen. Without this primary and essential condition to success his efforts must have been vain and utterly fruitless. Had he put the abolition of slavery before the salvation of the Union, he would have inevitably driven from him a powerful class of the American people and rendered resistance to rebellion impossible. Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent; but measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined.

I doubt Coates would ever concede any part of Douglass’s argument. Just as environmentalists delight in every apocalyptic claim that comes along, Coates delights in the bitterness that descends from the view that America’s failings define the totality of America’s history and meaning. You might call it a different kind of supremacy.

NB: See Damon Linker’s dissent about Coates here.