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Literary Historian Chronicles Frederick Douglass’ Disillusionment with Andrew Johnson
In his new book, English Professor Robert Levine (below) explores the failure of Reconstruction through the lens of abolitionist Fredrick Douglass' changing view of President Andrew Johnson, who took office after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
It was a year of presidential impeachment and struggles over African American voting rights—wait, are we talking about 2021 or 1868?
In his new book coming out on Saturday, “The Failed Promise: Reconstruction, Frederick Douglass, and the Impeachment of Andrew Johnson,” University of Maryland Distinguished University Professor of English Robert Levine draws the parallels between the centuries. Using archival materials including speeches, newspaper articles and letters, he chronicles the great Maryland-born abolitionist and orator’s changing views on the 17th U.S. president—from initial optimism following President Lincoln’s assassination to his ultimate disillusionment in the prospect of a reconstructed United States that secured Black Americans’ right to freely vote.
“‘The Failed Promise’ is a lesson for our times as we continue to confront our nation’s unfulfilled promise of racial equality,” said Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research.
We recently spoke to Levine about the importance of recovering a Black perspective on Johnson and the continuing resonance of Douglass’ words. This interview has been condensed for length and clarity.
You have a wide interest in American literature and culture, but a particular fascination with Frederick Douglass. Why?
Douglass was a new passion for me when I got to the University of Maryland (in 1983) as he was a Marylander. The more I read by him, the more I was taken with the brilliance of the language in both his autobiographies and speeches. He works in different genres. You have the autobiographer, you have the fiction writer, you have the lecturer, and he edits newspapers and writes columns—so you have all that plus thousands of letters that are available at the Library of Congress and elsewhere. David W. Blight, Douglass’ most recent biographer, terms him a “prophet.” He is a prophet. He looks forward to issues in the 20th and the 21st century.
Speaking of prophecy, it must have been interesting to work on a book that includes perspectives on an impeachment in the midst of another impeachment.
Like a lot of people, I got interested in the Johnson impeachment during the Donald Trump era. In 2017 I was invited to give a talk at the University of Edinburgh and at the University of Paris, so I decided to talk about the Johnson impeachment ... and people were really interested. So, I came home and decided to write an essay and the essay got really long. And then the more I read, the more I thought I might have a short book. And as I was mapping it out, I realized I actually had enough for a standard book. Over time it became less a book about Trump and more a book about the unfinished promise—or what I call the “failed promise”—of Reconstruction.
What surprised you about the hope many Black people had for Johnson at the start of his presidency?
I found in writings by Radical Republicans and Black activists a belief that Lincoln was limited and that Johnson showed much more promise. Right at the start they said, ‘Hey, maybe this is the person we need.’ Johnson was a pro-Union Southerner; he put his life on the line. He was anti-slavery—not during the 1850s, but during the Civil War he turned against slavery. In October 1864, Johnson gave a widely publicized speech in Tennessee. The Emancipation Proclamation did not free enslaved people in the border states, so there were still enslaved people in Tennessee. And he said in that speech that he would end slavery in Tennessee. He was not legally able to do that, he didn't have that power, but he told the Black people in attendance that they needed a Moses and they shouted back to him, “You are our Moses!” And that's something that stuck with Johnson for the rest of his life, an increasingly delusional belief that he was Moses, that he cared about Black people.
But fast forward to the end of 1865 and Douglass and his colleagues are disillusioned.
One of my favorite chapters is about when Frederick Douglass visited Johnson in the White House in February 1866 with eight or nine other people, known as the “Black delegation.” There’s a dramatic moment where they're seeing if Johnson will actually talk to them and make concessions. And when it's clear that he won't, they're walking out of the Executive Office and Douglass says something to Johnson about how he’s turning on his friends, and then Johnson lays into Douglass and Douglass lays into Johnson. The interesting thing here is that there was a renowned young stenographer there who wrote down the entire exchange. And in that exchange Johnson reveals some of his darkest, most reactionary thoughts about the formerly enslaved. That night, the whole back and forth was printed in The Washington Star newspaper, and that article about Douglass’ encounter with Johnson circulates in newspapers across the United States; it was republished in Nevada, in California and in other states across the country. I argue that Douglass deliberately provoked Johnson so as to elicit his true racist views. This moment had a huge impact on how Johnson came to be perceived.
You’ve noted, including in a recent op-ed in The Washington Post, that Douglass’ words have particular relevance in the current debate over voting rights.
Almost every page of my book shows how important voting rights were at the time to Black people, how voting rights are central to U.S. citizenship, how if you aren't allowed to vote, you aren't a citizen—you aren't part of the politics. Douglass gets impassioned about how important voting is to actually feeling that you're visible in the nation. He argues that Black people even fought in wars for the United States, so shouldn’t they have the right to vote? His efforts paid off with the ratification of the 15th Amendment in 1870, but Douglass soon realized that the new law would not necessarily be enforced. Now it's the year 2021, and I wish voting rights weren't still an issue in our culture, but yes, Douglass’ campaign for Black voting rights in the years right after the Civil War continues to speak directly to the current moment.
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