Following four years of violent political, ideological, and social conflict that drew nuanced comparisons with the era of the Civil War and Reconstruction, the United States held a pivotal election, which the Department of Homeland Security has since called the most secure in national history. Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump by a resounding 5.1 million votes (as of this writing) and most likely a decisive margin in the Electoral College. In his first speech as President-elect, Biden empathized with despondent Trump voters and asked them to reciprocate his kindness. He vowed to cooperate with Republican legislators who have yet to acknowledge his election. He proclaimed that he had been given a moral mandate to “marshal the forces of decency and the forces of fairness” while also characterizing this as a “time to heal.”
His early rhetoric about healing and unity eerily evokes an earlier era of U.S. history in which a desire for reconciliation undermined the pursuit of justice. In attempting to reunite a divided nation, Biden has not only emulated modern winners of closely contested presidential elections but also echoed the tone of Abraham Lincoln. In his second inaugural address, given in March 1865 as the Civil War was winding toward its end, Lincoln refused to recognize the parties who were to blame for the coming of the war and urged his compatriots to act “with malice toward none, with charity for all…to bind up the nation’s wounds.” His words set the tone for a national reunion that, as Frederick Douglass would lament, betrayed the visions of freedom and democracy for which millions of Americans had struggled.
Following the Civil War, after the ostensible defeat of the threat to human rights posed by the Confederate slavocracy, Douglass, the most influential Black abolitionist and activist in the United States, watched with growing concern at the costs of a reconciliation presaged by the late Lincoln. In the long shadow of the political and sectional crises of the 1850s and the immediate aftermath of the Union’s defeat of the Confederacy, unrepentant Confederates used widespread electoral fraud, rampant terrorism, and a host of other tactics to undermine democracy and restrict the newly won freedom of African Americans. White Southerners inflicted new wounds on “free” African Americans while their northern counterparts charitably looked the other way. For Douglass, grave moral weakness and political amnesia were responsible for the United States’s bleak situation. In the wake of war, white Americans had drawn a moral equivalence between Confederates who had raised an authoritarian government with slavery and white supremacy as its cornerstones and Americans, including 200,000 African Americans, who had fought to destroy the Confederacy. The United States had betrayed its newly enfranchised Black citizens, ceded the moral authority achieved by Union soldiers on the battlefield and Republican voters at the ballot box, and spurned the chance to build a democracy by refusing to acknowledge the illiberal impulses that had fractured the United States and drawn it into bloody civil war.
On May 30, 1871, on one of the first observances of Memorial Day, Douglass gave a powerful critique of the nature of healing at that formative moment in U.S. history. Standing at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery, Douglass reminded his audiencethat “we are sometimes asked, in the name of patriotism, to forget the merits of this fearful struggle, and to remember with equal admiration those who struck at the nation’s life and those who struck to save it, those who fought for slavery and those who fought for liberty and justice.” As historian David W. Blight has written, Douglass urged his listeners in Arlington and around the United States to reject reconciliation without justice, peace with no repentance. “I am no minister of malice,” Douglass thundered. “I would not strike the fallen. I would not repel the repentant; but may my ‘right hand forget her cunning and my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth,’ if I forget the difference between the parties to that terrible, protracted, and bloody conflict.”
Now as then, we have to remember and pronounce, not idealize or excuse, the nature of the party removed from power. In the interest of renewal, we must remember that Trump became President through relentless attacks on the first Black President, Black athletes, Mexican and Central American immigrants, the global Muslim community, and Muslim Americans. We must remember his empty promise to build a wall on the United States-Mexico border and his racist slurs against Haiti, Nigeria, and their citizens. We have to remember the thousands of refugees denied asylum. We have to remember the children separated from their families, locked in cages, nearly 700 of whom to this day the Administration has failed to reunite with their parents.
We have to remember all of the right-wing extremists, the Steve Bannons and Stephen Millers, whom he employed and allowed to craft national policy. We must remember his refusal to acknowledge wrongdoing for his infamous full-page ad calling for the execution of the five innocent boys branded with the name of the “Central Park Five.” We must remember his support of Confederate monuments and his claim that a neo-Nazi rally counted “fine people” among its number. We must remember his interest in unleashing the United States’s military on its own citizens and his relentless public attacks on the U.S. press. We must remember his constant refrain that, in the midst of a global movement for Black lives, it’s the “blue” ones that matter.
We have to remember the slew of sexual assault allegations against him, which he corroborated on tape. We must remember the erosion of public education and the dismantling of Title IX regulations under a secretary of education with no experience in public education. We must remember his refusal of political aid to ostensible allies unless they investigated his political opponents. We must remember his packing of the judiciary with unqualified partisan judges. We must remember his refusal to say whether he would concede political power and his repeated efforts at voter suppression. We must remember his denial of a deadly virus that has already claimed a quarter million U.S. lives.
And we cannot forget that, in the end, none of this mattered enough to 72 million voters.
For Douglass, the risk of reunion based on such forgetting was too great to ignore. He knew deep down that there could be no peace, and certainly no healing, premised on the appeasement of the same people whose notion of freedom had demanded his enslavement. He understood that reconciliation would reintroduce corrosive elements into a political body if a clear vision of justice did not inform its practice.
Of course, the political, ideological, and sectional conflicts that roiled the United States during the last four years are not of the exact same kind or degree as those that led South Carolina to secede from the United States in December 1860. And the 2020 U.S. presidential election was not the culmination of civil war. Still, the election wasthe type of momentous occasion that Douglass would have readily recognized as ripe with the potential for historic change. At the very least, the electoral repudiation of Trump marked a rejection of authoritarianism. At its best, it might give us another opportunity to remake this society based on the visions of freedom held by many of the Latino, Indigenous, and especially Black voters who secured victory for Biden and Kamala Harris in the most critical swing states. It could begin an honest accounting of the flaws of this imperfect nation, which the rise and reluctant fall of Trump has laid bare.
What is needed, then, is less Lincoln and more Douglass. Six years after his speech at Arlington National Cemetery, Douglass delivered another stirring orationon what had become the annual celebration of Memorial Day. As the Reconstruction era and the United States’s first fleeting attempt at multiracial democracy came to an end thanks to the Compromise of 1877, Douglass revised the words of the late President who had first imagined reunion after division, along with those of Ulysses S. Grant, the President who had overseen much of the ensuing process of national reunification:
In the spirit of the noble man whose image now looks down upon us we should have ‘charity toward all, and malice toward none.’ In the language of our greatest soldier, twice honored with the Presidency of the nation, ‘Let us have peace.’
“Yes, let us have peace,” Douglass continued. “But let us have liberty, law, and justice first.”