Those with power who are planning our resurgence from the coronavirus need imagination and, above all, the humility of a long view of the human drama. To buoy myself one recent morning, after reading so much bad news, I did what the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass had done at an earlier moment of crisis: I sat and reread the Book of Genesis. One of the most profound rebirths, at least in spiritual and literary terms, occurs in the first eight chapters of that oldest story of all.
All over our culture and in journalism right now, we are encountering metaphors of renewal, revival, restoration, and rebirth. For a host of historical reasons, Americans borrowed the grand idea of rebirth after destruction and then made it their own.
Some narratives of renewal are constructed with an authentic sense of tragedy, an understanding that in our nature is the capacity for great good and great evil. These accounts have the chance to convey real hope. Some stories of renewal, though, are puerile, inauthentic, and ignorant. One can witness this every evening in presidential news briefings that, if nothing else, should convince teachers and researchers at all levels of why their work matters.
In existential crises, we look for historical grounding, and to markers in time for guidance. We may need state-of-the-art new vaccines, but we also need old wisdom. And in the quiet, if unbearable, tension caused by the realization that our society is structurally broken, we need the ancient voices. “In the mystery of prophecy,” wrote the theologian Abraham Heschel, “we are in the presence of the central story of mankind … In decisive hours of history it dawns upon us that we would not trade certain lines in the book of Isaiah for the Seven Wonders of the World.”
The menu of choices is vast. “There is no peace, saith the Lord, unto the wicked.” Or, “And they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and the spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” Or, “Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places made plain.” Or, “I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Then said I, Here am I; send me.” Whether chastening or comforting or impossibly challenging, we may find solace in the prophet’s oracles, so many of which are tales of destruction and rebirth. They are just now profoundly useful to our own hour of history.
They were useful as well in the era of the Civil War, certainly one of our existential crises. Imagine how different American history might have unfolded if the slaveholders’ republic known as the Confederacy had won the war. In the pivotal election year of 1864, it was still possible for the South to win. A wartime general election in the midst of civil war was unprecedented. Abraham Lincoln, running for a second term, faced stiff opposition to gain the nomination within his own party; when he overcame that, he encountered a bold and overtly racist campaign conducted by the Democratic Party, which ran the former Union General George B. McClellan for president. Democrats portrayed Republicans as radicals so devoted to racial equality that they would turn the country into a sea of “miscegenation” between blacks and whites. The Democrats also promised a vague negotiated peace with the Confederacy that would leave slavery maimed but intact.
The war was in a terrible stalemate in Virginia and Georgia, and death tolls had reached a horrific scale. Many Northerners could no longer bear the suffering and loss in that worst summer in American military history: In the six weeks from May 4 to June 15, the combined Union and Confederate casualties in the Virginia Overland Campaign reached 88,000 dead, wounded, or missing. The dying continued on all fronts through the election in the fall.
Stymied by their own creation—black freedom—some Republicans tried to skirt around or deny that they were the party of emancipation. But the freedom of the slaves was on the ballot in 1864, as was the future existence of a United States in a “rebirth,” as Lincoln had famously said in the Gettysburg Address, somehow around a more capacious vision of freedom. Events on battlefields may have saved Lincoln’s reelection as much as anything: Mobile Bay fell to the Union navy in late August and, most crucial of all, Atlanta fell to General William Sherman in early September. The war now seemed winnable. Hope suddenly reemerged along with the death tolls.
Frederick Douglass supported Lincoln and the Republicans in 1864, although they would not allow him to openly campaign for them. The former slave and incomparable orator represented the living embodiment, told brilliantly in his autobiographies, of the triumph over bondage. The Republican leadership wished him to remain politically invisible, but Douglass did not hide.
In October, at a national convention of black leaders in Syracuse, Douglass delivered a barn burner of a keynote speech. Nations could “learn righteousness” from supreme crises, he maintained. In a biblical turn of phrase, he saw the historical moment as one when “mourning mingles everywhere with the national shout of victory.” The Democrats, he believed, did the Confederates’ bidding; their victory would create a “white man’s country.” As though addressing Congress and a reelected Lincoln, Douglass employed a moving refrain four times in a single paragraph, calling for the passage of a Thirteenth Amendment to end slavery: “We implore you to abolish slavery,” he sang out. Only then, he said, would black freedom and the “national welfare” together achieve “everlasting foundations.”
Lincoln won a decisive popular-vote victory, drawing 2,206,938 votes to McClellan’s 1,803,787. Most remarkable, Lincoln carried a stunning 78 percent of the votes of soldiers, most of whom cast their ballots on the various war fronts. The war could now be seen through to its great results: the end of slavery and the remaking of the United States.
In his hometown of Rochester, New York, on the Sunday after the election, Douglass spoke at a celebration at the Spring Street African Methodist Episcopal Church, a pulpit he had occupied many times for lecture series. He praised Lincoln’s victory as “one to determine … life or death to the nation,” and the harbinger of “changes … vast and wonderful.” Douglass then drew upon the oldest rebirth metaphor in Western culture: Genesis and the tale of Noah’s Ark. The “waters of the flood were retiring,” he rejoiced, and he saw a “sign that the billows of slavery are rolling back to leave the land blooming again.”
In the ancient creation story, God had made all life, including humans to have “dominion” over all living things. But after a time, people became so wicked and evil that God ordered one good man, Noah, to build an ark and place within it representatives of every living species. The deluge that obliterated all life on Earth lasted 40 days and nights. Finally, the “windows of heaven were stopped.” Noah sent a dove out of the ark’s window to see if the waters had abated. The bird returned without finding “rest for the sole of her foot.” Noah waited and sent out the dove again and this time she returned with an “olive leaf” in its bill. The third time Noah released the dove she did not return and Noah wondered, Could it be true? He “removed the covering of the ark and looked, and behold, the face of the ground was dry.” All life had been obliterated, but now it might be reborn.
Douglass pointed to Genesis and its story of creation, destruction, and revival to grapple with the meaning of Lincoln’s victory and the prospect for emancipation. He was not merely connecting with a black church audience; he reached for ancient wisdom to find a sense of sacred transformation amid the profane violence of war and the sordid practices of politics. He mixed the voice of the Hebrew prophets with his own. He told the packed pews that he discerned signs in the election of a “redeemed and purified nation,” not unlike Noah seeing green land. Douglass announced as well in the Rochester church that he planned in the following week to return for the first time to Baltimore, Maryland, the city from which he had escaped slavery in 1838.
On November 1, 1864, the state of Maryland adopted a new “free Constitution,” abolishing slavery in a referendum by the narrow margin of 30,174 to 29,799. Douglass made his dramatic return to Baltimore on the 16th, with reporters in tow. He addressed a primarily black crowd at a standing-room-only gathering at the Bethel AME church in Fells Point, the neighborhood on the harbor where he had come of age.
As he arrived, Douglass encountered a woman who introduced herself as his sister, Eliza Mitchell. They two had not seen each other in 28 years. Older than Frederick by seven years, Eliza had traveled the 60 miles from Talbot County on the Eastern Shore to see her famous brother. She had managed to purchase her freedom in 1844 and raised nine children, one of whom she named Mary Douglass Mitchell, in honor of her long-departed sibling. The contrasts at the church that day were joyous and achingly poignant. Eliza, her husband, and all nine children had worked in menial jobs in a slave society in order to live, while Douglass had become a citizen of the world. To fathom the meaning of freedom for former slaves, we have to see into both of those experiences.
Douglass took the pulpit at Bethel surrounded by American flags, as a choir sang “Home Sweet Home.” Unavoidably, in a three-hour address, the former slave made himself central to the story. As in Rochester earlier, he harkened back to Noah and Genesis. This time, though, he declared himself the dove, and therefore the messenger of renewal. “The fact that I am where I am is really the subject,” he said. This time he was himself the “sign” on the dark clouds. “The return of the dove to the ark, with a leaf,” Douglass said, “was no surer sign that the flood had subsided from the mountains of the east, than my coming among you is a sign that the bitter waters of slavery have subsided from the majestic hills and fertile valleys of Maryland.”
With such audacity, Douglass inserted himself into the story of Genesis, and brought with him his people and his country. He rhapsodized about how in 1838 he had escaped from a “doomed city,” but now returned to “greet with an affectionate kiss the humblest pebble from the shores of your glorious Chesapeake.” Douglass called the occasion a “day of wonders” that he “hailed with the joy of an exiled son.” Freedom could change everything, at least for a while, in a tear-filled church of memory. Americans love a redemption story, and Douglass surely knew he embodied one.
As Douglass rounded out his oration that day in Baltimore, he delivered a brilliant political analysis of the challenge ahead. The right of “self-ownership,” he said, now demonstrated the absurdity of “property in man.” He challenged white people to look inside and change their souls and recognize that their future, too, depended upon “absolute civil and political equality” for all. Black folk in a reimagined American nation could now demand the “restoration of all rights,” and the greatest among them was the right to vote, the “solid rock” of a new country.
In the wake of the flood, Noah sought the solid rock upon which to build anew. God gave it to him and his sons and their families in the form of a covenant, promised with the sign of a rainbow on a dark but brightening sky. In our current quest to reopen and renew, it is good to know how difficult, yet how utterly necessary, this great task was in the oldest rebirth story we know. Having a sense of history, James Baldwin once wrote, means an awareness that whatever happens to us, however terrible, we can know we are “not alone.” It has happened before. All of Noah’s seed and all the creatures of Earth are in this boat together.