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FREDERICK DOUGLASS AND THE AMERICAN APOCALYPSE DavidW. Blight We can yet see in the Civil War an image ofthe powerful, painful, grinding process by which an ideal emerges out ofhistory. That should teach us humility beyond the Great Alibi and the Treasury ofVirtue, but at the same time it draws us to the glory ofthe human effort to win meaning from the complex and confused motives ofmen and the blind ruck ofevent. Robert Penn Warren, 1961' Zion shall be redeemed withjudgment, and her converts with righteousness. Isaiah 1:27 IN 1862-63, THE PROSPECT OF emancipation gave a new purpose to the Civil War and a new meaning to American history. For the slaves and for abolitionists, both black and white, emancipation was initially something more easily felt than explained. For Frederick Douglass, the former fugitive slave turned orator-editor and the leading black spokesman in America, a most important moment had been reached in a long struggle. One year into the conflict, Douglass spoke ofthe inexorable way emancipation had become the wars central question: "It is really wonderful . . . how all efforts to evade, postpone, and prevent its coming, have been mocked and defied by the stupendous sweep of events. "2 Douglass searched for ways to understand and affect the turn of events. In large measure, his wartime thought reflects a spiritual interpretation of the war that fits squarely into several intellectual and theological traditions: millennialism, apocalypticism, civil religion, the providential view of history, and the jeremiad. This paper will examine Douglass's place in these traditions as demonstrated in his search for the meaning ofthe Civil War. I would like to acknowledge the advice and support of Professor Richard H. Sewell at the University ofWisconsin, Madison. 1 Robert Penn Warren, The Legacy of the Civil War (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1961), 108. * "The War and How to End It," speech delivered by Douglass at Corinthian Hall, Rochester, Mar. 25, 1862, in Douglass Monthly (hereafter cited as DAi), Apr. 1862. Civil War History, Vol. XXXI, No. 4, ©1985 by The Kent State University Press 310CIVIL WAR HISTORY For Douglass and so many of his contemporaries, God's presence in the crucible ofthe Civil War was an irresistible notion; the desperate nature of the conflict and the totality of its aims invoked the spiritual side of the American character. In Protestant America, North and South seemed to be contending for the future beyond the Apocalypse. Examples of the millennialist response to the Civil War are numerous. Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural address provides a famous illustration. Searching for the meaning ofemancipation, Lincoln declared that the "Almighty has his own purposes," and gave the country "this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offence came." But perhaps the clearest apocalyptic statement about the Civil War resounded from Julia Ward Howe's "The Battle Hymn ofthe Republic." Howe captured in poetry one ofthe central ideological and spiritual traditions ofher age. In her opening line—"Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord"—Howe struck the essential chord of millennialism: God's second coming. She envisioned God's presence in the soldier's "watchfires" and his imminentjudgment by a "terrible swift sword." Written in 1862, the "Battle Hymn" was a millennialist paean, which for many Northern Protestants, expressed the meaning ofthe Civil War.3 In nineteenth-century America, millennialism was a cluster ofreligious and secular ideas inherited from the Puritans, refashioned through the Revolutionary era, nurtured through numerous waves of revivalism, and forged into a national creed during the antebellum period. It taught that Christ would have a second coming in the new Israel of America. Moreover, millennialism helped foster an American sense of mission, a beliefthat the United States was the redeemer nation destined to perform a special role in history. Since John Winthrop s vision of a city upon a hill, Americans had believed that their new world—and later their new nation —was a place where mankind had been offered a second chance. A new Adam could flourish in a new garden full ofhope. A nation of Protestants came to interpret events, at least in part, as steps in their providential destiny...


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