“Where All is Plain, There is Nothing to be Argued”

Reading Frederick Douglass in the Age of Trump

Over four years at Harvard, I have found the transept of Memorial Hall to be one of the most profound spaces on campus. As many readers know, the transept contains 28 white marble tablets with the names of the 136 men affiliated with Harvard who died as a result of their service for the Union during the American Civil War. To me, the space has always encapsulated the immensity of the cause for which they died.

I thought of Memorial Hall last week when President Trump made his now-infamous comments about the Civil War. “People don't realize,” he began, “you know, the Civil War, if you think about it, why? People don’t ask the question, but why was there a Civil War? Why could that one not have been worked out?”

As historian Yoni Appelbaum notes in The Atlantic, “asking the question” of why the Civil War started is not itself a bad instinct. Presidents should, in fact, concern themselves with such historical problems. Today, for instance, is the 72nd anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe, an appropriate day to consider the lessons of a conflict rife with misbegotten strategies. If Trump were to re-read Winston Churchill’s 1938 parliamentary speech denouncing the Munich Agreement, for example, he might gain a better idea of why compromise with Nazi Germany made so little sense, as well as why we should approach half-baked comparisons to 1938 with caution.

But Trump’s questions obviously do not inspire confidence that he will be hitting the primary sources. Is it too much to ask that the President enter office with some answer to why the Civil War occurred? Shouldn’t he know that, after 84 years of feckless compromise with slavery, the American system could no longer bear the contradiction with its founding ideals?

Failure to realize the moral issues at stake is the most inexplicable part of Trump’s statement. An insistence that four million human beings be kept as property is not, as Appelbaum puts it, an issue that is “amenable to deal making.” As Appelbaum goes on to state, “Sometimes, it is striking a deal which weakens a nation, and taking a principled stand which strengthens it.”


Trump’s fundamental historical ignorance hinders his ability to realize this core truth. He often appeals to moral righteousness—denouncing a vaguely-defined “American carnage” and declaring that “No child of God should ever suffer” the horror of chemical weapons—but his Civil War comments suggest he would not know the carnage of slavery if it introduced itself. His press secretary’s bizarre suggestion that Bashar al-Assad is worse than Hitler was another signal of his administration’s moral confusion. In clumsily deploying history, the Trump White House has insulted the memory of the past and failed to understand the moral urgency of the present.

Speaking eight years before South Carolina’s secession in his famous oration, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July,” Frederick Douglass conveyed the just rage of abolitionism with the phrase, “Where all is plain, there is nothing to be argued.” His meaning is as clear today as it was in 1852: At some point, debating a moral transgression as great as slavery becomes an exercise in absurdity.

Of course, nothing is ever truly “plain” in politics and war. Even the Civil War was not “plain”—not for the tribes of the Plains, for whom the conflict was simply a continuation of their long running fight with federal cavalry units like the one in which Harvard student Thomas Joseph Leavitt died serving. That the same army fighting for human freedom was also decimating indigenous peoples is a tragic irony of American history.

Yet the moral force of Douglass’ statement remains. Wrongs like slavery are absolute, and the need to combat complacency towards manifest injustice remains as pressing as ever. Jimmy Kimmel, of all people, recently reminded Americans of this imperative when he said, “If your baby is going to die and it doesn’t have to, it shouldn’t matter how much money you make.” Where all is plain, there is nothing to be argued.

Despite its biting tone, Douglass’ speech ended on an optimistic tone. “I do not despair of this country,” he declared. Why? Because he saw nascent globalization even in 1852 as an antidote to America’s moral blinders. “No nation,” he argued, “can now shut itself up from the surrounding world…No abuse, no outrage…can now hide itself from the all-pervading light.”

Unfortunately, openness alone was not enough to end slavery, nor to end all abuse and outrage in human history. Imperialism and world war—including the one that ended 72 years ago today for a shattered Europe—followed on the heels of more global interconnection.

The dark side of globalization is still evident, in the growth of reactionary ideologies and in profound economic and social dislocations. But Douglass’ faith was not entirely misplaced. Ultimately, free trade and free information did not serve as the final bulwarks against injustice; rather, people committed to the best ideals of human dignity did.

In the 1860s and 1940s, Harvard students died for those ideals. Today, we are fortunate not to face such cataclysmic conflicts. But we do face ignorance of their most profound lessons. Like Douglass during a period of more severe crisis, we should not despair, but rather combat ignorance with knowledge and moral clarity—because, where all is plain, there is nothing to be argued.

Nelson L. Barrette ’17, a former Crimson Editorial Chair, is a History concentrator in Winthrop House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.