Michael Metzger

You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. Frederick Douglass, a Marylander, learned this from the Clapham circle. I’m a Marylander. I need to learn this lesson.

Frederick Douglass was born on a Maryland plantation 200 years ago this month. Because he was a slave, a non-person, he never knew on what day he was born. So Douglass picked February 14th, the middle of the month, as his birthday.

He didn’t pick the date when he made his break for freedom. Early on, Douglass was whipped once a week by a brutal “Negro breaker,” Edward Covey. When he fought back, Douglass was sent to Baltimore to build ships. When he found an opportunity, he fled north to freedom. There, he found fame as a fiery anti-slavery orator and author.

One of his speaking tours took him to England in 1840s. Douglass met the remaining members of the Clapham Sect (William Wilberforce passed away in 1833). He felt their spirit of love, “to combine and concert for the public good” with like-minded people. He also learned of their incremental approach to ending slavery.

That’s probably why Douglass soon parted ways with William Lloyd Garrison, the fiery American abolitionist. Garrison sought to overturn the US Constitution, saying it was “a covenant with death, an agreement with Hell.” Douglass disagreed. The Constitution was pro-freedom. No change was necessary if the states agreed to abolish slavery.

That doesn’t mean Douglass couldn’t be fiery. He took prophetic aim at Abraham Lincoln. In a series of speeches and letters, Douglass made tough demands—set all slaves free, give them full citizenship, and enlist free black men in the US army. He upbraided the President’s plan for colonization of freedmen. Douglass accused Lincoln of race pride. He had little patience for Lincoln’s incremental approach.

Lincoln felt differently. As the slavery issue became more inflamed, he appealed to his fellow countrymen not to take the country into civil war. “We are not enemies but friends. We must not be enemies.” Lincoln believed if he could stop the extension of slavery, it would be put “on the road to ultimate extinction.”

Lincoln felt immediate abolition was dangerous. He pictured a rattlesnake in a child’s cradle. Strike it, and the snake might awaken and bite the children. Best to kill a rattlesnake out on the prairie. By seeking to stop the extension of slavery in prairie states, he was treating Southern slaves states not as enemies, but as friends, even beloved children.

This began to win over Douglass. Prophets are sometimes unguided missiles, but Lincoln appreciated Douglass’ push. Douglass appreciated Lincoln’s pastoral heart. We need both. Lincoln did emancipate the slaves, but in his Second Inaugural Address, he appealed for “malice toward none, with charity for all.” Lincoln made sure invited guests included Douglass. He was the first black man ever invited to an Inaugural reception.

Approaching the President in the receiving line, Lincoln singled out his fierce critic. “Here comes my friend Douglass; there is not man in the country whose opinion I value more than yours.” Lincoln asked Douglass what he thought of the Inaugural Address. Douglass’ words were honeycombed: “Mr. Lincoln, that was a sacred effort.”

“Gracious words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones” (Proverb 16:24). Douglass was learning you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. After the assassination 42 days later, Lincoln’s widow gave Douglass her husband’s walking stick. The two men had become the best of friends.

In 1858, Lincoln recognized the Clapham Sect as one of his inspirations. “Schoolboys know that Wilberforce and Granville Sharpe helped that cause forward, but who can now name a single man who labored to retard it?” The same circle of friends in Clapham inspired Frederick Douglass, a Marylander. I’m a Marylander. I founded Clapham Institute sixteen years ago. But I’m still learning to speak with honeycombed words. And like Douglass, I’m learning the Clapham Sect and Lincoln are some of my best role models.


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  1. Great historical insight and I learned something new. Thank you.
    I also metaphorically think of us sinners as flies longing for Something Sweeter than Honey and the Honeycomb: the law of the Lord. To be desired more than gold.


  2. A great reminder that words from those with such power and influence are so important and should be filled with the Grace that can only come from Christ Jesus. Thank you for sharing.

  3. Just wrapping up Ron Chernow’s book on Grant and have learned that Grant’s graciousness toward his enemies endeared him to Lincoln. (Honeycombed) Grant also did much in tangible ways to aid in the emancipation of the slaves, and after becoming president appointed may former slaves to positions of importance. Something I never knew about a man known mostly for his military feats.

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