Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass
David W. Blight, Frederick Douglass’ Civil War: Keeping Faith in Jubilee
(Louisiana State University Press, 1999)
Frederick Douglass led an unusual life. Born Frederick Bailey in 1818, Frederick Douglass was never sure of his father’s identity although it seems certain that his father was white and possibly was his owner, Thomas Auld. Douglass had little contact with his mother and was raised by his grandmother until he was about seven when he was assigned to the main plantation house on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. His early life was a difficult one in which he was somewhat more privileged than the average slave child, associating with white playmates (through whose association he learned to read and play the violin), but also more stressful because he was separated totally from his family. He was moved from place to place spending a portion of his time in Baltimore before he was shipped back to Maryland’s Eastern Shore. There, an abortive escape attempt and fight led to his return to slave status in Baltimore as a ship’s caulker.
Although Douglass had been promised eventual freedom, a dispute over his pay with his master led to his decision to escape north, eventually to New Bedford, Massachusetts where he changed his name to avoid a return to slavery. Before he escaped, he had fallen in love with a free but illiterate black woman, Anna Murray, a domestic five years his senior. She followed him North and they married in New York City before continuing on to New England. They eventually had five children two daughters and three boys and remained married until Anna’s death in 1882 . Anna, however, never learned to read and never really participated in her husband’s political activities. In 1884, Douglass quietly remarried a white clerk in the federal office which he headed scandalizing friends, family and enemies.
At a church meeting in New Bedford in 1839, Douglass made his first speech denouncing colonization and deportation of black slaves. He remained a fervent foe of such schemes and a proponent of integration for the rest of his life. He soon fell into the circle of William Lloyd Garrison and the American Anti-Slavery Society. He eventually broke with Garrison and the Society over their opposition to any kind of political involvement and their condemnation of the Constitution. Like Mr. Lincoln, Douglass felt the Constitution should be a protection against, rather than a sanction for slavery. For years, first under the auspices of the Society and then under his own sponsorship, he toured the U.S., Ireland, Scotland and England speaking against slavery. Later, he formed his own newspaper, the North Star (later Frederick Douglass’ Paper) and moved his family to Rochester, NY. (In the mid-1840s, his freedom had been purchased by white friends from his former master in order to guarantee his freedom of movement since as a fugitive slave he was subject to arrest). In his paper in 1851, he wrote that the Constitution “construed in the light of well established rules of legal interpretation, might be made consistent with the noble purposes avowed in his preamble” and called for the Constitution to be “wielded in behalf of emancipation.”1
In his famous “Fifth of July Speech” in 1852, Douglass proclaimed: “Fellow-citizens! there is no matter in respect to which, the people of the North have allowed themselves to be so ruinously imposed upon, as that of the pro-slavery character of the Constitution. In that instrument I hold there is no warrant, license, nor sanction of the hateful thing; but, interpreted as it ought to be interpreted, the constitution is a GLORIOUS LIBERTY DOCUMENT.”2 Douglass was not inclined to sugarcoat his message or to be obsequious to abolitionists who wanted to keep him in his place. Furthermore, his working relationships were frequently better with white women abolitionists than with their male counterparts.
- Unlike Mr. Lincoln, who sometimes chafed under his economic obligations to his father until he was emancipated at age 21, Douglass emancipated himself. He gave himself the surname “Douglass” after escaping from slavery.
- Like Mr. Lincoln, Douglass operated somewhat above his “birth” class but nevertheless acted as a representative of that class with whom he was somewhat out of touch.
- Like Mr. Lincoln, Douglass was tall, but he carried himself with a more regal and dignified bearing.
- Like Mr. Lincoln, he was proud of his physical strength and his erstwhile physical labors.
- Like Mr. Lincoln, he was frequently disappointed in the pursuit of office.
- Like Mr. Lincoln, Douglas understood the nature of northern racism. Douglass never wanted to be confined a particular role which white Northerners might want him to occupy. He wasn’t content to a token Black. He believed in integration and he lived his beliefs frequently with great courage.
- Like Mr. Lincoln, Douglass had strong early experiences with the church, but his chagrin with the refusal of white churches to denounce slavery led to his detachment from his Methodist roots.
- Like Mr. Lincoln, he understood that the North was far from blameless on issues of race and slavery. In one early speech, Douglass said: “Prejudice against color is stronger north than south; it hangs around my neck like a heavy weight.”3
- Like Mr. Lincoln, he had impoverished childhood with considerable trauma and little formal education.
- Unlike Mr. Lincoln who avoided most references to his childhood, Douglass made his childhood experiences with slavery the centerpiece of his speaking and writing.
- Like Mr. Lincoln, Douglass had a high opinion of his own abilities — which he tended to deprecate in public comments.
- Like Mr. Lincoln, he was an accomplished mimic — but unlike Mr. Lincoln, most of his mimicry was used in speeches rather than story-telling.
- Unlike Mr. Lincoln, Douglass encouraged his sons to join the Union Army — he was a leading proponent of the use of black soldiers. Douglass did, however, petition Mr. Lincoln to discharge a sick son from service. And, the Lincolns’ eldest son Robert did join the Union Army in January 1865.
- Unlike Abraham Lincoln, for whom male friendships were easiest, female friendships (with intellectually stimulating and strong women) were easiest for Frederick Douglass. Unlike the famously jealous Mary Todd Lincoln, Douglass’s wife appears to have been very tolerant of her husband’s female friends — especially considering that some women came to live with them for months or years. Douglass worked frequently and closely with representatives of the women’s suffrage movement.
They were both principled pragmatists with a truly world view. As Afro-American historian William Mackey, Jr. wrote: “Frederick Douglas never lost faith in the possibility of humankind’s improvement. He confronted, he argued, he pleaded, he bluffed, he threatened and conned — using whatever tactics might work in a particular situation. No aspect of human oppression escaped his concern or compassion.”4
Both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass were obsessed with freedom. Historian James Oakes wrote: “From a very young age Frederick Douglass had dared imagine that one day he would be free, just as he dared imagine that he would one day be a senator.” 5 Both men reverenced the Declaration of Independence. Oakes wrote: “When Douglass abandoned the Garrisonians and embraced antislavery politics, the theme of his speeches and writings began to change. Instead of denouncing the degradation of an entire nation corrupted by slavery, he located himself among America’s Founders, with all their flaws.” Both Lincoln and Douglass admired the Declaration of Independence and the Founders. Oakes wrote: “Douglass came to admire the Founders as well, though less because they had articulated an important set of human freedoms than for having bowed in deference to the desire for freedom that stirred in the soul of every man and woman. For Douglass it was this innate passion for freedom that drove human history forward.” Both believed in economic justice and opportunity, although Oakes wrote: “Lincoln was much more inclined to denounce slavery for denying men and women the hard-earned fruits of their own labor.”6
Both men were gifted writers and speakers. Lincoln scholar Roy P. Basler wrote: “Douglass’s early experience as a slave gave him the firsthand knowledge which his brilliant mind and literary style — developed, like Lincoln’s, through self-education and practice — brought to the antislavery prose classic which he first published in 1845 under the title Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, and revised in 1855 as My Bondage and My Freedom. Not only a truly great writer but also a gifted orator, Douglass took his place among the very top abolitionist orators, such as Wendell Phillips, and journalists, such as William Lloyd Garrison.” 7 The Civil War provided new platforms for both men as communicators. Historian Waldo Martin wrote: “Douglas served primarily as a propagandist during the war. He endeavored to convince the Union to mobilize and use black troops as well as to convince Negroes that eventually their services would be needed and requested.”8
Like Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass was a born advocate. However, wrote historian James Oakes: “Lincoln and Douglass were very different men. True, there were parallels. Both had grown up in poverty; they were largely self-taught; in a generation of great orators they were two of the greatest; in the century of the self-made man both came to see their own lives as exemplary. Still, they were very different men, and not merely because one was born free and white and the other black and enslaved. Their minds worked differently. Thought both hated slavery, they hated it in different ways and not always for the same reasons. Their personalities were different as well. Douglass had the blustery, oversize persona of a nineteenth-century Romantic. When he spoke, he roared, his booming baritone complemented by waving arms and devastating mimicry. Abraham Lincoln was the cautious grandchild of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. He stood still when he spoke, hands behind his back, his voice high-pitched by clear enough to be heard over large audiences.”9
Douglass was the more emotional speaker, but he was not restrained by the obligations of, or the pursuit of, political office. Historian Waldo E. Martin, Jr. wrote that Douglas’ “charisma drew…upon his rhetorical flair as well as his deep, melodious voice. Naturalness and grace — rather than artificial gestures and declamation — characterized Douglass’s oratorical style, which also included dramatic skill, notably mimicry. The wit, satiric bite, and pathos of his speeches combined with a poignant earnestness to mesmerize listeners. More specifically, the clarity and force of the plain statement of his own experiences and observations as a former slave proved riveting.”10
Mr. Lincoln was the steadier personality. Mr. Lincoln was more consistent in his political allegiances and political beliefs that Douglass. Historian James Oakes wrote: Douglass had trouble finding the right balance, so much so that his contemporaries charged him with being erratic and unreliable in his political allegiances.”11 He had a love-hate affair with the Republican Party and Abraham Lincoln. Douglass was not always a Lincoln admirer — or a Republican supporter. Historian Gerald Sorin wrote: “The actions of Frederick Douglas are indicative of the frustration of the black abolitionist as he faced his political choices. In 1855, Douglass, along with black clergymen J.W. Loguen and Amos G. Beman, joined Gerrit Smith in the Radical Abolition party, refusing fellowship with the Republicans. By 1856, however, Douglass was supporting the Republican party. Between 1856 and 1860, as the Republican moved from the zenith of their antislavery appeal, giving up antislavery altogether in some areas, and increasingly emphasizing more attractive issues, Douglass once more cut his affiliation with them.”12 Historian James M. McPherson wrote: “Douglass, who early in the campaign had praised Lincoln and his party, was later angered by Republican declarations of white supremacy.”13
Douglass was an early backer of New York Senator William H. Seward and the Republican Party and strong opponent of Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas, about0 whom he said after his death, “No man of his time has done more than he to intensify hatred of the negro.”14 Douglass strongly backed Lincoln’s election in 1860. His grudging respect for Mr. Lincoln grew slowly but erratically through the Civil War surging after President Lincoln fulfilled two of Douglass’s objectives emancipation and black recruitment. He held President Lincoln to high standards and said in a Rochester speech in 1862 that Americans had “a right to hold Abraham Lincoln sternly responsible for any disaster or failure attending the suppression of this rebellion.”15
“The Civil War saw Douglass exercising his leadership at its best,” wrote historian Waldo Martin. “First, emancipation had to be made a primary war aim. Second, slave and free blacks had to be allowed to integrate blacks more fully into the mainstream of American life. Even before the Confederacy fired on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, Douglass persistently reiterated a growing national perception that ‘slavery must be all in the Union, or it can be nothing.’”16 Douglass defined his goals for the war in a speech he frequently gave entitled “the Mission of the War.” The black abolitionist advocated ‘no war but an Abolition War; no peace but an Abolition Peace; liberty for all, chains for none; the black man a soldier in war, a laborer in peace; a voter at the South as well as the North; American his permanent home, and all Americans his fellow countrymen. Such, fellow citizens, is my idea of the mission of the war. If accomplished, our glory as a nation will be complete, our peace will flow like a river, and our foundations will be the everlasting rocks.”17
Douglas and Mr. Lincoln differed on the constitution. Historian James Oakes wrote: “Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglas agreed that there was no such thing as a constitutional right to own slaves. But for Lincoln the Constitution recognized the existence of slavery as a practical necessity, whereas for Douglass the absence of a right to own slaves obliged the federal government to overthrow slavery everywhere. Both agreed that the Fugitive Slave Act was repugnant, but Lincoln ‘crucified’ his feelings because there was a fugitive slave clause in the Constitution whereas Douglass could not sanction obedience to a patently immoral law.”18
Unlike some other abolitionists, Douglass never gave up on the Union or the Constitution although he was often critical of both. He was a committed integrationist and a determined foe of colonization and emigration. Douglass opposed supporters of emigration back to Africa like black nationalist Martin Delany. Historian James Oakes wrote: “One of Douglass’s complaints was that the emigrationists gave aid and comfort to white racists who, as the prospect of emancipation rose, were reviving the idea of colonization.” 19 Historian David W. Blight wrote: “His wartime writings reveal a thoroughgoing critique of colonizationist plans and ideology as well as a contentious relationship with the Lincoln administration on this issue. An examination of Douglass’ response to colonization further illuminates his conception of the meaning of the Civil War for blacks. The colonization premise that blacks could never live and compete effectively with whites as social and political equals — a belief shared by most white Americans as late as the 1860s — remained one of the greatest obstacles to overcome once the war was won.” 20 Historian James Oakes wrote: “Lincoln had hoped a voluntary emancipation in the border states would propel the destruction of both slavery and the Confederacy. Douglass had thought that forcing emancipation on the border states would do the same thing. But it happened the other way around. It took military emancipation in the Confederacy to force voluntary emancipation onto the border states.”21
Blight wrote: “To the extent that their goal was the improvement of the lot of black people, Douglass occasionally acknowledged the good intentions of colonizationists, yet whatever benevolent features colonization represented could not mask what he saw as the central problem — racial prejudice.” Blight wrote that “Douglass believed that the colonization debate ultimately served the ends of white supremacy: to postpone emancipation and to deny blacks any claim to American nationality. He simply did not consider credible the belief held by some colonizations that their plans would hasten emancipation by making it safe.” According to Blight, “Douglass knew that the colonizationist threat rested on certain assumptions: that white prejudice was unconquerable; that blacks naturally gravitated toward tropical climates and, indeed might become extinct if they did not; that color was a natural barrier to racial intermarriage; that race determined physical and intellectual aptitude; and that the ‘character’ of the black and white races had determined that they must separate. To Douglass, the debate over colonization was a struggle to refute this scheme of racial determinism.”22
Douglass biographer Blight wrote: “In September, 1862, through Postmaster General Montgomery Blair, the Lincoln administration tried officially to enlist Frederick Douglass’ aid in its colonization scheme. Douglass had written a letter of protest to Senator Pomeroy, and Blair sought to demonstrate the black editor’s ‘misapprehension’ of the enterprise. Blair assured Douglass that there was ‘no question of superiority or inferiority involved in the proposed removal.’ He invoked the reputation of Thomas Jefferson to underscore the idea of racial separation. The minority race, argued Blair, must go elsewhere to imitate the civilization established by the majority race; the propriety of colonization stemmed from ‘the differences between them…, and it seems as obvious to me as it was to…the mind of Jefferson that the opinion against which you protest, is the necessary result of indelible differences thus made by the Almighty.’”23
President Lincoln’s draft Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862 thrilled Douglass. Historian James Oakes wrote: “Frederick Douglass was beside himself. ‘Abraham Lincoln,’ he exclaimed, ‘in his own peculiar, cautious, forbearing and hesitating way, slow, but we hope sure, has, while the loyal heart was near breaking with despair, proclaimed and declared’ that as of the following January 1 the slaves in the rebellious South ‘Shall be Thenceforward and Forever Free.’ Emancipation once proclaimed was irreversible, Douglass argued. ‘Abraham Lincoln may be slow, Abraham Lincoln may desire peace, but Abraham Lincoln is not the man to reconsider, retract and contradict words and purposes solemnly proclaimed over his official signature.’” 24 Douglass was further energized by the issuance of the final Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. He was in Boston at a rally awaiting word when word came: “It is comin! It is on the wires! A black preacher led the audience in singing “Sound the loud trimbrel o’er Egypt’s dark sea, Jehovah hath triumphed, his people are free.”25
Historian Stephen B. Oates wrote: “The flood of antislavery legislation delighted Frederick Douglass. ‘I trust I am not dreaming,’ he wrote Sumner, ‘but the events taking place seem like a dream.’ But he was grievously disappointed in Lincoln’s colonization moves, which he did not fully understand. Hurt and perplexed by them, Douglass damned the President for ‘his pride of race and blood, his contempt for Negroes and his canting hypocrisy.’ And he warned that the Union cause ‘would never prosper till the war assumed an anti-slavery attitude, and the Negro was enlisted on the loyal side.’”26
The next step on the road to freedom was the admission of black soldiers into the Union Army. Douglass believed that black success as soldiers would help win their acceptance as citizens. For Frederick Douglas, the war was an opportunity for blacks — to show their loyalty to the country and justify their citizenship. Historian Waldo Martin wrote: “For Douglass, blacks generally, and whites, too, the crux of the dilemma whether or not to employ black soldiers was black manhood.” Martin wrote that Douglass “urged his brethren to forget, for the moment, that the call to duty had been tardy. Instead, ‘Action! Action! Not criticism is the plain duty of this hour. Words are now useful only as they stimulate to blows.” Blacks should also embrace the opportunity to serve in the military to fulfill and protect their status as American citizens, to prevent a proslavery compromise between the Union and the Confederacy, and to be a part of the ‘ennobling and sou enlarging’ war for black liberation.”27
Historian David Blight wrote: “As agitator, recruiter, and spokesman, Douglass gave the black soldier immense significance. The service of blacks in the Union forces came to represent both public and private meanings of Douglass’ wartime thought.” 28 Historian Dudley Taylor Cornish wrote: “Following his own advice, Douglass traveled throughout the North making speech after speech urging Negro audiences to enlist in the 54thth Massachusetts and alter, as other organizations got under way, in a variety of colored regiments recruited in the free states. He had a warm spot in his heart for the regiment in which his sons were serving, and with pardonable parental pride he pointed out to the crowds who came to hear him that Charles and Lewis Douglass had been the first Empire State men to join the 54thth. American Negroes generally, Douglass argued, owed a special debt to Massachusetts. ‘We can get at the throat of treason and slavery through the State of Massachusetts,’ he maintained. ‘She was first in the War of Independence; first to break the chains of her slaves; first to make the black man equal before the law; first to admit colored children to her common schools. She was first to answer with her blood the alarm-cry of the nation when its capital was menaced by the Rebels. You know her patriotic Governor, and you know Charles Sumner. I need add no more. Massachusetts now welcomes you as her soldiers.”29
Douglass was one of the most persuasive promoters of the new regiment, Two of his sons joined it. Historian Dudley Taylor Cornish wrote: “Following his own advice, Douglas traveled throughout the North making speech after speech urging Negro audiences to enlist in the 54thth Massachusetts and later, as other organizations got under way, in a variety of colored regiments recruited in the free states. He had a warm spot in his heart for the regiment in which his sons were serving, and with pardonable parental pride he pointed out to the crowds who came to hear him that Charles and Lewis Douglass had been the first Empire State men to join the 54th. American Negroes generally, Douglass argued, owed a special debt to Massachusetts. ‘We can get at the throat of treason and slavery through the State of Massachusetts,’ he maintained. ‘She was first in the War of Independence; first to break the chains of her slaves; first to make the black man equal before the law; first to admit colored children to her common schools. She was first to answer with her blood the alarm-cry of the nation when its capital was menaced by the Rebels. You know her patriotic Governor, and you know Charles Sumner. I need add no more. Massachusetts now welcomes you as her soldiers.” 30 Douglass “had traveled this lecture circuit many times before, but never with such a purpose. In town after town, the black orator appealed to young blacks to join up. By mid-April Douglass had sent more than one hundred men off to Readville, Massachusetts the training site of the 54thth,” wrote biographer David W Blight. “Privately Douglass admitted to some initial ‘hesitation’ about black enlistment due to the denial of officer’s status, but for the moment, he told Gerrit Smith, blacks ‘should hail the opportunity of getting on the United States uniform as a very great advance.’ Publicly, Douglass counseled ‘Action! Action! Not criticism.’”31
Douglass’s patience, as always, was limited. In early August 1863, Douglass wrote Boston businessmen George Luther Stearns to announce his ending of his recruiting efforts. Blight wrote: “But Stearns did not allow his most famous recruiter to step aside easily. He sent Douglass the news of Lincoln’s retaliatory proclamation and urged him to go to Washington and present the black soldiers’ grievances to Lincoln himself. On August 10, 1863, Douglass visited Washington for the first time, meeting with the president and the secretary of war.” In 1863 “Douglass became deeply discouraged over the of black prisoners of war by the Confederacy,” according to historian David W. Blight. “In two editorials written sometime in late July, he viciously attacked Lincoln’s silence on Confederate killings of black prisoners, as well as threats of their enslavement. ‘The slaughter of blacks taken as captives,’ wrote an outraged Douglass, ‘seems to affect him Lincoln as little as the laughter of beeves for the use of his army.’ Douglass wanted an eye for an eye — one southerner put to death for every black soldier killed as a prisoner of war.”32
Historian James Oakes wrote that “he was upset by Lincoln’s failure to respond aggressively to the South’s refusal to treat captured black soldiers as prisoners of war. Instead the Confederacy defined them as insurrectionists, the punishment for whom was execution or enslavement. But more worrisome than the official policy, which southern officials enforced irregularly and with some reluctance, was the violent behavior of southern troops in the field. There were reports of several brutal massacres of black soldiers by Confederate troops. Douglass wanted Lincoln to respond in kind. ‘For every black prisoner slain in cold blood, Mr. Jefferson Davis should be made to understand that one rebel officer shall suffer death,’ Douglass wrote.” 33 At the end of July 1863, President Lincoln issued an order for such retaliation — but it was never enforced.
On August 10, 1863, Kansas Senator Samuel Pomeroy escorted Douglass first to see Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton and then to meet with President Lincoln. Douglas told Mr. Lincoln “that there were three particulars which I wished to bring to his attention. First, that colored soldiers ought to receive the same wages as those paid to white soldiers. Second, that colored soldiers ought to receive the same protection when taken prisoners, and be exchanged as readily, and on the same terms, as any other prisoners, and if Jefferson Davis should shoot or hang colored soldiers in cold blood, the United States government should retaliate in kind and degree….Third, when colored soldiers, seeking the ‘bauble-reputation at the cannon’s mouth,’ performed great and uncommon service on the battle-field, they would be rewarded by distinction and promotion.” 34 Historian Waldo E. Martin, Jr. wrote: “The threat of further Confederate brutality, Lincoln maintained, prevented the Union government from retaliating for excessive Confederate brutality toward black captives. Even though Douglass found Lincoln’s cautious and diplomatic response only partially satisfactory, he came away convinced of the president’s sincerity. When a purported commission for Douglass failed to materialize, he refused to sulk. Instead, he redoubled his agitation to ensure an abolitionist and just peace.”35
Presidential aide John Hay wrote in his diary: “Fred Douglass in company with Sen. Pomeroy visited the President yesterday. Frederick intends to go south and help the recruiting among his people.” 36 Secretary of the Interior John P. Usher wrote out a pass for Douglass: “The bearer of this, Frederick Douglass, is known to us as a loyal, free, man, and is, hence, entitled to travel, unmolested. We trust he will be recognized everywhere, as a free man, and a gentleman.” President Lincoln wrote on the pass: “I concur.” 37 Douglass’ support was a mixed blessing for President Lincoln Historian James Oakes wrote: “In December 1863 Douglass had given a speech detailing a meeting he had with Lincoln at the White House a few months before. When Douglass’s speech was published, the Democrats gobbled up the juiciest quotes and regurgitated them in a pamphlet entitled Miscegenation Indorsed by the Republican Party.”38
Douglass wavered in the spring of 1864 when anti-Lincoln radicals gathered at Cleveland to nominate an alternative to President Lincoln. Larry E. Nelson wrote: “Frederick Douglas, believing that the proposed assembly was in the best interest of his race, publicly supported the convention call.” 39 But after the convention nominated General John C. Frémont — support, Douglass restrained his support. “During the summer of 1864, with the war in a bloody stalemate in Virginia, he maintained his criticism of the Lincoln administration, giving every sign that he would work against the president’s reelection in the fall. But in August, Lincoln invited Douglass to the White House for an urgent meeting,” wrote historian David W. Blight.” 40 Before he visited with President Lincoln in August, Union Army chaplain John Eaton met with Douglass in Ohio: “My heart was heavy with the mistreatment and suffering of the Negroes in the conquered territory over which my supervision extended. Douglass and I had found much to talk about, and I was able to give Mr. Lincoln a fairly clear notion of his point of view. The Negro orator felt keenly that our measures of retaliation against cruelty to Negro soldiers were not sharp enough. When I had finished, the President asked if Mr. Douglass knew what he had written Governor Michael Hahn about Negro suffrage.” The President then took his March letter to Hahn out and read it to Eaton.”
“When he had finished reading, the President of the United States and the greatest man of his time asked me, with that curious modesty characteristic of him, if I thought Mr. Douglass could be induced to come to see him. I replied that I rather thought he could. It was soon arranged that Douglass should visit Washington and see the President.”41
In August 19, 1864, the President met again with Frederick Douglass and recruited the former slave to help organize slave escapees as volunteer recruits for the Union Army. A few days later, Douglass wrote the President: “all with whom I have thus far spoken on the subject, concur in the wisdom and benevolence of the idea, and some of them think it is practicable. That every slave who escapes from the Rebel States is a loss to the Rebellion and a gain to the Loyal Cause I need not stop to argue; the proposition is self evident. The negro is the stomach of the rebellion.” 42
Eaton remembered: “Immediately after the interview I called upon Douglass, and found him pacing the long, old-fashioned parlors in a state of extreme agitation. He did not know that I was in Washington, and greeted me in surprise; but nothing could distract his mind for long from that interview. ‘I have just come from President Lincoln,’ he said, making no attempt to suppress his excitement. ‘He treated me as a man; he did not let me feel for a moment that there was any difference in the color of our skins! The President is a most remarkable man. I am satisfied now that he is doing all that circumstances will permit him to do. He asked me a number of questions, which I am preparing to answer in writing,’ and he pointed to the writing materials on a table near him. There was never any doubt afterwards of Mr. Douglass’s enthusiastic regard for the President.”43
In the dark light of the reception room, one Wisconsin visitor to the White House misstook Douglass for the President. When Judge Joseph T. Mills subsequently asked President Lincoln if “you are in favor if miscegenation,” Mr. Lincoln responded: “That’s a democratic mode of producing good Union men, & I don’t propose to infringe on the patent.” Lincoln scholar Roy P. Basler wrote: “Two things interest me about this incident. First, Lincoln’s total good humor in having Douglass, whose very striking, bearded mullatto face was not much darker than Lincoln’s sallow bearded one, mistaken for himself. The second thing is not merely the aptness, but the widening circles of implication for speculation in his metaphorical answer. For although Lincoln’s public pronouncements on miscegenation consistently stated his personal view that miscegenation was not for him, and that it was probably not for most, I believe he recognized it had been and would probably continue to be a principal concern between the two races, which individuals would have to meet as individuals.”44
Historian James Oakes wrote: “After his second meeting with the President, Douglass wrote up a memo to Lincoln detailing his plans to spread word of emancipation as broadly as possible in the Confederate South. But the plans proved unnecessary when the fortunes of the war shifted decisively in favor of the Union. Weeks before election day the city of Atlanta was captured by Union forces after a successful siege by General William T. Sherman.”45 Frederick Douglas wrote: “My interviews with President Lincoln and his able secretary greatly increased my confidence in the antislavery integrity of the government, although I confess I was greatly disappointed at my failure to receive the commission promised me by Secretary Stanton. I, however, faithfully believed, and loudly proclaimed my belief, that the rebellion would be suppressed, the Union preserved, the slaves emancipated, and the colored soldiers would in the end have justice done them.”46
President Lincoln subsequently invited Douglass to meet with him at the Soldiers’ Home on the outskirts of Washington but Douglass declined because of a scheduling conflict. Historian James Oakes wrote that “there is every reason to believe that Lincoln invited Douglass to the Soldier’s Home because he enjoyed Douglass’s company as much as he valued Douglass’s opinion. At least that is what Douglass believed when he recalled the invitation some years later.” 47 In mid-September 1864, Frémont withdrew from the campaign and Douglass reevaluated his public position on the election. Historian Larry E. Nelson wrote that Douglass “explained that he had criticized Lincoln in public and private and withheld support while hoping for the nomination and election of a man ‘of more decided anti-slavery convictions’ and a firmer commitment to ‘justice and equality for all men.’ Convinced that such a possibility no longer existed, Douglass declared that ‘every man who wished well to the slave and to the country should at once rally with all the warmth and earnestness of his nature to the support of Abraham Lincoln.’” 48
An important factor in Douglass’s decision was the nomination of General George B. McClellan at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Douglass wrote: “When we were thus asked to exchange Abraham Lincoln for McClellan — a successful Union president for an unsuccessful Union general — a part earnestly endeavoring to save the Union, torn and rent by a gigantic rebellion, I thought with Mr. Lincoln, that it was not wise to ‘swap horses while crossing a stream.’ Regarding, as I did, the continuance of the war to the complete suppression of the rebellion, and the retention in office of President Lincoln as essential to the total destruction of slavery, I certainly exerted myself to the uttermost, in my small way, to secure his reelection.”49
Douglass was again heartened on January 31, 1865, when with the help of President Lincoln the House of Representatives passed the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery. Historian Michael Vorenberg wrote that among the blacks in the gallery was Charles Douglass, son of the abolitionist leader. “I wish that you could have been here,” the former Union soldier wrote his father, “such rejoicing I never before witnessed (white people I mean).” 50 Douglass was further thrilled by President Lincoln’s Second Inaugural speech five weeks later, but chagrined by his reception later that day at the White House. He recalled in his memoirs:
“In the evening of the day of the inauguration, another new experience awaited me. The usual reception was given at the Executive Mansion, and though no colored persons had ever ventured to present themselves on such occasions, it seemed now that freedom had become the law of the Republic, now that colored men were on the battlefield mingling their blood with that of white men in one common effort to save the country, it was not too great an assumption for a colored man to offer his congratulations to the president with those of other citizens. I decided to go, and sought in vain for someone of my own color to accompany me. It is never an agreeable experience to go where there can be any doubt of welcome, and my colored friends had too often realized discomfiture from this cause to be willing to subject themselves to such unhappiness; they wished me to go, as my New England colored friends in the long ago liked very well to have me take passage on the first-class cars, and be hauled out and pounded by rough-handed brakemen, to make way for them. It was plain, then, that someone must lead the way, and that if the colored man would have his rights, he must take them; and now, though it was plainly quite the thing for me to attend President Lincoln’s reception, ‘they all with one accord began to make excuse.’ It was finally arranged that Mrs. Dorsey should bear me company, so together we joined in the grand procession of citizens from all parts of the country, and moved slowly towards the executive mansion.”
“I had for some time looked upon myself as a man, but now in this multitude of the elite of the land, I felt myself a man among men. I regret to be obliged to say, however, that this comfortable assurance was not of long duration, for on reaching the door, two policemen stationed there took me rudely by the arm and ordered me to stand back, for their directions were to admit no persons of my color. The reader need not be told that this was a disagreeable setback. But once in the battle, I did not think it well to submit to repulse. I told the officers I was…sure there must be some mistake, for no such order could have emanated from President Lincoln; and if he knew I was at the door he would desire my admission. They then — to put an end to the parley, as I suppose, for we were obstructing the doorway and were not easily pushed aside — assumed an air of politeness, and offered to conduct me in. We followed their lead, and soon found ourselves walking some planks out of a window, which had been arranged as a temporary passage for the exit of visitors. We halted so soon as we saw the trick, and I said to the officers: “You have deceived me. I shall not go out of this building till I see President Lincoln.” At this moment a gentleman who was passing in, recognized me, and I said to him: ‘Be so kind as to say to Mr. Lincoln that Frederick Douglass is detained by officers at the door.’”
“It was not long before Mrs. Dorsey and I walked into the spacious East Room, amid a scene of elegance such as in this country I had never witnessed before. Like a mountain pine high above all others, Mr. Lincoln stood, in his grand simplicity, and homelike beauty. Recognizing me, even before I reached him, he exclaimed, so that all around could hear him, ‘Here comes my friend Douglass.’ Taking me by the hand, he said, “I am glad to see you. I saw you in the crowd today, listening to my inaugural address; how did you like it?” I said, “Mr. Lincoln, I must not detain you with my poor opinion, when there are thousands waiting to shake hands with you.” “No, no,” he said, “you must stop a little, Douglass; there is no man in the country whose opinion I value more than yours. I want to know what you think of it.” I replied, “Mr. Lincoln, that was a sacred effort.” “I am glad you liked it!” he said, and I passed on, feeling that any man, however distinguished, might well regard himself honored by such expressions, from such a man.”
“It came out that the officers at the White House had received no orders from Mr. Lincoln, or from anyone else. They were simply complying with an old custom, the outgrowth of slavery, as dogs will sometimes rub their necks, long after their collars are removed, thinking they are still there. My colored friends were well pleased with what had seemed to them a doubtful experiment, and I believe were encouraged by its success to follow my example. I have found in my experience that the way to break down an unreasonable custom is to contradict it in practice. To be sure in pursuing this course I have had to contend not merely with the white race, but with the black. The one has condemned me for my presumption in daring to associate with them, and the other for pushing myself where they take it for granted I am not wanted. I am pained to think that the latter objection springs largely from a consciousness of inferiority, for as colors alone can have nothing against each other, and the conditions of human association are founded upon character rather than color, and character depends upon mind and morals, there can be nothing blameworthy in people thus equal in meeting each other on the plain of civil or social rights.”51
Frederick Douglass recalled of his interactions with President Lincoln: “The simple approached him with ease, and the learned approached him with deference.” 52 Douglass wrote: “In all my interviews with Mr. Lincoln I was impressed with his entire freedom from popular prejudice against the colored race. He was the first great man that I talked with in the United States freely, who in no single instance reminded me of the difference between himself and myself, of the difference of color, and I thought that all the more remarkable cause he came from a State where there were black laws. I account partially for his kindness to me because of the similarity with which I had fought my way up, we both starting at the lowest rung of the ladder.”53
After President Lincoln’s assassination in April 1865, Douglass was called upon in Rochester, New York, to give an impromptu eulogy for the murdered President. He told the crowd: “It was only a few weeks ago that I shook his brave, honest hand, and looked into his gentle eye and heard his kindly voice.” 54 A few months later, Douglass wrote: “If he did not control events he had the wisdom to be instructed by them. When he could no longer withstand the current he swam with it.” 55 On April 14, 1876, Douglass spoke at the dedication of the statute of Abraham Lincoln in a park a few blocks east of the Capitol: “I concede to you, my white fellow citizens, a preeminence in this worship at once full and supreme. First, midst, and last, you and yours were the objects of his deepest affection and his most earnest solicitude. You are the children of Abraham Lincoln. We are at best only his stepchildren; children by adoption, children by force of circumstances and necessity. To you it especially belongs to sound his praises, to preserve and perpetuate his memory.”56 Political scientist Lucas Morel commented: “Douglass is correct to surmise that Lincoln did not view his constitutional authority to include the abolition of slavery by mere executive fiat, especially during a time of peace.”57 Douglas understood that President Lincoln saw his primary constituency as the white voters who elected him and whose votes could assure continuity of his policies.
After President Lincoln’s death, Douglass continued the fight for black equality — especially for black suffrage, but he acknowledged his autobiography that “I felt I had reached the end of the noblest and best part of my life.” 58 He remained a strong supporter of the Republican Party until his death in 1892 largely because of his antipathy to Democratic involvement in protecting slavery. He moved to Washington after his Rochester house burned down in 1872. Under Ulysses S. Grant, he was appointed president of the Freedmen’s Bank, a banking institution which was destined for failure before Douglass arrived. Under President Rutherford B. Hayes, he was appointed U.S. marshall for the District of Columbia; under President James Garfield, he was recorder of deeds for the District of Columbia, and under President Benjamin Harrison, he was named U.S. ambassador to Haiti.
Historian Waldo Martin wrote: “Douglass’s position as the preeminent black spokesman continued after the war and emancipation. Forty-seven years old in 1865, he decided after much soul-searching that he could still best serve his people’s cause through hard-hitting agitation as a leader rather than as an elected official. In fact, with increasing age, personal comfort, and venerability, Douglass’s leadership often assumed a more moderate and emblematic quality that tended to overshadow its earlier, more activist and reformist quality.”59 Indeed, noted historian James Oakes, Douglas’ leadership and rhetoric became more Lincolnian: “Echoes of Lincoln reappeared over and over in Douglass’s words. More than once Lincoln had associated slavery with the divine right of kings or with predatory aristocrats who lived off the fruits of other men’s labor. In 1894 Douglass used nearly identical language to rebuke those who favored stripping black men of their voting privileges.”60
Featured Book (continued)
William S. McFeely, Frederick Douglass
(Norton & Co., 1991)
James Oakes, The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery
(W. W. Norton (2007)
- William S. McFeely, Frederick Douglass, p. 169.
- William S. McFeely, Frederick Douglass, p. 2.
- Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, p. 126.
- Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, p. vii.
- James Oakes, The Radical and The Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics, p. 7.
- James Oakes, The Radical and The Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics, pp. 33. 91, 58.
- Cullom Davis, Charles B. Strozier, Rebecca Monroe Veach and Geoffrey C. Ward, The Public and the Private Lincoln: Contemporary Perspectives (Roy P. Basler, “Lincoln, Blacks, and Women”), p. 49.
- Waldo E. Martin, The Mind of Frederick Douglass, p. 60.
- James Oakes, The Radical and The Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics, p. 90.
- Leon Litwack and Auguest Meier, editors, Black Leaders of the Nineteenth Century (Waldo E. Martin, Jr., “Frederick Douglass: Humanist as Race Leader”), p. 75.
- James Oakes, The Radical and The Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics, p. 21.
- Gerald Sorin, Abolitionism: A New Perspective, p. 114.
- James M. McPherson, The Struggle for Equality: Abolitionists and the Negro in the Civil War and Reconstruction, p. 25.
- William S. McFeely, Frederick Douglass, p. 187.
- William S. McFeely, Frederick Douglass, p. 214.
- Leon Litwack and August Meier, editors, Black Leaders of the Nineteenth Century (Waldo E. Martin, Jr., “Frederick Douglass: Humanist as Race Leader”), p. 74.
- David W. Blight, Frederick Douglass’ Civil War; Keeping Faith in Jubilee, pp. 176-177.
- James Oakes, The Radical and The Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics, p. 131.
- James Oakes, The Radical and The Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics, p. 194.
- David W. Blight, Frederick Douglass’ Civil War: Keeping Faith in Jubilee, p. 123.
- James Oakes, The Radical and The Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics, p. 220.
- David W. Blight, Frederick Douglass’ Civil War: Keeping Faith in Jubilee, pp. 126, 127, 141.
- David W. Blight, Frederick Douglass’ Civil War: Keeping Faith in Jubilee, p. 143.
- James Oakes, The Radical and The Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics, p. 197.
- Frederick Douglass, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, p. 359.
- Stephen B. Oates, Abraham Lincoln: The Man Behind The Myths, p. 103.
- Waldo E. Martin, The Mind of Frederick Douglass, pp. 61, 62.
- David W. Blight, Frederick Douglass’ Civil War: Keeping Faith in Jubilee, p. 148.
- Dudley Taylor Cornish, The Sable Arm: Black Troops in the Union Army, 1861-1865, p. 109.
- Luis F. Emilio, A Brave Black Regiment: History of the 54th Massachusetts, 1863-1865, p. 14.
- David W. Blight, Frederick Douglass’ Civil War: Keeping Faith in Jubilee, p. 159.
- David W. Blight, Frederick Douglass’ Civil War: Keeping Faith in Jubilee, pp. 168, 166.
- James Oakes, The Radical and The Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics, p. 207.
- Frederick Douglass, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, p. 406.
- Leon Litwack and August Meier, editors, Black Leaders of the Nineteenth Century (Waldo E. Martin, Jr., “Frederick Douglass: Humanist as Race Leader”), p. 76.
- Michael Burlingame and John R. Turner Ettlinger, Inside Lincoln’s White House: The Complete Civil War Diary of John Hay (August 11, 1863), p. 72.
- Roy P. Basler, editor, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (CWAL), First Supplement (Pass for Frederick Douglass, August 10, 1863), p. 198.
- James Oakes, The Radical and The Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics, p. xxi.
- Larry E. Nelson, “Black Leaders and the Presidential Election of 1864″, The Journal of Negro History, January 1978, p. 48.
- David W. Blight, Frederick Douglass’ Civil War: Keeping Faith in Jubilee, p. 183.
- John Eaton, Grant, Lincoln and the Freedmen: Reminiscences of the Civil War, pp. 174, 175.
- Harold Holzer, editor, Dear Mr. Lincoln (Letter from Frederick Douglass to Abraham Lincoln, August 29, 1864), p. 269.
- John Eaton, Grant, Lincoln and the Freedmen: Reminiscences of the Civil War, p. 175.
- Cullom Davis, Charles B. Strozier, Rebecca Monroe Veach and Geoffrey Ward, editors, The Public and the Private Lincoln: Contemporary Perspectives (Roy P. “Basler, Lincoln, Blacks, and Women”), p. 51.
- James Oakes, The Radical and The Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics, p. 235.
- Frederick Douglass, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, p. 347.
- James Oakes, The Radical and The Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics, p. 238.
- Larry E. Nelson, “Black Leaders and the Presidential Election of 1864″, The Journal of Negro History, January 1978, pp. 51-52.
- Frederick Douglass, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, p. 352.
- Michael Vorenberg, Final Freedom: The Civil War, the Abolition of Slavery, and the Thirteenth Amendment, p. 207.
- Frederick Douglass, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, pp. 356-358.
- Osborn H. Oldroyd, editor, The Lincoln Memorial: Album-Immortelles (Frederick Douglass), p. 265.
- Allen Thorndike Rice, editor, Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln (Frederick Douglass), p. 193.
- James Oakes, The Radical and The Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics, p. 245.
- James Oakes, The Radical and The Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics, p. 260.
- Frederick Douglass, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (Speech at the Freedmen’s Monument, April 16, 1876), p. 481.
- Charles M. Hubbard, editor, Lincoln Reshapes the Presidency (Lucas E. Morel, “America’s First Black President? Lincoln’s Legacy of Political Transcendence”), p. 135.
- Frederick Douglass, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, p. 453.
- Leon Litwack and August Meier, editors, Black Leaders of the Nineteenth Century (Waldo E. Martin, Jr., “Frederick Douglass: Humanist as Race Leader”), p. 76.
- James Oakes, The Radical and The Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics, p. 284.