On the 203rd anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth (he was born February 12, 1809), Professor Blair L.M. Kelley examines the historic relationship between America’s 16th president, and abolitionist Frederick Douglass — a relationship that set the stage for future presidents and civil rights leaders.
Abraham Lincoln is one of the best known and most frequently cited presidents in American history. He is remembered as the Great Emancipator, and heralded for his leadership in a time of crisis, when the horrors of southern slavery threatened to rip the country apart.
He has been adopted as the benchmark for wisdom and racial justice by both the right and left in American politics. Even the memorial to his memory has taken on a special significance, particularly in the history of the civil rights movement.
In 1939, Marian Anderson sang on the steps of the memorial in defiance of segregationists who sought to bar her from singing in Constitution Hall. In 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. would lead the March on Washington to the Memorial, giving the “I have a Dream” speech on its white marble steps.
Often forgotten in this history is the fact that Lincoln was a reluctant liberator. Lincoln initially refused to allow black troops to serve in the Civil War, believed that enslaved African Americans should be sent to live in Liberia or Haiti after emancipation, and crafted the Emancipation Proclamation so that only the enslaved in the states in rebellion against the Union would be free. He had to be convinced to go further toward ending slavery and crafting just policies on race.
However, Lincoln did move forward on questions of race during his time as president, perhaps in large part because of the influence of Frederick Douglass.
Born a slave in 1818 on a plantation in Maryland, Douglass escaped slavery and became the country’s preeminent abolitionist and advocate for equal rights. In the beginning, Douglass doubted Lincoln’s commitment to ending slavery. As a candidate for president, Lincoln was critical of the ways that slavery undercut the value of free labor, but in office he was reluctant to make the Civil War primarily about the disillusion of the peculiar institution.
Douglass believed that no compromise could be made on the question of slavery and pushed for the recognition that the bondage of millions had to end. Arguing that “the Union cause would never prosper till the war assumed an anti-slavery attitude, and the Negro was enlisted on the loyal side,” Douglass worked fervently to organize black troops for the war effort even before Lincoln had accepted the employment of black troops. Douglass believed that Lincoln would move toward his view that slavery had to end in order to preserve the Union.
As the war effort dragged on, Lincoln reluctantly moved to accept the organization of black troops for the Union cause. However, the black troops were not treated equally. Paid less than white soldiers, and assigned only to do tedious physical labor or used as cannon fodder, white commanders stigmatized the black soldiers within their ranks. Black soldiers also faced extraordinarily grave danger; if they were captured by Confederate soldiers they were brutalized and killed with no consideration for their status as prisoners of war. In the face of such profound inequities, Douglass stopped his efforts at recruiting black soldiers for the Union cause.
These were the dire circumstances that Douglass addressed in his first meeting with Lincoln at the White House in 1862. Douglass would be the first black American to be granted an audience with the president of the United States. The abolitionist statesmen later wrote that he was dreaded being the one to break this barrier; he did not know how he would be received, given the racial mores of the day. In fact many political observers were critical of the visit, including a man waiting to talk to the president who slurred Douglass because he called to speak to the president ahead of white visitors.
In their meeting, Douglass spoke frankly with Lincoln demanding better pay for black soldiers, opportunities for advancement, and the equalization of rights for black prisoners of war. Although Douglass was critical of Lincoln’s approach to the questions of race and slavery, he was impressed with the man. He wrote years later that he was immediately “put at ease” in the presence of the president. Although Lincoln argued that he could not meet all of Douglass’ demands, he did hear him out, promising that a longer record of valiant service would prove to a reluctant white public that black soldiers were deserving of equal pay and opportunities for advancement.
Lincoln viewed his 1863 decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation as a practical means of weakening the Confederate cause, but Douglass saw the move as “a grand moral necessity.”
Douglass foresaw that the proclamation would mark the beginning of the end of slavery on American soil. Although Douglass was critical of a policy that sought to reward loyalist slave owners by only targeting slave owners who had sided with the Confederacy, he found a middle ground during his second meeting with the president.
In the closed door meeting where Lincoln and Douglass created plans to encourage southern slaves to run away to Union lines, Douglass saw that behind the cautious public statements of moderation on the question of slavery, Lincoln “showed a deeper moral conviction against slavery than [he] had ever seen before.” Douglass came to believe that the Emancipation Proclamation “was not affected merely as a ‘necessity’” but was instead a reflection of Lincoln’s sincere anti-slavery sentiment. Douglass saw past the practical questions of policy and saw what was possible. And as adviser, he saw Lincoln moving gradually in his direction.
In the end, Douglass was impressed most by the manner in which Lincoln engaged with him as a man. Douglass wrote, “in his company I was never in any way reminded of my humble origin, or of my unpopular color.”
Although Douglass was a fiery abolitionist, Lincoln’s willingness to engage allowed him to hear the voices to the voiceless through their greatest advocate. Through Douglass, Lincoln learned to consider the questions of war from the point of view of the enslaved. It would be conversation between two great leaders that would help bend the arch of the moral universe toward justice and freedom.