Why Frederick Douglass Despised, then Loved Abraham Lincoln
When Mary Todd Lincoln was gathering her belongings to leave the White House after the death of her husband, she decided to give his favorite walking cane to a man she knew the martyred President highly valued as a friend and partner in the cause of liberty. And she was sure the recipient returned that regard. She said to her dressmaker, Elizabeth Keckley, “I know of no one that would appreciate this more than Frederick Douglass.”
Mrs. Lincoln was right about the friendship between Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. Although the two men only met face to face three times, Lincoln came to value Douglass’s perspective and the forthrightness with which he expressed it. Douglass, in his turn, would later say in his 1888 speech commemorating the 79th anniversary of Lincoln's birth, that having known Abraham Lincoln personally was "one of the grandest experiences" of his life.
Douglass, the Abolitionist
Frederick Douglass was a former slave who became known throughout the nation and the world as a powerful advocate for the immediate and total abolition of slavery.
Born in 1818 in Talbot County, Maryland, Douglass escaped from his enslavement in 1838. He eventually settled in New Bedford, Massachusetts, where he quickly became involved in the anti-slavery abolitionist movement. A protégé of William Lloyd Garrison, editor of the influential abolitionist newspaper, the Liberator, Douglass’s powerful anti-slavery oratory soon made him the most well known black man in the country.
For Frederick Douglass, abolition was first and last a moral issue. Slavery was simply evil, an offense against God and all decency. To Douglass’s mind, once any decent person understood how evil the slave system was, they could not help being as fervently committed to its immediate destruction as he was. And his job was to tell them, which he did in a series of passionate orations that moved audiences sometimes to tears.
On the spectrum of commitment to the immediate and total abolition of American slavery, Frederick Douglass was red hot; he had no use for anyone he saw as temporizing on the issue.
And that was Frederick Douglass’s problem with Abraham Lincoln.
Lincoln, the Constitutionalist
Abraham Lincoln hated slavery. He claimed in an 1858 speech at Chicago to hate it “as much as any Abolitionist.”
It would obviously be going too far to say that Lincoln was as fervently anti-slavery as a man like Douglass, who had himself lived and suffered under the lash. But, as indicated in his writings, speeches, and political affiliations, Abraham Lincoln’s personal aversion to slavery was deeply embedded in his character. It was his unbending commitment to preventing any further expansion of the institution from the states where it already existed into the western territories of the United States that brought him to national prominence, and ultimately to the presidency.
Yet Lincoln was no abolitionist. He wanted slavery to end, but that was never his first priority. Here’s how he explained his position in an 1864 letter to Albert G. Hodges, a Kentucky newspaper editor:
I am naturally anti-slavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I can not remember when I did not so think, and feel. And yet I have never understood that the Presidency conferred upon me an unrestricted right to act officially upon this judgment and feeling. It was in the oath I took that I would, to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.
To Lincoln, slavery was wrong but Constitutionally protected
Abraham Lincoln’s primary allegiance, both before and during his presidency, was to the Constitution of the United States. As a lawyer who had studied the Constitution carefully with regard to its stance on slavery, he was convinced that while America’s founding document did not overtly support slavery as a principle, it did accommodate the institution as a necessary compromise between slave and free states. Without that compromise, the Constitution could never have been ratified.
To Lincoln that meant that no matter how much he as an individual might personally abhor the “peculiar institution,” he had no right, as a citizen or as President, to defy the Constitution’s acceptance of slavery in states that continued to practice it.
A stark example of the dilemma Lincoln was placed in by his commitment to the Constitution can be seen in his personal anguish concerning the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. That legislation, widely reviled in the North, required state officials to apprehend runaway slaves (such as Frederick Douglass had been until friends bought his freedom), and turn them over to their “owners” for re-enslavement.
A. J. Grover recorded a conversation he had with Lincoln in 1860, just prior to Lincoln’s election as president, about the Fugitive Slave Law. Lincoln, said Grover, “detested this law.” But when Grover asserted that Constitution or no Constitution, he himself would never obey such a law, Lincoln replied emphatically, slapping his hand against his knee:
It is ungodly! It is ungodly! No doubt it is ungodly! But it is the law of the land, and we must obey it as we find it.
Lincoln made this understanding of his Constitutional responsibilities official policy in his first inaugural address, saying:
I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.
Douglass, the Firebrand despises Lincoln, the Pragmatist
To a firebrand like Frederick Douglass, this refusal of the new president to mount a campaign against human bondage was nothing less than craven capitulation to the slave states for the sake of trying to hold them in the Union. Stigmatizing the inaugural speech as “little better than our worst fears,” he lambasted it in his Douglass' Monthly magazine:
Mr. Lincoln opens his address by announcing his complete loyalty to slavery in the slave States… He is not content with declaring that he has no lawful power to interfere with slavery in the States, but he also denies having the least “inclination” to interfere with slavery in the States. This denial of all feeling against slavery, at such a time and in such circumstances, is wholly discreditable to the head and heart of Mr. Lincoln. Aside from the inhuman coldness of the sentiment, it was a weak and inappropriate utterance.
And there was, from Douglass’s point of view, worse yet to come.
Should Lincoln have acted sooner to end slavery?
Lincoln scuttles a premature emancipation proclamation
In August 1861 General John. C. Fremont issued, on his own authority, a proclamation of emancipation freeing all slaves in Missouri belonging to owners who did not swear allegiance to the Union. Desperate to keep slave-holding border states like Missouri and Kentucky from bolting to the Confederacy, Lincoln rescinded Fremont’s proclamation. In his annual message to Congress, given on December 3, 1861, the president made his policy explicit:
The Union must be preserved, and hence, all indispensable means must be employed. We should not be in haste to determine that radical and extreme measures, which may reach the loyal as well as the disloyal, are indispensable.
Everyone knew that “radical and extreme measures” was a reference to emancipation.
Frederick Douglass was incensed, and his disgust with Lincoln and his policies knew no bounds. As far as Douglass was concerned, "the friends of freedom, the Union, and the Constitution, have been most basely betrayed.”
The Emancipation Proclamation changes Douglass’s opinion of Lincoln
But all that began to change on September 22, 1862. That was the day President Lincoln announced the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. He did so not because of his personal anti-slavery convictions, but as a war measure to deprive the Confederacy of its slave labor force.
Frederick Douglass was overjoyed. “We shout for joy,” he exulted, “that we live to record this righteous decree.” Though Lincoln had been “cautious, forbearing and hesitating, slow,” now “long enslaved millions, whose cries have so vexed the air and sky” would soon be forever free.
Douglass was even happier when Lincoln released the final Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. The president had added a provision calling for enlistment of black soldiers into the U. S. Army. This was a step Douglass had been fervently urging since the beginning of the war, proclaiming:
Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letter, U.S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket, there is no power on earth that can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship.
Douglass immediately started traveling throughout the North to encourage recruitment in African American communities. Two of his own sons enlisted.
But soon problems arose that began to cool Douglass’s enthusiasm. On August 1, 1863, he announced in his newspaper that he would no longer recruit black soldiers for the Union. “When I plead for recruits, I want to do it with all my heart,” he said. “I cannot do that now.”
There were three paramount issues that Douglass felt demanded resolution:
- Confederate policy, as decreed by Jefferson Davis and the Southern Congress, was to treat captured black soldiers not as prisoners of war, but as insurrectionary runaways to be re-enslaved or even executed.
- While white soldiers were paid $13 a month with no deductions, blacks received only $10 per month, from which $3 was held back as a clothing deduction, yielding a net pay of only $7.
- Black soldiers, all of whom were relegated to segregated units under white officers, had no hope of being promoted to officer status, no matter how meritorious their service.
Douglass knew there was only one man in the country who could definitively address these issues. So, he determined to seek a face to face interview with Abraham Lincoln.
A black man visits the White House
On the morning of August 10, 1863, Douglass, accompanied by Kansas Republican Senator Samuel C. Pomeroy, went first to the War Department to meet with Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, who offered Douglass a commission as an Army officer to facilitate his efforts at recruiting black soldiers. From there, Douglass and Pomeroy walked the short distance to the White House.
Douglass was very apprehensive about how he would be received. The President wasn’t expecting him, and there was already a large crowd waiting to see Mr. Lincoln. Douglass later recorded his thoughts on that important day:
The distance then between the black man and the white American citizen, was immeasurable. I was an ex-slave, identified with a despised race; and yet I was to meet the most exalted person in this great Republic… I could not know what kind of a reception would be accorded me. I might be told to go home and mind my own business, and leave such questions as I had come to discuss to be managed by the men wisely chosen by the American people to deal with them, or I might be refused an interview altogether.
Referring to the large group of people already waiting to see the President, Douglass went on to say:
They were white; and as I was the only dark spot among them, I expected to have to wait at least half a day; I had heard of men waiting a week; but in two minutes after I sent in my card, the messenger came out, and respectfully invited “Mr. Douglass” in.
From the start, President Lincoln treated his visitor with dignity, “just as you have seen one gentleman receive another,” Douglass would later say. “I was never more quickly or more completely put at ease in the presence of a great man.”
When Douglass introduced himself, the president invited him to sit down, saying,
You need not tell me who you are, Mr. Douglass; I know who you are; Mr. Seward (Lincoln’s Secretary of State) has told me all about you.
Douglass later recalled that as he began explaining the concerns that brought him to the White House, “Mr. Lincoln listened with earnest attention and with very apparent sympathy, and replied to each point in his own peculiar, forcible way.”
Lincoln respectfully answers Douglass's concerns
On the issue of Confederate treatment of black soldiers, Lincoln had just a few days before put a new policy in place. On July 30, 1863 the President issued his Order of Retaliation, General Order 233, providing that “for every soldier of the United States killed in violation of the laws of war, a rebel soldier shall be executed; and for every one enslaved by the enemy or sold into slavery, a rebel soldier shall be placed at hard labor on the public works and continued at such labor until the other shall be released and receive the treatment due to a prisoner of war.”
Regarding black soldiers receiving equal pay with whites, Lincoln reminded his visitor how difficult it had been to persuade white Northerners to accept blacks in the military at all. Since most whites still believed blacks would not make good soldiers, to push immediately for equal pay would be to move faster than public opinion would allow. “We had to make some concessions to prejudice,” Lincoln said. But, he added, “I assure you, Mr. Douglass, that in the end they shall have the same pay as white soldiers.”
That promise was fulfilled in June 1864 when Congress approved equal pay for black troops retroactive to the time of enlistment.
Finally, with respect to blacks being promoted on the same basis as whites, Lincoln well knew that those same “concessions to prejudice” would continue to limit the promotion of blacks to officer ranks, where they might exercise authority over whites. The President promised Douglass that that “he would sign any commission to colored soldiers whom his Secretary of War should commend to him,” undoubtedly knowing such appointments would be few. By the end of the war about 110 black officers had been commissioned.
In essence, Douglass’s meeting with the President did not bring about any changes in policy. Yet, the meeting was far from unproductive. Douglass later said that he was not entirely satisfied with Lincoln’s views, but was so well satisfied with Lincoln the man that he would resume recruiting.
A personal relationship was born between the two men during that meeting, and it would continue until Lincoln’s death.
Lincoln asks for Douglass’s help
By August of 1864 Northern morale concerning the progress of the war was at its lowest point. On the 23rd of the month, President Lincoln wrote his famous blind memorandum, which he had the members of his cabinet sign without actually seeing its contents. Referring to the presidential election to be held in November, the president said:
This morning, as for some days past, it seems exceedingly probable that this Administration will not be re-elected. Then it will be my duty to so co-operate with the President elect, as to save the Union between the election and the inauguration; as he will have secured his election on such ground that he can not possibly save it afterwards.
It was against this backdrop that, on August 19, 1864, Lincoln invited Frederick Douglass to the White House once again.
Yale historian David Blight on Frederick Douglass
The President was under intense pressure because of increasing opposition to the war.There was a growing belief among the Northern electorate that the only obstacle standing in the way of reaching an agreement with the Confederacy to end the conflict was Lincoln’s commitment to emancipation. He was concerned that, despite his best efforts, a peace might be forced on him, or on his successor, that left slavery intact in the South. If that happened, any slaves who had not found their way into Union lines might never be emancipated.
Douglass later wrote in his autobiography how this concern of the President for the slaves deepened his appreciation of the man.
He saw the danger of premature peace, and, like a thoughtful and sagacious man as he was, he wished to provide means of rendering such consummation as harmless as possible. I was the more impressed by his benevolent consideration because he before said, in answer to the peace clamor, that his object was to save the Union, and to do so with or without slavery. What he said on this day showed a deeper moral conviction against slavery than I had ever seen before in anything spoken or written by him. I listened with the deepest interest and profoundest satisfaction, and, at his suggestion, agreed to undertake the organizing of a band of scouts, composed of colored men, whose business should be somewhat after the original plan of John Brown, to go into the rebel states, beyond the lines of our armies, and carry the news of emancipation, and urge the slaves to come within our boundaries.
“My friend, Douglass”
During their conversation Governor Buckingham of Connecticut arrived to see the President. When Douglass offered to leave, Lincoln refused, saying to his secretary, “tell Governor Buckingham to wait, I want to have a long talk with my friend Douglass.”
By now Lincoln felt so comfortable with his new friend that he invited Douglass to have tea with him and Mary at his Soldier’s Home Cottage retreat. Unfortunately Douglass was unable to attend due to a prior commitment.
Douglass was present at Lincoln’s second inaugural on March 4, 1865. The President saw him and pointed him out to the new Vice President, Andrew Johnson. Douglass thought Johnson “looked quite annoyed that his attention should be called in that direction,” and concluded that Johnson was no friend to African Americans. Johnson’s conduct when he assumed the presidency upon Lincoln’s death would tragically prove the accuracy of that assessment.
Douglass is almost thrown out of the White House
The final time Lincoln and Douglass met face to face was at the President’s reception at the White House the evening of his second inauguration. As Douglass discovered to his chagrin, the long habit of racial discrimination still held sway even in Lincoln’s White House:
As I approached the door I was seized by two policemen and forbidden to enter. I said to them that they were mistaken entirely in what they were doing, that if Mr. Lincoln knew that I was at the door he would order my admission, and I bolted in by them. On the inside I was taken charge of by two other policemen, to be conducted, as I supposed, to the president, but instead of that they were conducting me out the window on a plank…. As a gentleman was passing in I said to him: “Just say to Mr. Lincoln that Fred Douglass is at the door.”
He rushed in to President Lincoln, and in less than a half a minute I was invited into the east room of the White House…
I could not have been more than ten feet from him when Mr. Lincoln saw me; his countenance lighted up, and he said in a voice which was heard all around: “Here comes my friend Douglass.”
Elizabeth Keckley, Mary Lincoln’s African American dressmaker and confidante, was among a group of Douglass’s friends to whom he later recounted his experience at the White House reception. Keckley recalled that he was “very proud of the manner in which Mr. Lincoln received him.”
Was Lincoln the white man’s president?
After Lincoln was assassinated on April 15, 1865, Frederick Douglass almost overflowed with laudatory statements about the man who had welcomed him as a friend. Typical are the sentiments he expressed at a commemorative service celebrating the 79th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth on February 12, 1888.
Abraham Lincoln (was) one of the greatest and best men ever produced by this country, if not ever produced by the world at large… Glorious man! He was a man so broad in his sympathy, so noble in his character, so just in his action, so free from narrow prejudice… To know him as I knew him I regard as one of the grandest privileges experienced by me during a considerable lifetime.
Yet, 12 years earlier, in a speech at the unveiling of The Freedmen’s Monument in Washington, D. C. on April 14, 1876, Douglass had given a seemingly critical evaluation of Abraham Lincoln that has been widely quoted, and almost as widely misunderstood.
It must be admitted, truth compels me to admit, even here in the presence of the monument we have erected to his memory, Abraham Lincoln was not, in the fullest sense of the word, either our man or our model. In his interests, in his associations, in his habits of thought, and in his prejudices, he was a white man.
He was preeminently the white man’s President, entirely devoted to the welfare of white men. He was ready and willing at any time during the first years of his administration to deny, postpone, and sacrifice the rights of humanity in the colored people to promote the welfare of the white people of this country.
How harsh that sounds to our ears today! Yet Douglass did not intend it as a criticism. Rather, as he continues, it becomes clear that what Douglass is really doing is celebrating Lincoln as the perfect, God-appointed man for a task that, had the abolition of slavery been his first priority, he could not have accomplished.
His great mission was to accomplish two things: first, to save his country from dismemberment and ruin; and, second, to free his country from the great crime of slavery. To do one or the other, or both, he must have the earnest sympathy and the powerful cooperation of his loyal fellow-countrymen. Without this primary and essential condition to success his efforts must have been vain and utterly fruitless. Had he put the abolition of slavery before the salvation of the Union, he would have inevitably driven from him a powerful class of the American people and rendered resistance to rebellion impossible.
Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent; but measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined…
Taking him for all in all, measuring the tremendous magnitude of the work before him, considering the necessary means to ends, and surveying the end from the beginning, infinite wisdom has seldom sent any man into the world better fitted for his mission than Abraham Lincoln.
In the end, the impatient firebrand who would settle for nothing less than “abolition now!” realized that had Abraham Lincoln been the anti-slavery zealot activists wanted him to be, he would have failed in his mission. Frederick Douglass came to value the wisdom, skill, and necessary caution that allowed Abraham Lincoln to deftly navigate through extremely turbulent political waters to both save the Union and end slavery.
Like Frederick Douglass, I believe no other man of that time, or perhaps of any time, could have done better.
© 2013 Ronald E. Franklin