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Why Frederick Douglass Despised, Then Loved Abraham Lincoln

Ron is a student of African American history. His writing highlights the stories of people who overcame prejudice to achieve great things.

The Friendship of Lincoln and Douglass

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 met face to face only 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.

Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln

Lincoln, the Constitutionalist

Abraham Lincoln hated slavery. In an 1858 speech in Chicago, he claimed 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.

Lincoln's cane

Cane given by Mary Todd Lincoln to Frederick Douglass after her husband's death

Cane given by Mary Todd Lincoln to Frederick Douglass after her husband's death

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.

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.

Recruiting Poster

Recruiting Poster

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

"Frederick Douglass appealing to President Lincoln and his cabinet to enlist Negroes" mural by William Edouard Scott

"Frederick Douglass appealing to President Lincoln and his cabinet to enlist Negroes" mural by William Edouard Scott

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.

2nd Lt William H. Dupree of the 55th Massachusetts infantry regiment

2nd Lt William H. Dupree of the 55th Massachusetts infantry regiment

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.

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.

Yale historian David Blight on Frederick Douglass

"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. Douglass, however, 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


Stan on December 29, 2019:

God, I love Abraham Lincoln

Bruce Wing on September 17, 2019:

Sir, this is a magnificent blog. Thank you.

Dr Rick Sjoquist on February 08, 2019:

Thank you, sir, for setting the story straight, especially after Bennett's self-serving "Forced Into Glory" and other revisionist accounts have sought to malign this great man. Lincoln also evolved on slavery as Obama did on gay rights.

Bernie Cyrus on December 03, 2018:

Well here is a shocker for you . It is a well fact Abraham Lincoln was a strong proponent of deportation of all blacks back to Africa . . Like many abolitionists and he was NOT one, freedom from slavery meant they would have to leave America . Most Northern States had strict laws against blacks living in their states . 1848 Illinois voted to keep slavery and Lincoln voted yes. Lincoln first proclaimed an interest in colonization during his eulogy for Henry Clay in 1852, when he admitted his allegiance to the esteemed Kentuckian's dual creed of gradual emancipation coupled with colonization. If slavery could be eliminated and the slaves returned to "their long-lost fatherland," claimed Lincoln, "it will indeed be a glorious consummation." Impressed by Lincoln's commitment to colonization, the members of the Illinois Colonization Society repeatedly asked him to speak at their meetings, and he obliged them in 1853 and again in 1855. Although he was not a leader of the colonization movement in Illinois, Lincoln still could use the issue to attach himself to the political tradition of Clay his mentor. He was a staunch supporter! ,According to University of Maryland Historian Ira Berlin , “When it came to the slaves Lincoln's Colonization movement’s attitude was Get”em outta here!” That meant back to Africa or wherever. Had Lincoln had his "white dream" realized" there would be few black college kids except exchange students. December 31, 1862, Lincoln connected his name to a document that many of his adherents and later apologists would gladly forget: a contract with New Orleanian Bernard Kock, an ambitious and unscrupulous venturer, to use federal funds to remove some five thousand black men, women, and children from the United States to a small island off the coast of Haiti. It was Lincoln's last effort at colonizing blacks outside the United States, executed only one day before he was to sign a proclamation putting into effect his first official effort at permanently freeing slaves in the country.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on November 16, 2018:

Thanks, Pierre. To answer your question, the idea that Lincoln "in no way" thought blacks were the equals of whites is only partially correct. That's certainly the place Lincoln started from. In his 4th debate with Stephen Douglas in 1858 Lincoln said:

"I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, [applause]—that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality."

Given that his only exposure to blacks at that time was to enslaved people who were kept ignorant (in slave states it was typically illegal to teach blacks to read or write) and deliberately subjected to the most stringent moral and physical degradation, it's understandable that Lincoln thought them inferior to whites. But over the course of his presidency, Lincoln came into contact with a different class of black people, such as Elizabeth Keckley, black ministers he invited to the White House, and of course Frederick Douglass. Plus, after blacks began serving in the Union army, reports from the battlefield showed Lincoln that blacks were fully the equals of whites in their courage and commitment to the cause of freedom.

Lincoln’s attitude began to change. As he commented to Douglass, he came to realize that the dismissive attitudes toward blacks harbored by many whites in the North where nothing more than “prejudice.”

In fact, Lincoln’s attitude toward blacks changed so much, it may have cost him his life. Whereas in 1858 he could not conceive of “making voters or jurors of negroes,” in 1865 he made a speech in which he advocated for black suffrage. John Wilkes Booth was in the audience and was enraged. He proclaimed, “That means n—- citizenship! Now, by God, I’ll put him through. That is the last speech he will ever make.” And, as we know, Booth followed through on his threat at Ford’s Theatre.

So, it’s true that Lincoln initially reflected the attitudes of his day regarding equality between blacks and whites. But during the course of his presidency, he learned better. As his respectful treatment of Frederick Douglass and his decision to publicly endorse black suffrage demonstrate, by the end of his life he gave every evidence of having overcome the prejudices of his youth.

Pierre Steiler-Klein on November 16, 2018:

Excellent article which partially answers my original question - mentioned herebelow just in case others had the same:

I would appreciate your opinion about something I read in the last book I bought on the subject - from Englishman John Keegan, entitled 'The American Civil War' (2010).

He writes that even though Lincoln was determined to free the slaves after some time in the war, he in no way believed that a Black person was the equal of a White one. It made me ponder for a while but then I did not find that so surprising once kept in a XIXth century context.

Am I correct in my understanding or have I been misled to think so?

Andy Geisse on September 01, 2018:

Excellent article. It fits very well with a book I am reading, called the Team of Rivals about Lincoln and his rivals for the presidential nomination in 1860. So much amazing history between Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. Amazing leaders.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on June 22, 2018:

Yes, Lincoln initially favored sending freed slaves to Africa. In 1854 he said, "My first impulse would be to free all the slaves, and send them to Liberia, to their own native land." His stated reason was his belief that because of white racism, blacks would never be able to live in peace in this country. However, the black community was adamantly against "colonization," and Lincoln realized he could not coerce them. By the end of the Civil War Lincoln had totally given up on the colonization scheme, and had actually become an advocate of black suffrage, a radically egalitarian idea at the time.

To your second question, I'm not aware of any historical evidence that Lincoln ever favored reserving the West for whites.

Otis Morris on June 22, 2018:

Is it true that Lincoln was an advocate to ship the slaves back to Africa?

Did Lincoln say -- in respect to expanding the western portion of the USA -- that those areas were reserved for the superior white people?

Daniel Abdullah on February 12, 2018:

This is a very good and informative article. I particularly, like the way you highlighted how the Civil War brought their two souls together.

gconey on April 30, 2017:

It's obvious the two great men were very impressed w each other. very interesting article. Add Your Comment...

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on February 22, 2017:

Jim Gerdes, you make a great point about people reading Lincoln superficially, and failing to recognize the context in which he had to operate. I think that on any fair-minded assessment, Lincoln holds up remarkably well. Thanks for reading and sharing.

Jim Gerdes on October 25, 2016:

Excellent article Ron. My only regret is not having read it sooner. I do think many people drawn conclusions about Lincoln (and Douglass for that matter) after reading one or two sentences of his writing or speeches and they fail to grasp the greater context. Thank you so much for the clarity that you brought to this subject.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on February 09, 2016:

Hi, Jennifer. The ironic thing about Lincoln was that he had so much self confidence he could afford to be humble! And yes, Douglass, while never losing his own fiery impatience, did come to recognize that the judicious way Lincoln handled the slavery issue was a practical necessity that led finally to its abolition. Thanks for sharing.

Jennifer Mugrage from Columbus, Ohio on January 20, 2016:

Thanks for this very educational Hub.

I love Lincoln's humility and willingness to learn. Douglass's, too, for that matter. It looks from your article that he came to appreciate Lincoln more and more as he saw his "long game."

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on January 14, 2016:

Thanks, Robert Levine. The great thing about Lincoln was that he never retreated from his personal convictions about slavery and did what he could, under the Constitution, to put them into practice. Thus, even before being inaugurated he made it clear that he would not step back from his commitment to oppose the expansion of slavery into the territories in an attempt to appease the seceding states.

Robert Levine from Brookline, Massachusetts on January 14, 2016:

Bravo, RonElFran, for pointing out the fact that the Confederacy started the Civil War.

I think we see this distinction between personal opinion and sense of official presidential duty in John Quincy Adams, who WAS an abolitionist but didn't speak publicly or act against slavery while President--probably feeling that, as President of the whole country, he shouldn't take a stance he knew the South would balk at. However, while serving in the House of Representatives after his presidency and representing a pretty solidly anti-slavery constituency, he became vociferous in his abolitionism.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on April 18, 2015:


It’s clear to me that one can only reach the conclusions you do by reading the historical evidence through the filter of a preconceived belief that Lincoln was an evil actor and the Confederacy was justified in secession.

For example, you say “Lincoln was a racist who used slavery as an excuse to start a war against the Confederacy.” (1) The idea that in 19th century terms Lincoln was a racist occurred to practically no one at the time, and particularly not to African Americans. (2) You note that Lincoln explicitly proclaimed that his purpose in prosecuting the war was not to free slaves, but you accuse him of using slavery as the excuse to start the war. That is, to say the least, inconsistent. And why in the world would he want to start such a war in the first place? (3) The idea that Lincoln started the war runs smack into the historical fact that it was Jefferson Davis who ordered Ft. Sumter shelled, thereby starting the war. Prior to that, all Lincoln’s efforts had been toward bring the seceding states back into the fold peacefully.

As you note, Lincoln said, “I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty; and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men every where could be free.” Yet you apparently miss the distinction Lincoln had to make between his personal desire to free all slaves and his duties under the Constitution as President. In his official capacity, he could only do what the Constitution allowed him to do.

In the same way, you apparently fail to understand that the Constitutional justification for the Emancipation Proclamation was strictly as a war measure, valid only under Lincoln’s authority as Commander-In-Chief. He did not have the power under the Constitution to free slaves by fiat in loyal states. He could and did free slaves in states that were in armed rebellion against the United States as a means of depriving the rebels of an institution that was crucial to their war-making ability.

In my opinion, and in those of the vast majority of modern historians, no objective reading of the historical record supports the kinds of conclusions you assert.

Doug on April 18, 2015:

Presidential Addresses

First Inaugural Address.[1]

Delivered at Washington, D. C. March 4, 1861.

Fellow-citizens of the United States: In compliance with a custom as old as the government itself, I appear before you to address you briefly, and to take in your presence the oath prescribed by the Constitution of the United States to be taken by the President "before he enters on the execution of his office."

I do not consider it necessary at present for me to discuss those matters of administration about which there is no special anxiety or excitement.

Apprehension seems to exist among the people of the Southern States that by the accession of a Republican administration their property and their peace and personal security are to be endangered. There has never been any reasonable cause for such apprehension. Indeed, the most ample evidence to the contrary has all the while existed and been open to their inspection. It is found in nearly all the published speeches of him who now addresses you. I do but quote from one of those speeches when I declare that "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." Those who nominated and elected me did so with full knowledge that I had made this and many similar declarations, and had never recanted them. And, more than this, they placed in the platform for my acceptance, and as a law to themselves and to me, the clear and emphatic resolution which I now read:

Resolved, That the maintenance inviolate of the rights of the States, and especially the right of each State to order and control its own domestic institutions according to its own judgment exclusively, is essential to that balance of power on which the perfection and endurance of our political fabric depend, and we denounce the lawless invasion by armed force of the soil of any State or Territory, no matter under what pretext, as among the gravest of crimes.

Doug on April 18, 2015:

So Lincoln , in his above letter to Horace Greely, contradicts himself in his actions by saying that if he could " save the union by freeing some slaves and leaving the rest alone" he would do so.

The Southern states weren't trying to make slavery legal in the north, only to keep it in the south. So what we know from this is that Lincoln is clearly lying here about his intentions and duty. His main goal was to save the Federal power he had over the South. The conflict was over the economic policy that created a benefit for the North at the expense of the south. His inaugural address threatened invasion if the taxes weren't paid.

Doug on April 18, 2015:


Executive Mansion,

Washington, August 22, 1862.

Hon. Horace Greeley:

Dear Sir.

I have just read yours of the 19th. addressed to myself through the New-York Tribune. If there be in it any statements, or assumptions of fact, which I may know to be erroneous, I do not, now and here, controvert them. If there be in it any inferences which I may believe to be falsely drawn, I do not now and here, argue against them. If there be perceptable in it an impatient and dictatorial tone, I waive it in deference to an old friend, whose heart I have always supposed to be right.

As to the policy I "seem to be pursuing" as you say, I have not meant to leave any one in doubt.

I would save the Union. I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution. The sooner the national authority can be restored; the nearer the Union will be "the Union as it was." If there be those who would not save the Union, unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause. I shall try to correct errors when shown to be errors; and I shall adopt new views so fast as they shall appear to be true views.

I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty; and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men every where could be free.


A. Lincoln.


Doug on April 18, 2015:

Lincoln was a racist who used Slavery as an excuse to start a war against the Confederacy . From the American Thinker : "On September 22, 1862, President Lincoln published the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring that as of January 1, 1863, all slaves would be set the 10 states of the Confederation which were "in rebellion against the United States." The slaves in the states that, willingly or unwillingly, were not part of the Confederacy, such as Kentucky, Maryland, or Delaware, were to remain in chains. The hypocrisy of the Emancipation Proclamation was so blatant that even Lincoln's loyal secretary of state, William Seward, sarcastically observed, "We show our sympathy with slavery by emancipating slaves where we cannot reach them and holding them in bondage where we can set them free."

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on December 19, 2014:

Hi, Abubakar. Frederick Douglass certainly had a big impact in his time, and it continues today. Both he and Lincoln had necessary parts to play in ending slavery, and both played their parts well. Thanks for reading.

Abubakar on December 19, 2014:

I admire Frederick Douglass more than alsmot anyone in all of history -- I think it's incredible how he decided to learn to read and then just relentlessly pursued learning all the rest of his life. It makes me so grateful that literacy was just given to me.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on November 16, 2013:

Thanks so much, HSchneider. I think you hit on a key word regarding Lincoln: "maneuver." That's exactly what he did! He knew how to slowly move people, the individuals around him as well as the public at large, to where he knew they needed to be to get the mission accomplished.

Howard Schneider from Parsippany, New Jersey on November 16, 2013:

Wonderful analysis of these two great men and their relationship. Lincoln needed to maneuver the North to his position before he could successfully press for abolition. The Constitution's embodying of slavery into law, at least for the first 20 years, was the original legal mistake our country undertook. That was because they knew they could not get the South on board without it. Excellent Hub, Ron.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on November 16, 2013:

Thanks, NateB11. It seems to me that both Lincoln and Douglass had necessary parts to play in reaching the final outcome. Douglass, the activist, had to keep the anti-slavery pressure on. Lincoln, the statesman/politician, had to temper his actions to what the country would support. Both did their jobs superbly!

Nathan Bernardo from California, United States of America on November 16, 2013:

This is a very fascinating subject, which reveals many issues, many difficult issues of the time. Lincoln was forced to balance public opinion and his conscience, and Douglass was forced to stand by what he knew was right. It is interesting that Douglass still recognized the goodness of Lincoln, in spite of Lincoln's hesitance to recognize a need to end slavery for it's total immorality. Of course, we are dealing here with two men with two entirely different experiences in this regard. One wonders if either one could have responded to their challenges any differently than they had.