In the mid-19th century, as the United States was trapped in a bloody Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln and abolitionist Frederick Douglass were the two most influential figures in the national debate on slavery and slavery. future of African Americans. They met three times at the White House, and although Douglass was at first harshly critical, he eventually came to regard Lincoln as “emphatically the black man’s president: the first to show the slightest respect for their rights as men”.
When they first met, in August 1863, Douglass was perhaps the most famous black man in the world. Since escaping slavery to the North in 1838, he had written two best-selling autobiographies that chronicled his journey from a plantation in Maryland to lecture halls around the world as an anti-slavery leader, publisher magazine and advocate for African-American rights. As the Civil War was in full swing, Douglass advocated for equal treatment of Black Union soldiers. In March, he had published his famous “MEN OF COLORED AT ARMS!” broadside calling on black men to enlist in the Union Army. Two of his sons had joined the 54th Massachusetts Black Regiment.
Douglass was concerned about the unequal pay of black soldiers, who received $3 less per month than white soldiers. He was also enraged by the Union government’s response to the Confederate treatment of black prisoners of war, who were tortured, killed, and sometimes sold into slavery. He focused his anger on President Abraham Lincoln. “The massacre of black prisoners,” writes Douglass in his Douglass Monthly, “seems to affect him [Lincoln] as little as the slaughter of oxen [cows] for the use of his army.
READ MORE: Why Frederick Douglass wanted black men to fight in the Civil War
The First Lincoln-Douglass Meeting
On Aug. 10, Douglass took his concerns directly to the White House — where, uninvited, he later wrote, he “forced his way” down the stairs “in front of all the job seekers angry whites” who were queuing. The president, listening intently, explained that the conditions black soldiers faced were a “necessary concession” for men of color. Although it was not the answer he was looking for, Douglass later told Major George L. Stearns, a leading black troop recruiter, that he admired Lincoln’s “decency and frankness” and that he had left their meeting confident that “slavery would not survive the war and that the country would survive both slavery and the war.
This first meeting launched a complicated relationship that would last until the end of the war and the assassination of Lincoln.
“Douglas had been disarmed to some degree by his host’s simplicity and received a kind of political education,” Yale historian David Blight wrote of that first encounter in his 2018 biography. Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Liberty. “Lincoln too might have learned something about how a black leader felt about the war for his future and the inhumanities he had endured to fight it. The President might also have sensed for future reference how this brilliant radical pragmatist sitting with him that morning could be useful to the survival of the nation.
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Douglass attacks Lincoln
None of this stopped Douglass from openly criticizing Lincoln. Even without an official government job, Douglass exerted considerable influence on the national conversation around slavery, equality for black troops, and black emancipation. He did this by traveling the lecture circuit, writing editorials in his Douglass Monthly, delivering speeches or writing letters to intimates and government officials. In all of these outlets, Douglass has spoken out about the president. He had grown impatient with Lincoln’s political foot dragging on emancipation, since the president felt he had to first overcome widespread prejudice and “prepare the public mind” for his enactment, according to Blight. And Douglass was furious with Lincoln’s support for the colonization of African Americans outside the United States after emancipation. In Douglass Monthly, he lambasted the proposal as a reflection of the president’s “inconsistencies, his pride of race and blood, his contempt for niggers, and his scoundrel hypocrisy”.
After siding with the radical Republican discharge movement in Lincoln for the 1864 presidential election and roundly criticizing the president in public for his leniency on the Reconstruction plan and black suffrage, Douglass was summoned to the White House by Lincoln for a private meeting. No longer a walk-in, he now had a personal invitation from a president criticized from all quarters during a bloody war and worried about his re-election.
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The Second Meeting: A Plan to Save Enslaved Blacks
At their second meeting on August 19, 1864, Lincoln pleaded for the support and advice of one of his most vocal critics. “Lincoln’s primary purpose in initiating this meeting was to seek Douglass’s advice on how to increase the number of blacks who, in the event he lost the election, could not be returned to slavery,” said writes Columbia University historian Eric Foner in his 2010 book. The Ardent Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery.
In his third autobiography, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, the speaker wrote that Lincoln had asked him “to undertake the organization of a band of scouts, composed of colored men, whose business it should be… to go into the rebellious states, over- beyond the lines of our armies, and carry the news of emancipation, and urge the slaves to come within our bounds.
Despite his best efforts and the support of several other black leaders, Douglass never had the chance to complete the mission. “It is remarkable that Lincoln suggested such a plan to Douglass,” Blight wrote in his book, Civil War by Frederick Douglass. “It would have forged an unprecedented alliance between leadership and federal power for the purpose of emancipation.”
At Lincoln’s Second Inauguration: “A Man Among Men”
After their second meeting, Douglas became a respected adviser to Lincoln. Invited to Lincoln’s second inaugural address, Douglass was stunned by the president’s eloquence, writing in life and times that the 703-word speech “sounded more like a sermon than a state document”. Reflecting years later on the White House reception that followed, Douglass conceded that while he thought of himself as a man, that “now in this multitude of the country’s elite, I felt like a man among men. “.
When Lincoln spotted Douglass among the crowd of supporters at the reception in the East Room, he eagerly demanded the black leader’s response to his speech, saying, “There is no man in the country whose I values the opinion more than yours.” Douglass replied, “It was a hell of an effort.”
READ MORE: During his second inauguration, Lincoln tried to unite the nation
Douglass mourns with the nation
Five days after General Robert E. Lee surrendered his Confederate army to Union General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, Virginia, Lincoln was shot dead by John Wilkes Booth on April 14, 1865 while attending a play at Ford‘s Theater in Washington. Douglass learned the news while giving a speech the next day near his home in Rochester, New York. He told his friends and neighbors it was a “day of silence and meditation: of sorrow and tears”.
A few years earlier, Douglass had used the lectern to deliver strong criticism of Lincoln’s handling of the plight of African Americans, but here he was using his platform to celebrate the fallen leader.
In December, in a speech on Lincoln, Douglass lamented that the president’s death had deprived African Americans of the opportunity to benefit from his guidance in their new lives as liberated people. “If Abraham Lincoln had been spared to see this day, the Negro of the South would have had more than a hope of emancipation, and no rebel could hold the reins of government in one of the last rebellious states,” Douglass said. “Anyone who has reason to mourn the loss of Abraham Lincoln, to the colored people of the country, his death is an indescribable calamity.”
Lincoln and Douglass: an uneasy bond
On the 11th anniversary of Lincoln’s death in 1876, Douglass delivered a speech at the dedication of the Freedmen’s Monument in Washington. His remarks, made at the unveiling of a sculpture depicting Lincoln holding his right hand above a kneeling former slave, sum up the difficult connection he had with the 16and President.
Without taking any jabs, Douglass reminded the diverse audience (including President Ulysses S. Grant) of his disagreements with Lincoln over colonization, the acceptance and treatment of black troops during the Civil War, and the president’s conservative reconstruction plan. . “He was ready and willing at all times during the early years of his administration to deny, postpone and sacrifice the rights of humanity among people of color to promote the welfare of white people in this country,” Douglass said. . Yet over time, he says, he came to appreciate Lincoln’s pragmatism and political acumen.