Lincoln & Douglass

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At dusk in early April 1866, a large crowd filed into Representatives Hall of the imposing Illinois Capitol in Springfield. Just 11 months earlier, President Lincoln’s rapidly blackening body had lain here in state as thousands of townspeople had filed past to say goodbye.

Now many of the same people gathered to hear a lecture entitled “The Assassination and Its Consequences,” delivered by the country’s foremost abolitionist, Frederick Douglass. For several months the powerful black orator had given the same speech across the nation, but this venue, more than any other, lent extraordinary gravity to his words. In the great room Lincoln had accepted the 1858 Republican Senate nomination and delivered his controversial “House Divided” speech. Though the obscure Illinois lawyer would lose that contest to his longtime rival Stephen A. Douglas, he found himself unexpectedly propelled to the presidency. Lincoln had also argued in front of the Illinois Supreme Court more than 200 times in this building.

Standing on the podium, Douglass immediately commanded attention with his splendid mane of graying hair swept back from his broad forehead, his blazing brown eyes, deep regal voice, and overwhelming physical presence. “Prior to the Civil War,” he began, “there was apparently no danger menacing our country, but a few farseeing men foresaw the calamities that have come upon us, and their warnings were treated as idle talk . . . The few listen and the many pass on, unheeding the precipice over which they are being hurled."

The slave child Frederick Bailey, born in 1818, had gradually transformed himself into the master orator Frederick Douglass, internationally known by the 1840s through the force of his eloquence fused to a compelling dignity. Only fellow abolitionist Wendell Phillips equaled him as a speaker. No one on the national stage could match the powerful, redemptive quality of his life story, which was compelling for more than his daring escape from slavery on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. With dogged perseverance, he had toured for years from town to town, often at the risk of his life, to evoke the horrors of human bondage. He had written a best-selling personal testimony about his struggle for freedom, edited the nation’s most notable black newspaper, and finally, through his forceful recruitment of black soldiers, he had become the principal voice of his people.

The intent of Douglass’s talk in Springfield was not to dwell on that past, but to confront the new realities facing a victorious North and a nation without Lincoln. “The danger impending over us is the cold, cruel wanton surrender and betrayal of our friends and allies,” cried Douglass. There were the thousands of slaves who had streamed into Union lines as “contraband.” Many other black men and women had supported the war effort by picking crops, feeding the troops, and providing valuable information. Most of all, Douglass pointed to the contribution of the 180,000 black soldiers who were finally granted the right to carry a musket. One Union soldier in ten had been black. Lincoln had rightly noted that it had been this tenth that provided the margin for Union victory.

Though he did not admit it that night, Douglass had spent the last four years engaged in a long and public contest with a president who was not only slow to emancipate slaves and reluctant to put black soldiers into combat, but had made no firm commitment to give the vote to the black man, except perhaps for “those who had served in battle or of exceptional intelligence.” This night Douglass set aside all their struggles.

When it counted, Lincoln had effectively collaborated with Douglass’s decades-long pursuit of the total and irrevocable destruction of slavery. That an outspoken black abolitionist and a cautious prairie lawyer would ever meet, much less profoundly influence one another and form a partnership, is astounding. It was largely the brute extremities of war that had drawn them together in what Douglass in 1862 called “characters of blood and fire.” Even with their deep disagreements, they had forged a strong bond of mutual understanding and respect. As a result, Douglass’s personal mission to liberate black Americans became inescapably bound up in Lincoln’s life—and death.

The president had made clear for three years that saving the Union was his overarching goal, and from the first shot at Fort Sumter on, Douglass had been equally clear that this was not enough. The hope of reunion with the South, he argued, was doomed unless the higher mission of eradicating slavery was brought to the fore. “What business, then, have we to be pouring out our treasure and shedding our best blood like water for that worn-out, dead and buried Union, which had already become a calamity and a curse?” This direct challenge to Lincoln was only part of a larger story of the dispute between these formidable men over the meaning of the war and, thus, the truth of America.

The epic emancipations of four million slaves remains one of the greatest stories in world history, a truth largely unrecognized by Americans because we have failed to register the essential role of African Americans in the Civil War, and because of the muted, almost amnesiac manner in which the story has been told of the failure of Reconstruction. In this story, Douglass is a national her, an indomitable fighter who faced down nearly impossible odds. Writing three autobiographies set him up well to step into an ennobling heroic part, for he understood that his life had always been the story of his people advancing to redemption. He knew that his personal odyssey from oppressed insignificance to world standing vindicated the struggle of black people and challenged a nation that refused to offer manhood, equality, and even the right to vote to so many of their fellows.