Lincoln & Douglass

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The first conversation between Douglass and Lincoln on August 10, 1863, remains one of the pivotal moments in American history: when a former slave could enter the office of the president to discuss significant issues and festering problems and, more remarkable still, when the president could seem to enjoy Douglass’s opinions and views, no matter how contrary to his own. And Douglass freely recalled, “Lincoln is the first white man I ever spent an hour with who did not remind me I was a Negro.”

Yet these admirable sentiments do not come close to encompassing the true nature of their conflict, as when after the new president’s first inauguration Douglass contemptuously noted, “What an excellent slave hound he is.” Or as he wrote in 1862, “Mr. Lincoln assumes the language and arguments of an itinerant Colonization lecturer, showing all the inconsistencies, his pride of race and blood, his contempt for Negroes and his canting hypocrisy.” Douglass wrote in a letter to the editor Theodore Tilton, just after his second White House meeting in 1864, that “when there was any shadow of a hope that a man of a more decided anti-slavery conviction and policy could be elected, I was not for Mr. Lincoln.”

Lincoln possessed an ability to absorb criticism and rise above political abuse that beggars imagination today. Douglass himself certainly came to understand that this measured politician had indeed been the essential man in this national crisis, perhaps the only leader who could have both preserved the Union and won emancipation. Douglass saw Lincoln in all his imperfections and perceived his “slowness” in responding to the black cry for freedom, yet stated in the dedication of the Freedmen’s Memorial monument to Lincoln in 1876 that blacks were correct to love him: “We came to the conclusion that the hour and the man of our redemption had somehow met in the person of Abraham Lincoln.” Lincoln bonded to one of his severest critics because he sensed that they shared common ground, as was evident in the Gettysburg Address, where for all time he calmly and simply evoked the vision of America’s “new birth of freedom.”

Lincoln and Douglass alike understood that the fate of this special destiny was irrevocably bound to the “peculiar institution.” The war was nothing less than an agonizing rebirth that would either ratify or nullify this destiny. Neither victory for the North nor the abolition of slavery was ever foreordained. Any compromise before the guns of Fort Sumter would have left those four million slaves under the burden and the lash. If the First Battle of Bull Run had gone the North’s way, then the general vision of a quick resolution of the war would have left slavery in place.

If McClellan had possessed the courage to drive home the Peninsula Campaign in 1862 or risked his men to destroy Gen. Robert E. Lee’s forces at Antietam, the South might have collapsed before Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862. Then McClellan, a man who had publicly expressed his desire that slavery continue undisturbed, would have wielded great power.

If Lee had not possessed the headstrong will to order Pickett’s charge but instead had maneuvered his army toward Harrisburg and Philadelphia, then Europe might well have decisively moved into the conflict and stymied any further prosecution of the war by the Lincoln administration. Had Atlanta not fallen when it did, Lincoln would likely have lost the 1864 election to McClellan, effectively leaving slavery alive.

Douglass understood how close his cause came to failure. Abolitionism was largely upheld by people for whom slavery was an abstraction. The price of saving the Union seemed at several points to be nothing short of the sacrifice of his people. Above all, he understood that Lincoln was fighting a different war than he was. There were many plausible paths to victory for Lincoln that could have meant disaster for Douglass’s mission.

Douglass viewed the war not just through the lens of Union army victories in battle, but through the emerging sense of Lincoln and the Union that the Confederacy and the “peculiar institution” of slavery must be fully defeated at one and the same time. This realization dawned slowly among Northerners and, even by the last year of the war, was never assured. Douglass emerged as a figure second only to Lincoln because he spoke the truth, spoke it to powerful figures who did not wish to hear it, accurately predicted the path the war would take, and offered everything he had, including the lives of his children, to gain freedom for others.

Lincoln’s mission was to save the Union, while Douglass’s mission was different and two-pronged: emancipation through this conflict, and then established equality. The latter quest speaks with particular power and relevance over the years. At the heart of Douglass’s message was the belief that the nation must confront the interconnectedness of black and white. Many, including Lincoln, had tried to evade this reality. Douglass under¬ stood that the Union itself would not survive without the monumental contributions of African Americans, though their rightful place would not be secured until white Americans respected their rights and allowed them their due share of opportunities within the country as a whole. Douglass prophesied that for the nation to be redeemed, we would need each other, then and now. Lincoln needed black soldiers to win his war; Douglass needed Lincoln to win his people’s freedom; and they needed each other to move the nation forward. Their relationship, their struggle, tells us much about ourselves as a people and why the failure to fully achieve Douglass’s vision of equality means that our Civil War is not yet over.

Adapted with permission from Douglass and Lincoln by Paul and Stephen Kendrick. Copyright © 2008. Reprinted by arrangement with Walker & Co.