With all of the Oscar buzz and hoopla over the movie “Lincoln,” I thought it would be interesting to share a bit on the historic friendship of then President Lincoln and his close African-American friend and confidant, Frederick Douglass, in celebration of Black History Month.
The untitled article below belongs to The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History and The Lincoln Institute. It captures a bit of the essence of the friendship of these two great Americans.
Read, learn, and share…..Have a Family Meeting!
Black abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass was an early critic of President Lincoln. Douglass became an admirer of President Lincoln after the Emancipation Proclamation and helped the Union Army recruit black troops. In August of 1863, Douglass went to President Lincoln to urge equal pay for black soldiers.
Nearly a year later on August 19, 1864, Douglass returned to the White House at the President’s request. Douglass was impressed that President Lincoln prolonged their conversation despite the arrival of Connecticut Governor William A. Cunningham. Douglass recalled: “Mr. Lincoln said, ‘tell Governor Buckingham to wait, for I want to have a long talk with my friend Frederick Douglass.'” Douglass commented: “This was probably the first time in the history of this Republic when its chief magistrate found occasion or disposition to exercise such an act of impartiality between persons so widely different in their positions and supposed claims upon his attention. From the manner of the governor, when he was finally admitted, I inferred that he was as well satisfied with what Mr. Lincoln had done, or had omitted to do, as I was.” In his autobiography, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, the abolitionist author wrote:
The increasing opposition to the war, in the North, and the mad cry against it, because it was being made an abolition war, alarmed Mr. Lincoln, and made him apprehensive that a peace might be forced upon him which would leave still in slavery all who had not come within our lines. What he wanted was to make his Proclamation as effective as possible in the event of such a peace. He said in a regretful tone, ‘The slaves are not coming so rapidly and so numerously to us as I had hoped.’ I replied that the slaveholders knew how to keep such things from their slaves, and probably very few knew of his Proclamation. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘I want you to set about devising some means of making them acquainted with it, and for bringing them into our lines. He spoke with great earnestness and much solicitude, and seemed troubled by the attitude of Mr. Greeley, and the growing impatience there was being manifested through the North at the war. He said he was being accused of protracting the war beyond its legitimate object, and of failing to make peace, when he might have done so to advantage. He was afraid of what might come of all these complaints, but was persuaded that no solid and lasting peace could come short of absolute submission on the part of the rebels, and he was not for giving them rest by futile conferences at Niagara Falls, or elsewhere, with unauthorized persons. 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 even 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.
Presumably, it was at this meeting that Mr. Lincoln told the abolitionist leader: “Douglass, I hate slavery as much as you do, and I want to see it abolished altogether.” A few days later, Douglass wrote the President: “all with whom I have thus far spoken on the subject, concur in the wisdom and benevolence of the idea, and some of them think it is practicable. That every slave who escapes from the Rebel States is a loss to the Rebellion and a gain to the Loyal Cause I need not stop to argue[;] the proposition is self-evident. The negro is the stomach of the rebellion.”
“Reaching the Capitol, I took my place in the crowd where I could se the presidential procession as it came upon the east portico, and where I could hear and see all that took place,” Douglass later wrote. “The whole proceeding was wonderfully quiet, earnest, and solemn. From the oath, as administered by Chief Justice Chase, to the brief but weighty address delivered by Mr. Lincoln, there was a leaden stillness about the crowd. The address sounded more like a sermon than a state paper.” Douglass described events later that day when he tried to attend the Inaugural levee at the Executive Mansion:
For the first time in my life, and I suppose the first time in any colored man’s life, I attended the reception of President Lincoln on the evening of the inauguration. 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.
‘Oh,’ said I, ‘this will not do, gentlemen,’ and 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 almost in less than half a minute I was invited into the East Room of the White House. A perfect sea of beauty and elegance, too, it was. The ladies were in very fine attire, and Mrs. Lincoln was standing there. 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.’ As I approached him he reached out his hand, gave me a cordial shake, and said: ‘Douglass, I saw you in the crowd today listening to my inaugural address. There is no man’s opinion that I value more than yours; what do you think of it?’ I said: ‘Mr. Lincoln, I cannot stop here to talk with you, as there are thousands waiting to shake you by the hand’; but he said again: ‘What did you think of it?’ I said: ‘Mr. Lincoln, it was a sacred effort,’ and then I walked off. ‘I am glad you liked it,’ he said. That was the last time I saw him to speak with him.