Two Minds: Abe Lincoln & Frederick Douglass

Freedom Must Prevail

Frederick Douglass escaped slavery to become America’s greatest orator and writer, addressing America’s greatest shame. In 1857 Douglass wrote that freedom must triumph because it had “the laws which govern the moral universe” on its side.

Four years before the Civil War, Douglass predicted a collision between the two enemy forces “must come as sure as the laws of God cannot be trampled upon with impunity.” Then he phrased a line that Martin Luther King shadowed: “That jubilee will come. You and I may not live to see it, but . . .God reigns, and slavery must yet fall; unless the devil is more potent than the Almighty; unless sin is stronger than righteousness, slavery must perish.”

Douglass pointed to emancipation in the West Indies in the 1830s, calling it a “bolt from the sky.” He encouraged African Americans to see the earlier emancipation as a “city on a hill,” an interesting oft, repeated phrase, used by President Ronald Reagan in his depiction of America in his second campaign.

In the summer and fall of 1860, Douglass used his journalistic skills to jump back into the political arena in support of Republicans. According to biographer David Blight, Douglass walked the line between endorsing and denouncing the Republicans while strongly opposing Lincoln’s plan to colonize Blacks in Panama.

“The Republican party,” Douglass wrote his British friends, “. . . only negatively antislavery. It is opposed to the political power of slavery, rather than slavery itself.” Yet the Party could “humble the slave power and defeat all plans for giving slavery any further guarantee of permanence.” (Sewell, Ballots for Freedom, 343-65)

Lincoln: Untried but Honest and Well-Balanced

Douglass found Lincoln to be “untried,” but nevertheless “honest” and possessing a “well-balanced head” and “great firmness of will.” He regretted the Republican’s ‘lack of moral abolitionism,’ but would settle for “the slow process of a cautious siege.” (In speeches in Glasgow in 1860.) The only American politician Douglass had regular correspondence with then was Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, who he admired as the only one with the “daring and nerve to denounce the barbarism of slavery” on the floor of the Senate (Note: A South Carolina Senator nearly caned Sumner to death for his efforts.)

Douglass believed that Lincoln could end slavery throughout the country with a Constitutional Amendment. He’d been arguing the case for nearly a decade (Correctly: The Thirteenth Amendment ended slavery in America, but not until December 1865.)  In the fall of 1860, Douglass persisted writing thirty-two hundred words of editorials and another seven thousand words in a major speech on the West Indian Emancipation anniversary. 

Douglass: Republican Attitude Towards Slavery in 7 Examples

Here is Douglass’s depiction of the Republican coalition’s diverse attitude toward slavery. Notice some similarities in the breakdown of work and wealth in today’s society. His list is like a journalist’s first draft in five parts: 1) An expensive and wasteful ‘system of labor”; 2) An “aristocratic class who despise labor,” which in turn led to a broader “contempt” for all others who “work for an honest living”; 3),  A small Southern oligarchy (might insert Ivy or Stanford educated or just brilliant and out-of-touch) have become corporate “masters of the United States” and the “governing class” of the nation’s institutions; 4) Led some whites with an “aversion to blacks” to deny them all rights and liberties and to exclude them from new territories. (The country has matured so there are fewer “new territories,” but the  attitude towards people of color and immigrants among some political groups as the U.S. experiences a worker shortage with an aging population shows its own bias);  5) The genuine “abolition element” saw slavery as the “most atrocious and revolting crime against nature and nature’s God,” a system of inhumanity to be destroyed out of a “mighty conviction.”  Slavery was to become slowly erased as a form of labor, but the embers have burned and achieving equality among the races has been an eternal trial that has extended far longer than Douglass could have imagined.

Douglass’s first meeting with President Lincoln came after a long wait in the visitor’s line. Subsequently, the two continued to meet until Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, days after the surrender at Appomattox. Douglass’s face-to-face conversations with Lincoln convinced him that Black troops could provide the new recruits the Union needed.

“Let the slaves and free colored people be called into service, and formed into a liberating army, to march to the South and rise the banner of emancipation among the slaves,” he said, according to historian David Herbert Donald. Those opposed said black soldiers would never fight and lay down their weapons to be taken up by the enemy. Others predicted that armed blacks would use the weapons against their masters, beginning a second war at home in the South, as occurred in Santo Domingo.

Secretary of War Stanton, desperate for new recruits with or without Lincoln’s approval, agreed to train free blacks for South Carolina, Louisiana, and Kansas, where troops of any color were welcome. Lincoln’s position softened when Vice President Hamlin’s son volunteered to command colored troops. Lincoln realized a decline among white recruits after the initial word of emancipation.

Douglass had success recruiting black soldiers in New York, Massachusetts, and throughout the North. Word about Tennessee General Bedford Forest’s slaughter of 200 Black Yankees after fighting stopped at Fort Pillow did not help recruitment. Yet he recruited hundreds of men, including his two sons, who joined segregated units led by white officers. The issues of equal pay and rank continued throughout the war, but by fighting boldly in the Union uniform raised the image of all black men.

Congress passed the Confiscation Act of July 1862, authorizing Negro enlistments. Lincoln did not favor the policy for some of the reasons listed earlier. He even overruled General David Hunter in his attempt to recruit a Black regiment in South Carolina before the Confiscation Act. Lincoln said he “would employ all colored men as laborers, but would not promise to make soldiers of them.”

Despite the threats of mistreatment or even death if captured or surrendered in battle, Black men continued to sign up. While Lincoln found critics on every side, their participation in the war made it easier for him to recommend the vote for Black veterans who risked their lives for the Union. Douglass knew it would be difficult to reject giving the vote to men who bled for their country and helped to win the war.

But the Border states reacted hostilely and the Catholic archbishop of Maryland’s responded: “While our brethren are slaughtered in hecatombs (a sacrifice of 100 cattle to the gods by the Greeks), Abraham Lincoln cooly issues his Emancipation Proclamation, letting loose from three to four millions of half civilized Africans to murder their Masters and Mistresses!”  Outrage spread into the Midwest: The Cincinnati Enquirer, a Democratic paper, declared Lincoln “Dictator of America” and said it was “a complete overthrow of the Constitution he swore to protect and defend.”

I shall do nothing in malice. What I do is too vast for malicious dealing.” A. Lincoln

Former U.S. Attorney General and chairman of the 1860 Democratic convention in Baltimore and Charleston complained bitterly of  the “unspeakable calamities which the Republicans and the President have brought upon us” and predicted “the proposed massacre of eight millions of white men women and children in the Southern States in order to turn four millions of black men into vagabonds [and] robbers.”

New Orleans, home to a great number of Lincoln critics, including Thomas J. Durant, who later worked to sabotage Reconstruction efforts, told reacted to the President with violent words : “If the agitation about slavery is not silenced, every man woman and child capable of using the knife or pistol will rush into the fight regardless of life or property. . . and the result will be that the stars and stripes will not wave over this city ninety days longer.”

Lincoln answered them: “This class of men will do nothing for the government, nothing except demanding that the government shall not strike its open enemies, lest they be struck by accident!”  He assured them the fighting would stop “only when the Rebels surrender, and to achieve that end, stern measures must be taken.”

In a letter to his Southern critic, Cuthbert Bullitt, (July 28, 1862), Lincoln put the question to his critic: “Would you give up the contest, leaving any unavailable means unapplied? I am in no boastful mood. I shall not do more than I can, and I shall do all I can to save the government, which is my sworn duty as well as my personal inclination.” He pointed out as he did in the Second Inaugural, “I shall do nothing in malice. What I deal with is too vast for malicious dealing.’   Oh that international leaders could live those words today.

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