Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln on Black Equity in the Civil War: A Historical-Rhetorical Perspective

By Sturdevant, Katherine Scott; Collins, Stephen | Black History Bulletin, Summer-Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln on Black Equity in the Civil War: A Historical-Rhetorical Perspective


Sturdevant, Katherine Scott, Collins, Stephen, Black History Bulletin


There are traditional approaches by which students can learn about the issues of slavery and Black troops in the Civil War or the personages of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. Pitfalls can occur, however, if we do not delve deeper into specific actions, primary sources, and rhetoric, such as our "revisionist" tendency to condemn Lincoln as "not really freeing any slaves" with the Emancipation Proclamation. Abolitionist Frederick Douglass was Lincoln's outspoken critic until the Emancipation Proclamation, but then understood that Lincoln's efforts were calculated and prudent within the political and social context of the times.

Another pitfall would be to assume that these two men were friends in common cause all along. In reality, Douglass and Lincoln met only three times, with the first meeting on August 10, 1863, more than 28 months into the Civil War and eight months after the Emancipation Proclamation. Yet, they developed parallel and complementary goals and strategies to end slavery, to enable Black men to serve in the Union army, and to protect Black servicemen's rights and lives. At their second meeting a year later, on August 25, 1864, Lincoln asked Douglass to undertake covert efforts to free slaves if Lincoln lost reelection. Their third and final meeting was as friends, at the reception after Lincoln's second inauguration, on March 4, 1865, just six weeks before Lincoln's assassination.

Before the Emancipation Proclamation and before these two great men met, their relationship was a remote one: Lincoln campaigned for office or made presidential policy statements while Douglass at times critiqued both with biting rhetoric. Meanwhile, Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas falsely insinuated that the two men were intimate friends, co-conspirators against slavery, and in favor of racial mixing. Lincoln's positions against slavery and for equality grew as his understanding of these issues grew. In the words of Henry Louis Gates, "We can do Lincoln no greater service than to walk that path with him, and we can do him no greater disservice than to whitewash it, seeking to give ourselves an odd form of comfort by pretending that he was even one whit less complicated than he actually was.'" When evaluating Lincoln's moral growth in all its complexity, we must view that growth in relation to Frederick Douglass's moral appeals to him.

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Lincoln gained national attention in 1858 for his position that the federal government had the right to regulate slavery in federal territorial lands. Lincoln's position in his First Inaugural Address on March 4, 1861, however, was pro-union and not specifically anti-slavery: "I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so.... "Although Lincoln's pace toward abolition was too slow for Frederick Douglass, his anti-slavery plan was discernable as early as 1861-62. He asked Congress to pass a law that defined confiscated slaves as contraband and thus free individuals. He suppressed the international slave trade and tried to persuade the border states to emancipate. He made it clear that he viewed federal emancipation as the president's edict (not that of a general), and he accepted the use of Black troops as noncombatants. He also planned an emancipation proclamation, announcing it preliminarily, but waiting for a Union victory. Lincoln took the steps that he could take, politically, all in the same anti-slavery direction, while maintaining border state and Union support.

Before the Emancipation Proclamation, Douglass was critical of Lincoln. He was deeply disappointed in Lincoln's First Inaugural Address. The articulate former slave and abolitionist had hoped that the Republican Party and its candidate would carry the anti-slavery banner consistently. His doubts fluctuated with their rhetoric. Douglass delivered all of his most significant arguments regarding emancipation and the use of black troops before he ever met Lincoln--before the Emancipation Proclamation.

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