Critical Points in Frederick Douglass' Life; Confronted Lincoln on Issue of Slavery

Article excerpt


Frederick Douglass excelled as a leader and role model. Slave, writer, orator, abolitionist, friend and adviser to Lincoln, Douglass spearheaded the movement to allow black men to enlist in the Union Army.

Douglass threw himself into the national debate over slavery with zeal and enthusiasm. He complemented talk with action, managing an Underground Railroad that rescued hundreds and perhaps thousands of slaves by spiriting them into Canada.

Several turning points in Douglass' fascinating life that tell us much about the man. The first came when John Brown tried to enlist Douglass in the Harpers Ferry raid. Believing that the peaceful approach to abolition advocated by Douglass was not working, Brown and William Lloyd Garrison set upon a violent course of action.

In the very first issue of his anti-slavery newspaper, the Liberator, Garrison wrote, "I do not wish to think, or speak, or write, with moderation. ... I am in earnest - I will not equivocate - I will not excuse - I will not retreat a single inch - AND I WILL BE HEARD."

Douglass became enthralled with Garrison and the Liberator. "My soul was set on fire," Douglass wrote of the paper. In 1839, Douglass began to write essays for the Liberator, which ultimately resulted in a long career of writing and speaking out against slavery.

His newspaper notoriety made him a lightning rod for the abolitionist cause, and he became one of the first truly nationally known black abolitionists.

A former slave himself, Douglass had endured feeding from a trough, whippings and other privations. His essays counted, and white leaders in American took note.

Even though Douglass and Garrison waged a public argument over the methods and tactics for abolishing slavery, Douglass drew the attention of John Brown of Kansas.

Brown thought Douglass would like his idea to free slaves by attacking federal property. Brown thought he could incite a revolt of slaves everywhere and that Douglass might eagerly help him do just that.

In 1859, Brown rented a farm near Chambersburg, Pa., and began planning his attack on Harpers Ferry. He invited Douglass to a meeting in the hopes that he might recruit Douglass into the scheme.

Douglass met with Brown in August 1859. Douglass felt that lawlessness would only alienate whites, and thus he refused to take part in the scheme. Had Douglass become part of Brown's cabal, he certainly would have lost his standing with white abolitionist leaders and might have wound up alongside Brown on the gallows.

At the outset of the Civil War, Douglass established two goals: the emancipation of all slaves and the establishment of the right of black men to enlist and serve in the Union Army. These goals would lead Douglass to two turning points, both involving President Abraham Lincoln.

Douglass began what modern observers might call a "media blitz," calling for emancipation. He created a pressure cooker of sorts for Lincoln. Lincoln knew in his heart that Douglass was right, but the president didn't want emancipation to become a reason for some white Northerners to turn against the war. …