An Alliance between Two Giants: Frederick Douglass Turns from Critic to Adviser, Friend of Abraham Lincoln

Article excerpt

One wintry day in December 1863, Frederick Douglass found himself sitting across from President Abraham Lincoln, a seemingly surprising meeting.

Douglass, after all, had supported one of Lincoln's opponents in the 1860 election because he believed Lincoln to be weak on slavery. Even after Lincoln was elected, Douglass crisscrossed the country delivering unremitting criticisms.

Now, more than 130 years later, Douglass' criticisms of Lincoln are quoted frequently, to the neglect of his overwhelmingly positive public assessments of Lincoln after the assassination. These two men - the Great Emancipator and Douglass, the Great Lion of Equality - became friends and forged an alliance during the last year of the war. Douglass was one of the few men who could change the president's mind and whose advice Lincoln sought - and took.

They were remarkably alike: Both were from hardscrabble backgrounds and were tall, physically powerful, self-educated men of hard-steel intellects and unaffected ways.

Douglass was born about 1818 in Tuckahoe, on Maryland's Eastern Shore, to Harriet Bailey, a slave. His mother was taken from him shortly after his birth. She visited him only five or six times before her early death, walking a distance of 24 miles round-trip, which took her eight hours. "Of my [white] father," Douglass wrote in one of his three autobiographies, "I know nothing."

He seemed to be a child of destiny. His master, Capt. Aaron Anthony, was a small slaveholder employed as chief overseer by one Col. Edward Lloyd, who owned 1,000 slaves and 20 farms. Douglass, therefore, grew up at the Great House. He was poorly housed, ill-clothed and ill-fed, but he was given a favored position as playmate for Lloyd's youngest child.

At age 5, Douglass was loaned to Hugh Auld, the brother-in-law of his master's daughter, Lucretia. Douglass was sent to Baltimore, where he entered a wealthy home as companion to a child his own age. His mistress, Sophia Auld, enveloped Douglass with nurturing kindness. He hardly knew how to take it.

Hearing his mistress reading out loud, Douglass asked her to teach him to read. She found the slave child a quick learner. Proud of her pupil, she seated her husband in the parlor and announced a "surprise." She trooped out "Little Freddie," as they called him, who recited the alphabet and spelled some words. Then they both watched in horror as Hugh Auld became enraged. "What were you thinking?" he stormed.

"I'm going to teach him to read the Bible," she said firmly.

"If he learns to read the Bible, it will forever unfit him to be a slave," Auld roared. His emotional words were engraved on "Little Freddie's" mind. What had been the softness of a nursery game suddenly was a secret skill Douglass should not possess - and he resolved to have it.

The neighborhood children were richer in learning than Douglass - but poorer than his household. With free access to the kitchen, Douglass traded bread for reading lessons from his friends. Libraries nationwide often feature a poster of Douglass with this quote: "Once you learn to read, you will be forever free."

The next event in his life was epochal.

The brothers Auld fell into dispute, and Thomas Auld, Lucretia's husband, snatched Douglass back. According to Douglass, at age 16 he was "somewhat unmanageable." Auld hired him out to Edward Covey, a "Negro-breaker."

"I was broken in body, soul, and spirit," Douglass wrote. Only the hope of escape saved him from suicide "or doing something that would get me killed."

In his sixth month with Covey, Douglass was climbing down a ladder when Covey grabbed his leg and yanked him to the ground. "I resolved to fight," Douglass wrote. "I seized Covey by the throat; and as I did so, I rose." They fought fiercely, and Covey, exhausted and puffing, told Douglass to go back to work. …