For a Vast Future Also: Essays from the Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association

By Thomas F. Schwartz | Go to book overview

5
Lincoln and Frederick
Douglass: Another Debate

Christopher N. Breiseth

THE CIVIL WAR, whatever else it may have been, was America’s struggle over slavery. The relationship between Frederick Douglass, born a slave in Maryland, and Abraham Lincoln, born in Kentucky to a poor white family, reveals much about the debate over race during the Civil War. The relationship between the two men was punctuated by profound disagreement but culminated in expressions of deep mutual regard. The evolution of their relationship closely paralleled the evolution of Lincoln’s thoughts on race. As politician and president, Lincoln was masterful in conveying his earnest consideration of voices pressing in on him from every side. He heard the conflicting arguments of a nation at war with itself and sought to blunt the differences and establish a common ground for preserving the Union. Frederick Douglass, representing an almost powerless people, relendessly bore in upon Lincoln the irresistible logic that the war could be won and the Union preserved only if slavery were abolished. Proving the influence of one individual upon another is difficult and inconclusive. But one can say that by 1865 Lincoln and Douglass had a fundamental similarity of vision about the profound callses and consequences of the Civil War.

In the volatile politics of the prewar decade, both Lincoln and Douglass displayed a combination of calm practicality and moral vigor. Lincoln helped build the Republican Party by drawing together a coalition of widely differing groups and individuals who, diough disagreeing on specific policies, understood the direat to the Union posed by the slavery issue. The groups Lincoln sought to mobilize included those at one extreme who opposed the extension of slavery into the territories, in part because they hated blacks and

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