Not to detract from their books, here is a brief summary: Their relationship/friendship is one of the most fascinating and fateful in American history, albeit not well understood—or even known—until lately. Both men came from extreme poverty, were self-made men, reinvented themselves many times (a major theme of John Stauffer’s Giants) and were brilliant with both the spoken and written language. Douglas was perhaps the greater speaker because he drew his passion from his life’s experiences, whereas Lincoln ably drew upon his lawyerly background to present his arguments. Both men, of course, crafted masterpieces of oratory and literature concerning the question of their day.
And both men sought to destroy slavery. They came at it quite differently, of course, based on their different backgrounds and perspectives. Douglass had the “luxury” of demanding an immediate end to slavery and installation of rights for all—“luxury” meaning he was not beholden to constituencies, as was Lincoln. The railsplitter formed an early opinion that the Union had to get rid of slavery if it were to survive. How that would happen and what the fate would be for blacks was the question.
At times, even while president, Lincoln favored the colonization concept, whereby free and newly-freed blacks would resettle in Africa, on the belief that the two races could never get along. Believe it or not, this was driven by compassion, not racism. Douglass, of course, strongly disagreed with colonization, and his 1848 speech “We Have Decided To Stay” was in a way an answer to Lincoln. (A Douglass contemporary, Martin Delaney, who often wore African robes, favored colonization as late as 1863. The colonization project did happen, which is where the African nation of Liberia came from.)
Douglass, who voted for Gerrit Smith in 1860, chafed at Lincoln’s “slows” in emancipation, unrealistically expecting the president to end slavery immediately now that the battle was joined. But as I said, Douglass had that luxury. Lincoln didn’t.
As his best biographers (Paludan, et al) have written, Lincoln was a pragmatist who drove to end slavery in such a way that it could never be undone. To the abolitionist, Lincoln’s drive to destroy slavery was agonizingly slow. For everyone else, it was abrupt and shocking. The perceptions are not mutually exclusive, because both are true. Lincoln continually felt the tug between doing what was right, doing what was necessary and doing what needed to be done by the book. His tortured road to emancipation involved exploring possible solutions while rejecting (or ignoring) others that moved too quickly in favor of an emancipation policy that would withstand all legal challenge. That policy would be codified into a constitutional amendment that was virtually unbreakable, or, at least, irreversible. (See my essay on Abraham Lincoln (link opens to new site), particularly the section “The tortured road to emancipation,” which explains how and why Lincoln “took his time,” as well as the fantastic resource, Alan C. Guzello’s Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America.)
Even if he didn’t appreciate or fully understand Lincoln’s thinking before and during the war, he understood by 1876.
The two men eventually came to the realization that they needed each other: Lincoln had to be Douglass’ sword to effect emancipation, and Douglass had to be Lincoln’s voice to support emancipation as it needed to happen.
Even though they would meet only three times between 1862 and 1865, Lincoln came to value the relationship with Douglass. After the president was assassinated, Mary Lincoln gave Douglass her husband’s walking cane, which Douglass cherished the rest of his life.
On April 14, 1876, Douglass spoke before a gathering of Republican big-wigs, including President Grant, as part of an unveiling ceremony of a monument to Lincoln as emancipator in Washington, D.C. The monument itself…well… leaves something to be desired. The design makes blacks out to be helpless and totally reliant upon Lincoln for freedom. Lincoln appears as an American Christ, leading subservient slaves out of the wilderness. While there is much truth to that (I emphatically support Lincoln as “the Great Emacipator”), the situation was much more complex. Rather than lionize the slain Lincoln by placing him on yet another pedestal, Douglass instead told the truth as he saw it.
“Oration Delivered Upon the Occasion of the Unveiling of the Freedman’s Monument in Memory of Abraham Lincoln” is a mastery of oratory. In the first part, Douglass made his listeners quite uncomfortable as he laid out the case against Lincoln—but then he pulled back to make the case for Lincoln.
“I refer to the past not in malice, for this is no day for malice,” Douglass began, though what he soon said about Lincoln might have felt like malice.
“We fully comprehend the relation of Abraham Lincoln both to ourselves and to the white people of the United States. Truth is proper and beautiful at all times and in all places, and it is never more proper and beautiful in any case than when speaking of a great public man whose example is likely to be commended for honor and imitation long after his departure to the solemn shades, the silent continents of eternity. It must be admitted, truth compels me to admit, even here in the presence of the monument we have erected to his memory, Abraham Lincoln was not, in the fullest sense of the word, either our man or our model. In his interests, in his associations, in his habits of thought, and in his prejudices, he was a white man.Douglass then refers to Lincoln’s stance toward Union first and foremost—even to the point of enforcing the existing slaws of slavery, as the president discussed to in his first inaugural address. It’s true—and it’s hard to fault Lincoln, because faced with (in his words) “the monumental issue of civil war,” he tried to avoid it. His job, first and foremost, was to protect and defend the nation, and he took a “most solemn” oath to do just that. If destroying slavery didn’t fit into the immediate plans, so be it. Douglass now understood this awesome burden of the presidency, even though it grated on him.
“He was preeminently the white man’s President, entirely devoted to the welfare of white men. He was ready and willing at any time during the first years of his administration to deny, postpone, and sacrifice the rights of humanity in the colored people to promote the welfare of the white people of this country. In all his education and feeling he was an American of the Americans. He came into the Presidential chair upon one principle alone, namely, opposition to the extension of slavery.”
“You are the children of Abraham Lincoln. We are at best only his step-children; children by adoption, children by forces of circumstances and necessity. … for while Abraham Lincoln saved for you a country, he delivered us from a bondage, according to Jefferson, one hour of which was worse than ages of the oppression your fathers rose in rebellion to oppose.”
Then Douglass gave a long list of complaints against Lincoln’s actions, such as overturning general officers’ military emancipation policies, support for colonization, refusal to prosecute murderers of black soldiers, etc., if only to illustrate his bigger point: That none of those complaints ultimately mattered in light of the ultimate conclusion:
“We were at times grieved, stunned, and greatly bewildered; but our hearts believed while they ached and bled. … We saw him, measured him, and estimated him; not by stray utterances to injudicious and tedious delegations, who often tried his patience; not by isolated facts torn from their connection; not by any partial and imperfect glimpses, caught at inopportune moments; but by a broad survey, in the light of the stern logic of great events, and in view of that divinity which shapes our ends, rough hew them how we will, we came to the conclusion that the hour and the man of our redemption had somehow met in the person of Abraham Lincoln.”
(This is where he pulls back and about-faces. By now, no doubt the assembled guests were squirming and murmuring over this choice of speaker. Reading Douglass’ words, I can “hear” certain people thinking such things as, “Wasn’t this occasion to honor Lincoln?” “Didn’t Douglass appreciate that his kind was free because of Lincoln?” “What is this ingratitude!”)
“It mattered little to us what language he might employ on special occasions; it mattered little to us, when we fully knew him, whether he was swift or slow in his movements; it was enough for us that Abraham Lincoln was at the head of a great movement, and was in living and earnest sympathy with that movement, which, in the nature of things, must go on until slavery should be utterly and forever abolished in the United States. …Definitely read the whole speech, because Douglass truly nailed what Abraham Lincoln really meant to the nation as a whole—white, black, Northerner and Southerner. Let me repeat the most salient part: “Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent; but measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined.”
“I have said that President Lincoln was a white man, and shared the prejudices common to his countrymen towards the colored race. Looking back to his times and to the condition of his country, we are compelled to admit that this unfriendly feeling on his part may be safely set down as one element of his wonderful success in organizing the loyal American people for the tremendous conflict before them, and bringing them safely through that conflict. His great mission was to accomplish two things: first, to save his country from dismemberment and ruin; and, second, to free his country from the great crime of slavery. To do one or the other, or both, he must have the earnest sympathy and the powerful cooperation of his loyal fellow countrymen. Without this primary and essential condition to success his efforts must have been vain and utterly fruitless. Had he put the abolition of slavery before the salvation of the Union, he would have inevitably driven from him a powerful class of the American people and rendered resistance to rebellion impossible. Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent; but measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined.”
And there you have it: The best summary explanation of President Lincoln’s actions in office you are bound to find.
Side note: Interestingly, John Stauffer, author of Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, criticizes Douglass for not discussing in his speech the worsening situation for blacks in the South, though he did make passing reference to “slavery and barbarism…[which] still lingers to blight and destroy in some dark and distant parts of our country.” The criticism is somewhat valid, because by that time, the nation had wearied of “waving the bloody shirt.” President Grant had wearied of fighting for Reconstruction all but alone. (Stauffer’s criticism of Grant “not caring” about blacks in the South, however, is unjust.)