Lincoln and Douglass

This is a slightly revised post from another page two years ago. It is in honor of Black History month.

“If there is no struggle, there is no progress … Power concedes nothing without demand.  It never did and it never will.  Find out just what people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or both.  The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”

Frederick Douglass, former slave and American Abolitionist, spokesman for full Black Rights in the late 19th Century.

            In 1838, Frederick Douglass escaped slavery in Maryland by hopping aboard a train near Baltimore and making his way to Boston.  He did not flee to Canada, as thousands of the refugees from slavery did in those days before the Civil War (April 1861- May 1865)[1].  Instead, he settled in New Bedford, Massachusetts, found work and eventually married a free woman.  He worked hard to educate himself and became not only literate, but eloquent, both as an orator and a writer. 

He became an icon of the Abolitionists, as well as the premier advocate for Black Rights, including the right to bear arms in the Civil War.  He worked tirelessly to have Blacks become full-fledged US citizens with voting rights and freedom to do anything (legal) they chose and live freely anywhere in the country. 

During the War, his relationship with Abraham Lincoln grew from doubt of the President’s ability and commitment to end slavery to one of warm respect.  They met many times, as Lincoln recognized his need of input on dealing with the issue of abolition and granting rights to the former slaves and the Free Black population.  The President found Douglass abrasive to deal with at times, but grew to respect his intellect and his insight.  Douglass criticized Lincoln (as did many) for not moving more quickly on Abolition and not fully immediately accepting Blacks as entitled to equal rights.  Lincoln saw that this had to happen eventually, but thought they needed to be educated into it and that the country needed to be prepared for it.

Perhaps there is some justice in Douglass’s critique of Lincoln.  Both were men of their time and products of their heritage.  Lincoln may not have been fully ‘modern’ in his views of the equality of the ‘races’, but Douglass recognized that the President was vastly in advance of the great majority of his compatriots.  In his time, he was one of the most misunderstood, maligned, underestimated, and undervalued ‘greats’ of history ever. 

Today, the US recognizes both these titans, wary allies and occasional opponents, as unquestionably great men.  Both were necessary, and both fought the same battle, but from very different vantage points.  As a young man of nineteen, Lincoln had already begun to abhor slavery and the oppression of ‘the African Race’ as an abomination.  He had said, “If I ever get the opportunity, I will hit this thing hard.”  This was long before he had any notion of becoming President.  He was not yet even on the road to becoming a lawyer.

Lincoln refused to succumb to radicalism, at least to the kind of Abolitionist radicalism of William Lloyd Garrison.  He was, however, a moral and constitutional radical.  Yet, even though he abhorred the evils of the whole slavery institution and system, he equally abhorred the idea of a wholesale violent demolition of it.  His view was that solving one great evil by wreaking havoc, mayhem, and destruction as some sort of hand of Divine Retribution (as per John Brown) would merely compound evil upon evil.

Lincoln sought a firm, measured, gradual approach.  He learned as he went, and grew into the man people would later revere.  He was far from a simple, simplistic ‘yokel’ lawyer from the backcountry of the Mid-West, as so many tried to portray him – ‘the Original Gorilla’ or ‘the Buffoon’, as the press so often vilified him.  Even his closest collaborators failed to see the real man and the subtleties of his mind and soul being worked upon by ‘the Deity’, as he sometimes called the God he increasingly turned to as his burden and need increased.  The great suffering in his personal life also drove him to God, although he was never “an enthusiast”, remaining quite private about his personal faith.

Frederick Douglass was understandably more one-dimensional.  His calling and mandate were simple and always remained clear.  His goal was fixed, and he strove to advance towards it for the rest of his life.  He too felt a sort of ‘Divine calling’ to do the work he knew he had been given.  It is perhaps understandable that he took time to recognize that, in a different way, Lincoln also knew he had been chosen for a great work and must see it through to the end.

For Lincoln, the work and the goal evolved in his vision and understanding as he evolved into the greatest President the US ever had.  His basic persona did not change, but his wisdom and understanding increased, and his insight into how to move in practical ways grew exponentially and rapidly as he found himself catapulted into a context no one before him had ever faced, and never has since then.

The Civil Rights Movement in the US rightly gives Douglass a prominent place in its pantheon.  He did much with little, and greatly advanced the cause of racial justice.  He also had enduring and significant support from a strong base of well-intentioned, well-positioned, and financially prosperous white Americans.  He was the leader of a nascent movement at a time when circumstances were opening new doors. 

Lincoln was often surrounded by those who disdained him as a person, mocked his ‘inferior’ abilities (as they considered them), and questioned his every move (including many of Douglass’s supporters).  He would have said, if the expression had been in use then, that all this ‘came with the territory’. 

Lincoln was rarely angered by attackers, detractors, and opponents.   He preferred to laugh – both at himself and the absurdities he was the target of.  He became exasperated at times, and frequently discouraged, but he would remain philosophical about the whole business, and seemed able to look at the issues with a kind of calm detachment.  Like Douglass, once he could see the goal, Lincoln’s eyes remained fixed on it.  He began to see how he had to move, how to find his way through the maze, how to bring some good out of the Apocalypse his country had fallen into. 

One of Lincoln’s strongest opponents was his main rival for the Republican nomination of 1860, William Seward.  A second major opponent was Salmon P. Chase, another rival for the nomination.  A third was Edwin Stanton, a powerful Democrat in the House of Representatives who sought to bring every decision in the early conduct of the war under close scrutiny in order to discredit Lincoln and his administration.  Lincoln’s gift as a political genius enabled him to incorporate each of these one-time bitter opponents into his Cabinet, although Chase continued to secretly undermine him.  Lincoln could have ruined him because of secretive conspiring but instead, he manoeuvred him into quietly resigning from Cabinet to become a Justice of the Supreme Court.  He brought Stanton into the Cabinet to replace the corrupt Secretary of War, Simon Cameron, in 1863, thus giving him a chance to ‘put up or shut up’ about how to prosecute the War.

What was the eventual estimation of the President by his former arch-rivals, men who saw him almost daily and got to know him intimately?  I will paraphrase Seward’s response to a critic of Lincoln still protesting his bumbling and mishandling of things in 1862, with the war in full swing and the North in disarray.  The critic suggested that the country would be far better off if Seward took over, if they could somehow manoeuvre Lincoln into resigning or being impeached.  Seward told this man, “I have since completely changed my mind about Mr. Lincoln and his ability.  None of us measure up to him, and he outweighs all of us put together.”  Mr. Seward never changed this opinion thereafter.

Stanton often found himself crossing swords with Lincoln over strategy and assignments of personnel and resources.  They could engage in bitter arguments, with most of the vitriol and bitterness on Mr. Stanton’s side.  Lincoln’s calm persistence, often attributed to brute stubbornness, frequently later proved the justice of his perceptions.  Stanton was eventually completely won over by Lincoln, although he continued to be headstrong.  When Lincoln lay dying after being shot in Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865, Stanton sat the whole night by his bedside mute with grief, for he had come to regard Lincoln as a true friend and a very great man.  When Lincoln finally expired, Stanton was heard to say with a tear-choked voice, “And now he belongs to the ages.”

Frederick Douglass had also come to recognize Mr. Lincoln, for all his ‘limitations’ on the race question, as a truly great and unique man.  He said this:

In all my interviews with Mr. Lincoln I was impressed with his entire freedom from popular prejudice against the colored race.  He was the first great man that I talked with in the United States freely, who in no single instance reminded me of the difference between himself and myself, of the difference of color, and I thought that all the more remarkable because he came from a State [Illinois, and born in Kentucky, a slave state] where there were black laws.  I account partially for his kindness to me because of the similarity with which I had fought my way up, we both starting at the lowest round of the ladder. . . .

There was one thing concerning Lincoln that I was impressed with, and that was that a statement of his was an argument more convincing than any amount of logic.  He had a happy faculty of stating a proposition , of stating it so that it needed no argument.  It was a rough kind of reasoning and it went right to the point.  Then, too, there was another feeling that I had with reference to him, and that was that while I felt in his presence that I was in the presence of a very great man, as great as the greatest.  I felt as though I could go and put my hand on his shoulder.  Of course I did not do it, but I felt that I could.  I felt that I was in the presence of a big brother, and that there was safety in his atmosphere.

Frederick Douglass, On Slavery and the Civil War.  Philip S. Foner, Ed.  (Dover Publications, Inc., 2003), p. 52.

It is amazing what time and perspective can do to help us see things more clearly.  He realized that if Mr. Lincoln had survived, the reintegration of the South and the racial integration of the Blacks would have gone much differently and with far less longstanding bitterness to pass on to future generations.

The survival of the United States was Lincoln’s true legacy along with the final abolition of slavery.  His closest contemporaries, along with millions of his fellow citizens, attributed this uniquely to him, a man whom they concluded God Himself had chosen for the task.  Lincoln himself had an inkling of this, more than once voicing the premonition that when it all ended, he would be gone too, his appointed work finished.


[1]  The last significant Confederate force actually surrendered May 25, 1865.  Lee’s surrender at Appomattox on April 12 did not end all the resistance, although it is usually cited as the war’s end.

One thought on “Lincoln and Douglass

  1. Read your Lincoln piece again, and heartily agree that he was an exceptional and great man, obviously chosen for his time and place. I have learned much from him, even through the medium of biographies written a century or so after his death.

    Like

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