Jim Crow Museum
1010 Campus Drive
Big Rapids, MI 49307
Q: What did Frederick Douglass think of Abraham Lincoln and his work and what was
their relationship like?
~ R. Gales
A: There were many factors at play in emancipating the enslaved in America during the Civil War. This complex issue has produced volumes and volumes of material and analysis. But one cannot discount the fact that Abraham Lincoln took a nation to war “until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid” (Second Inaugural Address).
By 1862 the Emancipation proposal was widely accepted by most Republican leaders; however, the party was divided on how to enact it. Some advocated for emancipation of all while providing compensation to owners who cooperated with the Union, others wanted full confiscation of property and full emancipation throughout all the Confederacy, and still others supported only freeing those enslaved that were “abandoned by their masters in the territories actually occupied by the national forces.” Lincoln’s final proclamation included components of all three positions (Essex County Standard, 1862).
Frederick Douglass was a harsh critic of President Lincoln as documented extensively
in his publications. Douglass met with President Lincoln in 1863 to confront him about
the conditions and treatment of Black soldiers fighting in the War. Douglass and Lincoln
left the meeting with relatively positive respect toward each other. The sentiment
didn’t last long for Douglass as he supported General John C. Frémont for president
in 1864 over Lincoln. However, once Lincoln received the nomination, Douglass supported
his re-election campaign. After Lincoln was re-elected, Douglass became a special
advisor to the president in 1865. Douglass then began softening his criticism of the
President and after his assassination, Douglass said.
“Had Abraham Lincoln been spared to see this day, the negro of the South would have more than a hope of enfranchisement and no rebels could hold the reins of Government in any one of the late rebellious States… Whosoever else have cause to mourn the loss of Abraham Lincoln, to the Colored people of the Country his death is an unspeakable calamity.” (Oakes, 2011)
After 11 years of experiencing the Reconstruction efforts, Douglass reflected on his complicated relationship with Abraham Lincoln and the nation’s direction. Again, Douglass was critical of Lincoln’s attitudes and beliefs toward African Americans. In an 1876 speech at the dedication of the Memorial Monument to Abraham Lincoln in Washington D.C., Douglass reminded the population that although “Mr. Lincoln shared the prejudices of his white fellow-countrymen against the Negro,” he had shown that in his heart that he “loathed and hated slavery.” In the speech Douglass highlights the role of African American soldiers in the fight for their own emancipation, and in closing he calls Lincoln a 'friend and liberator' and states that because of his loyalty to the union and to liberty, “he is doubly dear to us, and his memory will be precious forever” (Frederick Douglass Project).
I am sympathetic to Douglass’s assessment of Lincoln. While he is hailed as the “Great Emancipator,” Lincoln’s views on Black people and their enslavement were more complex than that title might imply, evolving considerably during his presidency. Nevertheless, he confronted the enslavement of Black people in a way that no other president had done—and his actions helped end that brutal, inhumane system.
Jim Crow Museum
“Divisions on the Slavery Question.” Essex County Standard, 1 Jan. 1862, pp.4
“Frederick Douglass Project Writings: Oration in Memory of Abraham Lincoln.” RBSCP, https://rbscp.lib.rochester.edu/4402
“Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address.” National Parks Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, https://www.nps.gov/linc/learn/historyculture/lincoln-second-inaugural.htm
Oakes, James. The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics. W.W. Norton & Company, 2008.