The New York Times December 7, 2014
By December 1864, Frederick Douglass had become an admirer of the man he later called “our friend and liberator,” and he savored President Lincoln’s re-election the previous month. But Douglass’s path to that admiration had been anything but direct.
Four years earlier, he had quietly supported candidate Lincoln in the November 1860 election. But the Republican president-elect soon gave him pause. Lincoln’s silence during the final months of Democrat James Buchanan’s presidency irked Douglass, and he complained of Lincoln’s failure to condemn pro-South actions by Buchanan’s lame-duck administration.
Moreover, during Lincoln’s days as president-elect and his presidency’s first months, Douglass was also disturbed by the new chief executive’s receptiveness to proposed peace deals with the South that would have left its “peculiar institution” — slavery — intact. He was likewise troubled by Lincoln’s continuing advocacy of black emigration schemes as a means of addressing the secession crisis — schemes that would have sent African-Americans, both free and slave, to Africa or the Caribbean. Indeed, in spring 1861, Douglass, though throughout most of his life an opponent of such schemes, grew so wary of President Lincoln that he planned a 10-week trip to Haiti to ponder emigrating there himself (he eventually canceled the trip).
The proclamation did not abolish American slavery, nor did it free all American slaves. It left in bondage close to a million souls in areas exempted by the edict: the nominally Union and free-soil “border states” of Kentucky, Delaware, Missouri and Kentucky, as well as all parts of the Confederacy already occupied by Union forces. But Douglass saw that Lincoln’s edict put the nation on an irreversible course. “For my own part,” he later recalled, “I took the proclamation, first and last, for a little more than it purported, and saw in its spirit a life and power far beyond its letter.” He added:
Its meaning to me was the entire abolition of slavery, wherever the evil could be reached by the Federal arm, and I saw that its moral power would extend much further. It was, in my estimation, an immense gain to have the war for the Union committed to the extinction of slavery, even from a military necessity.
Douglass’s voice was, by then, being heard at the nation’s highest levels; at Douglass’s request, President Lincoln met with him, at the White House, on Aug. 10, 1863. “I was somewhat troubled with the thought of meeting someone so august and high in authority, especially as I had never been in the White House before, and had never spoken to a President of the United States before.” Upon entering the office, however, Douglass was put at ease. He found the tall president seated in a low chair, surrounded by books and papers. “On my approach he slowly drew his feet in from the different parts of the room into which they had strayed, and he began to rise, and continued to rise until he looked down upon me, and extended his hand and gave me a welcome.”
“Reaching out his hand, he said, ‘Mr. Douglass, I know you; I have read about you, and Mr. Seward” — Secretary of State William H. Seward — “has told me about you’; putting me quite at ease at once.” Their ensuing conversation focused on the black regiments then being organized, those from Massachusetts and other Union states, as well as others, made up of former slaves, in South Carolina, Tennessee and other Union-controlled areas of the South. To the president, Douglass made several requests: He asked for an end to pay inequities between black and white soldiers; that black soldiers be promoted, just as white soldiers, for “meritorious” battlefield performance; and that the president enunciate a policy for the Union’s military to retaliate in kind against rebel prisoners of war if the Confederacy made good on threats to execute captured black soldiers. Lincoln, in turn, asked Douglass how the Union Army might more effectively recruit former slaves now in Union-occupied parts of the South.
As their exchange drew to a close, Senator Samuel C. Pomeroy of Kansas, who, at its start, had introduced Douglass to the president, told Lincoln that Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton intended to commission Douglass adjutant-general to Gen. George H. Thomas. The commission would authorize Douglass to travel down the Mississippi and recruit former slaves into the army. The president, by Douglass’s account of the meeting, seemed pleased with that news: “I will sign any commission that Mr. Stanton will give Mr. Douglass.”
When they met that August, Lincoln was well into his first term and already pondering his re-election campaign the following year. He was facing stiff political headwinds from both Republicans and Democrats: Radical Republicans were demanding that he move more aggressively against the South; and Democrats — motivated by the sort of anti-black sentiment that flared during New York’s Draft Riots — were complaining that, through the Emancipation Proclamation and similar measures, he was pursuing policies injurious to whites, and unduly favorable toward blacks.
The president thus exercised caution in answering Douglass’s requests. Lincoln said that, while he was prepared, eventually, to accede to the equal pay request, he would, in the meantime — for political reasons — be unable to grant the other entreaties. Moreover, Lincoln cautioned that he regarded the very idea of any black enlistments as, for the time being, an “experiment.” Regardless of his own favorable view of the value of recruiting black soldiers into the war effort, the president said that he was also aware that many whites remained skeptical of the change in policy. “He spoke,” Douglass recalled, “of the opposition generally to employing negroes as soldiers at all.”
By the war’s end, Lincoln did remove most pay disparities between black and white soldiers, and after atrocities were inflicted on black soldiers, he also issued a warning to the Confederacy that any similar, future actions against black soldiers would produce commensurate retaliations against rebel prisoners. However, the change in policy, requested by Douglass, concerning promotions for black soldiers, never occurred; for the war’s duration, black enlistees were rarely elevated to higher ranks. As for Douglass’s military commission, that too never came — whether for reasons of bureaucratic error or deliberate policy, he never learned.
Even so, Douglass left the meeting satisfied that, in Lincoln, he had met a trustworthy leader with whom he could work. Speaking to an abolitionist convention the following December, Douglass reflected, “I never met with a man, who, on the first blush, impressed me more entirely with his sincerity, with his devotion to his country, and with his determination to save it at all hazards.”
A year later, on Aug. 19, 1864, Douglass met again with Lincoln at the White House, but this time, at the president’s request. “I need not say I went most gladly,” he recalled. “The main subject on which he wished to confer with me was as to the means most desirable to be employed outside the army to induce the slaves in the rebel States to come within the Federal lines,” where, by terms set forth in the Emancipation Proclamation, the bondsmen would be guaranteed their liberty.
Growing war opposition in the North — much of it fueled by complaints that the Emancipation Proclamation had rendered it an “abolition war,” recalled Douglass — “alarmed Mr. Lincoln.” The president was also “apprehensive that a peace might be forced upon him which would leave still in slavery all who had not come within our lines.”
Fearing such a forced peace, the president told Douglass that he wanted to render the Emancipation Proclamation “as effective as possible” as long as it remained the law of the land. While the order was in effect, he wanted it to liberate as many slaves as possible. More specifically, Lincoln worried that slaves in rebel areas “are not coming so rapidly and so numerously to us as I had hoped.” To increase their numbers, Lincoln made a proposal: He asked if Douglass would be willing to organize “a band of scouts, composed of colored men, whose business should be somewhat after the original plan of John Brown, to go into the rebel States, beyond the lines of our armies, and carry the news of emancipation, and urge the slaves to come within our boundaries.” Union military advances, however, soon rendered Lincoln’s idea unnecessary.
By the fall 1864 presidential campaign — following the Emancipation Proclamation and the two White House meetings — Lincoln had thus earned Douglass’s trust and admiration. Even so, Douglass, again as he had in 1860, remained mostly quiet in his support for the president’s election campaign. This time, Lincoln’s opponent was the former Union general George McClellan, who had expressed a willingness to discuss an armistice with the rebel South that would have left the region’s slavery in place. Explaining his reticence to the journalist Theodore Tilton, Douglass confided, “I am not doing much in this Presidential Canvass for the reason that Republican committees do not wish to expose themselves to the charge of being the ‘Niggar’ party.” In the end, Lincoln handily defeated McClellan — winning by 2,218,000 to 1,813,000 in the popular vote, 212 to 21 in the Electoral College.
Tom Chaffin’s books include “Pathfinder: John Charles Frémont and the Course of American Empire,” recently reissued with an updated introduction, and the just published “Giant’s Causeway: Frederick Douglass’s Irish Odyssey and the Making of an American Visionary,” from which the above essay is adapted. For