• U.S.

Across the Great Divide

15 minute read
John Stauffer

The two giants could have ignored each other or become enemies. So how is it that Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, the most famous black man of the 19th century, became friends? And what difference did their friendship make?

The answer is that Lincoln recognized early on that he needed the ex-slave to help him destroy the Confederacy and preserve the Union. And so at a time when most whites would not let a black man cross their threshold, the President met Douglass three times at the White House and found a startling way to enlist him in his cause. What was in it for Douglass, who at the midpoint of the Civil War came to believe that Lincoln was a racist who argued that blacks and whites should be kept apart? Douglass came to realize that Lincoln’s shrewd sense of timing and public opinion would serve his goal of freeing the nation’s blacks.

Despite the immense racial gulf separating them, Lincoln and Douglass had a lot in common. They were the two pre-eminent self-made men of their era. Lincoln was born dirt poor, had less than a year of formal schooling and became one of the nation’s greatest Presidents. Douglass spent the first 20 years of his life as a slave, had no formal schooling–in fact, his masters forbade him to read or write–and became one of the nation’s greatest writers and activists. Though nine years younger, Douglass overshadowed Lincoln as a public figure during the 15 years before the Civil War. He published two best-selling autobiographies before the age of 40, edited his own newspaper beginning in 1847 and was a brilliant orator–even better than Lincoln–at a time when public speaking was a major source of entertainment and power.

Lincoln and Douglass also shared many common interests. They loved music and literature and educated themselves (Douglass on the sly while a slave) by reading the same books: Aesop’s Fables, the Bible, Shakespeare and especially The Columbian Orator, a popular anthology of speeches for boys. They were athletic, strong and tall: Douglass was about 6 ft., Lincoln 6 ft. 4 in., when the average height for men was 5 ft. 7 in. They refrained from alcohol and tobacco at a time when many politicians “squirted their tobacco juice upon the carpet” and drank on the job. They were ambitious men and had great faith in the moral and technological progress of their nation. And they both called slavery a sin. “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong,” Lincoln stated. “I can not remember when I did not so think, and feel.” For Douglass, slavery was not only a sin but “piracy and murder.” And both men explained their destiny by quoting the same lines from Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, Rough-hew them how we will.”

It’s true that Douglass was a radical; he demanded an immediate end to slavery, equal rights for all men and women, and the redistribution of land so that no one would be rich and no one poor. Such measures, he argued, would fulfill the “principles in the Declaration of Independence” and “prepare the earth for a millennium of righteousness and peace.” Lincoln was a moderate; he concluded (as did most Americans) that the Constitution defended slavery in states where it already existed. But, like Douglass, he emphasized that the Declaration was the centerpiece of government. It was the “apple of gold” within the Constitution’s “picture of silver.”

When the Civil War broke out in April 1861, however, they had very different strategies for winning it. Douglass repeatedly urged Lincoln to free the slaves and recruit black soldiers. Douglass wanted to prevent the Confederacy from using slaves to grow the food that fed its army. “The negro is the stomach of the rebellion,” he wrote. “Every slave who escapes from the Rebel States is a loss to the Rebellion and a gain to the Loyal Cause.” He also understood that the quickest way for blacks to gain equal rights was to become Union soldiers.

But Lincoln’s aim was the preservation of the Union. He feared that if he freed the slaves and ordered black soldiers to kill whites, he would alienate northern conservatives and lose the border slave states of Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky and Missouri. And if the border states were lost, he believed, all was lost. Douglass had no sympathy for this reasoning. The slaveholders of the border states, he said, “have been the mill-stone about the neck of the Government, and their so-called loyalty” prevented the Union from using all its resources. He knew that 4 million slaves, plus another half million free blacks, amounted to about 20% of the North’s population and represented a potent source of power.

Lincoln refused to tap into this source of power, and Douglass became increasingly frustrated with him. By arming only white men, the Union fought the rebels with one hand, he complained. “They fought with their soft white hand, while they kept their black iron hand chained and helpless behind them.” Douglass’s frustration turned to contempt in August 1862, after Lincoln met with a delegation of African Americans and urged them to emigrate to Central America. “You and we are different races,” Lincoln told his black audience. “We have between us a broader difference than exists between almost any other two races … Your race are suffering, in my judgment, the greatest wrong inflicted on any people. But even when you cease to be slaves, you are yet far removed from being placed on an equality with the white race. You are cut off from many of the advantages which the other race enjoy.” The very presence of blacks in the country, he added, was the cause of the war, even though men on both sides “do not care for you one way or the other.” He concluded, “It is better for us both, therefore, to be separated.”

Douglass was outraged when he heard about the meeting. In Central and South America, he noted, “distinct races live peaceably together in the enjoyment of equal rights” without civil wars. And he sneered at the notion that blacks were the cause of the war. A horse thief did not apologize for his theft by blaming the horse. “No, Mr. President, it is not the innocent horse that makes the horse thief … but the cruel and brutal cupidity of those who wish to possess horses, money and Negroes by means of theft, robbery and rebellion.” He called Lincoln “a genuine representative of American prejudice” who was more concerned about the border states than about any “principle of justice and humanity.”

What Douglass did not know was that Lincoln had already drafted a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation but had not made it public. Lincoln wanted to free the slaves, but he felt that the nation was not yet ready for an antislavery war. He was an astute judge of public opinion and knew that he could not be more than one step ahead of it without losing support. His colonization plan helped in this effort; it was good politics and made emancipation seem tolerable to conservatives, especially slaveholders in the border states. The tide of public opinion was beginning to turn.

But Lincoln also needed a Union victory. The war was not going well, and people were losing patience. With a major battle about to begin in September 1862, he was still hesitant about going public with his plan. But after General George McClellan defeated Robert E. Lee at Antietam, Lincoln declared that as of Jan. 1, 1863, all slaves in the rebel states would be “forever free.” And the final Emancipation Proclamation called for the enlistment of black troops.

With emancipation, Douglass’s attitude toward Lincoln suddenly and dramatically changed. Never again would he so harshly criticize the President, even though they continued to disagree on many things. He knew that the proclamation was a revolutionary document that turned the war into a “contest of civilization against barbarism” rather than a struggle for territory, as he put it. It acquired for him “a life and power far beyond its letter” and became another sacred text, which restored the Declaration to its rightful place at the center of the nation’s laws. Henceforth, he said, Jan. 1 would rank with July 4 as the twin births of liberty.

In August 1863, Douglass met with the President for the first time. Since January he had been eagerly recruiting blacks, urging MEN OF COLOR, TO ARMS. But black soldiers were being discriminated against. They received about half the pay whites did and were not being promoted for distinguished service. Worse still, black prisoners were being murdered or enslaved by Confederates. As a result of these injustices, Douglass quit recruiting and went to Washington to plead his case to the President.

When Douglass entered the White House, the stairway was filled with applicants, all of them white men. He thought he would have to wait all day, but within two minutes of sending up his card, a messenger called for him. As he elbowed his way up the stairs, he heard someone remark, “Yes, damn it, I knew they would let the n_____ through.”

When Lincoln saw Douglass, he rose to greet him. “Mr. Douglass, I know you; I have read about you … Sit down, I am glad to see you.” He referred to Douglass’s attack on his “tardy, hesitating, vacillating policy” and acknowledged that at times he might seem slow to act. But he denied wavering: “When I have once taken a position, I have [never] retreated from it.” After hearing Douglass’s complaints, Lincoln assured him that black soldiers would eventually receive the same pay as white soldiers, and he promised to sign any promotion for blacks that the Secretary of War recommended.He had already signed an order aimed at preventing Confederates from murdering blacks that stipulated that “for every soldier killed in violation of the laws of war a rebel soldier shall be executed.”

Douglass came away from the meeting deeply moved and resumed recruiting. What most impressed him was Lincoln’s honesty and sincerity–“there was no vain pomp and ceremony about him … In his company I was never in any way reminded of my humble origin, or of my unpopular color.” He sensed a kindred spirit in Lincoln, someone “whom I could love, honor, and trust without reserve or doubt.” The respect was mutual; Lincoln regarded Douglass as “one of the most meritorious men, if not the most meritorious man, in the United States.”

Through the recruiting controversy, Lincoln had also realized that he badly needed Douglass. It would be a virtually impossible task without him, and without blacks on Lincoln’s side, he could scarcely win the war and preserve the Union. Many of his generals felt that “the emancipation policy, and the use of colored troops, constitute the heaviest blow yet dealt to the rebellion,” Lincoln noted.

A year later, in August 1864, Lincoln decided that he needed Douglass again and requested a second, urgent meeting with him. He was dejected about Northern opposition to the war and his gloomy prospects for re-election. Almost everyone, it seemed, wanted peace, and most people felt that Lincoln’s antislavery policy prevented a peaceful settlement with the Confederacy. Conservatives had nominated McClellan for President, and Lincoln was worried that if he failed to be re-elected, there would be a negotiated peace with slavery still intact. He had a plan, but Douglass had to help him carry it out.

Lincoln’s strategy resembled John Brown’s efforts to invade the South and free the slaves. He wanted Douglass to organize a band of black scouts “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,” as Douglass recalled. If the plan worked, it would preserve the Union and end slavery.

Douglass was amazed by the idea. He had been a close friend of John Brown’s throughout the 1850s and had championed his militant abolitionist efforts. In 1859 Brown had invaded Harpers Ferry, Va., as part of a scheme to free the slaves but was captured and hanged for treason. While Douglass considered Brown a hero and martyr, Lincoln had referred to him as a criminal and madman. Yet now Lincoln was borrowing from Brown by conceiving a similar raid. Douglass had not gone with Brown to Harpers Ferry because he had correctly predicted that Brown would fail in the attempt. But Douglass eagerly accepted Lincoln’s proposal and began preparing for the invasion. Sherman’s victory at Atlanta, however, all but clinched Lincoln’s prospects for re-election and rendered the plan unnecessary.

After this meeting, Douglass saw Lincoln in a new light. The President was willing to go to far greater lengths in the cause of freedom than Douglass had previously thought possible. His John Brown plan “showed a deeper moral conviction against slavery than I had ever seen before in anything spoken or written by him.”

When Douglass and Lincoln met for the third time, in March 1865, the mood was celebratory and they considered each other friends. Douglass came to Washington to attend Lincoln’s second Inauguration. The war was almost over; some 179,000 blacks were in uniform, marching triumphantly through the South; and the recently passed 13th Amendment abolished slavery throughout the U.S.

The ceremony was “wonderfully quiet, earnest, and solemn,” Douglass noted. There was a “leaden stillness about the crowd” as Lincoln delivered his address, and Douglass thought it sounded “more like a sermon than a state paper.” After the ceremony he went to the reception at the White House. As he was about to enter, two policemen rudely yanked him away and told him no persons of color were allowed to enter. Douglass said there must be some mistake, for no such order could have come from the President. The police refused to yield, until Douglass sent word to Lincoln that he was being detained at the door. Douglass found him in the elegant East Room, standing “like a mountain pine in his grand simplicity and homely beauty.”

“Here comes my friend,” Lincoln said, and took Douglass by the hand. “I am glad to see you. I saw you in the crowd today, listening to my inaugural address.” He asked Douglass how he liked it, adding, “There is no man in the country whose opinion I value more than yours.”

“Mr. Lincoln, that was a sacred effort,” Douglass replied.

A month later, when news reached Douglass at his home in Rochester, N.Y, that Lincoln had been assassinated, he was overcome with grief. Later that day, he gave a short impromptu speech. “Though Abraham Lincoln dies, the Republic lives,” he said, adding that the martyred President had “made us kin,” uniting blacks and whites. He elaborated on Lincoln’s legacy 11 years later, at the unveiling of the Freedmen’s Monument in Washington, offering a tender verdict from the perspective of someone who had been converted. If you judge him from the point of view of a pure abolitionist, Douglass said, “Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent.” But, he went on, “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.”

Slavery Up Close

On the eve of the Civil War, 4 million people were held in bondage, fueling the South’s economy but cleaving the nation

TOTALS, 1860


Number of slaves

3,953,731 Slaves (12.7% of pop.)

Families owning slaves

7.6% Owned slaves


Number of slaves

3,525,110 Slaves (38.7% of pop.)

Families owning Slaves

30.8% Owned slaves


Number of slaves: 114,931

Percent of population: (9.7%)

NebraskaTerritory – 15 slaves

KansasTerritory – 2 slaves

In the counties that became West Virginia in 1863, only 5.7% of families owned slaves

KENTUCKY 225,483 (19.5%)

DELAWARE 1,798 (1.6%)

NEW JERSEY 18 slaves

D.C. 3,185 (4.2%)

MARYLAND 87,189 (12.7%)

Largest number of free blacks: 25,680 in Baltimore, Md.

>> States that seceded to form the Confederacy

ARKANSAS 111,115 (25.5%)

TENNESSEE 275,719 (24.8%)

VIRGINIA 490,865 (30.7%)

NORTH CAROLINA 331,059 (33.4%)

SOUTH CAROLINA 402,406 (57.2%)

Of the 15 people in the U.S. who owned more than 500 slaves, 8 were in South Carolina

Largest slave population: 37,290 – Charleston County, S.C.

GEORGIA 462,198 (43.7%)

FLORIDA 61,745 (44.0%)

ALABAMA 435,080 (45.1%)

MISSISSIPPI 436,631 (55.2%)

Highest concentration of slaves: 92.5% In Issaquena County, Miss., 115 owners held 7,244 slaves

LOUISIANA 331,726 (46.9%)

TEXAS 182,566 (30.2%)


Less than 5% of slaves taken from Africa came to North America. The U.S. outlawed the importation of slaves in 1808

Transatlantic slave imports, 1450-1870 — Number of slaves

1 Brazil …………………………………………4 million

2 Spanish Empire ……………………………2.5 million

3 British West Indies ………………………..2 million

4 French West Indies ……………………….1.6 million

5 British North America and U.S. ………….500,000

6 Dutch West Indies ………………………….500,000

7 Danish West Indies …………………………..28,000

8 Europe …………………………………………200,000

Sources: Census Bureau, Population of the United States in 1860; Map Guide to the U.S. Federal Censuses, 1790-1920, by William Thorndale and William Dollarhide; Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research; University of Virginia; estimates on slave imports from The Slave Trade, by Hugh Thomas, 1997 (Simon & Schuster)

Stauffer teaches American literature and history at Harvard and is the prize-winning author of The Black Hearts of Men

For David Blight’s story on Douglass’s July 5, 1852, speech, see time.com/lincoln

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