The White World of Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass

by William S. McFeely
Norton, 465 pp., $24.95

If Abraham Lincoln ultimately transcended the racism that infected most of his white countrymen, he could never forget the virulence, omnipresence, and political usefulness of the disease. When Lincoln, a Republican moderate, spoke out in 1856 against the geographic extension of slavery, Illinois Democrats accused him of “the most ultra abolitionism” and the Illinois State Register claimed that “his niggerism has as dark a hue as that of [William Lloyd] Garrison or Fred Douglass.” Two years later, during his great debates with Senator Stephen A. Douglas, Lincoln found himself more closely tied to Frederick Douglass, the most celebrated black leader in America—and to the bugaboo of “racial amalgamation.”

Stephen Douglas, in his attacks on Lincoln and the “Black Republicans,” repeatedly referred to his near namesake as one of Lincoln’s “advisers,” as an architect of the conspiracy to destroy the old Whig party, abolitionize the North, and propagate the doctrine of racial equality. In view of Lincoln’s “conscientious belief that the negro was made his equal, and hence is his brother,” Douglas proclaimed, amid bursts of laughter, “he is worthy of a medal from father [Joshua] Giddings and Fred Douglass for his Abolitionism.” On two occasions, at Freeport and Jonesboro, the Little Giant reinforced his appeals to racial hatred with the image of a black man—in this case Frederick Douglass himself—fraternizing as an equal with a young (in one version, “beautiful”) white lady. Referring to an incident in 1854, when Frederick Douglass had reportedly come to Illinois in order “to speak on behalf of Lincoln, [Lyman] Trumbull and abolitionism against that illustrious Senator [Lewis Cass],” Stephen Douglas recalled, “Why, they brought Fred Douglass to Freeport when I was addressing a meeting there in a carriage driven by the white owner, the negro sitting inside with the white lady and her daughter.” “Shame,” cried the Jonesboro crowd. As Douglas made clear when he debated Lincoln at Freeport, where the response of the audience was mixed, the kind of man who thought that his wife should ride in a carriage with a Negro, “whilst you drive the team,” “of course will vote for Mr. Lincoln.”

After trying repeatedly to overcome the stigma of “niggerism,” Lincoln could not have been pleased when in the fourth debate Stephen Douglas presented a copy of a recent speech made by Frederick Douglass “to a large convention” in Poughkeepsie, New York. Although Stephen Douglas said he had no time to read from the speech, he affirmed that Lincoln’s “ally” “conjures all the friends of negro equality and negro citizenship to rally as one man around Abraham Lincoln, the perfect embodiment of their principles, and by all means to defeat Stephen A. Douglas.” (“It can’t be done,” yelled the crowd.)

Douglas’s summary was quite accurate. Frederick Douglass, as William S. McFeely tells us, was by then the most famous runaway slave in America. In a long and eloquent address commemorating West Indian emancipation, he eventually turned to the …

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