What Did He Really Think About Race?

Abraham Lincoln was “emphatically, the black man’s President,” wrote the black abolitionist Frederick Douglass in 1865, “the first to show any respect for their rights as men.” A decade later, however, in a speech at the unveiling of an emancipation monument in Washington, Douglass described Lincoln as “preeminently the white man’s President.” To his largely white audience on this occasion, Douglass declared that “you are the children of Abraham Lincoln. We are at best only his step-children.” Later in the same speech, Douglass brought together his Hegelian thesis and antithesis in a final synthesis. Whatever Lincoln’s flaws may have been in the eyes of racial egalitarians, he said “in his heart of hearts he loathed and hated slavery.” His firm wartime leadership saved the nation and freed it “from the great crime of slavery…. The hour and the man of our redemption had met in the person of Abraham Lincoln.”

As James Oakes notes in this astute and polished study, Douglass’s speech in 1876 “mimicked his own shifting perspective” on Lincoln over the previous two decades. Born a slave on Maryland’s eastern shore, Douglass escaped to the North and freedom in 1838 and soon emerged as one of the nation’s leading abolitionists. During the Civil War he spoke out eloquently and repeatedly to urge expansion of the war for the Union into a war for black freedom. Because Lincoln seemed to move too slowly and reluctantly in that direction, Douglass berated him as a proslavery wolf in antislavery sheep’s clothing. “Abraham Lincoln is no more fit for the place he holds than was James Buchanan,” declared an angry Douglass in July 1862, “and the latter was no more the miserable tool of traitors than the former is allowing himself to be.” Lincoln had “steadily refused to proclaim, as he had the constitutional and moral right to proclaim, complete emancipation to all the slaves of rebels…. The country is destined to become sick of…Lincoln, and the sooner the better.”1

In Douglass’s dialectical path toward Lincoln, this was the time of his most outspoken opposition. He could not know that at the very moment he was condemning the President as no better than the proslavery Buchanan, Lincoln had decided to issue an emancipation proclamation that would accomplish most of what Douglass demanded. When Lincoln did precisely that two months later, Douglass was ecstatic. “We shout for joy that we live to record this righteous decree,” he announced.2

But in Douglass’s view, Lincoln backslid after issuing the proclamation. Just as the President had seemed too slow in 1862 to embrace emancipation, he seemed similarly tardy in 1864 to embrace equal rights for freed slaves. For a time Douglass even supported efforts to replace Lincoln with a more radical Republican candidate for president in the election of 1864. In the end, however, when the only alternative to Lincoln was the Democratic nominee George B. McClellan, whose election might jeopardize the antislavery gains of the previous two years, Douglass came out for Lincoln.…

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