Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass

By Ethan Lewis

Presented to the Unitarian-Universalist Fellowship of the Wyoming Valley

February 12, 2006

©2006 All Rights Reserved

Abraham Lincoln would be 197 years old today, and if he could stand before us gathered here, he would probably look terrible.  But seriously, it’s a pleasure to speak to you today about one of the most important figures in American history. One of the tasks I have my history students do is learn all of the places in the Constitution that refer to slavery.  There are five of them.  These passages were not removed until after the extremely bloody second American Revolution, led by Abraham Lincoln, which is commonly called the Civil War.  As we share this time together, in the month during which we celebrate the birth of Lincoln, as well as African-American history, I thought it was appropriate to look at how Lincoln and the issue of race intersect in history, and how, through the intercession of another great American, Lincoln came to see the value of what is now the First Principle of Unitarian-Univeralism: the inherent worth and dignity of every person.

Abraham Lincoln was born poor in Kentucky, the son of Thomas Lincoln and Nancy Hanks, though some doubt exists as to whether Thomas was Abraham’s biological father.  They soon moved to Indiana, where over the space of several years, the future President received all of the formal education he would ever have.  He described it as coming in “littles”, and not amounting to more than 12 months in total.  Despite this lack of schooling, he had a breathtaking amount of intellectual curiosity, common sense and ambition, which led him to teach himself the law, and become a thriving legal practitioner after his move to Illinois in his 20’s.

While Lincoln was too poor to have any direct experience with slavery, his future wife, Mary Todd, came from one of Kentucky’s leading slave-holding families (in one of the many tragedies of the Civil War three of her half brothers and a brother-in-law died fighting for the Confederacy), and, as a politician on the make, Lincoln had definite opinions on what was, from 1846 on, the leading political topic of the day.

In the 1850’s Lincoln’s Whig Party shattered upon impact with the onrushing freight train of slavery expansion into the Western territories newly wrung from Mexico and the Native Americans.  Lincoln joined the new Republican Party, and ran for Senate against Stephen A. Douglas, a Democrat reviled by many Republicans for his efforts in passing “compromise” legislation such as the Fugitive Slave Law.  This law was unpopular because it gave financial incentive for government agents to take free persons of color and send them to the South as “escaped slaves”.   Lincoln and Douglas (who as a young man had courted Mary Todd—it’s always a small world, isn’t it?) famously debated on a multitude of topics up and down the state of Illinois. While Douglas won the election, Lincoln gained gravitas and a reputation, and in 1860, he became the second Republican nominee for President.

In 1860 Lincoln was elected President in a four-candidate race, claiming approximately 39% of the vote, and was not on the ballot in 10 of the future Confederate States.  Immediately following his election, the secession movement became a reality, and by April of 1861, 11 states had withdrawn from the Union of states to form a new nation, conceived in oppression, the Confederate States of America.  The secession of these states was based on a fear that Lincoln (widely reputed to be a foe of slavery) would take steps to restrict the “peculiar institution” and destroy the Southern way of life.  At this stage it is important to look at Lincoln’s views on slavery, and on race.


While Lincoln may have been among the best men of his time, he was definitely OF HIS TIME.  Lincoln was a consistent opponent of slavery, but he was not an abolitionist.  There were many true abolitionists, who recognized that slavery was the greatest evil in America and must be eradicated.  Many of those were Unitarians, such as Julia Ward Howe (who wrote “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”), Edward Everett (the orator who was the featured speaker at the dedication of the Gettysburg cemetery), and Hannibal Hamlin (Lincoln’s first Vice-President).  On the other hand, there were many people (known as “free-soilers”) who felt that slavery was an unfair competition with white workers, and wanted jobs and land reserved for “free”, i.e., white men.  This is analogous to modern opponents of offshoring of textile jobs.  Some people oppose the exploitation of foreign workers who earn pennies an hour without decent working conditions, while others only focus on the loss of American jobs.  Both are on the “right side” of the issue, but one has (in my opinion) a stronger moral basis for their stance.  Anyway, Lincoln was definitely a “free soil” opponent of slavery.

In the 1850’s he became the chair of Illinois’ Colonization Society.  This group was part of a larger movement dedicated to the idea of removing black people from North America, and colonizing them in Central America or Africa.  Liberia and Sierra Leone are two examples of African nations originally established as homes for relocated slaves.  Six years prior to being elected President, Lincoln gave a speech in Peoria, Illinois (and if it plays in Peoria…) in which he said “If all earthly power were given me, I should not know what to do as to [slavery].  My first impulse would be to free all the slaves and send them to their own native land.”  While he later admitted in the speech that such a plan was “impossible”, he went on to pose the rhetorical question “should blacks be made politically and socially our equals”?  His own response was “My own feelings will not admit of this…  We can not, then make them equals”.

Two years later, in a debate with Stephen Douglas for the Illinois Senatorial campaign of 1858, he said “I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and black races. There is physical difference between the two which, in my judgment, will probably forever forbid their living together upon the footing of perfect equality, and inasmuch as it becomes a necessity that there must be a difference, I, as well as Judge Douglas, am in favor of the race to which I belong having the superior position.”

Lest we believe that these were just unguarded remarks of a candidate for lesser office, consider that as President, Lincoln (who had a lot of “earthly power” by then) continued to push for colonization.  In August of 1862 (a month before announcing the Emancipation Proclamation) Lincoln met with African-American religious leaders, and tried to persuade them to see the virtue of his argument.  In the meeting he said:


You and we are different races…. Whether it is right or wrong I need not discuss, but this physical difference is a great disadvantage to us both, as I think your race suffer very greatly, many of them by living among us, while ours suffer from your presence. In a word we suffer on each side. If this is admitted, it affords a reason at least why we should be separated. …

I do not propose to discuss this, but to present it as a fact with which we have to deal. …. I need not recount to you the effects upon white men, growing out of the institution of Slavery. … See our present condition---the country engaged in war!---our white men cutting one another's throats, none knowing how far it will extend; and then consider what we know to be the truth. But for your race among us there could not be war, although many men engaged on either side do not care for you one way or the other. Nevertheless, I repeat, without the institution of Slavery and the colored race as a basis, the war could not have an existence.


The African-American ministers were not convinced by Lincoln’s awkward entreaty to be exiled from the country they built with their blood, toil, sweat and tears, and I tend to look at this as a turning point in his thinking.  Perhaps, having finally aired his “pie in the sky” ideas to the people on whom they would have the most effect, and seeing how unpopular they were, Lincoln began to realize the need for ALL Americans to unite, rather than simply to restore a fatally flawed Union. 

Shortly after this meeting, following the Union victory at Antietam, Lincoln announced his Emancipation Proclamation.  While this landmark Executive Order was ethically lacking (it only freed the slaves in the Confederacy—slaves in Union states like Delaware and Maryland were not released from bondage), it was the first step taken by the United States to live up to the ideals from which our country was founded—equality for all.


While we know for certain Lincoln’s birthdate, there is another great figure of that time period whose earliest days are shrouded in mystery.  Frederick Douglass wrote that “I do not remember to have ever met a slave who could tell of his birthday”, because slave owners did not want slaves to have any self-knowledge, even to the point of knowing the month of their births.  Douglass was probably born in 1818, about 9 years after Lincoln, on a plantation in Maryland.  He was uncertain about who his father was, and only met his mother (who had been sold to a different plantation) a few times before she died when he was four. He was given about three (illegal) lessons in reading at the age of approximately 7, and from then taught himself to read and write over the next 10 years. At the age of approximately 20 or 21 he escaped to New England, and began speaking at abolitionist rallies.  He eventually published two periodicals (The North Star and Douglass’ Monthly) as well as three autobiographies, and flaunted the Fugitive Slave Law.  Douglass wrote for a white audience, and the overriding goal of his writing was to convince white Americans to stop ignoring the greatest evil of their time, and to take action against slavery.  He was a supporter of John Brown, and turned down an invitation to join Brown on his doomed raid of the Federal armory at Harper’s Ferry. 

Douglass was a tireless advocate of freedom, and of forcible resistance to the “Slave Power”.  He believed in the ideals proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence, and wanted white Americans to live up to those standards.  He rightly criticized Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation as insufficient, but he recognized it as the necessary first step of the journey to the promised land of freedom.  Douglass campaigned in print and in person for African-Americans to join the Union Army (two of his sons fought in the Massachusetts 54th, as seen in the movie Glory). "Who would be free themselves must strike the blow”, Douglass implored.  “I urge you to fly to arms and smite to death the power that would bury the Government and your liberty in the same hopeless grave. This is your golden opportunity."  When asked if he thought that fighting for freedom should be a burden solely for blacks, he angrily retorted, "The problem is whether the American people have loyalty enough, honor enough, patriotism enough, to live up to their own constitution."

Douglass visited with Lincoln in August of 1863 to discuss recruitment efforts, at which time he persuaded the President that African-American soldiers should be paid as much as Caucasians. I believe that the mutual admiration which grew between these self-made, self-taught men, who both emerged from the most humble beginnings, greatly influenced Lincoln to change his opinions about race, and about who should be considered American.  Less than three months after the meeting in the White House, Lincoln spoke at Gettysburg, the site of the bloodiest battle in North American history.

Lincoln famously began the speech by reminding his listeners that the child “America” born 87 years prior, had been “conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that ALL MEN are created equal.” Not equally, as some advocates of slavery would have it, but equal in the eyes of God.  As the speech reached its climax, Lincoln took a page from Douglass’ style and urged those listening to (and reading) his speech to be “dedicated to the task remaining before us…that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom”.

“A new birth of freedom”. A noble goal that people would willingly fight and die for. A promise that post-war America would not be sundered into free and unfree.  An endorsement of the “promissory note” that Martin Luther King came to claim 100 years later at the feet of the civic temple erected in Lincoln’s memory. “A new birth of freedom”  for all Americans.


Lincoln was not a typically religious man. According to James Smith, Lincoln’s favorite pastor in Springfield, Illinois, Lincoln “believed some form of providence was at work in the universe, but was unable to believe in a personal God or in Jesus as his savior.” Sounds kind of like UU-ism to me!  But despite not being a member of a church, Lincoln was a constant reader of the Bible.  His Second Inaugural Address is Biblical in scope and theme, as he simultaneously merges the punishments of a vengeful Old Testament God with the resurrection in blood of a new, holier nation.

At the outbreak of hostilities, Lincoln said “all knew”, that slavery “was somehow, the cause of the war”. He went on to reflect,

“If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offences which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South, this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offence came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him?

 Fondly do we hope--fervently do we pray--that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away.

Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man'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 by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether"


He closed with the famous exhortation to Americans to forgive and rebuild a newer, stronger, America:

 “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan--to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”


Later that day, Lincoln saw Frederick Douglass at a celebratory reception.  Douglass had (at first) been refused entry to the White House, but finally gained admission when he was vouched for as a friend of the President.  In a later memoir, Douglass described the moment:

“Recognizing me, even before I reached him, he exclaimed, so that all around could hear him, “Here comes my friend Douglass”.  Taking me by the hand, he said, “I am glad to see you.  I saw you in the crowd today, listening to my address, how did you like it?” I said, “Mr. Lincoln, I must not detain you with my poor opinion, when there are thousands waiting to shake hands with you”. “No, no!”, he said, “you must stop a little Douglass, there is no man in the country whose opinion I value more than yours. I want to know what you think of it”. “I replied, Mr. Lincoln, it was a sacred effort”


Less than six weeks later, a mentally unbalanced defender of the old ways murdered Lincoln.  We will never know if the newly reformed Lincoln could have led the way to a  newly reformed America, in which the races related in perfect harmony. A decade later, at a ceremony commemorating Lincoln’s assassination, Frederick Douglass summarized Lincoln thus:

In his interest, in his association, in his habits of thought, and in his prejudices, he was a white man. He was preeminently the white man's President, entirely devoted to the welfare of the white man. He was ready and willing at any time during the first years of his administration to deny, postpone, and sacrifice the rights of humanity in the colored people, to promote the welfare of the white people of this country.


though the Union was more to him than our freedom or our future, under his wise and beneficent rule we saw ourselves gradually lifted from the depths of slavery to the heights of liberty and manhood; under his wise and beneficent rule, and by measures approved and vigorously pressed by him, we saw that the handwriting of ages, in the form of prejudice and proscription, was rapidly fading away from the face of our whole country;… under his rule… we saw the Confederate States, based upon the idea that our race must be slaves, and slaves forever, battered to pieces and scattered to the four winds; under his rule, and in the fullness of time, we saw Abraham Lincoln, … penning the immortal paper, which, though special in its language, was general in its principles and effect, making slavery forever impossible in the United States. Though we waited long, we saw all this and more.


As I end this speech, I am reminded of Lincoln’s words at a similar point in his first Inaugural Address, and I am moved to say that “I am loath to close”.  I think that we can learn so much from the story of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, about trust, personal growth, and above all, the inherent worth and dignity of every person.  Just as Lincoln, while completely absorbed in the most horrific war ever to happen to Americans managed to find within himself the ability to change his mind about racial identity and Americanism, I hope that we will find similar strength whenever we are confronted with the opportunity to break the paradigms with which we were raised and stride boldly into a new future in which we relate with our fellow beings in peace and love.

Thank you.