Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass: The Story Behind an American Friendship by Russell Freedman. Clarion Books (an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company), 2012. 128 pages. Recommended for ages 9-14. ISBN: 9780547385624.
In school in the 1960s and 70s I learned that the Civil War was fought to free the slaves and that Abraham Lincoln was the great emancipator. Much later, I learned that the Civil War was fought to maintain the Union. In this book, Freedman presents a much more nuanced history.
Freedman starts with a biography of Frederick Douglass, then moves on to a biography of Abraham Lincoln. Both men were self-educated and both were avid readers. Douglass was an activist and Lincoln was an analytical, pragmatic politician.
At the time of Lincoln’s Senate race against Stephen Douglas he believed that “’A house divided against itself cannot stand,’” and “’I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free.’” It was at this point that Douglass began to notice Lincoln.
When Lincoln ran for president, he was opposed to the expansion of slavery beyond the states that ratified the Constitution, but he ”believed that the Constitution protected slavery in the southern states.” He thought that as long as slavery didn’t spread, it would eventually die out.
After becoming president, not at all certain the North could with the Civil War, Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. The proclamation appears to have been a pragmatic move to deprive the South of the workers it needed for its economy and to add soldiers to the Union army.
When Lincoln and Douglass first met, they didn’t agree. They did admire each other. And they did listen to each other
Lincoln asked Douglass to the White House for a second visit. He hoped Douglass could help spread the word about the Emancipation Proclamation in Southern states so more former slaves would move North. He also wanted to talk with Douglass about his idea of a 13th amendment to the Constitution that would abolish slavery.
Douglass and Lincoln met for the third time on the occasion of Lincoln’s second inauguration. Douglass was nearly turned away from the celebratory gala. He sent word to Lincoln that he was being detained. He was immediately escorted into the White House and Lincoln said “’Here comes my friend Douglass.’”
As the war drew to a close Lincoln focused his attention on the 13th amendment. It’s clear that, while Lincoln may have originally thought Civil War was about maintaining the Union, his ideas developed and he saw the importance of ending slavery as well. What part in this development Douglass played is not completely clear, but it’s very clear that Lincoln valued Douglass’s thoughts.
Lincoln’s view of Douglass as an equal and a sometimes ally, sometimes opponent, says a great deal about what Lincoln the individual thought about African-Americans.