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Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass. George Francis Schreiber, 1870

Frederick Douglass on Abraham Lincoln: The Writer and Abolitionist Remembers the President in Library of Congress Primary Sources

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This is a guest post by Bernice Ramirez. Bernice is working with the education team at the Library of Congress as part of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU) Internship Program.

The 150th anniversary of President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation at the start of the year was a great opportunity to commemorate the efforts that ended slavery in the United States. African American History Month is another perfect time to celebrate the abolitionist efforts of white and black Americans alike, and to examine the relationship between the Proclamation’s author and one of the greatest American abolitionists.

Although President Lincoln is sometimes credited with freeing enslaved African Americans with the signing of his Emancipation Proclamation, this event was possible thanks to the writings, demonstrations and work of many abolitionists. Frederick Douglass is perhaps the most recognized abolitionist of the antebellum period. In his last autobiography, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, Douglass noted that Lincoln considered him a friend, although at times Douglass was critical of the late president.

“Frederick Douglass appealing to President Lincoln and his cabinet to enlist Negroes,” mural by William Edouard Scott

Lincoln honored Douglass with three invitations to the White House, including an invitation to Lincoln’s second inauguration. During his first visit, Douglass petitioned Lincoln to pay African American Union soldiers as much as their white counterparts. Lincoln answered that African American soldiers would get their fair wages when the time was right, which frustrated Douglass, although he came to understand Lincoln’s reasoning. This Speech on the 79th Anniversary of Lincoln’s Birth gives clues to the nuanced relationship between these two given the contentious issues surrounding them.

Douglass’ writings indicate deep respect for Lincoln. In this early eulogy of the President delivered in 1865, Douglass indicates an appreciation of Lincoln’s decision to free slaves in Union states. Douglass writes that Lincoln “was emphatically the black man’s President: the first to show any respect to their rights as men.”

Later, in a speech at the unveiling of the Freedmen’s Monument in 1876, Douglass continues to praise his friend and writes that Lincoln was “pre-eminently the white man’s President.” Douglass goes on to explain, “While Abraham Lincoln saved for you a country, he delivered us from a bondage, according to Jefferson, one hour of which was worse than ages of the oppression your fathers rose in rebellion to oppose.” Although these two great men had, at times, opposing views, they shared the belief that the country would be made greater by ridding it of slavery.

  • Teachers can have students write a journal entry from the perspective of an audience member at the unveiling of the Freedmen’s monument reacting to Douglass’s oration. Students should explain who wrote the journal entries and provide a profile of the audience member. For example,  students can play the role of journalists who report on the speech being delivered. They might brainstorm a list of who else might have been at each event.
  • In his Freedmen’s Monument speech, what does Douglass mean when he describes Lincoln as the “white man’s President”? How about when Douglass names him “the black man’s President,” in his eulogy of Lincoln?
  •  Frederick Douglass was a well known orator and accomplished advocate, but he acknowledged that he would not have been as successful without the support of other men and women who shared his goal of ending slavery. Teachers can lead students through a discussion on the relevance of Douglass’ speech commemorating Lincoln’s 79th birthday to the celebration of African American History Month. Why is it important to remember the efforts of black and white abolitionists to free slaves?

Guiding students through a close reading of Douglass’ speeches will help students appreciate the compassion both he and Lincoln exercised in the events leading up to the abolition of slavery. What else can students gain from exploring the complicated relationship between these two great men?  How is this relevant to current civil rights issues?


Comments (9)

  1. Here is hope. This easy to use format is a friend to historians and teachers alike. As a Black female , I am glued to the LOC’ emails relative Teacher resources especially during These times and can only hope that learning this way is allowed to grow. I share them with a group of friend and relatives who are teachers and prospective teachers. Thanks

  2. Wonderful post. Hadn’t seen the painting before, and was intrigued. Timely, and makes one wonder where Douglass was in Spielberg’s version of Lincoln. . . .

  3. This mural is very interesting and led me to do a little research to find out more about the artist, Edouard Scott, and to locate where the mural is. According to wiki, Frederick Douglass was a recurring figure in works by Scott, and in 1943 Scott was selected as “the only black artist chosen to create a mural for the Recorder of Deeds Building in Washington, D.C.”In this mural, Douglass Appealing to President Lincoln, 1943, Scott tells the story of Douglass’ appeal for African American participation in the Union armies in the American Civil War.
    A further search identified this painting as being at the Recorder of Deeds building at 515 D St., NW, Washington, D.C.
    Note: I’d like to see its location in the picture tag.

  4. YOu understated Douglass respect for LIncoln — and why.

    Specifically, Douglass said Lincoln was “swift, radical, zealous and determined” for equality.

    Im not sure why folks don’t mention that, and more importantly WHY Douglass would say such a thing.

    To know why Douglass said such a thing, you’d have to know that Linclon was called the most foul and violence inducing things, I can’t relate here.

    I did, however, write a blog about it, and if I were more capable, I would write a book about it.

  5. I am truly pleased as well, i’m just as greatful to know that this man Freadaric Douglass was such an oritor.Anyway the one speech he made douring the great compromise , were he made the statemen saying that we as a people , using one of Dr, martain l. kings words that has been quoted . Mr. Douglass go’s on to say that we can be as separet as the fingers when opend on our hands , yet just as well when it comes to political isuse on civial matters we can be as tight as a closed fist. There’s great significanes in this speech for me .

  6. I would like to purchase a copy of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln together in a side by side ohotograph. How much would you want me to pay?


    Mariell Jones

    • If you want to purchase a copy of the image that is part of the article you can contact the Library’s Duplication Services office for prices.

  7. Our greatest African that ever live,He was the greatest ever, may his soul rest in perfect peace amen.

  8. I have and still wonder why it seemed and still seems that people of African origin were and still are the most racially discriminated group in the world?

    They were and are still racially discriminated against even in their own home lands/countries. This is despite the fact that Africans are now largely liberated from colonial control and rule. It took a long time for Africa to be represented at the United Nations Security Council.

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