A well-known abolitionist and preacher known for his command of language and prose, Frederick Douglass remains a towering figure in the annals of history for his long-established fight against the practice of slavery in America. Before his campaign against slavery and his fight for equality for African Americans, Douglass was in bondage.
Douglass was enslaved by several people before he gained his freedom in 1838. Then known by his birth name Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, Douglass had attempted to escape over the past two years before his success. He would go on to become an abolitionist and one of the most famous men in the U.S., leading to his historic meeting with Abraham Lincoln in 1863 during the Civil War.
At the time, Douglass’ belief was that African Americans could achieve freedom and full citizenship only by joining the war. But since Lincoln’s major concern was preserving the Union, he was not in full support of the recruitment of Black soldiers until after he issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, which among other things called on Black men to enlist in the U.S. Army. Following the proclamation, Douglass recruited two regiments of Black soldiers, and his two sons, Charles and Lewis, were among the first Black men to enlist.
As the war went on, Confederate forces started assassinating and torturing Black soldiers they imprisoned. Some of those who were even free Black men were captured and sold into slavery. This went on without any reaction from the White House, and Douglass was furious.
So he published a letter in his “Douglass Monthly” newspaper condemning President Lincoln and the War Department for not doing anything about the plight of Black prisoners of war. In the letter addressed to Maj. George L. Stearns, a leading recruiter of Black troops, Douglass also pointed out that he could not go ahead to recruit Black men for the Union.
“No word was said when free men from Massachusetts were caught and sold into slavery in Texas,” Douglass wrote. “No word is said when brave black men, who according to testimony of both friend and foe, fought like heroes to plant the star-spangled banner on the blazing parapets of Fort Wagner, and in doing so were captured, some mutilated and killed, and others sold into slavery.”
Stearns asked Douglass to travel to Washington to speak directly with Lincoln, but historians say this was a dangerous trip considering Douglass was Black and an ex-slave. Douglass himself attested to that. “I was an ex-slave, identified with a despised race, and yet I was to meet the most exalted person in this great republic,” he wrote.
Douglass still made the trip to the White House in August 1863, accompanied by a senator from Kansas. When he arrived at the White House, he thought he would not be allowed in as there was already a crowd of white people in front of the building waiting to see the president. Douglass explained later that he was “the only dark spot among them”, adding that he thought he would have to wait at least half a day to see Lincoln. But when he sent his card up the line, it did not take more than two minutes for a White House messenger to emerge from the building and call in Douglass, to the anger of the white crowd that was waiting to see Lincoln.
“I could hear, in the eager multitude outside, as they saw me pressing and elbowing my way through, the remark, ‘Yes, damn it, I knew they would let the n—– through,’” Douglass later recalled.
“I know who you are, Mr. Douglass,” Lincoln told Douglass after the two met and Douglass tried to introduce himself. They shook hands and Douglass stated why he wanted to meet.
“I wished to bring to his attention, first, that colored soldiers ought to receive the same wages as those paid to white soldiers,” Douglass later narrated. “Second, that colored soldiers ought to receive the same protection when taken prisoners, and be exchanged as readily and on the same terms as any other prisoners, and if Jefferson Davis should shoot or hang colored soldiers in cold blood, the United States government should retaliate in kind and degree without delay upon Confederate prisoners in its hands.”
Lincoln told Douglass that he would not hesitate to sign any commission recommended by the secretary of war for Black soldiers. However, the president did not commit to equal pay. Douglass later wrote that he was not really satisfied with Lincoln’s views but was “satisfied with the man and with the educating tendency of the conflict that I determined to go on with the recruiting.”
Douglass would go on to visit Lincoln at the White House about three more times upon invitation by Lincoln. He was also present at Lincoln’s second inauguration, where the president condemned slavery and called it “an offense” against God.
Historian David Blight wrote of that historic meeting in 1863 between Douglass and Lincoln, “Douglas had been disarmed to an extent by his host’s unpretentiousness and received a political education of a kind. Lincoln too had perhaps learned something of how a Black leader felt about the war for their future and the inhumanities they endured to fight it. The president might also have sensed for future reference how this brilliant radical pragmatist sitting with him that morning might be useful to the nation’s survival.”