The Lincoln-Douglas debates, in which Abe Lincoln debated Stephen Douglas during their contest for Illinois’ U.S. Senate seat in 1858, are among the most famous and consequential in our history. But perhaps equally consequential, if not as famous, were Lincoln’s debates with another man named Douglass (double “s”), which began this week (Aug. 10) in 1863 when the nation’s most influential black abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, first met President Lincoln at the White House.
Their relationship was often stormy because each man had vastly different priorities regarding the nation’s primary issue — the Civil War and how its aftermath would affect slavery. Indeed, after hearing Lincoln’s first Inaugural Address, in which he repeated his promise that he would not interfere with the institution of slavery in those states where it then existed, Douglass called Lincoln a “slave hound” and expressed disappointment at Lincoln’s election.
Lincoln’s priority was to win the war, and as he once wrote the influential newspaper editor Horace Greeley, any action he took on freeing or not freeing slaves depended entirely on how that action would affect the war’s outcome. By contrast, Douglass’ priority was to end slavery, the sooner the better, while giving blacks “established rights,” including the right to vote, equal economic opportunities and citizenship.
In addition, even after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in January of 1863, and even as it became clear that the North was winning the war, Lincoln still believed the best post-war fate for both slaves and free blacks was to remove them from American soil and “colonize” them in Africa. Lincoln did not think the two races could co-exist as equals.
To this Douglass passionately objected, and in his conversations with Lincoln he reminded the president that blacks were contributing significantly to the North’s war effort, not only because they wanted freedom, but because they considered America their home too. Blacks, Douglas insisted, had no interest in being sent back to African lands to which they no longer felt connected.
To Lincoln’s everlasting credit, he took no offense at Douglass’ criticisms, but rather learned from them and adjusted his views accordingly. Thanks to their debates, he began taking seriously Douglass’ insistence on both freedom and equality for the black race.
So too does Douglass deserve credit for eventually understanding the many different pressures that Lincoln, as a politician in a land overwhelmingly indifferent to the fate of black Americans, had to withstand. Douglass finally realized that Lincoln was the only politician who could both free the slaves and win the war.
And so they became allies, almost friends. Give thanks to Lincoln for saving the Union, but give thanks to Douglass for helping make it a Union more worthy of saving.