No, there is no misspelling in the title. We all remember the Lincoln-Douglas Debates from school. They were a series of face-to-face encounters all over Illinois in 1858. Abraham Lincoln challenged Sen. Stephen A. Douglas to debate on the burning issue of the day – the extension of slavery into the territories. Sen. Douglas, a Democrat, was a famous and powerful political figure. Lincoln was a prominent attorney and a leader of the newly formed Republican Party.
Although Lincoln’s powerful performance against his opponent made him a nationally known politician, he did not defeat Douglas for the U.S. Senate (only because in those days the state legislatures elected U.S. Senators). Two years later, Abraham Lincoln, a former one-term Congressman, would defeat Sen. Douglas and two other rivals in the contest for President of the United States.
And that’s where Frederick Douglass comes in. Frederick Douglass was far better known than Abraham Lincoln throughout the 1850s. That’s because his powerful autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, had been a bestselling book throughout the North in America and throughout the English-speaking world.
Frederick had escaped slavery on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, fleeing to Massachusetts and freedom. Embraced by the white-led Abolition movement, Frederick found their plans for ending slavery impractical. So, he moved to Rochester, N.Y., where he edited and published his own anti-slavery newspaper, The North Star. Abolition leader William Lloyd Garrison had forbidden his followers to vote and relied on moral suasion (and attacking Southern slaveholders) to end slavery. Garrison even advocated secession from the Union by the free states. “No Union with Slaveholders” was Garrison’s cry. Frederick Douglass could not see how this would help four million of his black countrymen if the Union were broken up and they were abandoned.
When Lincoln was elected president, we might think that Frederick Douglass had at last found his man. Like Lincoln, Frederick was an eminently practical man. Like Lincoln, he was largely self-taught. Where Lincoln had been born in a log cabin on the Kentucky frontier, Frederick had been born in even poorer circumstances – in a slave hut in Maryland’s Talbot County. He never knew his father and his mother was sent into the fields to harvest tobacco from his earliest days.