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The Lincoln-Douglass Debates

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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.

But Frederick Douglass debated President Lincoln throughout much of the Illinoisan’s term. While they never appeared together on the same speaker’s platform – and Frederick was as powerful an orator as Abraham – Frederick debated the President in the sense that he followed his every action, his every statement, his every speech – and responded fully to them all.

On five key issues, Frederick publicly differed with the President he had helped elect.

In speeches, letters and printed editorials, he held forth. Thus, he truly “debated” Lincoln.

First, Frederick denounced Lincoln’s idea of colonizing black freedmen in Central America. America is our home, he said.  We were born here. This country was built with our labor. Our blood, sweat, and tears are mixed into the very mortar that supports the Capitol and the White House. We won’t go. And you cannot make us go.

Second, Frederick demanded Emancipation, immediate and unconditional. Still, he wept for joy when Lincoln did issue his proclamation in the fall of 1862.

Third, Frederick argued passionately for enlisting black freedmen in the U.S. Army. Why fight with one hand tied behind your back, he pleaded? If black men were good enough to fight for General Washington, why aren’t they good enough to fight for Gen. McClellan? Use your “Sable arm,” Frederick cried.

Fourth, Frederick insisted on equal pay for black soldiers. Many had been recruited as laborers by state governments worried about a white backlash if they were fully enlisted as combat soldiers. As such, these black soldiers were paid less. But Frederick knew the principle of equal pay for equal danger to equal men was essential.

Fifth, Frederick demanded full citizenship for freedmen. Only when the nation recognized this would there be a chance for a truly just society in America. Only with this principle recognized would the Constitution’s promise to each state of “a republican form of government” be fulfilled.

On each of these issues, President Lincoln over time moved toward Frederick Douglass’ position. Douglass would later concede, in a powerful memorial address in 1876, that Lincoln had a duty to consult the opinions of those who had elected him. Lincoln sympathized with the Abolitionists, to be sure. “If slavery is not wrong, then nothing is wrong,” he famously said. But he viewed the Abolitionists as “the unhandiest (impractical) set of men” he’d ever dealt with. Still, he conceded “their faces are set Zionward.”

Lincoln did not view Frederick Douglass as impractical. He met repeatedly with him in the White House, the first time a President of the United States ever consulted a black man as a policy advisor. He even planned to use Frederick as a black Moses to lead his people out of bondage in the South if he, Lincoln, were defeated in the 1864 election.

Lincoln invited Frederick to his Second Inaugural.  Douglass, because of his color, was barred by a young soldier from entering by the front door of the White House, but would not be deterred: He entered through an open first-floor window.

When Lincoln saw him, he called out loudly, “My friend Douglass!” and summoned him out of the crush of well-wishers to ask his opinion of the address. “Mr. Douglass,” said Lincoln, “there is no man’s opinion I value more than yours.”  “Mr. Lincoln,” said Frederick Douglass of the speech now carved in stone in the Emancipator’s memorial, “it was a sacred effort.”

Abraham Lincoln did not take offense because Frederick Douglass opposed him or publicly criticized him. He respected Douglass more because he knew the strong heart and high moral purpose that motivated him. That’s why these Douglass-Lincoln debates matter.

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