Frederick Douglass, a well-known abolitionist, and preacher known for his command of language and prose, remains a towering figure in the annals of history for his long-standing fight against the practice of slavery in America. Douglass was in bondage prior to his anti-slavery campaign and fight for African American equality.
Before gaining his freedom in 1838, Douglass was enslaved by several people. Douglass, then known by his birth name Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, had attempted to flee for two years before his success. He went on to become an abolitionist and one of the most famous men in the United States, culminating in his historic meeting with Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War in 1863.
At the time, Douglass believed that only by joining the war could African Americans achieve freedom and full citizenship. However, because Lincoln’s primary concern was the preservation of the Union, he did not fully support the recruitment of Black soldiers until after he issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, which called on Black men to enlist in the United States Army, among other things. Following the proclamation, Douglass enlisted two regiments of Black soldiers, and his two sons, Charles and Lewis, were among the first.
Confederate forces began assassinating and torturing Black soldiers they imprisoned as the war progressed. Some were even free Black men who were captured and sold into slavery. Douglass was enraged that the White House did nothing to stop this.
As a result, he published a letter in his “Douglas Monthly” newspaper condemning President Lincoln and the War Department for doing nothing to help Black prisoners of war. Douglass stated in a letter to Maj. George L. Stearns, a leading recruiter of Black troops, that he could not go ahead and 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 with Lincoln directly, but historians say this was a risky trip given Douglass’s race and status as an ex-slave. Douglass himself confirmed this. “I was an ex-slave, a member of a despised race, and yet I was to meet the most exalted person in this great republic,” he wrote.
Douglass still visited the White House in August 1863, accompanied by a Kansas senator. When he arrived at the White House, he assumed he would not be allowed in because there was already a crowd of white people waiting to see the president in front of the building. Douglass later explained that he was “the only dark spot among them,” and that he expected to have to wait at least half a day to see Lincoln. When he sent his card up the line, it took less than two minutes for a White House messenger to emerge from the building and summon Douglass, much to the chagrin of the white crowd waiting to see Lincoln.
“I could hear the remark, ‘Yes, damn it, I knew they’d let the n—- through,’ from the eager crowd outside as they saw me pressing and elbowing my way through,” Douglass later recalled.
“I recognize you, Mr. Douglass,” Lincoln said after the two met and Douglass attempted to introduce himself. They exchanged handshakes, and Douglass explained why he wanted to meet.
“I wanted to bring to his attention, first and foremost, that colored soldiers should be paid the same wages as white soldiers,” Douglass later narrated. “Second, that when taken prisoners, colored soldiers should receive the same protection and be exchanged as easily 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 on Confederate prisoners in its hands.”
Lincoln told Douglass that he would not hesitate to sign any commission for Black soldiers recommended by the secretary of war. The president, however, made no commitment to equal pay. Douglass later wrote that he 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 three more times after Lincoln invited him. He was also present at Lincoln’s second inauguration, during which the president condemned slavery as “an offense” against God.
Historian David Blight wrote of Douglass and Lincoln’s historic meeting in 1863, “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.”