President Meets with Black Abolitionist Frederick Douglass

August 19, 1864

In August, the President met with Frederick Douglass and recruited the former slave to help organize slave escapees as volunteer recruits for the Union Army. Douglas later recalled in The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass: “It was when General Grant was fighting his way through the wilderness to Richmond, on the ‘line’ he meant to pursue ‘if it took all summer,’ and every reverse to his arms was made the occasion for a fresh demand for peace without emancipation that President Lincoln did me the honor to invite me to the Executive Mansion for a conference on the situation. I need not say I went most gladly. The main subjected on which he wished to confer with me was as to the means most desirable to be employed outside the army to induce the slaves in the rebel states to come within the federal lines. The increasing opposition to the war, in the North, and the mad cry against it, because it was being made an abolition war, alarmed Mr. Lincoln, and made him apprehensive that a peace might be forced upon him which would leave still in slavery all who had not come within our lines. What he wanted was to make his Proclamation as effective as possible in the event of such a peace. He said in a regretful tone, ‘The slaves are not coming so rapidly and so numerously to us as I had hoped.’ I replied that the slaveholders knew how to keep such things from their slaves, and probably very few knew of his Proclamation. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘I want you to set about devising some means of making them acquainted with it, and for bringing them into our lines. He spoke with great earnestness and much solicitude, and seemed troubled by the attitude of Mr. Greeley, and the growing impatience there was being manifested through the North at the war. He said he was being accused of protracting the war beyond its legitimate object, and of failing to make peace, when he might have done so to advantage. He was afraid of what might come of all these complaints, but was persuaded that no solid and lasting peace could come short of absolute submission on the part of the rebels, and he was not for giving them rest by futile conferences at Niagara Falls, or elsewhere, with unauthorized persons. He saw the danger of premature peace, and, like a thoughtful and sagacious man as he was, he wished to provide means of rendering such consummation as harmless as possible. I was the more impressed by his benevolent consideration because he before said, in answer to the peace clamor, that his object was to save the Union, and to do so with or without slavery. What he said on this day showed a deeper moral conviction against slavery than I had even seen before in anything spoken or written by him. I listened with the deepest interest and profoundest satisfaction, and, at his suggestion, agreed to undertake the organizing of a band of scouts, composed of colored men, whose business should be somewhat after the original plan of John Brown, to go into the rebel states, beyond the lines of our armies, and carry the news of emancipation, and urge the slaves to come within our boundaries.

“This plan, however, was very soon rendered unnecessary by the success of the war in the wilderness and elsewhere, and by its termination in the complete abolition of slavery.

“I refer to this conversation because I think it is evidence conclusive on Mr. Lincoln’s part that the Proclamation, so far at least as he was concerned, was not effected merely as a ‘necessity.’

“An incident occurred during this interview which illustrates the character of this great man, though the mention of it may savor a little of vanity on my part. While in conversation with him his secretary twice announced ‘Governor Buckingham of Connecticut,’ one of the noblest and most patriotic of the loyal governors. Mr. Lincoln said, “tell Governor Buckingham to wait, for I want to have a long talk with my friend Frederick Douglass.” I interposed, and begged him to see the governor at once, as I could wait; but no, he persisted he wanted to talk with me, and Governor Buckingham could wait. This was probably the first time in the history of this Republic when its chief magistrate found occasion or disposition to exercise such an act of impartiality between persons so widely different in their positions and supposed claims upon his attention. From the manner of the governor, when he was finally admitted, I inferred that he was as well satisfied with what Mr. Lincoln had done, or had omitted to do, as I was.”

“I have often said elsewhere what I wish to repeat here that Mr. Lincoln was not only a great president, but a great man – to great to be small in anything. In his company I was never in any way reminded of my humble origin, or of my unpopular color. While I am, as it may see, bragging of the kind consideration which I have reason to believe that Mr. Lincoln entertained towards me, I may mention one thing more. At the door of my friend John A. Gray, where I was stopping in Washington, I found one afternoon the carriage of Secretary Dole, and a messenger from President Lincoln with an invitation for me to take tea with him at the Soldiers Home, where he then passed his nights, riding out after the business of the day was over at the Executive Mansion. Unfortunately I had an engagement to speak that evening, and having made it one of the rules of my conduct in life never to break an engagement if possible to keep it, I felt obliged to decline the honor. I have often regretted that I did not make this an exception to my general rule. Could I have known that no such opportunity could come to me again, I should have justified myself in disappointing a large audience for the sake of such a visit with Abraham Lincoln.

A few days later, Douglass wrote the President: “all with whom I have thus far spoken on the subject, concur in the wisdom and benevolence of the idea, and some of them think it is practicable. That every slave who escapes from the Rebel States is a loss to the Rebellion and a gain to the Loyal Cause I need not stop to argue[;] the proposition is self evident. The negro is the stomach of the rebellion.”

President Lincoln meets with First Assistant Postmaster General Alexander W. Randall, William P. Dole, and Joseph T. Mills. Randall delivers a letter Green Bay Advocate editor Charles D. Robinson: “The President was free & animated in conversation. I was astonished at his elasticity of spirits. Says Gov Randall, why cant you Mr P. seek some place of retirement for a few weeks. You would be reinvigorated. Aye said the President, 3 weeks would do me no good–my thoughts my solicitude for this great country follow me where ever I go. I don’t think it is personal vanity, or ambition–but I cannot but feel that the weal or woe of this great nation will be decided in the approaching canvas. My own experience has proven to me, that there is no program intended by the democratic party but that will result in the dismemberment of the Union. But Genl McClellan is in favor of crushing out the rebellion, & he will probably be the Chicago candidate. The slightest acquaintance with arithmetic will prove to any man that the rebel armies cannot be destroyed with democratic strategy. It would sacrifice all the white men of the north to do it. There are now between 1 & 200 thousand black men now in the service of the Union. These men will be disbanded, returned to slavery & we will have to fight two nations instead of one. I have tried it. You cannot concilliate the South, when the mastery & control of millions of blacks makes them sure of ultimate success. You cannot conciliate the South, when you place yourself in such a position, that they see they can achieve their independence. The war democrat depends upon conciliation. He must confine himself to that policy entirely. If he fights at all in such a war as this he must economise life & use all the means which God & nature puts in his power. Abandon all the posts now possessed by black men surrender all these advantages to the enemy, & we would be compelled to abandon the war in 3 weeks. We have to hold territory. Where are the war democrats to do it. The field was open to them to have enlisted & put down this rebellion by force of arms, by concilliation, long before the present policy was inaugurated. There have been men who have proposed to me to return to slavery the black warriors of Port Hudson & Olustee to their masters to conciliate the South. I should be damned in time & in eternity for so doing. The world shall know that I will keep my faith to friends & enemies, come what will. My enemies say I am now carrying on this was for the sole purpose of abolition. It is & will be carried on so long as I am President for the sole purpose of restoring the Union. But no human power can subdue this rebellion without using the Emancipation lever as I have done. Freedom has given us the control of 200 000 able bodied men, born & raised on southern soil. It will give us more yet. Just so much it has sub[t]racted from the strength of our enemies, & instead of alienating the south from us, there are evidences of a fraternal feeling growing up between our own & rebel soldiers. My enemies condemn my emancipation policy. Let them prove by the history of this war, that we can restore the Union without it. The President appeared to be not the pleasant joker I had expected to see, but a man of deep convictions & an unutterable yearning for the success of the Union cause. His voice was pleasant–his manner earnest & cordial. As I heard a vindication of his policy from his own lips, I could not but feel that his mind grew in stature like his body, & that I stood in the presence of the great guiding intellect of the age, & that those huge Atlantian shoulders were fit to bear the weight of mightiest monarchies. His transparent honesty, his republican simplicity, his gushing sympathy for those who offered their lives for their country, his utter forgetfulness of self in his concern for his country, could not but inspire me with confidence, that he was Heavens instrument to conduct his people thro this red sea of blood to a Canaan of peace & freedom. Comr. Dole then came in. We were about to retire, but he insisted on our remaining longer. Dismissing the present state of the country, he entertained us with reminiscences of the past–of the discussions between himself & Douglass. He said he was accused of of [sic] joining. In his later speeches, the serious of the theme prevented him from using anecdotes. Mr. Harris a democratic orator of Ill, once appealed to his audience in this way. If these republicans get into power, the darkies will be allowed to come to the polls & vote. Here comes forward a white man, & you ask him who will you vote for. Iwill vote for S A Douglass. Next comes up a sleek pampered negro. Well Sambo, who do you vote for. I vote for Massa Lincoln. Now asked the orator, what do you think of that. Some old farmer cried out, I think the darkey showd a damd sight of more sense than the white man. It is such social tete a tetes among his friends that enables Mr Lincoln to endure mental toils & application that would crush any other man. The President now in full flow of spirits, scattered his repartee in all directions. He took his seat on the sofa by my side. Said I Mr President I was in your reception room to day. It was dark. I suppose that clouds & darkness necessarily surround the secrets of state. There in a corner I saw a man quietly reading who possessed a remarkable physiognomy. I was rivetted to the spot. I stood & started at him He raised his flashing eyes & caught me in the act. I was compelled to speak. Said I, Are you the President. No replied the stranger, I am Frederick Douglass. Now Mr. P. are you in favor miscegenation. That’s a democratic mode of producing good Union men, & I don’t propose to infringe on the patent. We parted from his Excellency, with firmer purpose to sustain the government, at whose head there stands a man who combines in his person all that is valuable in progress in conservatism–all that is hopeful in progress.”

Navy Secretary Gideon Welles writes in his diary: “Much pressed with duties. A pleasant hour at the Cabinet, but no special subject. Fessenden still absent. Stanton did not attend. Blair inquired about the Niagara peace correspondence. The President went over the particulars. Had sent the whole correspondence to Greeley for publication, excepting one or two passages in Greeley’s letters which spoke of a bankrupted country and awful calamities. But Greeley replied he would not consent to any suppression of his letters or any part of them; and the President remarked that, though G. had put him (the President) in a false attitude, he thought it better he should bear it, than that the country should be distressed by such a howl, from such a person, on such an occasion. Concerning Greeley, to whom the President clung too long and confidingly, he said to-day that Greeley is an old shoe,–good for nothing now, whatever he has been. ‘In early life, and with few mechanics and but little means in the West, we used,’ said he, ‘to make our shoes last a great while with much mending, and sometimes, when far gone, we found the leather so rotten the stitches would not hold. Greeley is so rotten that nothing can be done with him. He is not truthful; the stitches all tear out.’

Both Blair and myself concurred in regret that the President should consult only Seward in so important a matter, and that he should dabble with Greeley, Saunders, and company. But Blair expresses to me confidence that the President is approaching the period when he will cast off Seward as he has done Chase. I doubt it. That he may relieve himself of Stanton is possible, though I see as yet no evidence of it. To me it is clear that the two S.’s have an understanding, and yet I think each is wary of the other while there is a common purpose to influence the President. The President listens and often defers to Seward, who is ever present and companionable. Stanton makes himself convenient, and is not only tolerated but, it appears to me, is really liked as a convenience.

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Published in: on August 19, 2014 at 9:00 am  Leave a Comment  

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