"We Cannot Escape History”: Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass

While Lincoln resided in the White House, he was surrounded by some of the greatest minds of his generation, many with whom he could have intense debates about difficult decisions that would shape the Union and the waging of war. Of all of Lincoln’s advisors, Frederick Douglass stands out as one who helped Lincoln address several issues at the heart of the war.

This house was the residence of the Marshal and Recorder of Deeds for the District of Columbia, Minister to Haiti and runaway slave, Fredrick Douglass. The structure is an example of a mid-nineteenth-century farm residence. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division: http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pp.print

Frederick Douglass was born a slave in 1818 in Maryland. He was moved to multiple homes and plantations as a young child, and eventually found himself in Baltimore, where he was taught the alphabet by the mistress of the house. Douglass eventually also learned to read and write—skills he taught to other slaves, much to the anger of plantation owners. Douglass tried multiple times to escape to freedom in the North and finally succeeded with the help of a free black woman who would become his wife, Anna Murray. After he and Anna settled in Massachusetts, Douglass slowly gained popularity in the North by telling his story and became an orator, abolitionist and advocate for women’s rights. For a time, he fled to Europe to escape capture by his former owner. During his time abroad, supporters there raised enough money to buy his freedom from slavery. Upon his return to America, Douglass started a series of abolitionist newspapers.

In the museum housed below Ford’s Theatre, there is a video that delves into the complicated relationship between President Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. Douglass first met Lincoln in the summer of 1863. Like many that year, Douglass had read Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, and while he supported the proclamation, he believed its message did not extend far enough. As dramatized in the Ford’s 2012 production of Necessary Sacrifices, Douglass was upset that black soldiers were paid less, that it had taken so long for black soldiers to be allowed to fight, and that they were not allowed to hold higher levels of military office. Douglass left the White House with the promise to help recruit black soldiers and an invitation to visit Lincoln again.

Craig Wallace portrays Frederick Douglass and David Selby portrays Abraham Lincoln in the Ford’s Theatre production of “Necessary Sacrifices,” directed by Jennifer L. Nelson. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

Lincoln and Douglass’s second meeting was a year later at the White House. Douglass most likely emphasized his belief that the war was a mission to free not just the slaves but also the Union. During the time of the meeting, the war was not in the favor of the Union, and both Lincoln and Douglass would have been worrying about what to do with the slave population if the North lost the war. Lincoln was considering whether he should support the creation of a free state for African Americans to flee to, where they could set up a democracy and government of their own. But the tides of the war changed within a matter of months, and these plans never materialized.

Douglass and Lincoln’s third and final meeting was at an inaugural party in 1865. African Americans were barred from entering the party, but Lincoln noticed Douglass in the crowd and told the guards to allow his friend through.

After the war ended, Douglass purchased a home at the crest of a hill in Washington, D.C., and continued to advocate for women’s suffrage and equality for African Americans. After his first wife died in 1882, Douglass married a young, white feminist by the name of Helen Pitts. The couple lived together until February 1895, when Douglass died from a heart attack after attending a meeting for the National Council of Women.

Connie Golding earned a bachelor’s degree in History with a minor in Fine Arts from The George Washington University. She is former Groups Sales Manager at Ford’s Theatre.