Arts & Culture

Probing an unlikely friendship

5 min read

Stauffer takes a long look at brief but significant Douglass, Lincoln friendship

Theirs was an unlikely friendship. One man was a black abolitionist, orator, and journalist who had been a slave from Maryland, the other a white politician from the backwoods of Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois. Their political viewpoints ran along highly different lines: One subscribed to radical activism, the other to the staunch traditions of Republicanism. Yet, in the years between 1863 and 1865, Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln reached beyond the borders of race and politics to develop a strong camaraderie. Their friendship, says John Stauffer, professor of English and of African and African American studies, shaped the course of American history.

“The friendship between Lincoln and Douglass was a utilitarian one, because they needed each other on a political level,” says Stauffer. “Lincoln needed Douglass to help him destroy the Confederacy, and Douglass knew that Lincoln could help him end slavery. But beyond that, these men shared deep commonalities as the pre-eminent self-made men in America.”

Stauffer explores the history of Lincoln and Douglass’ friendship in his new book, “Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln” (Twelve Publishers). He drew on the correspondence between the two statesmen, as well as their private writings and political documents, to analyze their friendship.

The pair first met in August 1863, when Douglass traveled to the White House from his home in Rochester, N.Y., to raise grievances over the treatment of black soldiers. Douglass, who had been recruiting heavily for the Union Army, was dismayed to find that black soldiers were receiving half pay compared with whites and were not being promoted. He hoped that an audience with the president might improve the situation.

Upon arrival at the White House, Stauffer says, Douglass sent up his calling card and settled in for what he expected to be a long wait. But within minutes, the president called him in.

“Lincoln knew of Douglass, and had probably read his best-selling autobiography, and his journalism,” says Stauffer. “Lincoln had called him one of the most meritorious men in the United States.”

Beyond his admiration for Douglass’ writings, however, Lincoln, Stauffer says, recognized an opportunity to forge an alliance that could prove politically fruitful.

“Lincoln needed Douglass on his side to recruit black soldiers and defeat the Confederacy,” says Stauffer. “He knew that without the support of blacks it would be impossible to win the war.”

At the close of their initial meeting, Lincoln gave Douglass an open invitation to the White House, Stauffer says. From that point on, they began to characterize each other as friends, even though they differed in their political views.

Busy schedules prevented the pair from seeing each other again until a year later, in August 1864. At that time the Civil War was going terribly for the Union, and the public was tired of war. Faced with plummeting opinion polls and afraid he wouldn’t be re-elected, Lincoln issued an urgent plea asking Douglass to return to the White House and help him decide how to move forward.

“Lincoln had drafted a letter to the public that would essentially have offered him a way to backtrack out of the Emancipation Proclamation,” says Stauffer. “It was an attempt to absolve himself and appease peace advocates without explicitly repudiating his policy.”

Douglass strongly advised Lincoln against making the letter public, says Stauffer, and it was never sent.

Lincoln also asked Douglass to lead what he termed a “John Brown scheme,” a plan that involved making raids into the South to bring blacks to Union lines. Douglass, says Stauffer, was “amazed,” and later wrote that he never understood just how much Lincoln hated slavery until that particular moment.

Douglass wrote the blueprint for the plan, but shortly thereafter Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman conquered Atlanta and the tide of war was turned. Lincoln’s John Brown Scheme was no longer necessary.

The third and final meeting between the two “giants” of the Civil War era, as Stauffer calls them, took place in March 1865, at Lincoln’s Second Inaugural. It was a brief encounter — Lincoln was occupied with speeches and handshakes. But he took the time to welcome Douglass, and call him a friend.

“He said, ‘There is no man in the country whose opinion I value more than yours,’” Stauffer says, reading from one of Douglass’ letters.

The statesmen would have certainly met more, Stauffer notes, but in just over a month Lincoln was assassinated. The brief, unexpected friendship had come to an abrupt end.

Beyond the utilitarian aspects of their relationship, says Stauffer, these two men were able to feel comfortable on an “interpersonal level” because they “shared the extraordinary experience of self-making.” Both Lincoln and Douglass grew up in brutal environments: Douglass as a slave, and Lincoln in the “rough-and-tumble, no-holds barred” culture of backwoods Kentucky, says Stauffer. Both men also drew on the power of language to alter their stations.

“To be a great orator in that era was the equivalent of being a rock star or professional athlete in today’s society,” says Stauffer, “because public speaking was one of the main forms of public entertainment. If you could learn to communicate forcefully, that was the easiest way to rise up.”

Lincoln and Douglass honed their reading, writing, and speaking skills on the same texts, Stauffer notes. These included the Bible, Aesop’s fables, “The Columbian Orator,” and works by Shakespeare, Lord Byron, and Robert Burns.

“These men rose up from nothing, using only words for weapons, and came to reshape not only themselves but the nation,” Stauffer says. “The tale of their friendship demonstrates what scholars often misunderstand: People can share profoundly different political beliefs and still feel comfortable at an interpersonal level, particularly if they can draw on a common background and a shared love of literature and language.”