By John E. Carey
To serious students of the Civil War, Frederick Douglass usually requires little introduction. Douglass excelled as a leader and role model. Slave, writer, accomplished orator, abolitionist, friend and advisor to Lincoln, Douglass spearheaded the movement to allow black men to enlist in the Union forces.
Douglass was the first African American ever invited to the White House (by Abraham Lincoln) and he coined the term “Ebony and Ivory” when he invited Stephen Douglas to debate slavery (Douglas demurred).
Douglass threw himself into the national debate with zeal and enthusiasm. He fought to end slavery within the United States in the decades prior to the Civil War. Additionally, he complimented “talk” with action, managing an underground railroad that rescued hundreds and maybe even thousands of slaves by spiriting them into Canada.
Three turning points in Douglass’ fascinating life tell us much about the man who owns a unique place in American history. The first turning point came when John Brown tried to enlist Douglass, his powers of persuasion and his reputation into the Harper’s Ferry raid. Determining that the pacifists’ approach to abolition fostered by Douglass was not working, John Brown and William Lloyd Garrison set upon a more violent course of action. They wanted to enlist Douglass to help in their plan.In the very first issue of his anti-slavery newspaper, the Liberator, William Lloyd Garrison wrote, “I do not wish to think, or speak, or write, with moderation. . . . I am in earnest — I will not equivocate — I will not excuse — I will not retreat a single inch — AND I WILL BE HEARD.”
Douglass became enthralled with Garrison and the Liberator. “My soul was set on fire,” Douglass wrote of the paper. In 1839, Douglass began to write essays for the Liberator, which ultimately resulted in a long career of writing and speaking out against slavery. His newspaper notoriety made him a lightening rod for the abolitionist cause, and he became on the first truly nationally known black abolitionists.A former slave himself, Douglass had endured feeding from a trough, whippings and other humiliating privations. Douglass understood the plight of his fellow black men better than many others. His essays counted and white leaders in American took note.Even though Douglass and Garrison waged a public argument over the methods and tactics of achieving abolition, Douglass drew the attention of John Brown of Kansas.
Brown believed that Douglass would like his idea to free slaves by attacking federal property in the deeply divided areas of Maryland and Virginia. Brown thought he could incite a revolt of slaves everywhere; and that Douglass might eagerly help him do just that.
In 1859, John Brown rented a farm near Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, and began planning his attack on Harper’s Ferry. He invited Douglass to a meeting in the hopes that he might recruit Douglass into the scheme.Douglass met with Brown in August, 1859.
When Douglass heard the violent and illegal nature of Brown’s planned attack on the federal arsenal, Douglass knew that lawlessness would only alienate the support of the white community. This turning point marked Douglass as a moderate who refused to support violent or lawless opportunists in the cause of abolition.
Had Douglass become a part of Brown’s cabal, he certainly would have lost his standing with white abolition leaders and may have wound up alongside Brown on the gallows.At the outset of the Civil War, Douglass established two goals for his life: the emancipation of all the slaves in southern and border states and the establishment of the right of black men to enlist and serve in the Union Army. These goals would lead Douglass to two more turning points, both involving President Abraham Lincoln.
Douglass launched what modern observers might call a “media blitz,” calling for the emancipation of the slaves. He created a pressure cooker, of sorts, for President Lincoln. Lincoln knew in his heart that Douglass was right to want the freedom of all the slaves, but agonizing defeats on the battlefield, rising casualty figures, and resistance to the draft caused Lincoln to balk. Lincoln didn’t want the emancipation controversy to become another reason for white northerners to take sides against the war.
But Douglass would not relent. Understanding well Lincoln’s political considerations, Douglass still believed emancipation must be achieved as soon as possible. This second turning point caused Douglass to kept up his pressure on the president. Douglass authored strongly worded published essays and gave innumerable speeches not directly attacking Lincoln but clearly supporting emancipation. And Lincoln relented: deciding he must free the slaves as soon as the Union Army turned back Lee’s forces at Antietam.
Frederick Douglass’ final turning point came when he became distressed at Lincoln’s failure to legalize the enlistment of black men into the Union Army after emancipation. If black men were free and full citizens, Douglass argued, they had the right and privilege of service in their nation’s military forces. They had the right to participate as combatants in their nation’s war.Douglass knew than emancipation was not his final goal. He wanted all black men to become citizens and he knew that the road to citizenship could come through service to the nation.
Said Douglass, “Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letters U.S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket, and there is no power on earth which can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship in the United States.:Unable to contain his distress over Lincoln’s slow response on this issue, Douglass departed for Washington D.C. – and his third turning point. Douglass went to the White House to confront Lincoln over the issue of black enlistment.
Lincoln received the hostile Douglass in his usual dignified and gentlemanly manner. Lincoln explained that many of his generals expressed doubt about enlisting the black men.Although Douglass was not pleased with Lincoln’s response, Douglass experienced another turning point. He knew this was a time for cooperation and reconciliation. He left the White House with Lincoln’s promise to ultimately allow black men full rights and responsibilities in the Army. Lincoln asked for understanding and a little more time.
Douglass returned to Boston and a short time later became one of the best recruiters of black men into the Union Army.
Frederick Douglass inspired all men to greater things. His greatness can be seen in his turning points: the rejection of John Brown’s violence, his indefatigable refusal to give in on important issues such as emancipation, and his ability to reconcile and compromise with other leaders like Lincoln.
Douglass’ turning points allowed him to ultimately achieve all his objectives.On April 14, 1876, Frederick Douglass gave an oration in memory of Abraham Lincoln. Douglass’ words that day tell us much about both men:“Friends and fellow-citizens, the story of our presence here is soon and easily told. We are here in the District of Columbia, here in the city of Washington, the most luminous point of American territory; a city recently transformed and made beautiful in its body and in its spirit; we are here in the place where the ablest and best men of the country are sent to devise the policy, enact the laws, and shape the destiny of the Republic; we are here, with the stately pillars and majestic dome of the Capitol of the nation looking down upon us; we are here, with the broad earth freshly adorned with the foliage and flowers of spring for our church, and all races, colors, and conditions of men for our congregation–in a word, we are here to express, as best we may, by appropriate forms and ceremonies, our grateful sense of the vast, high, and preeminent services rendered to ourselves, to our race, to our country, and to the whole world by Abraham Lincoln.”
Frederick Douglass: a great American leader and achiever, shaped by his turning points.