- The Washington Times - Friday, February 24, 2006

Frederick Douglass excelled as a leader and role model. Slave, writer, orator, abolitionist, friend and adviser to Lincoln, Douglass spearheaded the movement to allow black men to enlist in the Union Army.

Douglass threw himself into the national debate over slavery with zeal and enthusiasm. He complemented talk with action, managing an Underground Railroad that rescued hundreds and perhaps thousands of slaves by spiriting them into Canada.

Several turning points in Douglass’ fascinating life that tell us much about the man. The first came when John Brown tried to enlist Douglass in the Harpers Ferry raid. Believing that the peaceful approach to abolition advocated by Douglass was not working, Brown and William Lloyd Garrison set upon a violent course of action.

In the very first issue of his anti-slavery newspaper, the Liberator, 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 lightning rod for the abolitionist cause, and he became one of the first truly nationally known black abolitionists.

A former slave himself, Douglass had endured feeding from a trough, whippings and other privations. His essays counted, and white leaders in American took note.

Even though Douglass and Garrison waged a public argument over the methods and tactics for abolishing slavery, Douglass drew the attention of John Brown of Kansas.

Brown thought Douglass would like his idea to free slaves by attacking federal property. Brown thought he could incite a revolt of slaves everywhere and that Douglass might eagerly help him do just that.

In 1859, Brown rented a farm near Chambersburg, Pa., and began planning his attack on Harpers 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. Douglass felt that lawlessness would only alienate whites, and thus he refused to take part in the scheme. Had Douglass become part of Brown’s cabal, he certainly would have lost his standing with white abolitionist leaders and might have wound up alongside Brown on the gallows.

At the outset of the Civil War, Douglass established two goals: the emancipation of all slaves and the establishment of the right of black men to enlist and serve in the Union Army. These goals would lead Douglass to two turning points, both involving President Abraham Lincoln.

Douglass began what modern observers might call a “media blitz,” calling for emancipation. He created a pressure cooker of sorts for Lincoln. Lincoln knew in his heart that Douglass was right, but the president didn’t want emancipation to become a reason for some white Northerners to turn against the war.

Douglass would not relent, however. Understanding well Lincoln’s political considerations, Douglass still believed emancipation had to be achieved as soon as possible. Douglass ramped up the pressure on the president. He wrote strongly worded essays and gave innumerable speeches not directly attacking Lincoln but clearly supporting emancipation.

Frederick Douglass’ next 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.

Unable to contain his unhappiness over Lincoln’s slow response, Douglass went to the White House to confront Lincoln over the issue of black enlistment. Lincoln received Douglass in his usual dignified and gentlemanly manner, explaining that many of his generals expressed doubt about enlisting black men.

Although Douglass was not pleased with Lincoln’s response, he experienced another turning point. He knew this was a time for cooperation and reconciliation. He left the White House with Lincoln’s promise ultimately to 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 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, including Lincoln.

On April 14, 1876, Frederick Douglass gave an oration in memory of Abraham Lincoln. His 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 pre-eminent services rendered to ourselves, to our race, to our country, and to the whole world by Abraham Lincoln.”

John E. Carey is a frequent contributor to the Civil War page.

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