“AN AMERICAN OF THE AMERICANS”
The advanced Republicans on Capitol Hill who relentlessly pressured Lincoln toward emancipation were all white, of course. But blacks, too, played their part in influencing the cautious President. Most prominent among them was Frederick Douglass, the eloquent abolitionist speaker and writer, who was himself a former slave.
Douglass liked Lincoln personally. “In all my interviews with Mr. Lincoln,” he wrote, “I was impressed with his entire freedom from popular prejudice against the colored race. He was the first great man that I talked with in the United States freely, who in no single instance reminded me of the difference between himself and myself, of the difference of color. …”
But when Douglass was invited in 1876 to dedicate the Emancipation Monument, a Washington, D.C., statue of Lincoln freeing a slave, he put personal friendship aside and offered what is still among the shrewdest judgments ever made of the President’s role in the struggle against slavery:
”…[Lincoln] was preeminently the white man’s President, entirely devoted to the welfare of white men. He was ready and willing at any time during the first years of his administration to deny, postpone, and sacrifice the rights of humanity in the colored people to promote the welfare of the white people of this country. In all his education and feeling he was an American of the Americans. He came into the Presidential chair upon one principle alone, namely, opposition to the extension of slavery. His arguments in furtherance of this policy had their motive and mainspring in his patriotic devotion to the interests of his own race. … The race to which we belong were not the special objects of his consideration. Knowing this, I concede to you, my white fellowcitizens, a preeminence in this worship at once full and supreme. … You are the children of Abraham Lincoln. We are at best only his step-children; children by adoption, children by forces of circumstances and necessity. To you it especially belongs to sound his praises. … [But] while Abraham Lincoln saved for you a country, he delivered us from a bondage, according to Jefferson, one hour of which was worse than ages of the oppression your fathers rose in rebellion to oppose. … His greatest mission was to accomplish two things: first, to save his country from dismemberment and ruin; and, second, to free his country from the great crime of slavery. To do one or the other, or both, he must have the earnest sympathy and the powerful cooperation of his loyal fellow countrymen. … Had he put the abolition of slavery before the salvation of the Union, he would have inevitably driven from him a powerful class of the American people and rendered resistance to rebellion impossible. Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent; but measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined … taking him for all in all, measuring the tremendous magnitude of the work before him, considering the necessary means to ends, and surveying the end from the beginning, infinite wisdom has seldom sent any man into the world better fitted for his mission than Abraham Lincoln.”