Frederick Douglass and the abolitionists argued that because the aim of the Civil War was to end slavery, African Americans should be allowed to engage in the fight for their freedom. Douglass publicized this view in his newspapers and several speeches. Douglass conferred with President Abraham Lincoln in 1863 on the treatment of black soldiers, and with President Andrew Johnson on the subject of black suffrage.
President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which took effect on January 1, 1863, declared the freedom of all slaves in Confederate-held territory. (Slaves in Union-held areas and Northern states would become freed with the adoption of the 13th Amendment on December 6, 1865.) Douglass described the spirit of those awaiting the proclamation: “We were waiting and listening as for a bolt from the sky … we were watching … by the dim light of the stars for the dawn of a new day … we were longing for the answer to the agonizing prayers of centuries.”
During the U.S. Presidential Election of 1864, Douglass supported John C. Frémont. Douglass was disappointed that President Lincoln did not publicly endorse suffrage for black freedmen. Douglass believed that since African-American men were fighting in the American Civil War, they deserved the right to vote.
With the North no longer obliged to return slaves to their owners in the South, Douglass fought for equality for his people. He made plans with Lincoln to move liberated slaves out of the South. During the war, Douglass also helped the Union by serving as a recruiter for the 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. His eldest son, Charles Douglass, joined the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, but was ill for much of his service. Lewis Douglass fought at the Battle of Fort Wagner. Another son, Frederick Douglass Jr., also served as a recruiter.
After Lincoln’s death
In his last autobiography, The Life & Times of Frederick Douglass, Douglass referred to Lincoln as America’s “greatest President.” Moreover, the post-war (1865) ratification of the 13th Amendment outlawed slavery. The 14th Amendment provided for citizenship and equal protection under the law. The 15th Amendment protected all citizens from being discriminated against in voting because of race.
On April 14, 1876, Douglass delivered the keynote speech at the unveiling of the Emancipation Memorial in Washington’s Lincoln Park. In that speech, Douglass spoke frankly about Lincoln, noting what he perceived as both positive and negative attributes of the late President. Calling Lincoln “the white man’s president”, Douglass criticized Lincoln’s tardiness in joining the cause of emancipation, noting that Lincoln initially opposed the expansion of slavery but did not support its elimination. But Douglass also asked, “Can any colored man, or any white man friendly to the freedom of all men, ever forget the night which followed the first day of January 1863, when the world was to see if Abraham Lincoln would prove to be as good as his word?” Douglass also said: “Though Mr. Lincoln shared the prejudices of his white fellow-countrymen against the Negro, it is hardly necessary to say that in his heart of hearts he loathed and hated slavery….”
The crowd, roused by his speech, gave Douglass a standing ovation. Lincoln’s widow Mary Lincoln supposedly gave Lincoln’s favorite walking stick to Douglass in appreciation. That walking stick still rests in Douglass’ final residence, Cedar Hill, now preserved as the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site.