Abraham Lincoln was a politician, though people like to describe him in ways that sound more noble. Contemporaries considered him a Christlike figure who suffered and died so that his nation might live. Tolstoy called him “a saint of humanity.” Lincoln himself said he was only the “accidental instrument” of a “great cause”—but he preserved the country and took part in a social revolution because he engaged in politics. He did the work that others found dirty or beneath them.
He always considered slavery wrong, but felt that immediate abolition was beyond the federal government’s constitutional power and against the wishes of too many voters. So he tried to contain slavery, with no idea how it would end, and moved forward only when political circumstances changed. “I shall adopt new views so fast as they appear to be true views,” he said shortly before issuing the Emancipation Proclamation.
At each step, he tried to build coalitions with people who disagreed with him. Many thought he was backward, others found him radical, and still others had different perspectives based on their experiences and lives. I studied 16 of Lincoln’s face-to-face meetings with people who differed with him, and learned that his skill in managing these differences was vital to his success.
Some of us have lost patience with that skill—or even hold it in contempt—because we misunderstand it. Right-wing figures deem talking with the other side a sign of weakness and betrayal; people on the left call it naive and morally wrong. “Changing minds” is considered almost impossible in our angry and fragmented society.
These assertions miss the point of Lincoln’s achievement. It’s not that he greatly changed his critics’ beliefs, nor that they greatly changed his. Rather, he learned how to make his beliefs actionable. He started his career in the minority party and set out to make a majority. He perceived a social problem so vast that it seemed impossible to address, and slowly found ways to address it. Through it all, he refused to surrender his bedrock beliefs, and finally led a coalition of the majority in the Civil War against a minority who tried to break up the country.
A self-educated Illinois lawyer who’d risen from poverty, Lincoln understood that he needed allies in a democracy. He found them by appealing to their self-interest. He supported the ambitions of other men who later supported his. He embraced the patronage system, giving jobs to his supporters. He even spoke of self-interest when it came to slavery, warning the almost entirely white electorate that if they didn’t resist it, slavery would expand in ways that harmed them.
His pragmatism made him the right leader for the Republican Party, an unwieldy coalition whose members agreed that slavery was wrong but disagreed about how it should end, and how freedpeople would fit into society. Could white voters ever accept millions of freed Black citizens as their equals in a multiracial republic? Lincoln generally ducked this politically explosive question, even promoting the idea of sending Black people to colonies overseas.
He could duck it no longer after January 1, 1863. On that day, his Emancipation Proclamation decreed freedom for millions in areas held by rebels in the ongoing Civil War. In the months that followed, many of the formerly enslaved enlisted in the Union army—each one providing a “double advantage,” as Lincoln said, because the Confederates lost a laborer and the Union gained a soldier. Their service ultimately forced a reckoning with their future status as citizens: having helped uphold the Constitution, they naturally wanted full constitutional rights. America’s failure to fulfill this promise became the central problem of Reconstruction, and is one we’re still wrestling with today. So it’s relevant to trace the debate back to one of its earliest moments: Lincoln’s meeting with Frederick Douglass on August 10, 1863.
Douglass was surely Lincoln’s most famous visitor that day. He had escaped from bondage in Maryland long before the war, becoming an antislavery writer and orator. Thousands came to hear him speak, and rock-throwing mobs occasionally drove him offstage. Entire slave states banned his books. His name was often linked with Lincoln’s: Conservative newspapers smeared the Republican Party by saying it was following this Black man’s agenda.
In truth, he had often criticized the president. During the first year and a half of the Civil War, he wrote in his newspaper that Lincoln had a “passion for making himself seem silly and ridiculous”; that his statements were “characteristically foggy, remarkably illogical”; that he had shown “canting hypocrisy”; and that he represented “American prejudice and Negro hatred.” He wrote that Lincoln had taken the “obvious” step of issuing the Emancipation Proclamation only after “slothful” delays.
After the proclamation, he agreed to become an army recruiter, urging Black men to sign up for a “double advantage” of their own—crushing slavery and proving they were worthy of equal citizenship. “You will receive the same wages, the same rations, the same equipments, the same protection, the same treatment, and the same bounty, secured to the white soldiers,” he assured them, throwing his reputation behind this promise. Two of his sons enlisted in the 54th Massachusetts, a newly formed Black regiment, and one of them, Lewis Douglass, became a sergeant—a noncommissioned officer.
But the elder Douglass soon came to feel that the government had made a liar out of him, failing to deliver the equal treatment he had promised. Not a single commissioned officer—no lieutenant, captain, or major—was Black. Lack of experience was no explanation: Well‑connected white men had become officers and even generals with scant military backgrounds. In addition, white private soldiers were paid $13 each month, while Black soldiers received only $7, the rate for ordinary Black laborers. One Black sergeant called the injustice the “Lincoln despotism.”
Beyond these insults, Black soldiers felt that they faced more danger than their comrades. White men captured by the rebels could expect to be kept safe as prisoners of war, but Confederate President Jefferson Davis had issued an order “that all negro slaves captured in arms” should be turned over to “their respective states” to be returned to slavery or killed. Black troops wanted Lincoln to announce a policy of retaliation, executing a Confederate prisoner for every Black soldier killed, but they heard no reply.
In only one sense did Black men gain equal status: They could be thrown into combat as readily as anyone else. When the 54th deployed to the islands around Charleston, South Carolina, the regiment asked for the honor of leading an attack on Fort Wagner. The troops climbed the fort’s wall and briefly planted their flag, but were forced to retreat; hundreds were killed or wounded. Sergeant Lewis Douglass wrote his father to say that “the splendid 54th is cut to pieces.” His sword sheath was shot off as he stood on Fort Wagner’s parapet, and he ended the letter: “If I die tonight I will not die a coward. Good bye.” Fears emerged that the rebels were executing prisoners. The New York Tribune said the soldiers of the 54th had shown their “devotion to the cause of a country which has never yet recognized their rights.”
The same article listed groups of Black men believed to have been massacred elsewhere—teamsters in Tennessee, much of a regiment in Louisiana, and every Black prisoner in Vicksburg, Mississippi. Douglass may have had this newspaper in hand when he wrote a letter to the military’s head recruiter, George Stearns, listing these incidents and announcing that he couldn’t continue encouraging men to fight: “Colored men have much overrated the enlightenment, justice and generosity of our rulers at Washington.”
Unwilling to lose his prize recruiter, Stearns met with Douglass to assure him that the administration was beginning to address his concerns. Lincoln had finally issued an order of retaliation against Confederate prisoners. When Douglass asked why it had taken so long, Stearns suggested that he take his case to Washington. Soon Douglass’s train clattered into the District of Columbia depot, where he emerged two blocks from the Capitol. Its brand‑new white dome wasn’t quite complete: Workers had not yet placed the Statue of Freedom on top.
Douglass expected a long wait at the White House: “The stairway was crowded with applicants,” and “they were white,” while “I was the only dark spot among them,” he wrote in a letter sent immediately afterward. Given his scathing critiques of the president, he had reason to wonder if Lincoln would make time for him at all. But within two minutes, a man emerged and respectfully invited in “Mr. Douglass.”
He walked in to see Abraham Lincoln sprawled in his chair, his legs so long that his feet were “in different parts of the room.” Lincoln rose and warmly extended a hand. The activist was impressed. “I have never seen a more transparent countenance. There was not the slightest shadow of embarrassment after the first moment.”
Lincoln had read one of Douglass’s speeches that accused Lincoln of being “tardy, hesitating, vacillating,” and mentioned it now to answer the accusation: “The President said to me, ‘Mr. Douglass, I have been charged with being tardy and the like’; and he went on, and partly admitted that he might seem slow; but he said, ‘I am charged with vacillating; but, Mr. Douglass, I do not think the charge can be sustained; I think it cannot be shown that when I have once taken a position, I have ever retreated from it.’”
The president then spoke of the politics that caused him to act slowly. He said he had needed to work just to ensure that Black soldiers wore the same uniforms as white ones, because he faced resistance on every detail that might imply their equality.
Why had Lincoln waited more than half a year to issue an order of retaliation for attacks on Black soldiers? “Had he sooner issued that proclamation such was the state of public popular prejudice that an outcry would have been raised against the measure. It would be said ‘Ah! We thought it would come to this. White men were to be killed for negroes.’ His general view was that the battles in which negroes had distinguished themselves for bravery and general good conduct was the necessary preparation of the public mind for his proclamation.”
The president said something similar about unequal pay: White prejudice demanded unfairness in this early stage, but that would be corrected in time. Douglass decided the president’s approach was “reasonable.” In 1864, Congress provided equal pay.
Douglass concluded: “Whoever else might abandon his anti slavery policy President Lincoln would stand firm to his.”
Douglass resumed lending his name to the Union cause. Sometimes his speeches mentioned his meeting with the president, which was itself an advertisement for equality. He said Lincoln was “wise, great, and eloquent,” but above all “honest”—about political reality. The president wasn’t in charge: “We are not to be saved by the captain at this time, but by the crew. We are not to be saved by Abraham Lincoln, but by the power behind the throne, greater than the throne itself. You and I and all of us have this matter in hand.”
They were fighting for something “incomparably better than the old Union”: a new Union “in which there shall be no North, no South, no East, no West, no black, no white, but a solidarity of the nation, making every slave free, and every free man a voter.”
Achieving this would require a change in the views of the crew, and after the meeting, Lincoln intensified his effort to shape public opinion. He received an invitation to address a mass meeting of “unconditional Union men” in his home city of Springfield, Illinois. “I can not leave here now,” Lincoln replied, but he wrote a letter for a friend to read aloud. “I have but one suggestion,” Lincoln said. “Read it very slowly.”
He seized this chance to be heard in his home state’s capital, where the Emancipation Proclamation had been disastrously received. Illinois voters had thrown Lincoln’s Republicans out of power in the state legislature. The Democrats who replaced them said Lincoln had turned the fight for the Union into “a crusade for the sudden, unconditional and violent liberation of three millions of negro slaves,” triggering “the most dismal foreboding of horror and dismay.” A peace movement was spreading across the North.
At the mass meeting, Lincoln’s friend shouted out the letter that was aimed at the president’s critics. “You desire peace,” he said, “and you blame me that we do not have it. But how can we attain it?” They could crush the rebellion, give up the Union, or compromise. But compromise was impossible, and Lincoln wouldn’t surrender the Union. That left crushing the rebellion. There was nothing for Union men to disagree about.
Lincoln named the real problem: “To be plain, you are dissatisfied with me about the negro. Quite likely there is a difference of opinion between you and myself upon that subject. I certainly wish that all men could be free, while I suppose you do not.” This didn’t matter, Lincoln said. The proclamation was helping save the Union. “Some of the commanders of our armies in the field who have given us our most important successes, believe the emancipation policy, and the use of colored troops, constitute the heaviest blow yet dealt to the rebellion.”
Weeks later Lincoln would speak at the dedication of a battlefield cemetery at Gettysburg, discussing the war from a much higher altitude. The 272 words of the Gettysburg Address were polished for the ages, while his 1,677 words to his critics in Springfield had been raw; spoken for the moment; dwelling on race, politics, and power. “You say you will not fight to free negroes. Some of them seem willing to fight for you; but, no matter. Fight you, then, exclusively to save the Union.” Whatever Black men did as soldiers left less work for white men. “Does it appear otherwise to you? But negroes, like other people, act upon motives. Why should they do anything for us, if we will do nothing for them? If they stake their lives for us, they must be prompted by the strongest motive—even the promise of freedom. And the promise being made, must be kept.”
In his meeting with Douglass, he’d depended on candor: admitting he was not yet doing all that justice required. Now he was candid with white voters, reminding them that the Mississippi River was now fully in Union hands. Federal armies had captured Vicksburg and Port Hudson, Louisiana, the last rebel strongholds on the river. “The Father of Waters again goes unvexed to the sea,” Lincoln said. This colorful phrase became one of his famous lines, an irresistible description of one of the great strategic victories of the war. But Lincoln was not merely marking a success. He was saying that it had come because of a move toward racial equality. Troops from every part of the country had been involved—including some from “the Sunny South,” who were of “more colors than one.” He was telling skeptics that a measure of equality served their interests.
Lincoln also left certain things unsaid, which was a signature of his style. “Beneath a smooth surface of candor,” a friend said, Lincoln “told enough only, of his plans and purposes, to induce the belief that he had communicated all; yet he reserved enough, in fact, to have communicated nothing.”
Talking with both the white Illinois voters and with Douglass, he asked none of them to change their basic beliefs. He didn’t tell Douglass that he should accept a less than equal society, and didn’t ask the Illinois voters to abandon their prejudices. He didn’t even tell them what his own vision of the future was—didn’t say how he felt about the multiracial republic that Douglass saw coming and that the Illinois voters feared. He spoke instead of how his approach would advance their common cause.
It’s not hard to find modern examples of the tension between Lincoln and Douglass. Think of Martin Luther King Jr., who warned against the “tranquilizing drug of gradualism” in 1963 as he pushed white leaders for radical change—and think also of Everett Dirksen, a Republican senator from Lincoln’s Illinois. Dirksen raised various objections and amendments to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which helped him persuade more conservative lawmakers to vote for it. In this century, Barack Obama, the first Black president, sometimes downplayed race in ways that disappointed progressives—and built a political coalition that included many white midwestern voters, winning states, such as Iowa and Indiana, that seem out of reach for his party today.
That’s not to say the pragmatists were right and the radicals wrong. It’s better to say they needed each other, as Lincoln and Douglass surely did. Each was called upon to practice the art of democracy—an art that is lately out of fashion, and that’s in our interest to reclaim.
This essay was adapted from the forthcoming Differ We Must: How Lincoln Succeeded in a Divided America.
By Steve Inskeep
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