Early on the morning of Aug. 10, 1863, former slave, renowned black leader, and newspaper editor Frederick Douglass stepped from his Washington, D.C., hotel room, in hopes of a meeting with Abraham Lincoln.
The Civil War was raging and the Emancipation Proclamation had been signed but Douglass was far from complacent. Black troops were fighting on the Union side, but not receiving equal pay, uniforms, or rations. Also, there were reports that captured black soldiers were being tortured and killed in cold blood by rebel troops – reports that spurred little or no response from Union leaders.
In theory, the slaves were finally free, but Douglass was focused on the appalling injustice that still prevailed.
Kansas Sen. Samuel Pomeroy walked with Douglass to the White House, where a staircase was jammed with supplicants, each hoping for a presidential audience. Almost as soon as Douglass presented his card, however, an aide arrived to speed him to Lincoln's office.
There he was, Douglass would later recall, lying on a couch reading, long legs stretching into "different parts of the room." Lincoln rose immediately and stretched out his hand to the visitor. "Mr. Douglass," he said. "I know you."
Actually, it was the first time these two remarkable men had ever met. At the time, Douglass was certainly a famous man (better known by far than the senator acting as his escort.) And there was much that Lincoln and Douglass had in common. Both were highly principled, self-taught men, born into poverty, yet skilled orators and gifted leaders. In addition, they shared a deep hatred of the institution of slavery.
But there had long been tension between these two men, as historian James Oakes explains in his new book, The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery, an eye-opening and absorbing account of their relationship.
While Douglass ceaselessly championed abolitionism and equal treatment for African- Americans, President Lincoln understood politics as "the art of the possible," believing that even the most righteous cause must have the support of public opinion. Thus, while it was easy for the "outsider" Douglass to rely upon the purity of his principles, the elected Lincoln was forced to meld principle with politics.
A great example of the Lincoln-Douglass tension came in the summer of 1862, as Lincoln was considering using his "war powers" to free the slaves. Douglass had long agitated for Lincoln to publicly declare that the Civil War was being waged in an effort to abolish slavery and not, as Lincoln contended, for the preservation of the Union. But Lincoln understood the prevalence of American racism and the widespread public loathing for abolitionists. Among his top priorities early in the war, notes Oakes, was keeping the border states (Maryland, Kentucky, Missouri) on the Union side.
As an astute Republican politician, Lincoln believed that if he got too far in front of public opinion, he risked losing his carefully created political coalition.
When a few Union generals began unilaterally freeing slaves before the Emancipation Proclamation (delighting Douglass), Lincoln had countermanded their orders – not because he didn't want to free slaves, but because he did not believe his generals legally could. Lincoln contended that he himself had this authority, acting as commander in chief through his "war powers," but he wanted to exercise it at the right time.
For Douglass, however, such legal and political niceties were simply exasperating.
In August 1862, one month before he issued his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln met with a delegation of African-Americans (Douglass did not attend) and argued for the notion of "colonization," that freed slaves should move outside the United States to Central America, Liberia, or the Caribbean, where they'd find better treatment. (Lincoln never hid his view that the differences between the two races forbade their "ever living together on terms of social and political equality.")
When Douglass read accounts of the meeting, he was livid. Douglass believed firmly in integration, that the races could peacefully coexist within the US if African-Americans were granted the rights guaranteed by the Constitution.
But what Douglass had misunderstood about the White House meeting, says Oakes, was that Lincoln's motives were political. The president knew something Douglass didn't – he'd be issuing his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation within weeks – and the meeting provided Lincoln with much-needed "political cover" among whites who feared miscegenation. Yes, Lincoln was being cynical and calculated with his speech, but he felt he was promoting a goal both men shared.
However, whatever their past tensions, on that August day when the two men finally met, Douglass was deeply impressed, Oakes writes, by Lincoln's patience, "the sincerity and humaneness of his replies, and the decency with which he treated a longtime critic." The president received him, Douglass would later recall, "just as you have seen one gentleman receive another."
The two would only ever meet face to face twice again, but there is evidence of deep regard on both sides, particularly as, with the passage of time, their visions drew closer, with Lincoln becoming more of a radical and Douglass more of a Republican. Douglass learned to value Lincoln as a leader who was imperfect but willing to listen sincerely to the concerns of African-Americans.
Douglass was devastated, Oakes writes, by Lincoln's assassination, both personally and politically. Lincoln's successor, Andrew Johnson, was a former slaveholder who simply couldn't stand Douglass and his endless demands.
"The Radical and the Republican" is ideological more often than anecdotal and is not a light read. But the book succeeds quite well at charting the ups and downs of a complex and seminal relationship between two great men, both dedicated to making America live up to its loftiest ideals.
• Chuck Leddy is a writer and book reviewer in Quincy, Mass.