August 19, 1864: Frederick Douglass Meets Abraham Lincoln

On August 18, 1864, Abraham Lincoln learned that Frederick Douglass would be visiting the White House the following day. The president had something of great import to discuss with the abolitionist. The two men had worked together before on enlisting African Americans in the Union army, but this time it was something different.

In 1883, Douglass recalled the August 19th meeting:

The main subject on which he wished to confer with me was as to the means most desirable to be employed outside the army to induce the slaves in the rebel States to come within the Federal lines. The increasing opposition to the war, in the North, and the mad cry against it, because it was being made an abolition war, alarmed Mr. Lincoln, and made him apprehensive that a peace might be forced upon him which would leave still in slavery all who had not come within our lines. What he wanted was to make his proclamation as effective as possible in the event of such a peace. He said, in a regretful tone, “The slaves are not coming so rapidly and so numerously to us as I had hoped.” I replied that the slaveholders knew how to keep such things from their slaves, and probably very few knew of his proclamation. “Well,” he said, “I want you to set about devising some means of making them acquainted with it, and for bringing them into our lines.” He spoke with great earnestness and much solicitude, and seemed troubled by the attitude of Mr. Greeley and by the growing impatience at the war that was being manifested throughout the North. He said he was being accused of protracting the war beyond its legitimate object and of failing to make peace when he might have done so to advantage. He was afraid of what might come of all these complaints, but was persuaded that no solid and lasting peace could come short of absolute submission on the part of the rebels, and he was not for giving them rest by futile conferences with unauthorized persons, at Niagara Falls, or elsewhere. He saw the danger of premature peace, and, like a thoughtful and sagacious man as he was, wished to provide means of rendering such consummation as harmless as possible. I was the more impressed by this benevolent consideration because he before said, in answer to the peace clamor, that his object was to save the Union, and to do so with or without slavery. What he said on this day showed a deeper moral conviction against slavery than I had ever seen before in anything spoken or written by him. I listened with the deepest interest and profoundest satisfaction, and, at his suggestion, agreed to undertake the organizing a hand of scouts, composed of colored men, whose business should be somewhat after the original plan of John Brown, to go into the rebel States, beyond the lines of our armies, and carry the news of emancipation, and urge the slaves to come within our boundaries.

Douglass left Washington thinking about how to implement Lincoln’s idea. On August 29, Douglass wrote Lincoln as follows:

Rochester: N. Y. August 29th 1864

Sir: Since the interview with wh. Your Excellency was pleased to honor me a few days ago, I have freely conversed with several trustworthy and Patriotic Colored men concerning your suggestion that something should be speedily done to inform the slaves in the Rebel states of the true state of affairs in relation to them sho and to warn them as to what will be their probable condition should peace be concluded while they remain within the Rebel lines: and more especially to urge upon them the necessity of making their escape. All with whom I have thus far spoken on the subject, concur in the wisdom and benevolence of the Idea, and some of them think it practicable. That every slave who escapes from the Rebel states is a loss to the Rebellion and a gain to the Loyal Cause, I need not stop to argue the proposition is self evident. The negro is the stomach of the rebellion. I will therefore briefly submit at once to your Excellency — the ways and means by which many such persons may be wrested from the enemy and brought within our lines:

1st Let a general agt. be appointed by your Excellency charged with the duty of giving effect to your idea as indicated above: Let him have the means and power to employ twenty or twenty five good men, having the cause at heart, to act as his agents: 2d Let these Agents which shall be selected by him, have permission to visit such points at the front as are most accessible to large bodies of slaves in the Rebel States: Let each of the said agts have power — to appoint one subagent or more in the locality where he may be required to operate: the said sub agent shall be thoroughly acquainted with the country — and well instructed as to the representations he is to make to the slaves: — but his cheif duty will be to conduct such squads of slaves as he may be able to collect, safely within the Loyal lines: Let the sub agents for this service be paid a sum not exceeding two dolls– per day while upon active duty.

3dly In order that these agents shall not be arrested or impeded in their work –let them be properly ordered to report to the General Commanding the several Departments they may visit, and recieve from them permission to pursue thier vocation unmolested. 4th Let provision be made that the slaves or Freed men thus brought within our lines shall receive subsistence until such of them as are fit shall enter the service of the Country or be otherwise employed and provided for: 5thly Let each agent appointed by the General agent be required to keep a strict acct of all his transactions, — of all monies recieved and paid out, of the numbers and the names of slaves brought into our lines under his auspices, of the plantations visited, and of everything properly connected with the prosecution of his work, and let him be required to make full reports of his proceedings — at least, once a fortnight to the General Agent.

6th Also, Let the General Agt be required to keep a strict acct of all his transactions with his agts and report to your Excellency or to an officer designated by you to recieve such reports. 7th Let the General Agt be paid a salary sufficient to enable him to employ a competant Clerk, and let him be stationed at Washington — or at some other Point where he can most readily receive communications from and send communications to his Agents: The General Agt should also have a kind of roving Commission within our lines, so that he may have a more direct and effective oversight of the whole work and thus ensure activity and faithfulness on the part of his agents–

This is but an imperfect outline of the plan — but I think it enough to give your Excellency an Idea of how the desirable work shall be executed.

Your Obedient Servant

Fredk Douglass

4 thoughts on “August 19, 1864: Frederick Douglass Meets Abraham Lincoln

  1. Stefan Jovanovich August 18, 2014 / 5:41 pm

    This is so sad. Neither Douglass nor Lincoln seems to have had any idea of the scope of the task. 25 men would have been barely enough to handle the problem around Mobile after the capture of Dauphin Island and Fort Gaines. Yet, somehow, that number of these special agents will somehow be adequate for dealing with the problem along the entire front of the war. It is nearly 2 decades after the fact, and Douglass has seen the results of Reconstruction and he is still comfortable admitting that “twenty or twenty-five” was the number. Even sadder is the fact that he still thinks the important details to be worked out are the procedures for auditing and accounting for the funds to be spent.

  2. Brian Hampton August 18, 2014 / 7:30 pm

    I wrote about this as a part of a paper on aspects of Lincoln’s image. It was in a seminar on Lincoln in memory, and no one in the class, save the professor, had ever heard of this, which stunned me a bit. When discussing my paper, we ended up having a lovely discussion about Lincoln’s relationship with Douglass and the latter’s subsequent assessment years later. A couple of people ran with some of what had arisen from the discussion and, from different perspectives, based their final papers around those bits and pieces that arose initially from this incident. Had almost nothing to do with what I’d written, most of which was boring I imagine, but I suppose that’s part of the purpose of seminars.

    I have no point here. Just wanted to share the anecdote because I very rarely see this mentioned.

  3. Kalyn Behnke August 19, 2014 / 12:25 pm

    I always get so excited when a post includes Lincoln! I am in agreement with Mr. (Dr.?) Hampton, in that the interactions between Lincoln and Douglass in lectures are hardly a footnote. I will have to mention this the next time I go to the Scottsdale Civil War Round Table.

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