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Frederick Douglass on Abraham Lincoln

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Excerpted from the chapter entitled:

The Passage of the Emancipation Proclamation

The first of January, 1863, was a memorable day in the progress of American liberty and civilization. It was the turning-point in the conflict between freedom and slavery.
THE first of January, 1863, was a memorable day in the progress of American liberty and civilization. It was the turning-point in the conflict between freedom and slavery. A death-blow was given to the slaveholding rebellion. Until then the federal arm had been more than tolerant to that relic of barbarism. It had defended it inside the slave States; it had countermanded the emancipation policy of John C. Fremont in Missouri; it had returned slaves to their so-called owners; it had threatened that any attempt on the part of the slaves to gain their freedom by insurrection, or otherwise, should be put down with an iron hand; it had even refused to allow the Hutchinson family to sing their anti-slavery songs in the camps of the Army of the Potomac; it had surrounded the houses of slaveholders with bayonets for their protection; and through its secretary of war, William H. Seward, had given notice to the world that, “however the war for the Union might terminate, no change would be made in the relation of master and slave.”

Upon this pro-slavery platform the war against the rebellion had been waged during more than two years. It had not been a war of conquest, but rather a war of conciliation. McClellan, in command of the army, had been trying, apparently, to put down the rebellion without hurting the rebels, certainly without hurting slavery, and the government had seemed to coƶperate with him in both respects. Charles Sumner, William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, Gerrit Smith and the whole anti-slavery phalanx at the North, had denounced this policy, and had besought Mr. Lincoln to adopt an opposite one, but in vain. Generals in the field, and councils in the Cabinet, had persisted in advancing this policy through defeats and disasters, even to the verge of ruin. We fought the rebellion, but not its cause. The key to the situation was the four millions of slaves; yet the slave who loved us, was hated, and the slaveholder who hated us, was loved. We kissed the hand that smote us, and spurned the hand that helped us. When the means of victory were before us — within our grasp — we went in search of the means of defeat.

And now, on this day of January 1st, 1863, the formal and solemn announcement was made that thereafter the government would be found on the side of emancipation. This proclamation changed everything. It gave a new direction to the councils of the Cabinet, and to the conduct of the national arms. I shall leave to the statesman, the philosopher and the historian, the more comprehensive discussion of this document, and only tell how it touched me, and those in like condition with me at the time.

I was in Boston, and its reception there may indicate the importance attached to it elsewhere. An immense assembly convened in Tremont Temple to await the first flash of the electric wires announcing the “new departure.” Two years of war, prosecuted in the interests of slavery, had made free speech possible in Boston, and we were now met together to receive and celebrate the first utterance of the long-hoped-for proclamation, if it came, and, if it did not come, to speak our minds freely; for, in view of the past, it was by no means certain that it would come.

The occasion, therefore, was one of both hope and fear. Our ship was on the open sea, tossed by a terrible storm; wave after wave was passing over us, and every hour was fraught with increasing peril. Whether we should survive or perish depended in large measure upon the coming of this proclamation. At least so we felt. Although the conditions on which Mr. Lincoln had promised to withhold it had not been complied with, yet, from many considerations, there was room to doubt and fear. Mr. Lincoln was known to be a man of tender heart, and boundless patience: no man could tell to what length he might go, or might refrain from going, in the direction of peace and reconciliation. Hitherto, he had not shown himself a man of heroic measures, and, properly enough, this step belonged to that class. It must be the end of all compromises with slavery — a declaration that thereafter the war was to be conducted on a new principle, with a new aim. It would be a full and fair assertion that the government would neither trifle, or be trifled with, any longer. But would it come?

On the side of doubt, it was said that Mr. Lincoln’s kindly nature might cause him to relent at the last moment; that Mrs. Lincoln, coming from an old slaveholding family, would influence him to delay, and to give the slaveholders one other chance.*

* I have reason to know that this supposition did Mrs. Lincoln great injustice.

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