“Your Late Lamented Husband”: A Letter from Frederick Douglass to Mary Todd Lincoln

by David W. Blight

On March 4, 1865, Frederick Douglass attended President Abraham Lincoln’s second inauguration. Standing in the crowd, Douglass heard Lincoln declare slavery the “cause” and emancipation the “result” of the Civil War. Over the crisp air he heard Lincoln’s determination that to win the war “every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword.”[1] Four years earlier, and many times in between, Douglass had dreamed of writing that speech for Lincoln. That the President himself wrote it in those tragic days of spring 1865 is a testament to the power of events, to Lincoln’s own moral fiber, and to the political and rhetorical bond he shared with Douglass.

Douglass attended the inaugural reception that evening at the Executive Mansion. At first denied entrance by two policemen, Douglass was admitted only when the President himself was notified. Weary of a lifetime of such racial rejections, Douglass was immediately set at ease by Lincoln’s cordial greeting: “Here comes my friend Douglass.” Lincoln asked Douglass what he thought of the day’s speech. Douglass demurred, urging the President to attend to his host of visitors. But Lincoln insisted, telling his black guest: “There is no man in the country whose opinion I value more than yours.” “Mr. Lincoln,” replied the former slave, “that was a sacred effort.”[2] We can only guess at the thrill in Douglass’s heart, knowing that the cause he had so long pleaded—a sanctioned war to destroy slavery and potentially to reinvent the American republic around the principle of racial equality—might now come to fruition. He could fairly entertain the belief that he and Lincoln, the slaves and the nation, were walking that night into a new history.

But nothing during the early months of Reconstruction came easily, especially in the wake of Lincoln’s assassination at the dawn of peace. In her grief, and with the assistance of her personal aide, Elizabeth Keckley, Mary Todd Lincoln sent mementos to special people. Among the recipients of some of the President’s canes were the black abolitionist Henry Highland Garnet and a White House servant, William Slade. But to Douglass Mrs. Lincoln sent the President’s “favorite walking staff” (on display today at Cedar Hill, Douglass’s home in Washington, DC). In his remarkable letter of reply (transcript of letter), Douglass assured the First Lady that he would forever possess the cane as an “object of sacred interest,” not only for himself, but because of Mr. Lincoln’s “humane interest in the welfare of my whole race.”[3] In this expression of gratitude, Douglass evoked the enduring symbolic bond between the sixteenth president and many African Americans.

Douglass’s relationship with Lincoln had not always been so warm. Indeed, Douglass’s attitude toward Lincoln moved from cautious support in 1860 to outrage in 1861–1862, and eventually to respect and admiration in 1863–1865. At the outset of the war Douglass wanted precisely what Lincoln did not want: a “remorseless revolutionary struggle”[4] that would make black freedom indispensable to saving the Union. In September 1861 Douglass denounced Lincoln’s revocation of General John C. Fremont’s unauthorized emancipation order in Missouri. In 1862–1863 he was offended by the administration’s plans for colonization of the freed people. Indeed, nothing disappointed Douglass as much as the President’s August 1862 meeting with a black delegation at the White House, when Lincoln told his guests that “we [the two races] should be separated”[5] and that the only hope for equality rested in their emigration to a new land. Douglass reprinted Lincoln’s remarks in his newspaper and penned his harshest criticism ever of the President, calling him an “itinerant colonization lecturer” and a “genuine representative of American prejudice.”[6]

But much changed in Douglass’s estimation of Lincoln with the advent of the Emancipation Proclamation and the policy of recruiting black soldiers in 1863. As the war expanded in scale and purpose, Lincoln and Douglass began to move toward a shared vision of its meaning. On August 10, 1863, Douglass visited Washington, DC, for the first time and met with Lincoln for a frank discussion of discrimination practiced against black troops. Lincoln said he understood the anguish over unequal pay for black men, but considered it a “necessary concession” in order to achieve the larger aim of getting blacks into uniform. Although they did not agree on all issues, Douglass came away from this meeting impressed with Lincoln’s forthrightness and respectful of the President’s political skills. Douglass relished opportunities to tell of his first meeting with Lincoln. “I felt big there,” he told a lecture audience, describing how secretaries admitted him to Lincoln’s office ahead of a long line of office-seekers. Disarmed, even awed, by Lincoln’s directness, Douglass remembered that the President looked him in the eye and said: “Remember this . . . remember that Milliken’s Bend, Port Hudson, and Fort Wagner are recent events; and . . . were necessary to prepare the way for this very proclamation of mine.”[7] For the first time, Douglass expressed a personal identification with Lincoln. The “rebirth” of the nation about which Lincoln spoke so famously at Gettysburg in November 1863 had long been Douglass’s favorite metaphor as well.

By the end of 1863, Lincoln and Douglass spoke from virtually the same script, one of them with the elegance and restraint of a statesman, and the other the fiery tones of a prophet. In his Annual Message of December 8, 1863, Lincoln declared that “the policy of emancipation . . . gave to the future a new aspect.” The nation was engaged in a “new reckoning” in which it might become “the home of freedom disentralled, regenerated, enlarged.”[8] Lincoln’s language makes a striking comparison to a speech Douglass delivered many times across the North in the winter of 1863–1864. In “The Mission of the War” Douglass declared that however long the “shadow of death” cast over the land, Americans should not forget the moral “grandeur” of the struggle. “It is the manifest destiny of this war,” he announced, “to unify and reorganize the institutions of the country,” and thereby give the scale of death its “sacred significance.” “The mission of this war,” Douglass concluded, “is National regeneration.”[9] Together, Lincoln and Douglass had provided the subjunctive and declarative voices of the Second American Revolution—and by the last year of the war, they were nearly one and the same.

In the summer of 1864, with the war at a bloody stalemate in Virginia, Lincoln’s reelection was in jeopardy and Douglass’s support of him temporarily waned. He briefly considered supporting John C. Fremont’s candidacy to unseat Lincoln in the Republican Party. But in August Lincoln invited Douglass to the White House for their extraordinary second meeting. The President was under heavy pressure from all sides: Copperheads condemned him for pursuing an abolitionist war, while abolitionists sought to replace him with the more radical Fremont. Lincoln was worried that the war might end without complete victory and the end of slavery, so he sought Douglass’s advice. Lincoln had drafted a letter, denying that he was standing in the way of peace and declaring that he could not sustain a war to destroy slavery if Congress did not will it. Douglass urged Lincoln not to publish the letter and ultimately, because of events and perhaps Douglass’s advice, he never did.

Even more importantly, Lincoln asked Douglass to lead a scheme reminiscent of John Brown and Harpers Ferry. Concerned that if he were not reelected, the Democrats would pursue a negotiated, proslavery peace, Lincoln, according to Douglass, wanted “to get more of the slaves within our lines.” Douglass went North and organized some twenty-five agents who were willing to work at the front. In a letter to Lincoln on August 29, 1864, Douglass outlined his plan for a “band of scouts” channeling slaves northward. Douglass was not convinced that this plan was fully “practicable,” but he was ready to serve.[10] Because military fortunes shifted dramatically with the fall of Atlanta, this government-sponsored underground railroad never materialized. But how remarkable this episode must have been to both Douglass and Lincoln as they realized they were working together now to accomplish the very “revolution” that had separated them ideologically in 1861. Garry Wills has argued that Lincoln performed a “verbal coup” that “revolutionized the revolution” at Gettysburg.[11] By 1864, that performance reflected a shared vision of the meaning of the war. Ideologically, Douglass had become Lincoln’s alter ego, his stalking horse and minister of propaganda, the intellectual godfather of the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural.

When news of Lincoln’s assassination reached Rochester, New York, on April 15, 1865, Douglass had just returned from a lecture tour on which he witnessed great joy at the war’s ending. He shared the shock of fellow Northerners as a springtime of relief turned overnight into horror and mourning. A throng of Rochester citizens gathered at City Hall, as Douglass remembered, “not knowing what to do in the agony of the hour.” Called upon to speak, Douglass described himself as “stunned and overwhelmed.” “I had . . . made many speeches there [Rochester] which had touched the hearts of my hearers,” he recalled, “but never to this day was I brought into such close accord with them. We shared in common a terrible calamity, and this touch of nature made us more than countrymen, it made us Kin.”[12]

Douglass would later write brilliantly and honestly about the necessity and the struggle of African Americans to sustain their sense of kinship with white Americans and with Abraham Lincoln. But history, with Douglass and Lincoln indispensably bound, had forged the possibility of such a national kinship—itself a brave American dream.

[1] Abraham Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1865, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, ed. Roy P. Basler, 9 vols. (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1953-55), 8:333.

[2] Frederick Douglass, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass: From 1817–1882, ed. John Lobb (London: Christian Age Office, 1882), 321.

[3] Frederick Douglass to Mary Todd Lincoln, August 17, 1865, Gilder Lehrman Collection (GLC02474); also published in The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, ed. Philip S. Foner, 5 vols. (New York: International Publishers, 1975), 4:174.

[4] Abraham Lincoln, Annual Message to Congress, December 3, 1861, Collected Works, 5:49.

[5] Abraham Lincoln, Address on Colonization to a Deputation of Negroes, August 14, 1862, Collected Works, 5:371.

[6] Frederick Douglass, “The President and His Speeches,” September 1862, Douglass’ Monthly in The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, 3:267–268.

[7] Frederick Douglass, “Our Work Is Not Done,” December 3–4, 1863, The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, 3:383–385.

[8] Abraham Lincoln, Annual Message to Congress, December 8, 1863, Collected Works, 7:49–53.

[9] Frederick Douglass, “The Mission of the War,” February 13, 1864, The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, 3:397–401.

[10] Frederick Douglass to Abraham Lincoln, August 29, 1864, The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, 3:405.

[11] Gary Wills, Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992), 21.

[12] Douglass, Life and Times, 326.

David W. Blight is Class of 1954 Professor of American History at Yale University and Director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition at Yale. He is the author of A Slave No More: Two Men Who Escaped to Freedom, Including their Narratives of Emancipation (2007); Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (2001), which received eight book awards, including the Bancroft Prize, the Lincoln Prize, and the Frederick Douglass Prize; Beyond the Battlefield: Race, Memory, and the American Civil War (2002); and Frederick Douglass’s Civil War: Keeping Faith in Jubilee (1989).

Make Gilder Lehrman your Home for History

Already have an account?

Please click here to login and access this page.

How to subscribe

Click here to get a free subscription if you are a K-12 educator or student, and here for more information on the Affiliate School Program, which provides even more benefits.

Otherwise, click here for information on a paid subscription for those who are not K-12 educators or students.

Make Gilder Lehrman your Home for History

Become an Affiliate School to have free access to the Gilder Lehrman site and all its features.

Click here to start your Affiliate School application today! You will have free access while your application is being processed.

Individual K-12 educators and students can also get a free subscription to the site by making a site account with a school-affiliated email address. Click here to do so now!

Make Gilder Lehrman your Home for History

Why Gilder Lehrman?

Your subscription grants you access to archives of rare historical documents, lectures by top historians, and a wealth of original historical material, while also helping to support history education in schools nationwide. Click here to see the kinds of historical resources to which you'll have access and here to read more about the Institute's educational programs.

Individual subscription: $25

Click here to sign up for an individual subscription to the Gilder Lehrman site.

Make Gilder Lehrman your Home for History

Upgrade your Account

We're sorry, but it looks as though you do not have access to the full Gilder Lehrman site.

All K-12 educators receive free subscriptions to the Gilder Lehrman site, and our Affiliate School members gain even more benefits!

How to Subscribe

K-12 educator or student? Click here to get free access, and here for more information on the Affiliate School Program.

Not a educator or student? Click here for more information on purchasing a subscription to the Gilder Lehrman site.


hold onto this

This is great!

Add comment

Login or register to post comments