James Oliver Horton: Lincoln's remarkable tie to former slave

Roundup: Talking About History

[James Oliver Horton is Benjamin Banneker professor emeritus at George Washington University and a professor at the University of Hawaii. He is a member of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission and author of "Landmarks of African American History."]

Few relationships in American history have been more remarkable than that between President Abraham Lincoln and black abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass.

Lincoln was born a Southerner 200 years ago, on February 12, in a rough-hewn cabin near Hodgenville, Kentucky. He spent most of his adult life in the North, working a series of odd jobs before becoming a lawyer and a leading Illinois politician.

Finally, in 1860, he became the first Republican president of the United States.

Douglass escaped slavery in Maryland in 1838 and found shelter with the Underground Railroad's Vigilance Committee in New York.

He was joined there by Anna Murray, a free black woman from Maryland who had helped him escape. The couple married and soon moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts, where Douglass became deeply involved in the abolition movement and became one of its most effective anti-slavery speakers. iReport.com: Hear Douglass's descendants read Lincoln's second inaugural address

After an abolitionist lecture tour in Ireland, Scotland and England, Douglass moved his family to Rochester, New York, where he started a newspaper, The North Star. For more than 30 years, he edited a variety of newspapers that focused on issues of racial justice and equality.

Through the 1850s, Douglass became one of the most respected and influential abolitionists in the nation. His support of Lincoln's presidential candidacy in 1860 was measured and based on his pragmatic analysis of national politics at that time.

Before the election, he addressed a crowd of anti-slavery voters in Geneva, New York, most of whom were skeptical of Lincoln's qualified and relatively mild opposition to slavery.

Douglass argued that although Lincoln was not the perfect abolitionist choice for president, he was by far the best of the alternatives. Even though he understood that Lincoln was no hard-core abolitionist, he hoped that the election of a Republican to the presidency might help move the nation in an antislavery direction.

Douglass's reaction to Lincoln's presidential victory in 1860, like that of many African-Americans and abolitionists, was hopeful. "God be praised," he exclaimed.

Lincoln's reaction to Southern secession and the formation of the Confederacy encouraged Douglass and other abolitionists.

Many anticipated that a war with the slaveholding South would inevitably mean a war on slavery and an end to that inhumane institution. Douglass called the Civil War "the American Apocalypse" and argued that "not a slave should be left a slave in the returning footprints of the American army gone to put down this slaveholding rebellion."...
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