Frederick Douglass (1818–1895)
From President Lincoln Assassinated!! The Firsthand Story of the Murder, Manhunt, Trial, and Mourning
The anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln is tomorrow, February 12, followed on Friday by the date celebrated by Frederick Douglass as his own birthday. Born into slavery, Douglass never learned the exact date of his birth and was not even sure of the year until late in life. He chose February 14 as his birthday because his mother, who died when he was about eight, called him her “little valentine.”
Lincoln and Douglass first met when Secretary of State William Seward and Kansas Senator Samuel Pomeroy brought them together for a meeting at the White House during the third year of the Civil War. Douglass nervously began to introduce himself but Lincoln stopped him, saying, “You need not tell me who you are, Mr. Douglass, I know who you are,” and invited him to sit down to talk. Douglass had been one of the administration’s harshest critics for the first two years of the war, but all that changed when Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. Douglass’s meeting with the President was to discuss how to respond to the declaration by the Confederates that they would treat black soldiers as insurgents rather than as prisoners of war.
The two men met at least twice again, the last time on the day of Lincoln’s second inauguration. “Where the still-tentative relationship between Lincoln and Douglass might have taken the nation after the war cannot be known,” reflects biographer William S. McFeely. “It is one of the might-have-beens that lie in the shadow of Lincoln’s assassination.”
Several weeks after Lincoln’s death, on the National Day of Mourning, Douglass delivered a eulogy at New York’s Cooper Union. In commemoration of this week’s birthdays, we present that speech, which had never been published in full until it was transcribed and reprinted in the Library of America collection President Lincoln Assassinated!!, edited by Harold Holzer.