The two giants could have ignored each other or become enemies. So how is it that Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, the most famous black man of the 19th century, became friends? And what difference did their friendship make?
The answer is that Lincoln recognized early on that he needed the ex-slave to help him destroy the Confederacy and preserve the Union. And so at a time when most whites would not let a black man cross their threshold, the President met Douglass three times at the White House and found a startling way to enlist him in his cause. What was in it for Douglass, who at the midpoint of the Civil War came to believe that Lincoln was a racist who argued that blacks and whites should be kept apart? Douglass came to realize that Lincoln's shrewd sense of timing and public opinion would serve his goal of freeing the nation's blacks.
Despite the immense racial gulf separating them, Lincoln and Douglass had a lot in common. They were the two pre-eminent self-made men of their era. Lincoln was born dirt poor, had less than a year of formal schooling and became one of the nation's greatest Presidents. Douglass spent the first 20 years of his life as a slave, had no formal schooling--in fact, his masters forbade him to read or write--and became one of the nation's greatest writers and activists. Though nine years younger, Douglass overshadowed Lincoln as a public figure during the 15 years before the Civil War. He published two best-selling autobiographies before the age of 40, edited his own newspaper beginning in 1847 and was a brilliant orator--even better than Lincoln--at a time when public speaking was a major source of entertainment and power.
Lincoln and Douglass also shared many common interests. They loved music and literature and educated themselves (Douglass on the sly while a slave) by reading the same books: Aesop's Fables, the Bible, Shakespeare and especially The Columbian Orator, a popular anthology of speeches for boys. They were athletic, strong and tall: Douglass was about 6 ft., Lincoln 6 ft. 4 in., when the average height for men was 5 ft. 7 in. They refrained from alcohol and tobacco at a time when many politicians "squirted their tobacco juice upon the carpet" and drank on the job. They were ambitious men and had great faith in the moral and technological progress of their nation. And they both called slavery a sin. "If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong," Lincoln stated. "I can not remember when I did not so think, and feel." For Douglass, slavery was not only a sin but "piracy and murder." And both men explained their destiny by quoting the same lines from Shakespeare's Hamlet: "There's a divinity that shapes our ends, Rough-hew them how we will."
It's true that Douglass was a radical; he demanded an immediate end to slavery, equal rights for all men and women, and the redistribution of land so that no one would be rich and no one poor. Such measures, he argued, would fulfill the "principles in the Declaration of Independence" and "prepare the earth for a millennium of righteousness and peace." Lincoln was a moderate; he concluded (as did most Americans) that the Constitution defended slavery in states where it already existed. But, like Douglass, he emphasized that the Declaration was the centerpiece of government. It was the "apple of gold" within the Constitution's "picture of silver."