Glenn Uminowicz - January 2010
The Children and Step-Children
of Abraham Lincoln
This section was the birthplace and home of Fred Douglass, so notorious during the war and afterwards. He ran away from his home in Talbot County when a young man. Today he is practically unknown.
– From Joseph B. and Mary W. Seth, Recollections of a Long Life on the Eastern Shore (1926)
On its American Memory website, the Library of Congress offers an online collection titled The Capital and the Bay: Narratives of Washington and the Chesapeake Bay Region, 1600 to 1925. The collection includes narratives, histories, brochures, and photographs that document our region from the onset of European settlement to the first quarter of the 20th century.
Not surprisingly, the collection includes the well-known Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845), but it also includes Recollections of a Long Life on the Eastern Shore (1926) by Joseph B. and Mary W. Seth. In addition to developing a railroad line on the Shore, J.B. Seth (1845-1927) rose to prominence in Maryland state politics.
As the quotation above indicates, a stark contrast existed between the Douglass narrative and Seth’s recollections. The latter described antebellum plantation life as almost idyllic. Seth wrote:
The master’s family was usually large, often numbering eight or ten, and in the quarters there were large numbers of slaves. Among these there could always be found several who picked the banjo and played the fiddle. These happy-go-lucky musicians often furnished the music for the dances at the master’s house.
Down in the quarters, Seth observed that a night rarely passed where these same musicians did not play for a “hoe-down or patting the juba.” Not too exhausted by the day’s work, slaves put “wonderful life into their dancing.” Seth insisted that the bulk of the slaves remained devoted to their masters and their families and would “run any risk to protect them.” In turn, he concluded, “The families were equally devoted to the slaves and with the whole Southland had the tenderest affection for the faithful old Mammies and Uncles.”
By contrast, after successfully escaping to freedom from Baltimore in 1838, Frederick Douglass devoted himself to the cause of the abolition of slavery. In a series of autobiographies spanning almost a half-century and from lecture platforms, Douglass described his experience as a slave on the Eastern Shore and in Baltimore.
For his readers and audiences, Douglass recounted stories of sleeping on a cold dirt floor as a child and being served mush in a wooden trough from which a number of children served themselves using oyster shells. He witnessed the beating of a young female slave by her master and endured having family members sold to the Deep South to work on cotton plantations. He repeated stories heard about the murder of recalcitrant slaves by overseers whose crimes went unpunished. Douglass himself was sent by his owner, Thomas Auld, to the farm of an overseer where he was beaten and later jailed after a failed attempt at escape. In Young Frederick Douglass (1980), local historian Dickson J. Preston described Douglass’ experiences as a boy and teenager in Talbot County. He concluded that Douglass saw clearly what “living in a whip-dominated world did to the human spirit.”
Ironically, historian Grantville Ganter insisted that one of Douglass’ most effective weapons as an abolitionist proved to be humor. For a time, he lived in the Baltimore home of Hugh Auld, the brother of his owner. Frederick worked in the city’s shipyards. Auld’s wife Sophia taught the bright youngster to read, only to draw the ire of her husband. In lecture halls, Douglass later described Auld’s response to Sophia:
“If you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell. A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master--to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world. Now,” said he, “if you teach a nigger (speaking of myself) how to read, there would be no keeping him.”
According to Ganter, Douglass assaulted Auld on several fronts, first by conveying his master’s awareness that slaves must be kept ignorant of the injustice of slavery. Secondly, the manner of expression attributed to Auld served as a satiric criticism of his own manners and education.
The above criticism was similar to a theme Douglass explored when he parodied sermons of pro-slavery ministers. Assuming the persona of a preacher, he addressed his audience as if they were a black congregation. Douglass noted that slaves had hard hands and strong constitutions, while masters and mistresses had soft hands and delicate constitutions. Douglass then intoned, “But, oh! Servants, as a minister of the Gospel, let me exhort you not to boast of your strength, for that was given to you in lieu of something else. Your masters have the best reason and intellect.” He concluded his parody by blessing the Lord for creating “one class of men to do the work, and the other to think.” From their new perspective as a fictional slave congregation, Douglass’ audience was obliged to recognize the minister as a source of oppression himself.
Douglass shared the ability to employ humor in making a serious point with another well-known master story teller—Abraham Lincoln. The relationship between the abolitionist and the Republican president has fascinated scholars for years. Leading up to the Lincoln Bicentennial in 2009 alone, three books were published just on Douglass and Lincoln. In GIANTS: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln (2008), John Stauffer highlighted the similarities in background between the two men. Both rose from humble beginnings to national prominence through the power of the written and spoken word. In fact, Douglass and Lincoln were early on exposed to the same book on elocution—The Columbian Orator (1797). Its anti-slavery author inspired young Frederick Douglass to determine to be free and to develop his oratorical powers.
Both Lincoln and Douglass also benefited from good luck at fortuitous moments. In 1864, for example, Lincoln was assailed politically from all sides. After signing the Emancipation Proclamation, so-called “Cooperheads” condemned him for pursuing an abolitionist war, while many anti-slavery men supported a more radical abolitionist candidate. With the fall of Atlanta, however, the fortunes of war shifted and Lincoln won reelection.
As for Douglass, Dickson Preston correctly points out that the abolitionist encountered many helping hands along the way, both black and white. In his writings and from lecture platforms, for example, he vilified the Aulds, but Hugh facilitated Douglass’ ability to learn a trade and his wife taught him to read. After his failed attempt at escape, Thomas Auld felt pressure to sell Frederick to traders from the Deep South, or worse. Instead, Auld shipped him back to his brother in Baltimore from where Douglass eventually made his way North.
Perhaps the best bit of luck for the abolitionist and the president, as well as for the nation, is that they established a close relationship during a time of crisis. In 2001, historian David W. Blight traced the convergence in political thinking between Douglass and Lincoln over a period of years. At the beginning of the Civil War, Douglass wanted precisely what Lincoln did not—a “remorseless revolutionary struggle” that tied saving the Union to the destruction of slavery. Douglass attacked the policy of returning fugitive slaves to their owners and dismissed suggestions that freed blacks should be colonized outside of the country.
Douglass’ estimate of Lincoln changed with the release of the Emancipation Proclamation and the recruitment of black soldiers in 1863. In that year, the two men met for the first time. At Gettysburg, Lincoln spoke of a national “rebirth,” a metaphor that had long been a favorite of Douglass. By the end of 1863, Blight concluded that Lincoln and Douglass spoke from virtually the same script. One employed the “elegance and restraint of a statesman” and the other unleashed the “fiery tones of a prophet.”
In 1865, the assassination of the president stilled one of those voices. Douglass realized, however, that the symbol of Lincoln remained extremely useful in sustaining the freedom and equality of African Americans. Douglass spent much of his post-war life trying to preserve an emancipationist-abolitionist memory of the Civil War. In April 1876, for example, he delivered the keynote address at the unveiling of the Freedmen’s Memorial Monument in the Nation’s Capital. By that year, most of the ex- Confederate states had been readmitted to the Union and were controlled by white Democrats. African Americans faced terror and violence if they asserted their political rights.
Douglass’ audience included officials from all three branches of the federal government. He instructed them on the meaning of Lincoln for African Americans. The Freedmen’s Monument not only celebrated Lincoln, he observed, it also testified to the act of emancipation. Standing before the monument, Douglass sought to forge a place for blacks in the national memory. He insisted, “When now it shall be said that the colored man is soulless and it is attempted to scourge us beyond the range of human brotherhood, we may calmly point to the monument we have erected this day to the memory of Abraham Lincoln.”
Regarding Lincoln, Douglass likely created discomfort among some in his audience. Earlier in his oration, Douglass observed that Lincoln was preeminently the “white man’s president,” devoted to the welfare of white men. Then, speaking directly to distinguished white members of his audience, he insisted, “You are the children of Abraham Lincoln. We are at best only his step-children; children by adoption, children by forces of circumstance and necessity.” In short, the Great Emancipator had offered African Americans the ultimate helping hand.