Lincoln, Douglass & Black History Month

The Month evolved from Black History Week, which was promoted by an eminent scholar in 1926


History Politics

February 12 is Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. It is not by coincidence that Lincoln’s Birthday falls within Black History Month.

Since President Ford’s proclamation in 1976, every February has been proclaimed Black History Month. The Month evolved from Black History Week, which had been first promoted in 1926 by eminent scholar Dr. Carter G. Woodson (Berea College, 1903; Harvard Ph.D., 1912), founder in 1915 of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (now known as the Association for the Study of African American Life and History) and of the Journal of Negro History. Dr. Woodson chose the second week of February to build on two days already celebrated by the African-American community: Lincoln’s birthday on February 12 and Frederick Douglass’s on February 14. (Douglass did not know his actual birthday. He chose February 14 as his birthday because his mother called him her “little valentine.”)

Many people have heard or read some things about Lincoln that have tarnished his image in their eyes. Maybe you, too, have heard or read that he was not an Abolitionist; that he fought the war to preserve the Union, not to free the slaves; that his Emancipation Proclamation was of very limited value since it applied only to slaves behind Union lines; that he entertained the idea of colonizing Africa with freed slaves; and that he was racist on the issue of social equality between the races. May I encourage you to take a fresh look? We may avail ourselves of a pair of volumes exploring the moral decision-making of Lincoln by the late University of Virginia Professor William Lee Miller: his Lincoln’s Virtues: An Ethical Biography (2002), covering the time from his youth to his First Inaugural Address, and his President Lincoln: The Duty of a Statesman (2008). I will proceed chronologically and briefly.

March 3, 1837 As a state legislator, Lincoln made his first antislavery speech.

1849 During his sole term in Congress, Lincoln sponsored a bill, with a fellow congressman, to emancipate slaves in the District of Columbia, the one jurisdiction in which Congress could constitutionally do so.

Early 1854 Lincoln read in the papers of a bill sponsored by Stephen A. Douglas, the U.S. Senator from Illinois, that became the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Allowing slavery to expand beyond its historical borders stirred Lincoln to the depth of his being. He later said that it “aroused” him. Lincoln utilized all the library resources available to him in Springfield, Illinois, to study the congressional debates and the history of slavery in the United States since 1776. This was not an academic exercise. He, a private citizen, prepared to do battle against Douglas, the best-known Democrat in the country. Lincoln dismissed the fact that Douglas, in achieving Senate passage of the bill on March 4 by 37-14, had beaten down the arguments of the likes of Senators Seward, Chase, and Sumner.

October 1854 Douglas had no interest in giving Lincoln any notoriety by debating him. So, Lincoln cleverly trailed Douglas. When Douglas was scheduled to speak, Lincoln would be in the audience, taking notes. After Douglas finished, Lincoln would announce that he would give his own speech, either later that day or the next. And so it was — in his now famous speeches in Springfield on October 4 and Peoria on October 10, 1854. Sometimes he spoke without Douglas present, as in Urbana on October 24 and Chicago on October 27. Lincoln focused exclusively on the issue of slavery in new states, ignoring the wedge issues of the day: infrastructure (then called “internal improvements”), immigration (then called nativism), or alcohol (temperance).

February to June 1856 In February 1856, at the same time that the Republican Party was organizing on a national level in meetings in Pittsburgh, Lincoln was the only person not a newspaper editor at an organizational meeting of the Republican Party of Illinois in Decatur. In May, he attended the first Republican state convention in Bloomington. In June, Lincoln’s name was placed in nomination for vice-president at the first national Republican Convention in Philadelphia. The core plank was the prohibition of slavery in the territories.

July to October 1858 When Lincoln was the Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate in 1858, he continued to engage in informal debates with Douglas: Chicago on July 10, and Bloomington and Springfield on July 17. Then began the formal Lincoln-Douglas Debates from August through October of 1858 in seven Illinois towns.

1859 Lincoln spoke on behalf of the Republican Party in Indiana, Ohio, Kansas, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.

February 27, 1860 Lincoln delivered his address to a full hall at Cooper Union in New York City. The address was printed in its entirety in a number of newspapers and distributed as a pamphlet. He delivered similar addresses throughout New England. The Cooper Union speech, in the words of Harold Holzer’s subtitle to his 2006 book, “made Lincoln president.”

In 175 speeches in six years, Lincoln argued from first principles — the first principles of morality and the first principles of the founding of the United States. He argued that slavery was morally wrong (“If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong”), that slavery dehumanized (a word he used) Blacks, and that the Declaration of Independence states the moral foundation of the country (“all men are created equal”). Lincoln argued that the Founders had only tolerated slavery: they had prohibited slavery in the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 (the law governing what are now Midwest states); they had prohibited the export of slaves in 1794, the import of slaves into Mississippi Territory in 1798, the trading of slaves by Americans between foreign countries in 1800, and the import of slaves into the U.S. on the first day in 1808 allowed by the Constitution.

November 1860 to February 1861 With states seceding one after another before he had even been inaugurated, a number of people sought to soften the impact of Republican Lincoln’s presidency. Lincoln, however, was unyielding; there would be no geographical expansion of slavery on his watch. He would not compromise on the core issue of the Republican Party.

February 21, 1862 President Lincoln allowed Nathaniel Gordon, a captain of a slaver, to be hung. Gordon was the first in U.S. history.

March 6, 1862 In his annual message to Congress, Lincoln was the first president to propose emancipation.

August 22, 1862 In a letter to Horace Greeley that was widely published, Lincoln wrote that if he could save the Union without freeing a slave, he would. But he also wrote that he wished that “all men every where could be free” and “If I could save [the Union] by freeing all the slaves I would do it.”

September 22, 1862 Lincoln announced that he would issue the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, effective in all areas then in rebellion. Slaves so emancipated would remain forever free and those who escaped into Union territory would be emancipated as well.

January 1, 1863 Despite criticism and losses in the 1862 congressional elections, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. From this point on, the Union Army served as an army of liberation. Moreover, the Emancipation Proclamation included a provision for receiving freedmen into the Union forces. By war’s end, some 200,000 — 10% of all the forces — would serve.

August 10, 1863 Lincoln met with Frederick Douglass for the first time.

December 8, 1863 Lincoln issued a Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction. But he exempted persons who treated Blacks, or whites in charge of them, “otherwise than lawfully as prisoners of war.” He did this because Confederates were executing Black Union soldiers and sailors and their white officers.

August 19, 1864 In a second meeting with Frederick Douglass — one initiated by Lincoln — Lincoln waved off a (white) governor so he could have a long talk with his “friend Frederick Douglass.” In the context of the upcoming elections, Lincoln sought Douglass’s advice on an issue and, fearful that he would lose the 1864 election and that a Democratic President would end the war, Lincoln asked Douglass to work to bring slaves into the Union lines.

January 1, 1865 The proposed 13th Amendment to ban slavery passed the Senate. (On March 4, 1861, the Senate had passed a proposed 13th Amendment to protect slavery.) Four million people, one-third of the population of the South, had been enslaved.

March 4, 1865 Lincoln delivered his Second Inaugural, portions of which Frederick Douglass could recite from memory.

June 1, 1865 In a eulogy Douglass delivered at Cooper Union, Douglass said Lincoln was “emphatically the black man’s president.”

Of course, Lincoln did not act alone. He had political and military support. Politically, while 1.3 million had voted for the first national Republican ticket headed by Frémont in 1856, an additional half million voted for Republican Lincoln in 1860. In 1864, despite the burden of a war that had lasted three and one-half years, the Lincoln/Johnson ticket for the National Union Party received the support of an additional 400,000 votes (2.2 million in total).

Militarily, on the morning Lincoln delivered his First Inaugural, March 4, 1861, the U.S. armed forces consisted of 17,000 men. By the war’s conclusion, two million men had served on the Union side. Of these, 360,000 had died (110,000 were killed in action) and 275,200 had been wounded but survived their wounds.

While Lincoln did not act alone, he did act. Can we imagine our country’s history without him? Dr. Woodson rightly chose the week of Lincoln’s birth and that of his friend Frederick Douglass in which to celebrate Black History Week.


James M. Thunder has left the practice of law but continues to write. He has published widely, including a Narthex series on lay holiness. He and his wife Ann are currently writing on the relationship between Father Karol Wojtyla (the future Pope) and lay people.

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