Lincoln Refuses to Damn Himself for Eternity

August 15, 1864/2014
Volume 5, Issue 33 (201 Issues Since 15 October 2010)

As Election Approaches, Lincoln under Pressure to Reverse Himself on Emancipation. He Refuses to Damn Himself for Eternity.

August 17, 1864. Even a year and a half after signing the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln was under considerable pressure to reverse himself on emancipation, particularly as the presidential election approached. As the war effort dragged on and morale declined, more Northerners resented the notion that the war was continuing not to preserve the Union but to abolish slavery. But Lincoln remained resolute.

Charles D. Robinson, the editor of the Green Bay Advocate in Wisconsin, wrote Lincoln and asked him to reconcile his recent assertion that he was unwilling to negotiate peace without the abolition of slavery with his statement made in August 1862 to Horace Greeley that,  “…If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that….”

On this date, Lincoln replied to Robinson, “[N]o human power can subdue this rebellion without using the Emancipation lever as I have done.”

Two days later, he would say in an interview that more than 100,000 black soldiers and sailors were fighting for the Union, and they would not do so if they thought that the North would “betray them. . . . If they stake their lives for us they must be prompted by the strongest motive . . . the promise of freedom. And the promise being made, must be kept. . . . There have been men who proposed to me to return to slavery the black warriors, [but] I should be damned in time & in eternity for so doing. The world shall know that I will keep my faith to friends and enemies, come what will.”


James M. McPherson, Drawn with the Sword: Reflections on the American Civil War (1996), p. 205.

Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress 

Lincoln Urges Grant to Hold on to the Enemy Like a Bull-Dog

Also on August 17, 1864, President Lincoln wrote General Ulysses S. Grant, who was with his army in Virginia: “I have seen your despatch [sic] expressing your unwillingness to break your hold where you are. Neither am I willing. Hold on with a bull-dog gripe, and chew & choke, as much as possible.”

Lincoln’s Second Historic Meeting with Frederick Douglass

August 18, 1864. After the abolitionist Reverend John Eaton met with President Lincoln on August 10, Eaton conveyed to Frederick Douglass the message that the President wanted to meet with him. On August 18 they met for the second time. Douglass thought the President looked a decade older than he did a year before, his face more lined, his cheeks hollow.

Abraham Lincoln, February 5, 1865, Alexander Gardner, Library of Congress

Abraham Lincoln, February 5, 1865, Alexander Gardner, Library of Congress

Lincoln asked his advice on a political matter, Douglass gave it, and Lincoln followed that counsel. The president also asked for Douglass’s help. He wanted Douglass to lead a group of black scouts, Douglass was to summarize, “to go into the rebel states, beyond the lines of our armies, carry the news of emancipation, and urge the slaves to come within our boundaries.”

Historian John Stauffer writes, “Douglass was amazed by the plan, for he knew that Lincoln had considered [John] Brown a criminal and madman. Yet now Lincoln was borrowing from his old friend, conceiving a similar plan [as Brown had had] to raid the South and liberate slaves. . . .

“Suddenly Douglass saw Lincoln in a new light. The president was willing to go to far greater lengths in the cause of freedom than Douglass had thought possible. His John Brown plan ‘showed a deeper moral conviction against slavery than I had ever seen before in anything spoken or written by him. Lincoln had long lagged his party; now he was ahead of it.

Frederick Douglass, 1850-1860, Library of Congress

Frederick Douglass, 1850-1860, Library of Congress

“The two men talked for hours, and by the end of their meeting they considered each other friends. Twice during their conversation Lincoln’s secretary announced that Governor William Buckingham of Connecticut was waiting to see him. ‘Tell Governor Buckingham to wait, for I want to have a long talk with my friend Frederick Douglass.’ Both times Douglass offered to step outside but Lincoln objected.

“Douglass assumed that this meeting was the first time ‘in the history of the Republic’ a president had shown such impartiality toward a black man. He was right, and it was not just him that the president was impartial to.

“Lincoln met with more blacks at the White House (not counting slaves and servants) than any other previous president. . . .

“The John Brown plan was never implemented.”


John Stauffer, Giants, The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, pp. 286-88, 291.

– Submitted by Vermont Humanities Council executive director Peter A. Gilbert.



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Filed under Civil War Book of Days: 1864

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