After Lincoln's death, a new fight for freedom

On the morning Abraham Lincoln died from an assassin's bullet, noted abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison was gloating by the Charleston, S.C., grave of John C. Calhoun, the original philosopher of secession. On that April 15, 1865, Garrison reportedly said, "Down into a deeper grave than this, slavery has gone, and for it there is no resurrection."

The trouble was that not everybody agreed with Garrison's optimistic prediction.


Frederick Douglass, the most famous black abolitionist in the country, certainly lacked Garrison's confidence about the future. Douglass was at home in Rochester, N.Y., when word of the president's murder reached him, and that evening he delivered some impromptu remarks at city hall. Much later, he claimed that this moment was the first time he had ever felt such "close accord" with his white neighbors. It was the shocking nature of that "terrible calamity," he recalled, which made them all feel more like "kin" than "countrymen."

This was an especially important sensation for Douglass, because he was already deeply concerned that emancipation would mean little without immediate and full equality. He had been arguing for months that friends like Garrison, his one-time mentor and patron, might ultimately fail the former slaves if they did not push harder for black rights while black men and women were still making important contributions to the Union war effort.

Garrison and his clique of mostly white supporters were busy in the spring of 1865 organizing emergency charitable support, spurred on by the pending creation of the new federal Freedmen's Bureau. The idea was to provide a safety net and universal education for the former slaves, propelling them toward integration into American society and the labor force. In the weeks after Lincoln's assassination, Douglass became openly scornful of such efforts. "The negro needs justice more than pity," he growled on May 2, 1865, "liberty more than old clothes; [and] rights more than training to enjoy them."

A week later, he went even further and backed a kind of coup to replace Garrison with Wendell Phillips as head of the American Anti-Slavery Society, the great abolitionist organization that Garrison had launched some three decades before. "Slavery is not abolished until the black man has the ballot," he said at the annual meeting in New York, with Garrison glaring down at him, and then adding with a defiant flourish, "or [while] any discrimination exists between white and black at the South."

Douglass was in a fighting mood, but he was also a practical man. The electric bond, which he had first felt with his white neighbors on that evening of April 15, convinced him that the best way forward was to fight in Lincoln's name, to keep reminding white audiences that embracing black equality was the best way to honor the martyred president's memory.

Douglass began this campaign in earnest on June 1, 1865, which had been set aside by new President Andrew Johnson as a national day of mourning for Lincoln. Douglass eulogized Lincoln that morning in New York emphatically as the "black man's president," calling him "the first to show any respect to their rights as men." He pushed hard to define the war as a struggle not just for emancipation, but also for equality — and did so explicitly in Lincoln's name.

Over the next several years, Douglass made an alliance with Radical Republicans who had come to despise Johnson, and together they fought successfully for the 14th and 15th amendments, which guaranteed equality and due process for all Americans, and suffrage for black men.

But this early civil rights movement also encountered major setbacks. They failed to end discrimination in the South (or North, for that matter), and in their zeal to insist it was "the negro's hour," Douglass and Phillips antagonized feminists and old friends like Elizabeth Cady Stanton who wanted a broader expansion of voting rights. By the middle of the 1870s, it was clear that civil rights for blacks had come at a high political cost and that the future of freedom was still as uncertain as ever.

On April 14, 1876, the 11th anniversary of Lincoln's shooting, Douglass spoke at the dedication of an emancipation memorial in Washington, D.C. He praised Lincoln's emancipation policy, but also now called Lincoln "preeminently the white man's President." It was an admission that his earlier strategy had fallen short. Rallying around Lincoln's memory had helped to alter the words of the Constitution, but it was not enough to revolutionize American race relations.

Matthew Pinsker is the Pohanka chair of civil war history at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and an Arizona State University future of war fellow at the New America Foundation. He wrote this for What It Means to Be American, a national conversation hosted by the Smithsonian and Zocalo Public Square.