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Michael Burlingame

The Black Man’s President: Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, and the Pursuit of Racial Equality

Historian Michael Burlingame, on his new book, The Black Man’s President: Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, & the Pursuit of Racial Equality, which examines Lincoln’s treatment of black people and their reception of him. Douglass led the way in recognizing the relationship and Lincoln’s ability to transcend the accepted prejudices of his times.

[Publisher’s excerpt.]

In a little-noted eulogy delivered shortly after Lincoln’s assassination, Frederick Douglass called the martyred president “emphatically the black man’s president,” the “first to show any respect for their rights as men.” To justify that description, Douglass pointed not just to Lincoln’s official acts and utterances, like the Emancipation Proclamation or the Second Inaugural Address, but also to the president’s own personal experiences with Black people. Referring to one of his White House visits, Douglass said: “In daring to invite a Negro to an audience at the White House, Mr. Lincoln was saying to the country: I am President of the black people as well as the white, and I mean to respect their rights and feelings as men and as citizens.”

But Lincoln’s description as “emphatically the black man’s president” rests on more than his relationship with Douglass or on his official words and deeds. Lincoln interacted with many other African Americans during his presidency His unfailing cordiality to them, his willingness to meet with them in the White House, to honor their requests, to invite them to consult on public policy, to treat them with respect whether they were kitchen servants or leaders of the Black community, to invite them to attend receptions, to sing and pray with them in their neighborhoods—all those manifestations of an egalitarian spirit fully justified the tributes paid to him by Frederick Douglass and other African Americans like Sojourner Truth, who said: “I never was treated by any one with more kindness and cordiality than were shown to me by that great and good man, Abraham Lincoln.”

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      Michael Burlingame (Photo by Robert Shaw)

      Michael Burlingame holds the Chancellor Naomi B. Lynn Distinguished Chair in Lincoln Studies at the University of Illinois, Springfield. He is the author or editor of several books about Lincoln, including the two-volume critical masterpiece Abraham Lincoln: A Life. His most recent books include The Black Man’s President: Abraham Lincoln, African Americans, & the Pursuit of Racial Equality and An American Marriage: The Untold Story of Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd. Michael lives in Springfield, Illinois.

      (Photo by Robert Shaw)