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The President and the Freedom Fighter: Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, and Their Battle to Save America's Soul

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Notes From Black Reads

A fascinating read about the relationship between Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, Kilmeade chronicles the interweaving journey between both men, discussing the initial dislike that both men had for each other. For those interested in learning more about the two leading figures in the Civil War era, this is an ideal book to read.


The New York Times bestselling author of George Washington's Secret Six and Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates turns to two other heroes of the nation: Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.

In The President and the Freedom Fighter, Brian Kilmeade tells the little-known story of how two American heroes moved from strong disagreement to friendship, and in the process changed the entire course of history.

Abraham Lincoln was White, born impoverished on a frontier farm. Frederick Douglass was Black, a child of slavery who had risked his life escaping to freedom in the North. Neither man had a formal education, and neither had had an easy path to influence. No one would have expected them to become friends—or to transform the country. But Lincoln and Douglass believed in their nation’s greatness. They were determined to make the grand democratic experiment live up to its ideals.

Lincoln’s problem: he knew it was time for slavery to go, but how fast could the country change without being torn apart? And would it be possible to get rid of slavery while keeping America’s Constitution intact? Douglass said no, that the Constitution was irredeemably corrupted by slavery—and he wanted Lincoln to move quickly. Sharing little more than the conviction that slavery was wrong, the two men’s paths eventually converged. Over the course of the Civil War, they’d endure bloodthirsty mobs, feverish conspiracies, devastating losses on the battlefield, and a growing firestorm of unrest that would culminate on the fields of Gettysburg.

As he did in George Washington's Secret Six, Kilmeade has transformed this nearly forgotten slice of history into a dramatic story that will keep you turning the pages to find out how these two heroes, through their principles and patience, not only changed each other, but made America truly free for all.

ISBN-13: 9780525540588

Media Type: Paperback

Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group

Publication Date: 10-25-2022

Pages: 320

Product Dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.90(d)

Brian Kilmeade is the coauthor of George Washington's Secret Six, Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates, Andrew Jackson and the Miracle of New Orleans, and Sam Houston and the Alamo Avengers, all New York Times bestsellers. Kilmeade cohosts Fox News Channel's morning show Fox & Friends and hosts the daily national radio show The Brian Kilmeade Show and the Fox Nation series What Made America Great. He lives on Long Island. This is his seventh book.

Read an Excerpt

From the Bottom Up

I do not remember to have ever met a slave who could tell of his birthday.

-Frederick Douglass, 1845

Abraham Lincoln had a problem. His flatboat, carried by the rush of spring waters, had run aground atop a mill dam in the Sangamon River. The square bow of the eighty-foot-long boat hung over the dam, cantilevered like a diving board. Meanwhile, the stern was sinking lower and lower as it took on water. If Lincoln didn't think of something quickly, the vessel might break apart.

The young man had built the boat with a plan in mind. Along with his cousin, he would take on cargo, travel down the river from central Illinois to New Orleans, and there dismantle the boat, selling both its timber and the cargo on behalf of a man willing to underwrite the venture. Together, he and his cousin had cut down trees for lumber upstream from where they were now marooned. They had built the boat and loaded it with dried pork, corn, and live hogs. All had seemed well when they set off only hours before, but now, on April 19, 1831, far from his intended destination, Lincoln had to do something to save his boat and his cargo.

As goods slid slowly astern in the tilting craft, Lincoln went into action. Removing his boots, hat, and coat, he improvised. First, he and his two-man crew shifted most of the goods to the nearby shore. Next, while he hurriedly bored a large hole with a hand drill, his team began rolling the remaining cargo of heavy barrels forward, thereby shifting the boat's center of gravity.

The strategy worked: As the flatboat's bow began to tilt downward, water poured out the hole. As the boat got lighter, it rose in the water. After plugging the hole, Lincoln and his men, helped by the spring currents, managed to ease the box-like craft clear of the dam.

The crowd of villagers that had gathered to observe the spectacle of a sinking boat was astonished. No one had seen anything like it. But then they had also never met Abraham Lincoln, just two months beyond his twenty-second birthday. At first sight, he was unmistakably a country bumpkin, dressed in ill-fitting clothes that exaggerated his six-foot, four-inch height, with long arms and exposed ankles sticking out of too-short shirts and homespun trousers. He made, said one observer, "a rather Singular grotesque appearance." But the young man who saved the boat possessed a loose-limbed grace that disguised both unexpected strength and a driving ambition to make something of himself. Weighing over two hundred pounds, he could lift great weights and throw a cannonball farther than anyone around. He ran and jumped with the best of his peers.

To the people he met, the young man's appearance quickly became secondary. "When I first [saw] him," reported one New Salemite, "i thought him a Green horn. His Appearance was very od [but] after all this bad Apperance I Soon found [him] to be a very intelligent young man." Lincoln surprised people, who found he was not an illiterate rube but a man with a lively wit and keen intelligence.

He impressed not only that day's onlookers but also the owner of the flatboat. After completing the trip to New Orleans, Lincoln returned to New Salem to accept the man's offer to clerk at a new general store. He would sell foodstuffs, cloth, hardware, tobacco, gunpowder, boots, whiskey, and other goods to the people of New Salem and the local farmers who visited the little market town to sell their grains.

Like "a piece of floating driftwood," as Lincoln later described himself, he accidentally lodged at New Salem. He would establish a new and happy life there, a world apart from his childhood in the backwoods.

"The Short and Simple Annals of the Poor"

Before striking out on his own, as Abraham Lincoln himself would tell the story, he had been under the thumb of his hard-luck father.

Born during the Revolution, Thomas Lincoln was still a boy when his family, following in the footsteps of distant cousin Daniel Boone, left the Shenandoah Valley for the territory known as Kentucky. Barely two years later, in 1786, Thomas's father, Abraham, died when planting corn in a field, shot by a roving Native American war party. His entire estate went to the eldest son, leaving the youngest, Thomas, destitute, "a wandering laboring boy [who] grew up literally without education."

Thomas Lincoln eventually saved enough money to buy a farm in Hardin County and, in 1806 took Nancy Hanks as his wife. The following year they became parents, with the birth of daughter Sarah. Three years later, the little family expanded again with the arrival of a son, Abraham, born on February 12, 1809, and named for his grandfather.

Unfortunately for baby Abraham, the Lincoln family's stability was short-lived. Before he turned two, poor soils forced the family to abandon their first log cabin for more fertile ground a few miles away. Just five years later, after a title dispute over land ownership, the Lincolns started yet again, this time moving across the Ohio River to a crude, dirt-floored home in Indiana. The family lived a life of long days of work, brutally cold winter nights, and next to no comforts.

Then life got even tougher. Nancy Lincoln fell ill with milk sickness, poisoned by milk from a cow that had eaten snakeroot while grazing in the forest. After a week of watching his mother suffer acute intestinal pains and persistent vomiting, Abraham Lincoln was left motherless at age nine.

Fourteen months later, Thomas Lincoln remarried. The arrival of widow Sarah Bush Lincoln was a bright spot in the boy's hardscrabble childhood. "Mama," as Abraham called his stepmother, brought three children with her. As she blended two families into one, Sarah became the boy's "best friend in the world."

He would never express such affection for his father; the son would remember Thomas Lincoln as a taskmaster. At age eight, Lincoln later said, his father "[put] an axe put into his hands . . . and [until] his twenty-third year, he was almost constantly handling that most useful instrument." Virtually all the work on the farm was handwork, the tools crude, and the chores many, with livestock to care for, fields to plant, wood to cut and split, and gardens to tend. Abraham attended school only at the rare times when there wasn't other work to be done, and Thomas always seemed to have more tasks for his growing son. By law, boys at that time were effectively indentured servants obliged to work for their fathers until they came of age, and Thomas took full advantage. He hired Abraham out to other farmers and kept the wages his son earned. Even when Abraham hired himself out as a boatman in his late teens, the wages he earned belonged to his father.

Thomas was known to beat Abraham, and he kept him at work on the farm so much that the boy got less than one full year of formal schooling in his entire childhood, never attending classes after he turned fifteen. But Abraham would not be held back. Few as they were, his school days inspired in him an intense love of learning. He was eager for knowledge, looking for it wherever he could. "He must understand Every thing-even to the smallest thing-Minutely and Exactly," Sarah would remember years later. "He would then repeat it over to himself & again-sometimes in one form and then in another & when it was fixed in his mind to suit him he . . . never lost that fact or his understanding of it."

Thomas Lincoln could barely scratch out his own name, and Sarah could neither read nor write. But Abraham was a fast learner who mastered reading despite his irregular visits to the schoolroom. He found a new world in books and was desperate to read all he could. Although books were rare in rural Indiana, Sarah had brought some of her late husband's from Kentucky and encouraged Abraham to read them. He read her family Bible and John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, and he reread Aesop's Fables so often he could recite the moral stories from memory. Daniel Defoe's novel Robinson Crusoe and biographies of Benjamin Franklin and George Washington were other favorites. According to a cousin who lived with the Lincolns, Abe (some called him that, though he preferred his full first name) was a "Constant and voracious reader."

Thomas had no patience for a son who "fool[ed] hisself with eddication." Nonetheless, Abraham read widely and began traveling downriver, his imagination filling with thoughts of the day when he could leave behind both his father and the hard and monotonous labor of frontier farming.

Finally, in February 1830, Abraham turned twenty-one. The next month he served his father one last time, helping the Lincolns make another move, this time to Illinois. Abe led an ox team on the long trek. He helped build a log cabin "at the junction of the timber-land and prairie." He aided in planting a corn crop and split enough rails to fence ten acres of ground. But that would be the last growing season for Abe Lincoln. Now, at last an adult, he left the farm behind and set out looking for a life of his own.

Born to Slavery

Abraham Lincoln's father permitted him few school days. The child given the birth name Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey got none at all.

Born on a farm on Maryland's Eastern Shore, he never knew the exact date of his birth. He spent his early childhood in the care of his grandmother after his mother was hired out to another farm miles away. Although she managed a few nighttime visits, Harriet Bailey was just a vague memory to the son who had no recollection of ever seeing her in daylight.

The child knew nothing of his father beyond the rumor that the White man who impregnated his mother might have been her enslaver, Aaron Anthony, a man he feared and hated. He once watched Anthony whip an aunt "till she was literally covered with blood." The very young boy would carry the harsh recollection forever, a "horrible exhibition," a "terrible spectacle," and a glimpse of "the blood-stained gate, the entrance to the hell of slavery."

At age six, Fred Bailey was relocated by his owner to a grand, eighteenth-century mansion house on the Wye River. Put to work in the house, he was a playmate and companion to twelve-year-old Daniel, youngest son of Edward Lloyd V, a former governor of Maryland. Young "Mas' Daniel" took a liking to his boy, acting as his protector. He shared bread with him, too, when the usual fare for the plantation's Black inhabitants was a daily portion of boiled cornmeal mush. Daniel's kindness led Fred to observe many years later that "The equality of nature is strongly asserted in childhood . . . Color makes no difference with a child."

In the eyes of no one else, however, were the boys anything like equal. On school days Daniel disappeared into the plantation's schoolroom, a place where no Black face was welcome. Still, the enslaved child benefited from the tutoring Daniel received. The Lloyds spoke correct English, a very different language from the broken, half-African dialect spoken on the plantation. The precocious Bailey, who stowed everything he heard in his prodigious memory, was left curious, hungry to know more.

In March 1826, at age eight, he was sent to the next stop in his enslavement. With no close family ties to sever, he left behind only the "hardship, whipping and nakedness" of the plantation. Fred Bailey stepped aboard the sloop Sally Lloyd, headed for Baltimore and servitude in the home of his owner's brother. After years spent wearing nothing more than a crude linen shirt that hung to his knees, he wore his first pair of trousers, an outfit better suited for the city that would be his home. On its overnight sail, the vessel and its cargo of sheep crossed the Chesapeake Bay; to a farm boy who had always lived upriver, it seemed an unfathomably large expanse of water. When the city came into sight, young Fred was equally amazed by the tall church spires and five-story buildings. The Sally Lloyd entered a harbor full of three-masted seagoing vessels, warehouses, and steamships belonging to merchants in what had become one of the country's busiest ports.

A crewman escorted the eight-year-old to Aliceanna Street, an easy walk from the harbor, and the home of an aspiring shipbuilder named Hugh Auld. Auld and his wife, Sophia, met him at the door, together with their son, Thomas. "Little Tommy" was told the new arrival was to be "his Freddy." The dark-skinned boy would be caring for the younger White one.

Little did Freddy Bailey know that he was about to get the unexpected gift of the ABCs, the instrument that would permit him to elevate himself to one of the great men of the century.

A Hunger for Knowledge

The city differed in a thousand ways from the rural life Freddy had lived. On Baltimore's paved streets, the noise was constant, but there were fewer of the "country cruelties" he had known on the plantation. In his new home, he slept on a mattress of straw, his first bed after the cold, damp dirt floors on which he had always slept. He wore clean clothes and ate better than ever before. But the kindness of Sophia Auld was the biggest shock of all.

As wholly owned property, he previously "had been treated as a pig on the plantation." But Miss Sopha, as he called his new mistress, "made me something like [Tommy's] half-brother in her affections." A regular churchgoer, Mrs. Auld continually surprised him. Part of the explanation was that she had not grown up in a slaveholding family. Not having been hardened to the barbarity of owning other people, she didn't expect the cowering servility demanded by the previous White adults Freddy had known. Miss Sopha actively encouraged him to look her in the eye, and he "scarcely knew how to behave towards her."

Though his primary job was to keep Tommy out of harm's way, he also ran errands for Mistress Auld. Moving freely on the streets of Baltimore, he explored a city where a minority of Whites were slaveholders and a majority of the Black inhabitants were freemen. As a "city slave, he had become, in comparison to his status on the plantation, "almost a free citizen." That wasn't quite true, of course; in the night he could hear his less fortunate brothers and sisters being walked to the docks in chains. But looking back later, he described how important was his arrival in a cosmopolitan city of eighty thousand people. "Going to live at Baltimore," he would write at age twenty-five, "laid the foundation, and opened the gateway."

Table of Contents

Preamble xi

1 From the Bottom Up 1

2 A Fighting Chance 12

3 Self-Made Men 30

4 On the Road 40

5 Where There Is Smoke 58

6 A Subterranean Passway 72

7 The Divided House 86

8 The Election of 1860 104

9 Mr. Lincoln's War 113

10 War in the West 134

11 To Proclaim or Not to Proclaim 142

12 Turning Point at Gettysburg 164

13 A Black Visitor to the White House 178

14 The Mission of the War 192

15 My Friend Douglass 210

16 April is the Cruelest Month 222

Epilogue A Bone-Handled Cane 239

Afterword The Maintenance of Memory 257

Acknowledgments 265

Notes 269

For Further Reading 283

Index 289

Image Credits 299