In the run up to the 2008 Democratic primary, Fox News proposed a series of debates between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton reminiscent of the ones between Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass 1856. This was certainly not the worst idea ever proposed on Fox News, except that the famous Lincoln-Douglas Debates were between Republican Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas, Democratic senator from Illinois, not Frederick Douglass, the renowned abolitionist. The Douglass confusion is a pet peeve of history teachers everywhere. “Abraham Lincoln sparred with Frederick Douglass in 1858,” one student wrote recently. Struck by the student’s choice of the word “sparring,” I wondered: what if there had been a violent clash between two figures in American history who were known more for their verbal swordsmanship than their actual physical combativeness? Both men, it would seem, believed the pen was mightier than the sword. But, it turns out, that wasn’t true all the time.
In fact, both Abe “The Railsplitter” Lincoln and Frederick “The Lion of Anacostia” Douglass were not above throwing physical punches as well as intellectual ones.
Remarkable both for his height and physical strength, Lincoln cultivated his public persona as a man accustomed to manual labor and rough living. Not only did he work splitting rails in the Illinois backcountry before becoming a lawyer, Lincoln also gained some repute in rural Illinois as a member of local gang known as the Clary’s Grove Boys. A rough-and-tumble set of young men who were “the terror of all who did not acknowledge their rule,” these rowdies demonstrated their “physical courage and prowess” in numerous public brawls and wrestling matches. The Friday Night Fights of the early nineteenth century, these brawls could get ugly. Eye gouging was common, and a man often gained his reputation by how many ears and noses he had liberated from opponents. These free-for-all battles sometimes lasted days until one man was left standing. This was Fight Club nineteenth-century style. While there is no evidence that Lincoln ever engaged in such brutal contests, the Boys claimed Lincoln was their best man. His membership in the gang also proved salutary for his political career. By the time of the 1860 election, the Clary’s Grove Boys, by then doctors, lawyers, and all around respectable men, became key players in Lincoln’s bid to win the Republic presidential nomination in Chicago.
Douglass’s fighting past had even more serious implications. As he related in his autobiography, fighting made him free. When he was still a slave in Maryland, Douglass’s owner rented him out to Edward Covey, a man known for “taming” troublesome slaves. After several months of abuse, Douglass decided that if he was ever to become a free man, he must fight back. The next time Covey tried to whip him, Douglass embarked on an epic two-hour battle that left the young slave bloodied but unbowed. Covey never tried to whip him again. Douglass wrote that the fight with Covey, “rekindled in my breast the smoldering embers of liberty…and revived a sense of my own manhood. I was a changed being after that fight. I was nothing before; I WAS A MAN NOW.” Once he finally escaped to the North and became the nation’s leading antislavery spokesman, Douglass often spoke of the need for slaves to “strike a blow” physically for their own freedom, especially as soldiers in the Union Army during the Civil War. With his regal mane of hair and ferocity in the fight against slavery, Douglass became known as the “Lion of Anacostia,” the neighborhood in Washington, D.C. where he lived.
For both men, their experience throwing punches helped shape their public images as fighters for their political causes. As the sectional crisis intensified toward the final split after Lincoln’s election, people on both sides of the slavery issue increasingly sought out men who were willing to fight. Southerners had long appreciated fighting men, as the dozens of gutta-percha canes sent to South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks to replace the one he broke over Charles Sumner’s head attests to. Likewise, John Brown’s violent retribution in Kansas and later at Harper’s Ferry energized many northerners in the antislavery fight. By 1860, many Americans had come to see politics as a physical contest from which they dare not shrink.
Although Abraham Lincoln never fought (or debated) Frederick Douglass, the culture of manly violence that infused American politics in the mid-nineteenth century would finally erupt in civil war. But as Douglass himself noted on many occasions, it was only through fighting – in the army, not in the boxing ring – that black men could prove themselves worthy of citizenship. The irony that violence brought both the death of nearly 800,000 soldiers and the freedom of over four million enslaved men, women, and children should give us pause as we culminate the sesquicentennial of the Civil War and think about the legacy of that conflict. It is difficult to commemorate the Civil War without glorifying it. But if a fictional fight between two of the nineteenth century’s political giants tells us anything, it’s that glory is also a product of our imaginations.