Rough-Hewn Lives

Michael Metzger

In explaining their destiny, Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln both quoted the same line from Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, / Rough-hew them how we will.” They went through a lot of rough patches.

Today is President’s Day. The two Presidents most prominently featured are George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Both walked the streets of Annapolis, where Kathy and I live. Lincoln called Frederick Douglass, another man who visited Annapolis, “my friend.” “There is not a man in the country whose opinion I value more than yours.”

Douglass didn’t share that sentiment at first.

Before they ever met, Douglass felt Lincoln was unforgivably “tardy, cold, dull and indifferent” about slavery. In April 1861, he labeled Lincoln’s inaugural address “a weak and inappropriate utterance” against slavery. In September 1862, Douglass wrote that the President, after promoting colonization to black leaders, “seems to have an ever increasing passion for making himself appear silly and ridiculous.”

Three years later he felt differently. In 1865, Douglass hailed Lincoln as “emphatically the black man’s president.” What brought about his transformation?

Go back a few years, to England, and particularly to the Clapham Sect.

In 1845, Douglass was on a speaking tour in England. “He made more friends during his two years abroad than he had in his entire life to date.”[1] Thomas Clarkson of the Clapham Sect was one of those friends. A year later, Douglass delivered a speech in Paisley, Scotland, admiring how Clapham had brought an end to the English Slave Trade. He probably came to faith during this trip. When Douglass left for the United States in early 1847, he wrote that he had “undergone a transformation. I live a new life.”[2]

Lincoln also knew of the Clapham Sect. In 1858, he cited William Wilberforce and Granville Sharpe as pushing the abolition cause forward incrementally while building friendships with political opponents. Later, Lincoln would appeal to his fellow countrymen not to take the country into civil war. “We are not enemies but friends.”

But the war came. Lincoln took an incremental approach to abolishing slavery. Douglass was impatient, publicly prodding him with an array of provocative measures. Then Lincoln experienced a transformation. In 1862, he realized he needed to emancipate the slaves in order to save the union.[3] Speaking to Quakers, Lincoln hoped that he “might be an instrument in God’s hands of accomplishing a great work.” He quoted Hamlet: “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, / Rough-hew them how we will.” He never described this as a religious conversion but a “process of crystallization” about slavery.

Lincoln’s next steps were rough-hewn. He drafted a proposal for the “gradual abolishment of slavery,” seeking to relocate blacks to Panama (“it is better for us both to be separated”). Douglass was scathing in his public rebuttal.

Lincoln eventually used his “war powers” as commander in chief. He felt they permitted him to take whatever steps were necessary to cripple an enemy’s war-making capability. It was this power that he invoked in the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. But Lincoln understood the Constitution doesn’t enumerate such “war powers,” so in 1864 he began pressing for a constitutional amendment to abolish slavery entirely.

On March 4, 1865, Lincoln gave his Second Inaugural Address. “With malice toward none, with charity for all.” Frederick Douglass was an invited guest, the first time a black man had been invited to an Inaugural reception. Approaching the President in the receiving line, Lincoln singled him out. “Here comes my friend, Douglass; there is not a man in the country whose opinion I value more than yours.” He asked what Douglass thought of his Address. “Mr. President, that was a sacred effort.”

A month later, Lincoln was dead. At Lincoln’s funeral in 1865, Douglass hailed him as “emphatically the black man’s president.” They had become friends.

Douglass and Lincoln came to appreciate that while God perfectly shapes our ends, we imperfectly partner with him in rough-hewing our plans. That’s why their friendship “hinged on their capacity to forgive.”[4] Forgiveness recognizes we are all rough-hewn, unfinished products in God’s hands. Worth remembering on President’s Day.


[1] John Stauffer, Giants: the parallel lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln (Twelve, Hatchette Book Group, 2008), 94.

[2] The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, ed. Philip S. Foner, Vol. 1 (International Publishers, 1950-1975, 127.

[3] James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford University Press, 1988), 356.

[4] Stauffer, Giants, 292.


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  1. I was struck by the quotes from Shakespeare particularly in light of the denigration of his works in some of the institutions of higher learning.How will we be able to communicate if those with whom we are speaking have no knowledge or appreciation of genius?

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