Brian Kilmeade Discusses the Greatness of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass

By Terence P. Jeffrey | December 6, 2021 | 2:18pm EST
Frederick Douglass, 1864 (B.F. Smith & Son)
Frederick Douglass, 1864 (B.F. Smith & Son)

( - Brian Kilmeade, cohost of Fox & Friends, has published a book about the lives of President Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglas, which shows how these two self-made men became model Americans.

In a recent interview with, he discussed “The President and the Freedom Fighter: Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, and Their Battle to Save America’s Soul.”

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“You don’t need famous parents, you don’t need a lot of money. What you need is drive and determination,” Kilmeade said in explaining what Americans can learn from Lincoln and Douglas. “In America, the dream existed without the social safety net.

“Look at their backgrounds, and look at what they became,” said Kilmeade. “Look how determined they were to be great. By educating themselves, by studying other great men and--in Douglass’ case--great women. Susan B. Anthony and he were working towards women’s rights up until the day he died.


“And be selfless,” said Kilmeade. “Neither man wanted to be famous or rich, but would do everything important to matter, and that’s why we’re talking about them today. Not because they had the biggest house, not because they had celebrity and star power… It’s because of the substance of the individuals.

“Yes, money would have come for Lincoln and it certainly came for Douglass, but he always had to struggle because he was the most productive one in his family and he had so many people he was responsible for,” said Kilmeade. “But he was rewarded for his power and influence.

“That’s the goal, and that’s just it: self-made men. That’s why they overlapped. They were self-made. People helped, but they were ultimately responsible for the reason we’re talking about them today.”

Here is a transcript of Kilmeade’s interview with

Terry Jeffrey: “Welcome to this edition of Online with Terry Jeffrey. Our guest today is Brian Kilmeade, cohost of Fox News Channel’s Fox & Friends and author of multiple bestselling history books.

“We’re going to talk to him today about his new book, ‘The President and the Freedom Fighter: Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass and Their Battle to Save America’s Soul.’

“Brian, it’s obvious that Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass had something very different about their youth: One was born a slave, the other was born a free man. But in reading your book, it also seems like they did have some similarities in their youth. They didn’t come from stable families. Neither, it seems to me, had a father who served as a role model for them as they were growing up. Can you talk a little bit about the formative youths of those two men?”

Brian Kilmeade: “I’m not sure of Abraham Lincoln’s relationship with his dad, but I know he didn’t go to his funeral. So, maybe that says it. As soon as he could get out at 20, he did get out.

Abe Lincoln in 1846
Abe Lincoln in 1846

“Number two, I would say that Frederick Douglass even had no dad. He suspects he was a slave master, but he does not know. Last name Anthony. But his mom, he claims to have met twice in the middle of the night. Some doubt that story, but it doesn’t matter, it just shows how dysfunctional his family was and the slave life was terrible. Although, up until six or seven or eight years old, he talks about always playing with white kids and having fun, but that all changed rapidly as he moved from family to family until one day, at the age of 17, he stood up to his so-called slave breaker. His name was Edward Covey, and they had a fight for over an hour. And he said he learned that the rest of his life he’d have to stand up for himself, whatever he did, verbally and physically. You would see that demonstrated over and over again.

“So, he would make his own role models. And what they’d do is, they fell in love with education. I think part of the thing is they had to work so hard to get it. The one thing they had in common was this book called the Columbian Orator that had inside of it all these great people through time from Cicero, Caesar, to Washington, to Socrates. Although Plato wrote everything down, Socrates had all the thoughts. And they talked about how they got their global thinking, their bigger thinking, from that book. They didn’t know each other obviously, but they were getting motivation from the same source.”

Jeffrey: “Well, I think that is an amazing aspect of their character that comes out in your book--that here are two men who end up being among the greatest speakers and the greatest writers in public life in America in the nineteenth century. Yet, neither of them had a significant formal education. They were self-educated men.”

Kilmeade: “Self-made, self-made, self-educated. You know, they had to learn a skill. It looks like as a physical specimen, Lincoln was without peer and it looks like Frederick Douglass, who was extremely fit and smart and skilled as a caulker as well as an intellect. He would have his own, it seemed to me, Bible study classes.

Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass

“So he would always be reading and speaking in front of mostly black audiences early on, you know, to people he wanted to be able to teach because he knew early on that education was the key. But one thing about Frederick Douglass is he wasn’t keeping it to himself. It wasn’t about Frederick Douglass being successful, it was about freeing 4 million other enslaved people, making America live up to the Constitution, helping women get the right to vote and equal rights everywhere. So he was always fighting for others while still always battling to build up his intellect and self-esteem.”

Jeffrey: “Now, Frederick Douglass as a boy and a young man grew up in Maryland and in Baltimore, in the country and in Baltimore. How did he end up getting to be free or at least getting out of slave territory?”

Kilmeade: “He would dress as a soldier, a black soldier, in Baltimore and he would get on a ship, get on another boat, get over to Philadelphia, and then get up to New York. And the first time he got caught when one of the guys he was plotting with gave him up.  And he very easily could have been sent to the deep South and we would have never heard of Frederick Bailey--at the time—and he would change his name when he got to New York. But he was brought back, worked his way up, and he then gave himself another chance.

“And the more he read, the more he explored. He was working side by side, doing the same job, if not better, than white young adults, teenagers, and taking his money and giving it right to his owner. And he said: This is wrong. I mean, he would say things in his biography like there’s no difference between black and white. Who started this mess? But if you were uneducated, you had no idea that life could be better, you just figured you were inferior.

“And that’s what this was about, too. I look at Benjamin Franklin. They say he was as smart as anyone that walked the planet, but he had slaves. But the more he read, the more he watched, the more he saw kids being given the same education of all colors and being equal in intellect, he said I was totally wrong. He ended up becoming an abolitionist.

“And isn’t that the story of our lives? Don’t we always want to grow? I don’t care if you’re an adult, aren’t we always learning different ways to make our country better, our person, be a better father, a husband, a coach? Whatever you do for a living. That’s what I think we see here.”

Jeffrey: “You describe in your book a similar metamorphosis on behalf of Abraham Lincoln. Abraham Lincoln originally wasn’t an abolitionist, correct?”

Kilmeade: “Not close. But he did think everyone deserved liberty, and he was not for slavery. But that was a big leap to say he wanted equality. I mean, you would see him in the Stephen Douglass debates and see some of the quotes.  And I’ll paraphrase, you know, they were trying to label him as someone who was seen in a carriage with Frederick Douglass, as if that was bad, and he quickly denied it. You don’t want to be seen with a black person. He doesn’t believe in interracial marriage. He doesn’t think that blacks and whites are equal. But man, if he didn’t change, he was a great actor, because you will see him go into Richmond, you see the reaction from the black community, you see how he felt. You see what he said about liberty and how you should never have it taken away from you, show everyone that you deserved it all along, and show everyone you deserve it.

“Frederick Douglass, after the second inaugural speech, He said: ‘Douglass, what did you think of my speech?’ ‘Mr. President, don’t worry about me, you’ve got a room full of people. Who am I?’

“He goes: ‘Frederick, there’s nobody whose review I cherish more. Tell me what you thought of the speech.’ And he said, ‘A sacred effort.’

“Both meant it because a sacred effort, they said it was too short. They said he should’ve talked about the war, the moment of victory. He says, ‘No, it’s about redemption and forgiveness. Coming back together as a country,’ and that’s what Douglass was saying. And that’s what Lincoln said.”

Jeffrey: “That second Inaugural Address by Abe Lincoln may be one of the greatest speeches ever given by an American president.”

Kilmeade: “And the most important, right?”

Jeffrey: “And the most important. And it’s carved in marble down on the Mall, as you know. But Frederick Douglass was not pleased with Lincoln’s first Inaugural Address, was he?”

Kilmeade: “He hated it because he had so much hope for Lincoln. You know, he was like, I’m going to go to Haiti, I’m going to give up on America, we’re never going to get equality. And then, all of a sudden, Lincoln starts running, the debates start raging, they’re getting a lot of publicity, he gets the nomination.

“And he’s talking about how the enslaved thing has got to end, but he never said he was taking slavery out of the South. And by the time he, as most of you know, by the time he gets elected, he doesn’t get any votes in the South. Zero. Forty percent overall. The Democrats divide their party with other candidates. So, this new guy in this new party coasts to victory. But before he gets there, seven states, beginning with South Carolina, leave.

“So, as he gets there, he says: I got to get this country back together. So his inaugural was about: ‘Guys, come back. I never said I was going to take your slaves. I’ll even put it in the Constitution, make an amendment. You can keep your slaves, just come back.’

“And Douglass was incensed. And I don’t have to imagine it, he wrote it in his own newspaper, The North Star. So, he put it out there. No record of what Lincoln thought of Douglass, but he knew of Douglass. Everybody knew of Frederick Douglass.

“So, when Douglass was seeing that speech about just giving in and compromising when it comes to slavery, he said: How can you compromise on the freedom of 4 million people? How could you say that 350,000 slave owners could continue that lifestyle? When this was not the direction the world was heading at the time. Then later, he would understand that he had to run a country, not a movement.”

Jeffrey: “A lot of people obviously believe, and I think they’re probably right, that America is a very polarized nation, politically, at this point. There are people who have very different value systems, with a very different vision. But you just mentioned something that you wrote about in the book, that Abe Lincoln--if I understand you correctly--got zero votes in many southern states, south of Virginia. He was not on the ballot in some, but no one voted for him.

Kilmeade: “None. You talk about a polarized country, you got it. This is why I thought, you know, I love history, I’ll put it out there. So many of Fox viewers and listeners are passionate about history. But, I never knew that history would be so a part of the news. That people act like racial unrest and this is the worst it’s ever been, because no one has any knowledge of how far we’ve come. No country is perfect. No playing field is perfectly level, I get it. But we have come so far, so quickly, made so many gains, and I challenge anyone to look back in history--and I don’t look at the 1619 Project as a legitimate history. That’s an effort, I believe, to undermine the foundation for the country and find fatal and unforgivable holes in our Founding Fathers to the point where we have a statue take down party almost every time there’s civil unrest.

“But you read history out of respect, focus on the quotes, not the opinion, you’ll have a real appreciation for how close our country came from total destruction and what we’ve done to change the world, while noticing the progress along the way.

“And if you do that, you won’t overreact to 2019 and 2020 if you understood what was happening in 1860, and what we had to overcome in 1777 to win in 1783.”

Jeffrey: “So, Abe Lincoln, after not winning a single vote in many southern states, gives a first Inaugural Address, in which he indicates that he doesn’t want to end slavery in those southern states. Frederick Douglass is outraged by that speech, but then we know that Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. What caused that transformation in Abraham Lincoln?”

Kilmeade: “It was time. People began to see that this can’t exist, what this war was really about. Also, there was a big push to do the Emancipation Proclamation when it was put out first by Fremont, it was quickly receded by Lincoln himself.  And he said, We’re not ready. The country wasn’t ready. Even though only 1% of the black population was in the North, there weren't exactly a lot of enlightened people where we are today when it comes to race relations.

“So, they wanted to let the North fight and not be distracted with the issue of slavery, just reunification. You know, preserve the Union. For the longer this war came on and went, it became clear this was about slavery--free and slave states. And the ground was plowed with the fugitive slave law, the Dred Scott decision, which meant any black man in the North was never safe. They could always be recaptured and re-enslaved. How could you possibly have a country like that?

“The compromise, when states go to enter, it was clear that we were going to go all the way to the West Coast. How are we going to deal with that?

“And then when it was time to give the African Americans a chance to fight for their freedom, they would do it. And they formed new units of about 200,000. Many would die, but all would fight, almost to man with great dignity and courage, and that would do a great thing to eliminate a lot of the stereotypes and a lot of the worry.

“But if Lincoln did that right away, he wouldn’t have had a compliant Union force. He wanted to put the force together, get some stability, win some battles, bring in the African Americans in to fight for their freedom.

“Douglass wanted it right away. He said ‘What are you talking about? We can fight as good as anyone. Give us the training, give us uniforms, give us guns, and pay us equal.”

Jeffrey: “Now, six years before he was elected president, Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and a big issue then was bringing in new states from the West that might become slave states. It nullified the Missouri Compromise that had prevented that. You write about Lincoln giving a 17,000-word speech in Peoria, Illinois after that. What did Lincoln talk about in that speech and why did he give it?”

Kilmeade: “To live up to the liberty and freedom for all that it says in the Constitution. I would say, also, that he brought up the fact that they were allowing voting within that state to say whether they’re going to be free or slave. Excuse me? The federal government was deciding what would happen with South Carolina, North Carolina, and what would happen with Virginia. You know, that was a federal decision done at the federal level. Now these states go: Excuse me, I think we’re going to vote on it.

“So a free Louisiana might be divided. You know, a slave in South Carolina, they might have a vote. And then they thought this compromise, this organized compromise, this gradual compromise, was going to be sacrificed, which led him to give that speech and say: We can’t have two divided Americas. A divided America cannot stand.

“That’s when Frederick Douglass had great hope. You know: This is the guy. This is the guy who’s going to bring us the rest of the way.

Jeffrey: “And that’s a theme he repeated in his Cooper Union speech in New York later?”

Kilmeade: “And he opened up with Cooper Union’s speech. Originally, it was going to be in a church. And then--He was very religiously oriented, he read the Bible all the time. Douglass read the Bible like it was his handbook, like many of us should.

“He gives this speech, but it was going to be on slavery. But instead of talking about the Founding Fathers in general, he went back and spent hours researching what Jefferson, what Madison, what Monroe, what Washington really felt about slavery and how they saw it ending and what they felt.

“And when he brought those facts in, people thought: I can be patriotic, I can love the Founding Fathers, and I can hate slavery, and they hated it too.

“When this gangly guy with a loose-fitting suit and hair not quite combed, who really was striking in his appearance, that would quickly melt away when they heard what he was saying, the way he would deliver it, and the substance of his remarks. That’s when they realized, the power of brokers, believe it or not, in New York, picked the right guy. And they didn’t want Seward. They felt like Seward, I guess, was an inside man and they didn’t want an establishment guy. They wanted an alternative.

“So in New York, they didn’t go for the governor of New York.”

Jeffrey: “You tell a story in your book that I think puts some perspective on the polarization of the American political elite in the years leading up to the Civil War, specifically. Americans now have seen some pretty heated debates in Congress, I don’t think they’ve seen one like this. Which is, in 1856, when Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts was approached on the Senate floor by Rep. Preston Brooks of South Carolina. What happened then?”

Kilmeade: “So, Brooks didn’t like one of the comments he made…about the South raping their slaves, and accused a relative of doing just that. So, even though Sumner was kind of a big, stocky guy, he was surprised when Brooks came up to him and started whacking him with a cane with some type of switch, to the point where the first blow was so heavy he went down and was on the receiving end of a beating.  To the point where, I think we would diagnose it as a serious concussion. He ended up being knocked silly, in a bloody mess--again, over slavery, technically, just an element of it. And he was basically out of action for a year or two years.

“And this was a leading voice in the Senate, who Lincoln would look at as a great confidant, who was first for abolition. He clearly thought the races were equal. He clearly thought slavery was wrong, and he was willing to fight and use influence to push it forward. And he played a key role in the release and the writing of the Emancipation Proclamation.

“But that beat down polarized the country even further.”

Jeffrey: “In your book you talk about these two self-made men--Frederick Douglass, former slave, Abe Lincoln, who grew up under difficult circumstances. They educated themselves and they had this huge impact working together to eliminate the evil of slavery in the United States, and in an incredibly polarized country. What do you think is the ultimate lesson Americans today should take from the story of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln?”

Kilmeade: “Perspective. Perspective, as a country, of where we were through their eyes, through their words. It’s not my opinion what Frederick Douglass said. This is filled with quotes. I expand on his quotes, his editorials, and his speeches. They wrote them all down, all except for a handful. Same with Lincoln.

“Number two, get a perspective on where we were and what is going on in the rest of the world. People weren’t looking at America and saying: Oh, that’s the area where there’s slaves. There were slaves everywhere. Europe had gotten rid of them in 1760s but they kept it in all their colonies. We were a colony.

“Number three is amongst all of us, you don’t need famous parents, you don’t need a lot of money. What you need is drive and determination. In America, the dream existed without the social safety net.

“You can see it with Jackson. You can see it with Lincoln. You can see it with Douglass. Look at their backgrounds, and look at what they became. Look how determined they were to be great. By educating themselves, by studying other great men and--in Douglass’ case--great women. Susan B. Anthony and he were working towards women’s rights up until the day he died.

“And be selfless. Neither man wanted to be famous or rich, but would do everything important to matter, and that’s why we’re talking about them today. Not because they had the biggest house, not because they had celebrity and star power and curating. It’s because of the substance of the individuals.

“Yes, money would have come for Lincoln and it certainly came for Douglass, but he always had to struggle because he was the most productive one in his family and he had so many people he was responsible for. But he was rewarded for his power and influence.

“That’s the goal, and that’s just it: self-made men. That’s why they overlapped. They were self-made. People helped, but they were ultimately responsible for the reason we’re talking about them today. And that’s why I’m so appreciative. That’s what I hope people take away. No one gave them anything.

“And even if you don’t become Douglass and Lincoln, if you try and you become a good, well-rounded person who tries to help other people, you will have greatness in whatever you do. You don’t necessarily have to live in infamy, but this shows you it’s possible.”

Jeffrey: “Well said. Brian Kilmeade, author of ‘The President and the Freedom Fighter: Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass and Their Battle to Save America’s Soul,’ thank you very much.”

Kilmeade: “I appreciate it. Thanks so much for the time and for reading the book and the great questions. It really was enjoyable.”

Jeffrey: “Thank you.”

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