This daguerreotype of the young and charismatic abolitionist and former Maryland slave Frederick Douglass was probably made in 1847, soon after he returned to the United States from England to purchase his freedom with funds raised by public subscription. He subsequently published an influential abolitionist newspaper, helped persuade Lincoln to enlist black troops during the Civil War and after the war served in various government posts. During those years, he lived in Anacostia, where his house is a museum.

This is one of only four known surviving daguerreotypes of Douglass, and the National Portrait Gallery is especially lucky to have it since, until 1976, only paintings, sculptures, prints and drawings were deemed acceptable portraits. It took authorization by Congress to change the rules, and the gallery's photography collection, only some of which can ever be on view and exposed to light, now numbers around 8,500 objects. Like the museum itself, the photography collection emphasizes likenesses of individuals who have contributed in a significant way to American life.

The National Portrait Gallery shares the Old Patent Office Building with the National Museum of American Art. Originally built to display 19th-century patent models, it was used as a hospital during the Civil War, and Clara Barton and Walt Whitman nursed the wounded there. Lincoln's second inaugural ball was held in the building in 1865.