In recent years there’s been a renewed interest in the relationship between Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, including several books on the subject, and some conversation as to whether Douglass’s visit to the White House during a reception in 1865 should have been featured in the film Lincoln. But what of their first meeting, which took place on August 10, 1863?
The occasion was Douglass’s demand for equal pay for black soldiers. Coming in the aftermath of several battles in which black soldiers had played a prominent role, this was a timely demand; moreover, two of Douglass’s sons had joined the 54th Massachusetts, and one had been at Fort Wagner. But Douglass had reasons to wonder how he would be received by a man he had often criticized for not moving fast enough or vigorously when it came to emancipation.
Here’s how Douglass recalled it in a public speech a few months later:
For twenty-five years, Mr. President, you know that when I got as far South as Philadelphia, I felt that I was rubbing against my prison wall, and could not go any further. I dared not go over yonder into Delaware. Twenty years ago, when I attended the first decade meeting of this Society, as I came along the vales and hills of Gettysburg, my good friends, the anti-slavery people along there warned me to remain in the house during the day-time, and travel in the night, lest I should be kidnapped, and carried over into Maryland. My good friend, Dr. Fussell, was one of the number who did not think it safe for me to attend an antislavery meeting along the borders of this State. I can go down there now. I have been down there to see the President; and as you were not there, perhaps you may like to know how the President of the United States received a black man at the White House. I will tell you how he received me—just as you have seen one gentleman receive another [great applause]; with a hand and a voice well-balanced between a kind cordiality and a respectful reserve. I tell you I felt big there! [Laughter.] Let me tell you how I got to him; because everybody can’t get to him. He has to be a little guarded in admitting spectators. The manner of getting to him gave me an idea that the cause was rolling on. The stairway was crowded with applicants. Some of them looked eager; and I have no doubt some of them had a purpose in being there, and wanted to see the President for the good of the country! They were white; and as I was the only dark spot among them, I expected to have to wait at least half a day; I had heard of men waiting a week; but in two minutes after I sent in my card, the messenger came out, and respectfully invited “Mr. Douglass” in. I could hear, in the eager multitude outside, as they saw me pressing and elbowing my way through, the remark, “Yes, damn it, I knew they would let the n—r through,” in a kind of despairing voice—a Peace Democrat, I suppose. [Laughter.] When I went in, the President was sitting in his usual position, I was told, with his feet in different parts of the room, taking it easy. [Laughter.] Don’t put this down, Mr. Reporter, I pray you; for I am going down there again to-morrow! [Laughter.] As I came in and approached him, the President began to rise, [laughter,] and he continued rising until he stood over me [laughter]; and, reaching out his hand, he said, “Mr. Douglass, I know you; I have read about you, and Mr. Seward has told me about you”; putting me quite at ease at once.
Now, you will want to know how I was impressed by him. I will tell you that, too. He impressed me as being just what every one of you have been in the habit of calling him—an honest man. [Applause.] I never met with a man, who, on the first blush, impressed me more entirely with his sincerity, with his devotion to his country, and with his determination to save it at all hazards. [Applause.] He told me (I think he did me more honor than I deserve) that I had made a little speech, somewhere in New York, and it had got into the papers, and among the things I had said was this: That if I were called upon to state what I regarded as the most sad and most disheartening feature in our present political and military situation, it would not be the various disasters experienced by our armies and our navies, on flood and field, but it would be the tardy, hesitating, vacillating policy of the President of the United States; and the President said to me, “Mr. Douglass, I have been charged with being tardy, and the like”; and he went on, and partly admitted that he might seem slow; but he said, “I am charged with vacillating; but, Mr. Douglass, I do not think that charge can be sustained; I think it cannot be shown that when I have once taken a position, I have ever retreated from it.” [Applause.] That I regarded as the most significant point in what he said during our interview. I told him that he had been somewhat slow in proclaiming equal protection to our colored soldiers and prisoners; and he said that the country needed talking up to that point. He hesitated in regard to it, when he felt that the country was not ready for it. He knew that the colored man throughout this country was a despised man, a hated man, and that if he at first came out with such a proclamation, all the hatred which is poured on the head of the Negro race would be visited on his administration. He said that there was preparatory work needed, and that that preparatory work had now been done. And he said, “Remember this, Mr. Douglass; remember that Milliken’s Bend, Port Hudson and Fort Wagner are recent events; and that these were necessary to prepare the way for this very proclamation of mine.” I thought it was reasonable, but came to the conclusion that while Abraham Lincoln will not go down to posterity as Abraham the Great, or as Abraham the Wise, or as Abraham the Eloquent, although he is all three, wise, great and eloquent, he will go down to posterity, if the country is saved, as Honest Abraham [applause]; and going down thus, his name may be written anywhere in this wide world of ours side by side with that of Washington, without disparaging the latter. [Renewed applause.]
Douglass would later portray the meeting somewhat differently in his 1882 autobiography:
My efforts to secure just and fair treatment for the coloured soldiers did not stop at letters and speeches. At the suggestion of my friend, Major Stearns, to whom the foregoing letter was addressed, I was induced to go to Washington and lay the complaints of my people before President Lincoln and the Secretary of War; and to urge upon them such action as should secure to the coloured troops then fighting for the country a reasonable degree of fair play. I need not say that at the time I undertook this mission it required much more nerve than a similar one would require now. The distance then between the black man and the white American citizen, was immeasurable. I was an ex-slave, identified with a despised race; and yet I was to meet the most exalted person in this great Republic. It was altogether an unwelcome duty, and one from which I would gladly have been excused. I could not know what kind of a reception would be accorded me. I might be told to go home and mind my own business, and leave such questions as I had come to discuss to be managed by the men wisely chosen by the American people to deal with them, or I might be refused an interview altogether. Nevertheless, I felt bound to go; and my acquaintance with Senators Charles Sumner, Henry Wilson, Samuel Pomeroy, Secretary Salmon, P. Chase, Secretary William H. Seward, and Assistant Secretary of War Charles A. Dana, encouraged me to hope at least for a civil reception. My confidence was fully justified in the result. I shall never forget my first interview with this great man. I was accompanied to the executive mansion and introduced to President Lincoln by Senator Pomeroy. The room in which he received visitors was the one now used by the president’s secretaries. I entered it with a moderate estimate of my own consequence, and yet there I was to talk with, and even to advise, the head man of a great nation. Happily for me, there was no vain pomp and ceremony about him. I was never more quickly or more completely put at ease in the presence of a great man, than in that of Abraham Lincoln. He was seated, when I entered, in a low arm chair, with his feet extended on the floor, surrounded by a large number of documents, and several busy secretaries. The room bore the marks of business, and the persons in it, the President included, appeared to be much over-worked and tired. Long lines of care were already deeply written on Mr. Lincoln’s brow, and his strong face, full of earnestness, lighted up as soon as my name was mentioned. As I approached and was introduced to him, he rose and extended his hand, and bade me welcome. I at once felt myself in the presence of an honest man—one whom I could love, honour, and trust without reserve or doubt. Proceeding to tell him who I was, and what I was doing, he promptly, but kindly, stopped me, saying: “I know who you are, Mr. Douglass; Mr. Seward has told me all about you. Sit down. I am glad to see you.” I then told him the object of my visit: that I was assisting to raise coloured troops; that several months before I had been very successful in getting men to enlist, but that now it was not easy to induce the coloured men to enter the service, because there was a feeling among them that the Government did not deal fairly with them in several respects. Mr. Lincoln asked me to state particulars. I replied that there were three particulars which I wished to bring to his attention. First, that coloured soldiers ought to receive the same wages as those paid to white soldiers. Second, that coloured soldiers ought to receive the same protection when taken prisoners, and be exchanged as readily, and on the same terms, as any other prisoners, and if Jefferson Davis should shoot or hang coloured soldiers in cold blood, the United States Government should retaliate in kind and degree without delay upon Confederate prisoners in its hands. Third, when coloured soldiers, seeking the “bubble-reputation at the cannon’s mouth,” performed great and uncommon service on the battle-field, they should be rewarded by distinction and promotion, precisely as white soldiers are rewarded for like services.
Mr. Lincoln listened with patience and silence to all I had to say. He was serious and even troubled by what I had said, and by what he had evidently thought himself before upon the same points. He impressed me with the solid gravity of his character, by his silent listening, not less than by his earnest reply to my words.
He began by saying that the employment of coloured troops at all was a great gain to the coloured people; that the measure could not have been successfully adopted at the beginning of the war; that the wisdom of making coloured men soldiers was still doubted; that their enlistment was a serious offence to popular prejudice; that they had larger motives for being soldiers than white men; that they ought to be willing to enter the service upon any conditions; that the fact that they were not to receive the same pay as white soldiers, seemed a necessary concession to smooth the way to their employment at all as soldiers; but that ultimately they would receive the same. On the second point, in respect to equal protection, he said the case was more difficult. Retaliation was a terrible remedy, and one which it was very difficult to apply; one which if once begun, there was no telling where it would end; that if he could get hold of the confederate soldiers who had been guilty of treating coloured soldiers as felons, he could easily retaliate, but the thought of hanging men for a crime perpetrated by others, was revolting to his feelings. He thought that the rebels themselves would stop such barbarous warfare, and less evil would be done if retaliation were not resorted to. That he had already received information that coloured soldiers were being treated as prisoners of war. In all this I saw the tender heart of the man rather than the stern warrior and commander-in-chief of the American army and navy, and while I could not agree with him, I could not but respect his humane spirit.
On the third point he appeared to have less difficulty, though he did not absolutely commit himself. He simply said that he would sign any commission to coloured soldiers whom his Secretary of War should commend to him. Though I was not entirely satisfied with his views, I was so well satisfied with the man and with the educating tendency of the conflict, that I determined to go on with the recruiting.
The relationship would continue to be an uneasy one, and it was one largely defined and remembered in Douglass’s recollections. That, too, is part of the evolution of Civil War memory, because while Lincoln alive was a politician whose policies were subject to vigorous criticism, Lincoln the martyred president was an icon whose image was carefully crafted by many who had their own interests to promise, even when they sought as honest a portrayal as possible.