The relationship between the former slave Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln provides deep insight into both men. Douglass’s recollection of his first meeting with Lincoln — “I shall never forget my first interview with this great man” — is a highlight of the 1892 version of Douglass’s autobiography (The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass). In the Claremont Review of Books celebration of the bicentennial anniversary of Lincoln’s birth in 2009, the late Peter Schramm reviewed Peter Myers’s Frederick Douglass: Race and the Rebirth of American Liberalism. Peter drew from Myers briefly to recount the three meetings of Lincoln and Douglass:
The two first met in August 1863, and Douglass was not expecting a friendly encounter. After black soldiers had proven themselves worthy on the battlefield, Douglass had come to Washington to argue that justice demanded equal pay for their efforts. Following a cold reception from Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, Douglass took his case to the White House.
When he presented his card, he found that, instead of being asked to wait in a long line of office seekers, he was moved to the front of the line. He entered Lincoln’s office to find him completely informal and sprawled out on a sofa reading, with his “feet in different parts of the room.” Hearing Douglass enter, Lincoln stood to greet him saying, “Mr. Douglass, I know you; I have read about you.” Lincoln’s reception of him was “just as you have seen one gentleman receive another,” Douglass would later say. There was nothing affected in Lincoln’s tone or manner. “I have never seen a more transparent countenance,” reported Douglass. He left so impressed with Lincoln’s defense of his policies and with the firmness of his positions–to say nothing of his genuine sympathies with the black troops–that Douglass no longer felt the same level of dissatisfaction on the question of unequal pay. He knew something now that was even more crucial. Emancipation would stand.
In 1864 Lincoln had another meeting with Douglass to discuss what might be the alarming fate of those slaves still behind Confederate lines. In the midst of a war in which the existence of the nation was at stake–and an election in which Lincoln’s (and the nation’s) political future was at stake–Lincoln made time to inquire what might be done for those enslaved men and women who would be beyond his assistance in the event of a failure in the war or the election. Douglass again was impressed by Lincoln’s “deep moral conviction” on the question of slavery and with his brutal honesty about the prospects ahead. And he was taken with Lincoln’s seeming disregard for any prevailing or habitual notions that there should be anything other than perfect equality between them. “In his company I was never in any way reminded of my humble origin, or of my unpopular color,” said Douglass. Indeed, Lincoln was the only white person of prominence about whom Douglass was ever able to say such words. Considering the large number of prominent abolitionists and Christian reformers with whom Douglass was in frequent communication, this is an impressive testament.
As fate would have it, the last time these two American friends saw each other was on the occasion of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. Douglass listened to the speech with the crowd and thought it contained some “brave good words.” Afterward, he went to the Executive Mansion to attend the reception, but was not allowed to enter. When he sent word to Lincoln that he was being detained, the president ordered that he be admitted. Douglass found Lincoln in the elegant East Room, standing “like a mountain pine…in his grand simplicity, and home-like beauty.” Lincoln said, “Here comes my friend,” and took Douglass by the hand. “I am glad to see you,” said the president. Then he asked Douglass how he liked his address, for “there is no man in the country whose opinion I value more than yours.” Douglass famously said, in words that aptly sum up the work to which their lives had been devoted, “Mr. Lincoln, that was a sacred effort.”
Douglass’s great 1876 oration in memory of Lincoln at the dedication of the Freedman’s Monument in Washington, D.C., is accessible here. By contrast with the stupidity and ignorance of the cultural revolution that stares us in the teeth, Douglass’s eloquence, subtlety, largeness, and insight are enough to make one weep.