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This article was originally written for the Deseret News in celebration of President’s Day.
Presidents’ Day is an opportunity to reflect on the virtues of our venerable heads of state. As Abraham Lincoln presided over the nation’s darkest hour of civil war, his virtue of unprejudiced impartiality—of being “no respecter of persons” to borrow the Apostle Peter’s phrase (Acts 10:34)—endeared him to even those who fiercely disagreed with him.
“Few great public men,” Frederick Douglass said, “have ever been the victims of fiercer denunciation than Abraham Lincoln was during his administration.” Douglass knew this well. He had been one of Lincoln’s most outspoken critics in the early years of the conflict. An escaped slave and eloquent abolitionist orator, Douglass deplored Lincoln’s cautious policies for not striking at slavery sooner. But over the course of the war, Douglass came to know Lincoln, and “no man who knew Abraham Lincoln,” Douglass attested, “could hate him.” Three brief visits with “Honest Abe” forged a friendship of deep, mutual respect.
Douglass first sought an audience with Lincoln midway through the war. Troubled that not enough was being done to retaliate against Confederate abuses of “colored troops,” Douglass questioned whether he could, in good conscience, continue his significant efforts to recruit black soldiers for Union armies, including his own sons. Though a prominent public speaker, Douglass feared how “the most exalted person in this great republic” would receive “an ex-slave, identified with a despised race.”
Douglass arrived and was ushered in to see Lincoln. While pressing through the crowd in the White House, Douglass heard remarked, “Yes d–n it, I knew they would let the n—-r through.” Following such abusive invective, Lincoln’s welcome was a stark contrast. “I was never more quickly and more completely put at ease in the presence of a great man.” The President received him, Douglass said, “just as you have seen one gentleman receive another.”
Lincoln demonstrated sympathy to Douglass’s insistence on retaliation, but admitted the “thought of hanging men for a crime perpetrated by others was revolting to his feelings.” Years later, Douglass remembers, “I shall never forget the benignant expression of his face, the tearful look of his eye and the quiver in his voice, when he deprecated a resort to retaliatory measures.” While “not entirely satisfied with his views,” Douglass was “so well satisfied with the man” that he continued his recruiting efforts.
Douglass went to the White House again a year later, but this time at Lincoln’s request. It was the height of the 1864 election campaign, and it appeared Lincoln would not be reelected. Over the summer, the war had ground to a bloody stalemate, and the public seemed likely to elect Democrat George B. McClellan who promised peace by compromising on slavery. To bludgeon Lincoln, Democrats even sensationalized reports of his first meeting with Douglass, accusing Republicans of endorsing “miscegenation.” So negative was the publicity, Republican strategists asked Douglass not to campaign publicly for Lincoln’s reelection.
Despite the political peril, Lincoln invited Douglass for another meeting. Douglass found Lincoln in an “alarmed” condition. If he lost the election, millions would remain enslaved. Faced with the grim reality, Lincoln asked Douglass to organize an expedition to spread word throughout the Confederate States that slaves should flee to Union lines where they could be emancipated before the war’s end. Subsequent Union victories soon made it unnecessary, but Douglass was deeply moved by Lincoln’s “benevolent consideration” for his race.
Douglass last met Lincoln during the celebration of his second inauguration. But the “old custom” almost prevented their exchange. Upon arriving for the President’s reception, policemen told Douglass they were to admit “no persons of my color.” But Douglass knew that “no such order could have emanated from President Lincoln” and asked that word be sent to him. Not much later, Douglass entered the East Room of the White House amidst a “perfect sea of beauty and elegance.” Upon seeing Douglass, Lincoln “exclaimed so that all around could hear him, ‘Here comes my friend Douglass.’” Then taking him by the hand, Lincoln asked Douglass what he thought of his address. Douglass hesitated, but Lincoln persisted, “there is no man in the country whose opinion I value more than yours.” Douglass replied, “Mr. Lincoln, that was a sacred effort.”
A few months after Lincoln’s funeral, Mary Todd Lincoln sent Douglass her husband’s “favorite walking stick.” Douglass was deeply moved and wrote her that he would keep it for the rest of his life as “an object of sacred interest.” Douglass considered it a token not merely of kind consideration for him personally, but also as an indication of Lincoln’s “humane interest in the welfare of my whole race.”
Not long before his own death, Douglass wrote that Lincoln “was the first great man that I talked with in the United States freely, who in no single instance reminded me of the difference between himself and myself, of the difference of color.” So kindly did Lincoln treat those in his presence, Douglass wrote, “I felt as though I could go and put my hand on him if I wanted to, to put my hand on his shoulder. Of course I did not do it, but I felt that I could. I felt as though I was in the presence of a big brother, and that there was safety in his atmosphere.”
KateFebruary 16, 2016
A timely and significant article which adds to my great admiration of this fine man, who I believe to have been foreordained in the first estate to do what he did to save the blessed Union.... wish he was alive and well..and a candidate in the upcoming...
Joan MFebruary 16, 2016
I've always admired Abraham Lincoln and thought him to be a great man. This article just reaffirms my belief in him not just as a great leader but as a genuine and kind man. Thank you.