Of all the historic meetings that have taken place in the White House, surely one of the most significant came 157 years ago in August 1863, during the Civil War, when the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass sat down with Abraham Lincoln in the president’s office.
The meeting took courage for both men.
People often waited in line for days to meet with Lincoln. During the early part of the war, he reportedly made his way to his office in the morning by stepping over snoring petitioners who had slept in the hallway overnight.
When he received word that Douglass had come, Lincoln saw him immediately. He did so at a time when many in the North questioned the wisdom of his Emancipation Proclamation, and when many were willing to fight for the Union but not so enthusiastic about fighting and dying to free Southern slaves.
The meeting took perhaps even more courage on Douglass’s part. As he made his way past the waiting throng, he heard the remark, “Yes, damn it, I knew they would let the n----- through.” He pressed on anyway.
The two allies in the Union cause sat down and eyed each other warily, as allies sometimes do.
Douglass was a fiery orator, a former slave with whip scars to remind him of his youth. “If there is no struggle, there is no progress!” he had proclaimed. “Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning.”
Lincoln was more cautious, a sometimes prodding but always perseverant leader, unyielding on principles he believed to be right. “I think it cannot be shown that when I have once taken a position, I have ever retreated from it,” he told Douglass.
Douglass came with grievances and warnings. He had been working hard to recruit black soldiers for the Union army, but discriminatory policies about pay and promotions for black troops were making it hard to find new volunteers. If things did not change, he might have to give up his efforts.
“Mr. Lincoln listened with earnest attention and with very apparent sympathy,” Douglass reported. The president acknowledged the injustice of the situation and promised to do what he could to correct it.
Lincoln counseled patience, though it no doubt pained him to tell a man who was right that he must wait a while longer for justice. He urged Douglass to keep up his work and stay engaged in “the great task remaining before us,” as he would put it three months later in the Gettysburg Address.
The two men did not agree on everything, to be sure, but they developed an important relationship based on respect. “He impressed me as being just what every one of you have been in the habit of calling him — an honest man,” Douglass later said.
In March 1865, Douglass was in the audience at the U.S. Capitol as Lincoln gave his second inaugural address. The abolitionist heard the president express his view that the terrible war had come to both North and South because of the national sin of slavery, and that once the war was over, the nation must strive on “with malice toward none, with charity for all.”
That evening, Douglass went to a White House reception and was at first denied admittance because he was black. Lincoln, hearing he was there, again gave orders to let him in at once.
“Here comes my friend Douglass,” the president called across the crowded room. He asked the abolitionist what he thought of his speech.
“Mr. Lincoln, that was a sacred effort,” Douglass replied.
It is impossible, of course, to know what Lincoln and Douglass would say to each other or to us if they were here today. Surely they would be astounded and proud to see the progress made since their time, including the first black president and, this year, the nomination of an African American for vice president by a major political party.
In many ways, this nation has led the world in standing for freedom, equality, and human rights. “A sacred effort,” Lincoln and Douglass might call it.
Yet they would also no doubt be heartbroken to see the distrust and fear that so many are feeling in 2020. They would surely be dismayed to see their country divided, and disappointed to find that, in some ways, “the great task remaining before us” is incomplete.
Still, one likes to think that Lincoln and Douglass would tell us to take heart, and that they would remind us that this nation has often overcome rancor and adversity. Americans have shown a genius for reaching across divides and engaging in self-renewal.
After all, as those two 19th century giants knew, making sacred efforts and tackling great tasks before us is what this country is all about.