In part 1 , the accuracy, even the veracity, of such Lincoln associates as William Herndon and Noah Brooks was examined. Only a few of their statements about Lincoln were important in the short or long run, though as described in part 1 mothers and mediums may disagree with me. Of nearly world significance over the last century has been the contact between Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. The escaped slave, journalist, orator, and publicist claimed to have met with Lincoln 3 times, but only 2 of these meetings are corroborated by a source other than Douglass. Since World War II scholars have gradually grown more skeptical of some of Douglass’s recollections.
Their first conversation occurred in company with Senator Samuel Pomeroy of Kansas, in the Executive Mansion, on 10 August 1863, over what became a failed attempt to send Douglass to the South to help recruit black troops. Lincoln, 2 members of his cabinet, and Sen. Pomeroy signed a pass South for Douglass, who wrote a private letter about the meeting on the 12th. He spoke about the meeting in December 1863, a speech published in Garrison’s newspaper The Liberator. Lincoln’s secretary John Hay recorded the meeting in his diary, but neither Hay nor John Nicolay seem ever to have mentioned Douglass again. Then, in 1881 — according to James Oakes, the most recent scholar on the topic — Douglass published his “most detailed account … and thus less reliable” version of the meeting, in the third of his autobiographies. He revised that book later; and in 1888 provided a “vague” account that “collapses several different conversations into one.”
Next, Douglass met Lincoln on 19 August 1864. (LaWanda Cox, in her 1981 book, gives that date, while Oakes, using Douglass’s papers, dates it to 25 August.) Two other visitors to the president that hour, one of them ex-governor Randall of Wisconsin, also recorded the event. Douglass wrote of it to a friend 2 months later, and in a speech on 5 June 1865 recollected another incident; then retrieved from memory for the first time, in 1881, more of his dialogue with Lincoln. Because Douglass lost many of his papers in a house fire in 1872, we do not know what notes he might originally have made. At any rate, it seems that he was following the same pattern as dozens of other journalists, politicians, and memoirists in the post-Lincoln years: crystalizing and growing in the mind what had been in reality a brief or passing acquaintance with the man.
This 1864 meeting led Lincoln to invite Douglass to come to tea at the Soldiers’ Home; or so Douglass recalled “some years later,” writes Oakes. A prior commitment prevented his attending. (Pass up tea with the president?) But a seminal event such as Lincoln’s second inaugural could not be passed up. Douglass wrote that he was in the crowd of thousands on 4 March 1865; that later on he and a woman stood in line at the Executive Mansion to greet Mr. Lincoln; that he was turned away at the door as a black man, was tricked into leaving, then saw “a gentleman” he knew, who got him in. He wound his way amid the throng inside to the president, and had this now-famous exchange:
“Here comes my friend Douglass. I am glad to see you. I saw you in the crowd today, listening to my inaugural address; how did you like it?” Two lines of apology and encouragement ensue, before Lincoln fairly forces Douglass to admit,
“Mr. Lincoln, that was a sacred effort.”
So wrote Douglass in 1881, and never earlier. Did not one of the thousands of other people around that day notice him, not even the helpful “gentleman,” to record this singular appearance and apothegmatic remark, not even one of the other journalists on the scene? No scholar since – not Booker T. Washington (1906), Benjamin Quarles (1948 and 1962), LaWanda Cox (1981), James Oakes (2008), or five others – has found another mention of Douglass’s front-door, side-door, or hand-to-hand movements. Yet all cite the obstructed entrance and ensuing dialogue as historical event.
In the same chapter of this 3rd memoir, Douglass related how on the previous night “I took tea with Chief Justice Chase, and assisted his beloved daughter, Mrs. Sprague, in placing over her honored father’s shoulders the new robe … in which he was to administer the oath of office to the re-elected President.” Yet Quarles never mentions Salmon Chase; and the best study of Chase, by John Niven (1995), never mentions Douglass.
I and the world would welcome any kind of confirmation of these events outside of what Douglass once claimed. African-American newspapers in Philadelphia and Baltimore reported on the “500” blacks seen at the 4 March 1865 reception, according to Quarles, yet do not mention Douglass. All history relies on the progressive and cumulative revelation of original sources, and some come to hand later than earlier. We have hope, just as we have hope that Lincoln so nobly reached out to a shunned man. But the evidence is growing less and less acceptable to modern readers. Undeniably, Lincoln and Douglass worked toward the same ends, at different paces, because one was a politician, the other a journalist. Their common goal did not necessarily make them friends. By the 1880s, the great majority of Americans in the North wanted to have been Lincoln’s friend. Douglass, like Noah Brooks, shone in the light cast by Lincoln’s legacy, the brighter he could make their friendship glow.