In January 2011 I wrote here to cast doubt upon Frederick Douglass’s 1881 description of his meeting and verbal exchange with the president on 4 March 1865, after the 2nd Inaugural Speech. I did so having consulted 7 leading writers on Douglass and read up on the few sketchy contacts between the two men. My context was Douglass’s journalistic tendency to change his mind, change his words, and change his story – like most journalists (and others) who knew Lincoln.
I may have been too hasty. But I stand by the bulk of my position.
In historical research, rarely can or should a single answer be found. None of the major scholars and original sources I had checked mentioned her, but a certain obvious, right-under-our-noses source came to hand last month in a February 1975 article by Christopher N. Breiseth in the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society. The article names Elizabeth Keckly as a source of the story; none of the other writers I checked did so. Her memoir, Behind the Scenes. Or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House (1868, and often reprinted), reads thus on pp. 158-161:
“Many colored people were in Washington, and large numbers had desired to attend the levee, but orders were issued not to admit them. A gentleman, a member of Congress, on his way to the White House, recognized Mr. Frederick Douglass, the eloquent colored orator, on the outskirts of the crowd.
‘How do you do, Mr. Douglass? A fearful jam to-night. You are going in, of course?’
‘No – that is, no to your last question.’
‘Not going in to shake the President by the hand! Why, pray?’
‘The best reason in the world. Strict orders have been issued not to admit people of color.’
‘It is a shame, Mr. Douglass, that you should thus be placed under the ban. Never mind; wait here, and I will see what can be done.’
The gentleman entered the White House, and working his way to the President, asked permission to introduce Mr. Douglass to him.
‘Certainly,’ said Mr. Lincoln. ‘Bring Mr. Douglass in, by all means. I shall be glad to meet him.’
The gentleman returned, and soon Mr. Douglass stood face to face with the President. Mr. Lincoln pressed his hand warmly, saying: ‘Mr. Douglass, I am glad to meet you. I have long admired your course, and I value your opinions highly.’
Mr. Douglass was very proud of the manner in which Mr. Lincoln received him. On leaving the White House he came to a friend’s house where a reception was being held, and he related the incident with great pleasure to myself and others.
On the Monday following the reception … I was in Mrs. Lincoln’s room the greater portion of the day. While dressing her that night, the President came in, and I remarked to him how much Mr. Douglass had been pleased on the night he was presented to Mr. Lincoln. Mrs. L. at once turned to her husband with the inquiry, ‘Father, why was not Mr. Douglass introduced to me?’
‘I do not know. I thought he was presented.’
‘But he was not.’
‘It must have been an oversight then, mother; I am sorry you did not meet him.’”
Keckly concludes: “This ball closed the season. It was the last time that the President and his wife ever appeared in public.”
This rendition of the 4 March 1865 meeting is close to what Douglass wrote in 1881, with a key omission: Douglass’s fabled story that Lincoln nearly begged him for his opinion of the speech, and his reply, ‘Mr. Lincoln, that was a sacred effort.’ Nor did Douglass 1881 mention that it was a Congressman who gained his entrée to the reception. Nor did Keckly 1868 mention a lady having been present, as did Douglass 1881. There is another problem: Keckly’s memoir is believed to have been ghost-written by Jane Grey Swisshelm, a crusader and publicist for various causes of the era. Else, can we imagine that Keckly herself would forget that the Lincolns did appear in public again? At Ford’s Theatre, 14 April.
I and many other recent writers get a failing grade for overlooking Keckly as an obvious possible source. Still, how much of the story did Douglass tell Keckly himself; how much did she hear second-hand; how much did Swisshelm invent for publication; how much did Douglass invent? We will never have answers.
The reader may also judge whether any symbolic enlargement might have been invented for another scene Keckly related about herself, on pp. 165-166:
“The Presidential party were all curiosity on entering Richmond [4 April]. They drove about the streets of the city, and examined every object of interest. The Capitol presented a desolate appearance – desks broken, and papers scattered promiscuously in the hurried flight of the Confederate Congress. I picked up a number of papers, and, by curious coincidence, the resolution prohibiting all free colored people from entering the State of Virginia. A curious coincidence indeed, to pick up such a paper in the ruined room and city.”
Its heft is reminiscent of Douglass’s 1881 invention of the scene at which he helped Chief Justice Chase put on his robes before swearing in Mr. Lincoln.
One more source mentions a Douglass-Lincoln interchange, but from the same origin. John E. Washington was an African American dentist in Washington, D.C., who in 1942 published a book on his years of research and listening about blacks who knew Lincoln, They Knew Lincoln. From pp. 115-116:
“The following was told me by Mr. Haley G. Douglass, grandson of Frederick Douglass. He said his grandfather often told it before audiences.
‘In Lincoln’s day, colored people were not allowed to come into the White House and even Frederick Douglass who had been invited to come to a reception was refused admission until Lincoln saw him in the crowd, sent for him and welcomed him into the room.’”
This is abbreviated, and misleading. Several various individuals and groups of blacks came in to see Lincoln, including Douglass on 2 occasions, so this ‘not allowed’ line may be overstated. Douglass 1881 did not claim to have been ‘invited’ in 1865. The grandson may have conflated the ‘invitation’ with another occasion, in 1863, when Lincoln brought Douglass to the front of a line. Worse, the episode is followed in Washington’s book by a long, preposterous joke about Lincoln and a poor black man, an anecdote that is almost certainly apocryphal.
All my speculation avails us little. We remain reliant upon the early-day, if not exactly first-hand, testimony of people close to the events. So I find that we now have better cause, though the details be shaky, to believe that Douglass and Lincoln shook hands on 4 March 1865. But we have very strong reason to continue to doubt that Douglass proclaimed the Second Inaugural a “sacred effort” at any point before 1881.
Do readers know of other sources?