Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XII.: HOPE FOR THE NATION. - The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass: From 1817-1882
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
Also in the Library:
CHAPTER XII.: HOPE FOR THE NATION. - Frederick Douglass, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass: From 1817-1882 
The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass: From 1817-1882, written by himself; with an Introduction by the Right Hon. John Bright, ed. John Lobb (London: Christian Age Office, 1882).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
HOPE FOR THE NATION.
Proclamation of emancipation—Its reception in Boston—Objections brought against it—Its effect on the country—Interview with President Lincoln—New York riots—Re-election of Mr. Lincoln—His inauguration, and inaugural speech—Vice-President Johnson—Presidential reception—The fall of Richmond—Fanueil Hall—The assassination—Condolence.
THE first of January, 1863, was a memorable day in the progress of American liberty and civilization. It was the turning-point in the conflict between freedom and slavery. A death-blow was then given to the slaveholding rebellion. Until then the Federal arm had been more than tolerant to that relic of barbarism. It had defended it inside the Slave States; it had countermanded the emancipation policy of John C. Fremont in Missouri; it had returned slaves to their so-called owners; and had threatened that any attempt on the part of the slaves to gain their freedom by insurrection, or otherwise, would be put down with an iron hand; it had even refused to allow the Hutchinson family to sing their anti-slavery songs in the camps of the army of the Potomac; it had surrounded the houses of slave-holders with bayonets for their protection; and through its Secretary of War, William H. Seward, had given notice to the world that, “however the war for the Union might terminate, no change would be made in the relation of master and slave.” Upon this pro-slavery platform the war against the rebellion had been waged during more than two years. It had not been a war of conquest, but rather a war of conciliation. McClellan, in command of the army, had been trying, apparently, to put down the rebellion without hurting the rebels, certainly without hurting slavery, and the Government had seemed to co-operate with him in both respects. Charles Sumner, William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, Gerrit Smith, and the whole anti-slavery phalanx at the North, had denounced this policy, and had besought Mr. Lincoln to adopt an opposite one, but in vain. Generals in the field, and councils in the Cabinet, had persisted in advancing this policy through defeats and disasters, even to the verge of ruin. We fought the rebellion, but not its cause. The key to the situation was the four million of slaves; yet the slave who loved us, was hated, and the slave-holder who hated us, was loved. We kissed the hand that smote us, and spurned the hand that helped us. When the means of victory were before us—within our grasp—we went in search of the means of defeat. And now, on this 1st day of January, 1863, the formal and solemn announcement was made that thereafter the Government would be found on the side of emancipation. This proclamation changed everything. It gave a new direction to the councils of the Cabinet, and to the conduct of the national arms. I shall leave to the statesman, the philosopher, and historian, the more comprehensive discussion of this document, and only tell how it touched me, and those in like condition with me at the time. I was in Boston, and its reception there may indicate the importance attached to it elsewhere. An immense assembly convened in Tremont Temple to await the first flash of the electric wires announcing the “new departure.” Two years of war prosecuted in the interests of slavery, had made free speech possible in Boston, and we now met together to receive and celebrate the first utterance of the long-hoped-for proclamation, if it came, and if it did not come, to speak our minds freely; for, in view of the past, it was by no means certain that it would come. The occasion, therefore, was one of both hope and fear. Our ship was on the open sea, tossed by a terrible storm; wave after wave was passing over us, and every hour was fraught with increasing peril. Whether we should survive or perish, depended in large measure upon the coming of this proclamation. At least so we felt. Although the conditions on which Mr. Lincoln had promised to withhold it, had not been complied with, yet, from many considerations, there was room to doubt and fear. Mr. Lincoln was known to be a man of tender heart, and boundless patience; no man could tell to what length he might go, or might refrain from going in the direction of peace and reconciliation. Hitherto, he had not shown himself a man of heroic measures, and, properly enough, this step belonged to that class. It must be the end of all compromises with slavery—a declaration that thereafter the war was to be conducted on a new principle, with a new aim. It would be a full and fair assertion that the Government would neither trifle, nor be trifled with any longer. But would it come? On the side of doubt, it was said that Mr. Lincoln’s kindly nature might cause him to relent at the last moment; that Mrs. Lincoln, coming from an old slaveholding family, would influence him to delay, and give the slaveholders one other chance.* Every moment of waiting chilled our hopes, and strengthened our fears. A line of messengers was established between the telegraph office and the platform of Tremont Temple, and the time was occupied with brief speeches from Hon. Thomas Russell of Plymouth, Miss Anna E. Dickinson (a lady of marvellous eloquence), Rev. Mr. Grimes, J. Sella Martin, William Wells Brown, and myself. But speaking or listening to speeches was not the thing for which the people had come together. The time for argument was passed. It was not logic, but the trump of jubilee, which everybody wanted to hear. We were waiting and listening as for a bolt from the sky, which should rend the fetters of four million of slaves; we were watching, as it were, by the dim light of the stars, for the dawn of a new day; we were longing for the answer to the agonizing prayers of centuries. Remembering those in bonds as bound with them, we wanted to join in the shout for freedom, and in the anthem of the redeemed.
Eight, nine, ten o’clock came and went, and still no word. A visible shadow seemed falling on the expecting throng, which the confident utterances of the speakers sought in vain to dispel. At last, when patience was well-nigh exhausted, and suspense was becoming agony, a man—I think it was Judge Russell—with hasty step advanced through the crowd, and with a face fairly illuminated with the news he bore, exclaimed in tones that thrilled all hearts, “It is coming!” “It is on the wires!!” The effect of this announcement was startling beyond description, and the scene was wild and grand. Joy and gladness exhausted all forms of expression from shouts of praise, to sobs and tears. My old friend Rue, a coloured preacher, a man of wonderful vocal power, expressed the heartfelt emotion of the hour, when he led all voices in the anthem, “Sound the loud timbrel o’er Egypt’s dark sea, Jehovah hath triumphed, his people are free.” About twelve o’clock, seeing there was no disposition to retire from the hall, which must be vacated, my friend Grimes—of blessed memory—rose and moved that the meeting adjourn to the Twelfth Baptist Church, of which he was pastor, and soon that church was packed from doors to pulpit, and this meeting did not break up till near the dawn of day. It was one of the most affecting and thrilling occasions I ever witnessed, and a worthy celebration of the first step on the part of the nation in its departure from the thraldom of ages.
There was evidently no disposition on the part of this meeting to criticise the proclamation; nor was there with any one at first. At the moment we saw only its anti-slavery side. But further and more critical examination showed it to be extremely defective. It was not a proclamation of “liberty throughout all the land, unto all the inhabitants thereof,” such as we had hoped it would be; but was one marked by discriminations and reservations. Its operation was confined within certain geographical and military lines. It only abolished slavery where it did not exist, and left it intact where it did exist. It was a measure apparently inspired by the law motive of military necessity, and by so far as it was so, it would become inoperative and useless when military necessity should cease. There was much said in this line, and much that was narrow and erroneous. For my own part, I took the proclamation, first and last, for a little more than it purported; and saw in its spirit, a life and power far beyond its letter. Its meaning to me was the entire abolition of slavery, wherever the evil could be reached by the Federal arm, and I saw that its moral power would extend much further. It was in my estimation an immense gain to have the War for the Union committed to the extinction of Slavery, even from a military necessity. It is not a bad thing to have individuals or nations do right though they do so from selfish motives. I approved the one-spur-wisdom of “Paddy” who thought if he could get one side of his horse to go, he could trust the speed of the other side.
The effect of the proclamation abroad was highly beneficial to the loyal cause. Disinterested parties could now see in it a benevolent character. It was no longer a mere strife for territory and dominion, but a contest of civilization against barbarism.
The Proclamation itself was like Mr. Lincoln throughout. It was framed with a view to the least harm and the most good possible in the circumstances, and with especial consideration of the latter. It was thoughtful, cautious, and well guarded at all points. While he hated slavery, and really desired its destruction, he always proceeded against it in a manner the least likely to shock or drive from him any who were truly in sympathy with the preservation of the Union, but who were not friendly to emancipation. For this he kept up the distinction between loyal and disloyal slaveholders, and discriminated in favour of the one, as against the other. In a word, in all that he did, or attempted, he made it manifest that the one great and all commanding object with him, was the peace and preservation of the Union, and that this was the motive and main spring of all his measures. His wisdom and moderation at this point were for a season useful to the loyal cause in the border States, but it may be fairly questioned, whether it did not chill the Union ardour of the loyal people of the North in some degree, and diminish, rather than increase, the sum of our power against the rebellion: for moderate, cautious and guarded as was this proclamation, it created a howl of indignation and wrath amongst the rebels and their allies. The old cry was raised by the copperhead organs of “an abolition war,” and a pretext was thus found for an excuse for refusing to enlist, and for marshalling all the negro prejudice of the North on the rebel side. Men could say they were willing to fight for the Union, but that they were not willing to fight for the freedom of the negroes; and thus it was made difficult to procure enlistments or to enforce the draft. This was especially true of New York, where there was a large Irish population. The attempt to enforce the draft in that city was met by mobs, riot, and bloodshed. There is perhaps no darker chapter in the whole history of the war, than this cowardly and bloody uprising in July, 1863. For three days and nights New York was in the hands of a ferocious mob, and there was not sufficient power in the government of the country or of the city itself, to stay the hands of violence, and the effusion of blood. Though this mob was nominally against the draft which had been ordered, it poured out its fiercest wrath upon the coloured people and their friends. It spared neither age nor sex; it hanged negroes simply because they were negroes; it murdered women in their homes, and burned their homes over their heads; it dashed out the brains of young children against the lamp posts; it burned the coloured orphan asylum, a noble charity on the corner of Fifth Avenue, and scarce allowing time for the helpless two hundred children to make good their escape, plundered the building of every valuable piece of furniture; and coloured men, women, and children were forced to seek concealment in cellars or garrets, or wheresoever else it could be found, until this high carnival of crime and reign of terror should pass away.
In connection with Geo. L. Stearns, Thomas Webster, and Col. Wagner, I had been at Camp William Penn, Philadelphia, assisting in the work of filling up the coloured regiments, and was on my way home from there, just as these events were transpiring in New York. I was met by a friend at Newark, who informed me of this condition of things. I, however, pressed on my way to the Chambers-street station of the Hudson River Railroad in safety, the mob being in the upper part of the city, fortunately for me, for not only my colour, but my known activity in procuring enlistments would have made me especially obnoxious to its murderous spirit. This was not the first time I had been in imminent peril in New York city. My arrival there, after my escape from slavery, was full of danger. My passage through its borders after the attack of John Brown on Harper’s Ferry was scarcely less safe. I had encountered Isaiah Rynders and his gang of ruffians in the old Broadway Tabernacle at our anti-slavery anniversary meeting, and I knew something of the crazy temper of such crowds; but this anti-draft—anti-negro mob was something more and something worse—it was a part of the rebel force, without the rebel uniform, but with all its deadly hate; it was the fire of the enemy opened in the rear of the loyal army. Such men as Franklin Pierce and Horatio Seymour had done much in their utterances to encourage resistance to the drafts. Seymour was then Governor of the State of New York, and while the mob was doing its deadly work he addressed them as “My friends,” telling them to desist then, while he could arrange at Washington to have the draft arrested. Had Governor Seymour been loyal to his country, and to his country’s cause, in this her moment of need, he would have burned his tongue with a red hot iron sooner than allow it to call these thugs, thieves, and murderers his “friends.”
My interviews with President Lincoln and his able Secretary, before narrated, greatly increased my confidence in the anti-slavery integrity of the Government, although I confess I was greatly disappointed at my failure to receive the commission promised me by Secretary Stanton. I, however, faithfully believed, and loudly proclaimed my belief, that the rebellion would be suppressed, the Union preserved, the slaves emancipated, and the coloured soldiers would in the end have justice done them. This confidence was immeasurably strengthened when I saw Gen. George B. McClellan relieved from the command of the army of the Potomac, and Gen. U. S. Grant placed at its head, and in command of all the armies of the United States. My confidence in Gen. Grant was not entirely due to the brilliant military successes achieved by him, but there was a moral as well as military basis for my faith in him. He had shown his single mindedness and superiority to popular prejudice by his prompt co-operation with President Lincoln in his policy of employing coloured troops, and his order commanding his soldiers to treat such troops with due respect. In this way he proved himself to be not only a wise general, but a great man—one who could adjust himself to new conditions, and adopt the lessons taught by the events of the hour. This quality in General Grant was and is made all the more conspicuous and striking in contrast with his West Point education and his former political associations; for neither West Point nor the Democratic party have been good schools in which to learn justice and fair play to the negro.
It was when General Grant was fighting his way through the Wilderness to Richmond, on the “line” he meant to pursue “if it took all summer,” and every reverse to his arms was made the occasion for a fresh demand for peace without emancipation, that President Lincoln did me the honor to invite me to the Executive Mansion for a conference on the situation. I need not say I went most gladly. The main subject on which he wished to confer with me was as to the means most desirable to be employed outside the army to induce the slaves in the rebel States to come within the Federal lines. The increasing opposition to the war, in the North, and the mad cry against it, because it was being made an abolition war, alarmed Mr. Lincoln, and make him apprehensive that a peace might be forced upon him which would leave still in slavery all who had not come within our lines. What he wanted was to make his proclamation as effective as possible in the event of such a peace. He said in a regretful tone, “The slaves are not coming so rapidly and so numerously to us as I hoped.” I replied that the slaveholders knew how to keep such things from their slaves, and probably very few knew of his proclamation, “Well,” he said, “I want you to set about devising some means for making them acquainted with it, and for bringing them into our lines.” He spoke with great earnestness and much solicitude, and seemed troubled by the attitude of Mr. Greeley, and the growing impatience there was being manifested through the North at the war. He said he was being accused of protracting the war beyond its legitimate object, and of failing to make peace, when he might have done so to advantage. He was afraid of what might come of all these complaints, but was persuaded that no solid and lasting peace could come, short of absolute submission on the part of the rebels, and he was not for giving them rest by futile conferences at Niagara Falls, or elsewhere, with unauthorised persons. He saw the danger of premature peace, and, like a thoughtful and sagacious man as he was, he wished to provide means of rendering such consummation as harmless as possible. I was the more impressed by this benevolent consideration because he before said, in answer to the peace clamour, that his object was to save the Union, and to do so with or without slavery. What he said on this day showed a deeper moral conviction against slavery than I had even seen before in anything spoken or written by him. I listened with the deepest interest and profoundest satisfaction, and, at his suggestion, agreed to undertake the organizing a band of scouts, composed of coloured men, whose business should be somewhat after the original plan of John Brown, to go into the rebel States, beyond the lines of our armies, and carry the news of emancipation, and urge the slaves to come within our boundaries.
This plan, however, was very soon rendered unnecessary by the success of the war in the Wilderness and elsewhere, and by its termination in the complete abolition of slavery.
I refer to this conversation because I think it is evidence conclusive on Mr. Lincoln’s part that the proclamation, so far as least as he was concerned, was not effected merely as a “necessity.”
An incident occurred during this interview which illustrates the character of this great man, though the mention of it may savour a little of vanity on my part. While in conversation with him his secretary twice announced “Governor Buckingham of Connecticut:” one of the noblest and most patriotic of the loyal Governors. Mr. Lincoln said, “Tell Governor Buckingham to wait, for I want to have a long talk with my friend Frederick Douglass.” I interposed, and begged him to see the Governor at once, as I could wait; but no, he persisted he wanted to talk with me, and Governor Buckingham could wait. This was probably the first time in the history of this Republic when its chief magistrate found occasion or disposition to exercise such an act of impartiality between persons so widely different in their positions and supposed claims upon his attention. From the manner of the Governor, when he was finally admitted, I inferred that he was as well satisfied with what Mr. Lincoln had done, or had omitted to do, as I was.
I have often said elsewhere what I wish to repeat here, that Mr. Lincoln was not only a great President, but a great man—too great to be small in anything. In his company I was never in any way reminded of my humble origin, or of my unpopular colour. While I am, as it may seem, bragging of the kind consideration which I have reason to believe that Mr. Lincoln entertained towards me, I may mention one thing more. At the door of my friend John A. Gray, where I was stopping in Washington, I found, one afternoon, the carriage of Secretary Dole, and a messenger from President Lincoln with an invitation for me to take tea with him at the Soldiers’ Home, where he then passed his nights, riding out after the business of the day was over at the Executive Mansion. Unfortunately, I had an engagement to speak that evening, and having made it one of the rules of my conduct in life never to break an engagement, if possible to keep it, I felt obliged to decline the honour. I have often regretted that I did not make this an exception to my general rule. Could I have known that no such opportunity would come to me again, I should have justified myself in disappointing a large audience for the sake of such a visit with Abraham Lincoln.
It is due perhaps to myself to say here that I did not take Mr. Lincoln’s attentions as due to my merits or personal qualities. While I have no doubt that Messrs. Seaward and Chase had spoken well of me to him, and the fact of my having been a slave, and gained my freedom, and of having picked up some sort of an education, and being in some sense a “self-made man,” and having made myself useful as an advocate of the claims of my people, gave me favour in his eyes; yet I am quite sure that the main thing which gave me consideration with him was my well-known relation to the coloured people of the Republic, and especially the help which that relation enabled me to give to the work of suppressing the rebellion and of placing the Union on a firmer basis than it ever had or could have sustained in the days of slavery.
So long as there was any hope whatsoever of the success of rebellion, there was of course a corresponding fear that a new lease of life would be granted to slavery. The proclamation of Fremont in Missouri, the letter of Phelps in the Department of the Gulf, the enlistment of coloured troops by General Hunter, the “Contraband” letter of General B. F. Butler, the soldierly qualities surprisingly displayed by coloured soldiers in the terrific battles of Port Hudson, Vicksburg, Morris Island, and elsewhere, the Emancipation Proclamation by Abraham Lincoln had given slavery many and deadly wounds, yet it was in fact only wounded and crippled, not disabled and killed. With this condition of national affairs came the summer of 1864, and with it the revived Democratic party, with the story in its mouth that the war was a failure, and with General George B. McClellan, the greatest failure of the war, as its candidate for the Presidency. It is needless to say that the success of such a party, on such a platform, with such a candidate at such a time, would have been a fatal calamity. All that had been done towards suppressing the rebellion and abolishing slavery would have proved of no avail, and the final settlement between the two sections of the Republic, touching slavery and the right of secession, would have been left to tear and rend the country again at no distant future.
It was said that this Democratic party, which, under Mr. Buchanan, had betrayed the Government into the hands of secession and treason, was the only party which could restore the country to peace and union. No doubt it would have “patched up” a peace, but it would have been a peace more to be dreaded than war. So at least I felt and worked. When we were thus asked to exchange Abraham Lincoln for McClellan—a successful Union President for an unsuccessful Union General—a party earnestly endeavouring to save the Union, torn and rent by a gigantic rebellion, I thought with Mr. Lincoln, that it was not wise to “swap horses while crossing a stream.” Regarding, as I did, the continuance of the war to the complete suppression of the rebellion, and the retention in office of President Lincoln as essential to the total destruction of slavery, I certainly exerted myself to the uttermost, in my small way, to secure his re-election. This most important object was not attained, however, by speeches, letters, or other electioneering appliances. The staggering blows dealt upon the rebellion that year by the armies under Grant and Sherman, and his own great character, ground all opposition to dust, and made his election sure, even before the question reached the polls. Since William the Silent, who was the soul of the mighty war for religious liberty against Spain and the Spanish inquisition, no leader of men has been loved and trusted in such generous measure as Abraham Lincoln. His election silenced, in a good degree, the discontent felt at the length of the war, and the complaints of its being an Abolition war. Every victory of our arms, on flood and field, was a rebuke to McClellan and the Democratic party, and an endorsement of Abraham Lincoln for President, and his new policy. It was my good fortune to be present at his inauguration in March, and to hear on that occasion his remarkable inaugural address. On the night previous I took tea with Chief Justice Chase, and assisted his beloved daughter, Mrs. Sprague, in placing over her honoured father’s shoulders the new robe, then being made, in which he was to administer the oath of office to the re-elected President. There was a dignity and grandeur about the Chief Justice which marked him as one born great. He had known me in early anti-slavery days, and had conquered his race-prejudice, if he ever had any; at any rate, he had welcomed me to his home and his table, when to do so was a strange thing in Washington; and the fact was by no means an insignificant one.
The inauguration, like the election, was a most important event. Four years before, after Mr. Lincoln’s first election, the pro-slavery spirit determined against his inauguration, and it no doubt would have accomplished its purpose had he attempted to pass openly and recognised through Baltimore. There was murder in the air then, and there was murder in the air now. His first inauguration arrested the fall of the Republic, and the second was to restore it to enduring foundations. At the time of the second inauguration the rebellion was apparently vigorous, defiant, and formidable; but in reality weak, dejected, and desperate. It had reached that verge of madness when it had called upon the negro for help to fight against the freedom which he so longed to find, for the bondage he would escape—against Lincoln the Emancipator for Davis the enslaver. But desperation discards logic as well as law, and the South was desperate. Sherman was marching to the sea, and Virginia with its rebel capital was in the firm grip of Ulysses S. Grant. To those who knew the situation it was evident that unless some startling change was made the confederacy had but a short time to live, and that time full of misery. This condition of things made the air at Washington dark and lowering. The friends of the Confederate cause here were neither few nor insignificant. They were among the rich and influential. A wink or a nod from such men might unchain the hand of violence and set order and law at defiance. To those who saw beneath the surface it was clearly perceived that there was danger abroad; and as the procession passed down Pennsylvania Avenue, I for one felt an instinctive apprehension that at any moment a short from some assassin in the crowd might end the glittering pageant, and throw the country into the depths of anarchy. I did not then know, what has since become history, that the plot was already formed and its execution contemplated for that very day, which though several weeks delayed, at last accomplished its deadly work. Reaching the Capitol, I took my place in the crowd where I could see the Presidential procession as it came upon the east portico, and where I could hear and see all that took place. There was no such throng as that which celebrated the inauguration of President Garfield, nor that of President Rutherford B. Hayes. The whole proceeding was wonderfully quiet, earnest, and solemn. From the oath, as administered by Chief Justice Chase, to the brief but weighty address delivered by Mr. Lincoln, there was a leaden stillness about the crowd. The address sounded more like a sermon than a state paper. In the fewest words possible it referred to the condition of the country four years before, on his first accession to the presidency—to the causes of the war, and the reasons on both sides for which it had been waged. “Neither party,” he said, “expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it had already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding.” Then in a few short sentences, admitting the conviction that slavery had been the “offence which, in the providence of God, must needs come, and the war as the woe due to those by whom the offence came,” he asked if there can be “discerned in this, any departure from those Divine attributes which the believers in a loving God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope,” he continued, “fervently do we pray that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, ‘The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’
“With malice towards none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive to finish the work we are in, and bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and his orphans, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
I know not how many times, and before how many people I have quoted these solemn words of our martyred President; they struck me at the time, and have seemed to me ever since to contain more vital substance than I have ever seen compressed into a space so narrow; yet on this memorable occasion when I clapped my hands in gladness and thanksgiving at their utterance, I saw in the faces of many about me expressions of widely different emotion.
On this inauguration day, while waiting for the opening of the ceremonies, I made a discovery in regard to the Vice-President—Andrew Johnson. There are moments in the lives of most men, when the doors of their souls are open, and unconsciously to themselves, their true characters may be read by the observant eye. It was at such an instant I caught a glimpse of the real nature of this man, which all subsequent developments proved true. I was standing in the crowd by the side of Mrs. Thomas J. Dorsey, when Mr. Lincoln touched Mr. Johnson, and pointed me out to him. The first expression which came to his face, and which I think was the true index of his heart, was one of bitter contempt and aversion. Seeing that I observed him, he tried to assume a more friendly appearance; but it was too late; it was useless to close the door when all within had been seen. His first glance was the frown of the man, the second was the bland and sickly smile of the demagogue. I turned to Mrs. Dorsey and said, “Whatever Andrew Johnson may be, he certainly is no friend of our race.”
No stronger contrast could well be presented between two men than between President Lincoln and Vice-President Johnson on this day. Mr. Lincoln was like one who was treading the hard and thorny path of duty and self-denial; Mr. Johnson was like one just from a drunken debauch. The face of the one was full of manly humility, although at the topmost height of power and pride, the other was full of pomp and swaggering vanity. The fact was though it was yet early in the day, Mr. Johnson was drunk.
In the evening of the day of the inauguration, another new experience awaited me. The usual reception was given at the executive mansion, and though no coloured persons had ever ventured to present themselves on such occasions, it seemed, now that freedom had become the law of the Republic, now that coloured men were on the battle-field mingling their blood with that of white men in one common effort to save the country, it was not too great an assumption for a coloured man to offer his congratulations to the President with those of other citizens. I decided to go, and sought in vain for some one of my own colour to accompany me. It is never an agreeable experience to go where there can be any doubt of welcome, and my coloured friends had too often realised discomfiture from this cause to be willing to subject themselves to such unhappiness; they wished me to go, as my New England coloured friends, in the long ago, liked very well to have me take passage on the first-class cars, and be hauled out and pounded by rough-handed brakesmen, to make way for them. It was plain, then, that some one must lead the way, and that if the coloured man would have his rights, he must take them; and now, though it was plainly quite the thing for me to attend President Lincoln’s reception, “they all with one accord began to make excuse.” It was finally arranged that Mrs. Dorsey should bear me company, so together we joined in the grand procession of citizens from all parts of the country, and moved slowly towards the executive mansion. I had for some time looked upon myself as a man, but now in this multitude of the élite of the land, I felt myself a man among men. I regret to be obliged to say, however, that this comfortable assurance was not of long duration, for on reaching the door, two policemen stationed there took me rudely by the arm and ordered me to stand back, for their directions were to admit no persons of my colour. The reader need not be told that this was a disagreeable set-back. But once in the battle, I did not think it well to submit to repulse. I told the officers I was quite sure there must be some mistake, for no such order could have emanated from President Lincoln; and if he knew I was at the door he would desire my admission. They then, to put an end to the parley, as I suppose, for we were obstructing the door way, and were not easily pushed aside, assumed an air of politeness, and offered to conduct me in. We followed their lead, and soon found ourselves walking some planks out of a window, which had been arranged as a temporary passage for the exit of visitors. We halted as soon as we saw the trick, and I said to the officers. “You have deceived me. I shall not go out of this building till I have seen President Lincoln.” At this moment a gentleman who was passing in, recognized me, and I said to him: “Be so kind as to say to Mr. Lincoln that Frederick Douglass is detained by officers at the door.” It was not long before Mrs. Dorsey and I walked into the spacious East Room, amid a scene of elegance such as in this country I had never witnessed before. Like a mountain pine high above all others, Mr. Lincoln stood, in his grand simplicity, and home-like beauty. Recognising me, even before I reached him, he exclaimed, so that all around could hear him, “Here comes my friend Douglass.” Taking me by the hand, he said, “I am glad to see you. I saw you in the crowd to-day, listening to my inaugural address; how did you like it?” I said, “Mr. Lincoln, I must not detain you with my poor opinion, when there are thousands waiting to shake hands with you.” “No, no,” he said, “you must stop a little, Douglass; there is no man in the country whose opinion I value more than yours. I want to know what you think of it?” I replied, “Mr. Lincoln, that was a sacred effort.” “I am glad you liked it!” he said, and I passed on, feeling that any man, however distinguished, might well regard himself honoured by such expressions, from such a man.
It came out that the officers at the White House had received no orders from Mr. Lincoln, or from any one else. They were simply complying with an old custom, the outgrowth of slavery, as dogs will sometimes rub their necks, long after their collars are removed, thinking they are still there. My coloured friends were well pleased with what had seemed to them a doubtful experiment, and I believe were encouraged by its success to follow my example. I have found in my experience that the way to break down an unreasonable custom, is to contradict it in practice. To be sure in pursuing this course I have had to contend not merely with the white race, but with the black. The one has condemned me for my presumption in daring to associate with them, and the other for pushing myself where they take it for granted I am not wanted. I am pained to think that the latter objection springs largely from a consciousness of inferiority, for as colours alone can have nothing against each other, and the conditions of human association are founded upon character rather than colour, character depending upon mind and morals, there can be nothing blameworthy in people thus equal, meeting each other on the plane of civil or social rights.
A series of important events followed soon after the second inauguration of Mr. Lincoln, conspicuous amongst which was the fall of Richmond. The strongest endeavour, and the best generalship of the rebellion was employed to hold that place, and when it fell, the pride, prestige, and power of the rebellion fell with it, never to rise again. The news of this great event found me again in Boston. The enthusiasm of that loyal city cannot be easily described. As usual, when anything touches the great heart of Boston, Faneuil Hall became vocal and eloquent. This Hall is an immense building, and its history is correspondingly great. It has been the theatre of much patriotic declamation from the days of the “Revolution” and before; as it has, since my day, been the scene where the strongest efforts of the most popular orators of Massachusetts have been made. Here Webster the great “expounder” addressed the “sea of upturned faces.” Here Choate, the wonderful Boston barrister, by his weird, electric eloquence, enchained his thousands; here Everett charmed with his classic periods the flower of Boston aristocracy; and here, too, Charles Sumner, Horace Mann, John A. Andrew, and Wendell Phillips, the last superior to most, and equal to any, have for forty years spoken their great words for justice, liberty, and humanity, sometimes in the calm and sunshine of unruffled peace, but oftener in the tempest and whirlwind of mob-ocratic violence. It was here that Mr. Phillips made his famous speech in denunciation of the murder of Elijah P. Lovejoy in 1837, which changed the whole current of his life and made him pre-eminently the leader of anti-slavery thought in New England. Here too Theodore Parker, whose early death not only Boston, but the lovers of liberty throughout the world, still mourn, gave utterance to his deep and life-giving thoughts in words of fulness and power. But I set out to speak of the meeting, which was held there in celebration of the fall of Richmond, for it was a meeting as remarkable for its composition, as for its occasion. Among the speakers by whom it was addressed, and who gave voice to the patriotic sentiments which filled and overflowed each loyal heart, were the Hon. Henry Wilson, and the Hon. Robert C. Winthrop. It would be difficult to find two public men more distinctly opposite than these. If any one may properly boast an aristocratic descent, or if there be any value or worth in that boast, Robert C. Winthrop may without undue presumption, avail himself of it. He was born in the midst of wealth and luxury, and never felt the flint of hardship or the grip of poverty. Just the opposite to this was the experience of Henry Wilson. The son of common people, wealth and education had done little for him; but he had in him a true heart, with a world of common sense; and these with industry, good habits, and perseverance, had carried him further and lifted him higher, than the brilliant man with whom he formed such a striking contrast. Winthrop, before the war, like many others of his class, had resisted the anti-slavery current of his State, had sided largely with the demands of the slave power, had abandoned many of his old Whig friends, when they went for Free Soil and Free Men in 1848, and had gone into the Democratic party.
During the war he was too good to be a rebel sympathizer, and not quite good enough to become as Wilson was—a power in the Union cause. Wilson had risen to eminence by his devotion to liberal ideas, while Winthrop had sunken almost to obscurity from his indifference to such ideas. But now either himself or his friends, most likely the latter, thought that the time had come when some word implying interest in the loyal cause should fall from his lips. It was not so much the need of the Union, as the need of himself, that he should speak; the time when the Union needed him, and all others, was when the slaveholding rebellion raised its defiant head, not when as now, that head was in the dust and ashes of defeat and destruction. But the beloved Winthrop, the proud representative of what Daniel Webster once called the “solid men of Boston,” had great need to speak now. It had been no fault of the loyal cause that he had not spoken sooner. Its “gates, like those of Heaven, stood open night and day.” If he did not come in, it was his own fault. Regiment after regiment, brigade after brigade, had passed over Boston Common to endure the perils and hardships of war; Governor Andrew had poured out his soul, and exhausted his wonderful powers of speech in patriotic words to the brave departing sons of old Massachusetts, and a word from Winthrop would have gone far to nerve up those young soldiers going forth to lay down their lives for the life of the Republic; but no word came. Yet now in the last quarter of the eleventh hour, when the day’s work was nearly done, Robert C. Winthrop was seen standing upon the same platform with the veteran Henry Wilson. He was there in all his native grace and dignity, elegantly and aristocratically clothed, his whole bearing marking his social sphere as widely different from many present. Happily for his good name, and for those who shall bear it when he is no longer among the living, he was found even at the last hour, in the right place—in old Faneuil Hall—side by side with plain Henry Wilson—the shoemaker senator. But this was not the only contrast on that platform on that day. It was my strange fortune to follow Mr. Winthrop on this interesting occasion. I remembered him as the guest of John H. Clifford of New Bedford, afterwards Governor of Massachusetts, when twenty-five years before, I had been only a few months from slavery—I was behind his chair as waiter, and was even then charmed by his elegant conversation—and now after this lapse of time, I found myself no longer behind the chair of this princely man, but announced to succeed him in the order of speakers, before that brilliant audience. I was not insensible to the contrast in our history and positions, and was curious to observe if it effected him, and how. To his credit, I am happy to say, he bore himself grandly throughout. His speech was fully up to the enthusiasm of the hour, and the great audience greeted his utterances with merited applause. I need not speak of the speeches of Henry Wilson and others, nor of my own. The meeting was in every way a remarkable expression of popular feeling, created by a great and important event.
After the fall of Richmond, the collapse of the rebellion was not long delayed, though it did not perish without adding to its long list of atrocities, one which sent a thrill of horror throughout the civilized world, in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln a man so amiable, so kind, humane, and honest, that one is at a loss to know how he could have had an enemy on earth. The details of his “taking off” are too familiar to be more than mentioned here. The assassination of James Abraham Garfield has made us all too painfully familiar with the shock and sensation produced by the hell-black crime, to make any description necessary. The curious will note, that the Christian name of both men is the same, and that both were remarkable for their kind qualities, and for having risen by their own energies from among the people, and that both were victims of assassins at the beginning of a presidential term.
Mr. Lincoln had reason to look forward to a peaceful and happy term of office. To all appearance, we were on the eve of a restoration of the Union, and a solid and lasting peace. He had served one term as President of the Disunited States, he was now for the first time to be President of the United States. Heavy had been his burden, hard had been his toil, bitter had been his trials, and terrible had been his anxiety; but the future seemed now bright and full of hope. Richmond had fallen, Grant had General Lee and the army of Virginia firmly in his clutch; Sherman had fought and found his way from the banks of the great river to the shores of the sea, leaving the two ends of the rebellion squirming and twisting in agony, like the severed parts of a serpent, doomed to inevitable death; and now there was but a little time longer for the good President to bear his burden, and be the target of reproach. His accusers, in whose opinion he was always too fast or too slow, too weak or too strong, too conciliatory or too aggressive, would soon become his admirers; it was soon to be seen that he had conducted the affairs of the nation with singular wisdom, and with absolute fidelity to the great trust confided to him. A country, redeemed and regenerated from the foulest crime against human nature that ever saw the sun! What a bright vision of peace, prosperity, and happiness must have come to that tired and overworked brain, and weary spirit. Men used to talk of his jokes, and he no doubt indulged in them, but I seemed never to have the faculty of calling them to the surface. I saw him oftener than many who have reported him, but I never saw any levity in him. He always impressed me as a strong, earnest man, having no time or disposition to trifle; grappling the work he had in hand with all his might. The expression of his face was a blending of suffering with patience and fortitude. Men called him homely, and homely he was; but it was manifestly a human homeliness, for there was nothing of the tiger or other wild animal about him. His eyes had in them the tenderness of motherhood, and his mouth and other features the highest perfection of a genuine manhood. His picture, by Marshall, now before me in my study, corresponds well with the impression I have of him. But, alas! what are all good and great qualities; what are human hopes and human happiness to the revengeful hand of an assassin? What are sweet dreams of peace; what are visions of the future? A simple leaden bullet, and a few grains of powder, in the shortest limit of time, are sufficient to blast and ruin all that is precious in human existence, not alone of the murdered, but of the murderer. I write this in the deep gloom flung over my spirit by the cruel, wanton, and cold-blooded assassination of Abraham Garfield, as well as that of Abraham Lincoln.
I was in Rochester, N.Y., where I then resided, when news of the death of Mr. Lincoln was received. Our citizens, not knowing what else to do in the agony of the hour, betook themselves to the City Hall. Though all hearts ached for utterance, few felt like speaking. We were stunned and overwhelmed by a crime and calamity hitherto unknown to our country and our government. The hour was hardly one for speech, for no speech could rise to the level of feeling. Doctor Robinson, then of Rochester University, but now of Brown University, Providence, R. I., was prevailed upon to take the stand, and made one of the most touching and eloquent speeches I ever heard. At the close of his address, I was called upon, and spoke out of the fulness of my heart, and, happily, I gave expression to so much of the soul of the people present, that my voice was several times utterly silenced by the sympathetic tumult of the great audience. I had resided long in Rochester, and had made many speeches there which had more or less touched the hearts of my hearers, but never till this day was I brought into such close accord with them. We shared in common a terrible calamity, and this “touch of nature, made us,” more than countrymen, it made us “kin.”
[* ]I have reason to know that this supposition did Mrs. Lincoln great injustice.