Frederick Douglass Meets President Lincoln at White House
August 10, 1863. Twenty-five years after Frederick Douglass fled from Baltimore on the Underground Railroad, the famous abolitionist returned to Baltimore by train on his way to Washington, D.C. His purpose: to meet President Lincoln, but he didn’t have an appointment, and moreover, as Harvard historian John Stauffer points out, it was dangerous for a black man to travel alone into or near slave country.
As he headed for the White House, Douglass ran into Samuel Pomeroy, the antislavery senator from Kansas. Together they went first to the War Department, where they met with Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. Douglass was shocked and thrilled that after a substantive conversation, Stanton offered to make him a commissioned officer, an assistant adjutant to help recruit freedmen in the South. Stanton sent him to the secretary of the interior, John Usher, who gave him a pass that would permit him to travel freely through the Union lines.
As Douglass and Pomeroy left, they bumped into the postmaster general, Montgomery Blair, who added a note and his signature to Douglass’s pass: “Pass this bearer, Frederick Douglass, who is known to be a free man.” Writes Douglass and Lincoln biographer John Stauffer, “Within an hour or so, Douglass had secured endorsements from three of the most powerful men in the nation.”
When Douglass and Pomeroy arrived at the White House, the stairway leading to the president’s office was full of patronage seekers, all white. Sometimes people waited days to see the president, but within two minutes of his leaving his card, Douglass was called for. As he and Pomeroy headed up the stairs, he heard someone say, “Yes, damn it, I knew they would let the nigger through.'”
Lincoln rose to greet Douglass, and putting out his hand, he said, “Mr. Douglass, I know you; I have read about you. . . . Sit down, I am glad to see you.” He put Douglass “quite at ease at once,” and virtually ignored Pomeroy.
Douglass thanked the president for issuing the retaliatory order against Confederates who murdered or enslaved black soldiers, and then asked the President why he had taken so long to do so. He raised the issue of unequal pay. “Although Douglass was not wholly satisfied with Lincoln’s views,” Stauffer writes, “he was struck by the president’s honesty and sincerity. ‘I have never seen a more transparent countenance. There was not the slightest shadow of embarrassment after the first moment.’ And Lincoln did not act superior simply because he was white. . . . ”
At the end of their meeting, Douglass told Lincoln excitedly that Stanton had offered him a commission and intended that he help recruit freedmen. When Douglass showed Lincoln his pass, Lincoln read it, turned it sideways and wrote on it, “I concur. A. Lincoln. Aug. 10, 1863.” In fact, the commission never came and Douglass never went south to recruit freedmen, but he never held it against Lincoln.
As Douglass left their meeting, Lincoln told him, “Mr Douglass, never come to Washington without calling upon me.”
– Submitted by Peter A. Gilbert, executive director, Vermont Humanities Council
John Stauffer, Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, pp. 3-24.
“The Frederick Douglass Papers,” Library of Congress
“Frederick Douglass: Online Resources,” Library of Congress
The Lincoln Lectures — Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, John Stauffer, US National Archives YouTube Channel