Sojourner Truth Visits President Lincoln
October 29, 1864. Franklin C. Counter’s 1893 painting remains the emblematic image of the moment when one of the nation’s most famous abolitionists paid her respects to the man who wrote the Emancipation Proclamation.
In her 1875 autobiography, Truth recounted her visit, made in the company of abolitionist Lucy Colman. After waiting several hours, they finally met the President. Truth wrote:
“I said, ‘I appreciate you, for you are the best president who has ever taken the seat.’ He replied: ‘I expect you have reference to my having emancipated the slaves in my proclamation. But,’ said he, mentioning the names of several of his predecessors (and among them emphatically that of Washington), ‘they were all just as good, and would have done just as I have done if the time had come. If the people over the river [pointing across the Potomac] had behaved themselves, I could not have done what I have; but they did not, which gave me the opportunity to do these things.’ I then said, “I thank God that you were the instrument selected by him and the people to do it.’ I told him that I had never heard of him before he was talked of for president. He smilingly replied, ‘I had heard of you many times before that.’ . . .”
I must say, and I am proud to say, that I never was treated by anyone with more kindness and cordiality than were shown me by that great and good man, Abraham Lincoln, by the grace of God president for four years more. He took my little book, and with the same hand that signed the death-warrant of slavery, he wrote as follows:
For Aunty Sojourner Truth
October 29, 1864
Although this heartwarming story has become part of our national memory, there is significant evidence that much of it is false.
Truth never learned to read or write: everything published in her name was dictated to others. Although in her autobiography, quoted above, she records Lincoln as saying that Confederate behavior “gave me the opportunity to do these things” — that is, emancipate the slaves — in an earlier letter, published in The National Anti-Slavery Standard a little over a month after the meeting, she quotes Lincoln as saying “I was compelled to do these things.”
Historian and Truth biographer Nell Irvin Painter also notes that Lincoln’s statement “I had heard of you many times before that” was added to the account by a later editor of her autobiography.
More damning are the words of Truth’s companion, Lucy Colman, who in 1893 noted tartly that she and Truth had to wait three and a half hours while Lincoln chatted and joked with a variety of white male visitors. When he finally turned to greet the women his demeanor hardened. “He called her ‘Aunty’ . . . as he would his washerwoman.” Colman recalled. When Truth complimented Lincoln as the first anti-slavery president, Colman says he snapped, “I’m not an Abolitionist; I wouldn’t free the slaves if I could save the Union any other way — I’m obliged to do it.” After a brief conversation, Lincoln ushered the women out.
Historians continue to debate what actually happened. While pointing out that Truth’s accounts of her life varied and that she was regularly “edited” by her white sponsors, scholars also regard Colman’s account as unreliable. After all, emancipation was settled policy by the fall of 1864, black troops were in the field, and during his reelection campaign Lincoln had publicly called for a constitutional amendment eliminating slavery.
We’ll never know the whole story. Colman, a militant abolitionist, had little use for Lincoln’s slowness in taking action on slavery and his alleged brusqueness may have been a response to her, not Sojourner Truth. The fact remains that he did give Truth his autograph.
– Submitted by Victor W. Henningsen
The Sojourner Truth Institute, Battle Creek, Michigan
Nell Irvin Painter, Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol (Norton, 1996)
Steve Coates, “Abraham Lincoln and Sojourner Truth,” The New York Times, October 29, 2010.