The following is an exclusive excerpt from THE PRESIDENT AND THE FREEDOM FIGHTER: Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, and Their Battle to Save America’s Soul by Brian Kilmeade, available November 2.
A Final Meeting
At the urging of Black friends, Frederick Douglass went to the White House that evening. Inspired by Lincoln’s speech, he felt himself “a man among men” and ignored the taboo that forbade mingling with Whites at a presidential reception. He decided that “a colored man [might] offer his congratulations to the president.”
After waiting in a long line with thousands of other citizens, Douglass reached the entrance of the executive mansion. Then two guards suddenly interrupted the flow of people, taking Douglass firmly by the arms.
“No persons of color,” they warned.
Unwilling to go quietly, Douglass objected. He insisted that President Lincoln issued no such order. The two burly men in blue uniforms relented — or they seemed to — and “with an air of politeness” permitted him to enter. Once inside, however, they marched him directly to a tall window adapted as an exit.
Douglass halted. “You have deceived me,” he said. “I shall not go out of this building till I see President Lincoln.” Before the standoff could escalate, Douglass recognized a passerby allowed to enter. “Be so kind as to say to Mr. Lincoln that Frederick Douglass is detained by officers at the door.” The man hurried away, and the message, promptly delivered, meant Douglass soon got his wish.
“I walked into the spacious East Room, amid a scene of elegance such as in this country I had never witnessed before.” The Marine Band played as women in silk gowns, generals in their uniforms, and members of the cabinet conversed.
Douglass spotted Lincoln in a receiving line, shaking hands and accepting congratulations, towering “like a mountain pine high above all others.” Lincoln saw Douglass, too, and in a loud voice that carried over the noise in the room, he called out, “And here comes my friend, Frederick Douglass.” Many eyes turned to see the broad- shouldered man, his hair streaked with silver, maneuvering his way through the elegantly dressed guests.
When he approached, Lincoln greeted him, taking Douglass’s hand between his two. “Douglass, I saw you in the crowd today, listening to my inaugural address. How did you like it?” As one young Union officer noted in his diary that night, “The reception of Douglass was the most cordial of any I saw.”
They Meet Again, One Final Time
With a long line of well- wishers waiting to greet the president, Douglass respectfully demurred. “Mr. Lincoln, I must not detain you with my poor opinion, when there are thousands wanting to shake hands with you.” But in this very public moment, the president wanted more from his new friend.
“You must stop a little Douglass; there is no one in the country whose opinion I value more than yours.”
Given no choice, Douglass obliged. Rarely a man of few words, he spoke from the heart as he gave Lincoln what he asked for.
“Mr. Lincoln, that was a sacred effort.”
Some of those surrounding the two men smiled; others frowned. A few looked astonished that such an exchange could even happen, since few politicians would have dared welcome Douglass out of fear that mere association with his name would prove toxic in his next campaign.
But Lincoln was delighted with Douglass’s words: This listener, at least, grasped his essential point.
“I am glad you liked it,” he replied. Douglass, deeply honored by Lincoln’s attentions but caught by the tide of the crowd, moved on.
Not everyone admired or even understood the speech. The New York World thought it an “odious libel” to compare the carnage of the war with the beatings of Negroes and complained that Lincoln had substituted “religion for statesmanship.” Other editors found it perplexing that Lincoln didn’t celebrate the coming victory. Horace Greeley thought it lacked “generosity.” The Daily Ohio Statesman described the address “as chilly and dreary as the day on which it was delivered.” But Lincoln appeared not to mind, acknowledging that he had anticipated not every one would like it, though he thought it would “wear as well as— perhaps better than— anything I have produced.”
Brian Kilmeade is a co-host on Fox News’ top-rated morning show, ‘Fox & Friends,’ as well as the host of ‘The Brian Kilmeade Show’ on Fox News Talk. He is also a bestselling author, with numerous New York Times Bestsellers. His latest book, THE PRESIDENT AND THE FREEDOM FIGHTER: Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, and Their Battle to Save America’s Soul is available November 2, 2021.