East Room: Second Inaugural Levee
On March 4, 1865, an open reception was held here following the Presidential inauguration. "From 8 til 1/4 past 11 the president shook hands steadily, at the rate of 100 every 4 minutes - with about 5,000 persons! Over, rather than under, for I counted the 10 several times, and when they came the thickest he was not over 3 minutes, never over 5. It was a grand ovation of the People to their President, whom they dearly love. Mrs. Lincoln was present through the reception and avowed her intention to remain till morning, rather than have the doors closed on a single visitor. She appeared very gracious and well. She certainly is a woman of endurance, having been all the morning at the Capitol," wrote Benjamin French. 1 The poet Walt Whitman, however, reported that the President was "looking very disconsolate, and as if he would give anything to be somewhere else."2
Prostitutes and criminals were barred by guards -- as was black abolitionist Frederick Douglass. When the ex-slave's argument that the President would welcome him failed to convinced the police, Douglass rushed past them. He was stopped again within the White House. A friend carried Douglass' message to the President, who was greeting the two thousand well-wishers who were standing in line for two hours before they had a chance to shake the President's hand. Douglas was admitted and greeted enthusiastically by the President. The abolitionist writer later wrote of the day's events:
I had for some time looked upon myself as a man, but now in this multitude of the elite 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 color. The reader need not be told that this was a disagreeable setback. 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 doorway 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 so 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 see 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.'
Mrs. Lincoln's seamstress and friend, Elizabeth Keckley, described the importance of the day's events to free and newly liberated blacks:
It was one of the largest receptions ever held in Washington. Thousands crowded the halls and rooms of the White House, eager to shake Mr. Lincoln by his hand, and receive a gracious smile from his wife. The jam was terrible, and the enthusiasm great. The President's hand was well shaken, and the next day, on visiting Mrs. Lincoln, I received the soiled glove that Mr. Lincoln had worn on his right hand that night.
2. Roy Morris Jr., The Better Angel: Walt Whitman in the Civil War, p. 206.
3. Frederick Douglass, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, pp. 356-357.
4. Elizabeth Keckley, Behind the Scenes, pp. 156-161.