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.’
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 homelike beauty, recognizing 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 today, 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 honored by such expressions, from such a man.3
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.
Many colored people in Washington, and large numbers had desired to attend the levee, but orders were issued not to admit them. A gentleman, a member of Congress, on his way to the White House, recognized Mr. Frederick Douglass, the eloquent colored orator, on the outskirts of the crowd.
‘How do you do, Mr. Douglass? A fearful jam to-night. You are going in, of course?’
‘No-that is, no to your last question.’
‘Not going in to shake the President by the hand! Why, pray?’
‘The best reason in the world. Strict orders have been issued not to admit people of color.’
‘It is a shame, Mr. Douglass, that you should thus be placed under ban. Never mind; wait here, and I will see what can be done.’ The gentleman entered the White House, and working his way by the President, asked permission to introduce Mr. Douglass to him.
‘Certainly,’ said Mr. Lincoln. ‘Bring Mr Douglass in, by all means. I shall be glad to meet him.’
The gentleman returned, and soon Mr. Douglass stood face to face with the President. Mr. Lincoln pressed his hand warmly, saying: ‘Mr. Douglass, I am glad to meet you. I have long admired your course, and I value your opinions highly.’
Mr. Douglass was very proud of the manner in which Mr. Lincoln received him. On leaving the White House he came to a friend’s house where a reception was being held, and he related the incident with great pleasure to myself and others.
On the Monday following the reception at the White House, everybody was busy preparing for the grand ball to come off that night. I was in Mrs. Lincoln’s room the greater portion of the day. While dressing her that night, the President came in, and I remarked to him how much Mr. Douglass had been pleased on the night he was presented to Mr. Lincoln. Mrs. L. at once turned to her husband with the inquiry, ‘Father, why was not Mr. Douglass introduced to me?’
‘I do not know. I thought he was presented.’
‘But he was not.’
‘It must have been an oversight then, mother; I am sorry you did not meet him.’4
- Donald B. Cole and John J. McDonough, editors,Witness to the Young Republic: A Yankee’s Journal, p. 466.
- Roy Morris Jr.,The Better Angel: Walt Whitman in the Civil War, p. 206.
- Frederick Douglass,Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, pp. 356-357.
- Elizabeth Keckley,Behind the Scenes, pp. 156-161.