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Excerpt from Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln

Excerpt from 'Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln.'

Lincoln and Douglass met three times. The following excerpt describes
their final meeting.

When Douglass and Lincoln met for the third time, on March 4, 1865, the mood was celebratory. Douglass came to Washington to attend Lincoln’s second inauguration. The war was almost over; 170,000 blacks were in uniform, marching triumphantly across the South; and Congress had recently passed the Thirteenth Amendment, abolishing slavery throughout the United States.

With so many people gathered around the Capitol, Douglass worried about an assassination attempt. In this he was not alone. Since the fall of 1864, reports of conspiracies had circulated through the North, and Lincoln had recently hired a personal bodyguard. During the inauguration, plainclothes policemen stood at his side armed with .38 Colt revolvers. John Wilkes Booth was also there, watching Lincoln from the right balcony. Douglass stood directly in front of Lincoln and had an excellent view.

As it turned out, the ceremony was “wonderfully quiet, earnest, and solemn,” Douglass noted. There was a “leaden stillness about the crowd” as Lincoln delivered his address, and Douglass thought it sounded more like a sermon than a state paper.

In his speech Lincoln emphasizes God’s inscrutability. “Both sides read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other.” He imagines a wrathful God wreaking vengeance against slaveholders but carefully avoids presuming to know God’s will. Such presumption would be hubris, he implies. “The Almighty has His own purposes.” The proper attitude toward people and nations should be one of humility, tolerance and forgiveness. “With malice toward none; with charity for all.”

After the ceremony Douglass went to the reception at the White House. As he was about to enter, two policemen rudely yanked him away and told him that no persons of color were allowed to enter. Douglass said there must be some mistake, for no such order could have come from the president. The police refused to yield, until Douglass sent word to Lincoln that he was being detained at the door.

Douglass found the president in the elegant East Room, standing “like a mountain pine in his grand simplicity and homely beauty.”

“Here comes my friend,” Lincoln said, and took Douglass by the hand. “I am glad to see you. I saw you in the crowd today, listening to my inaugural address.” He asked Douglass how he liked it, adding, “There is no man in the country whose opinion I value more than yours.”

“Mr. Lincoln, that was a sacred effort,” Douglass said.

Excerpted from Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln by John Stauffer. Copyright © 2008 by John Stauffer. Reprinted by permission of Twelve, an imprint of Grand Central Publishing, New York, N.Y.