Power  /  Book Review

Guests of the Great Emancipator

Lin­coln’s interactions with black Americans provides a valuable resource for understanding a more farseeing Lincoln than the voices of despair have described.
A set of three black and white photographs taken of president Lincoln.
Library of Congress

As he struggled to manage the war, Lincoln also began experimenting with a variety of strategies for slave emancipation. As he did so, his first black visitors made their appearances, starting on April 14, 1862, with African Methodist Episcopal bishop Daniel Alexander Payne, who encouraged Lincoln to sign an emancipation bill for the slaves of the District of Columbia (which Lincoln did two days later). Payne was struck by how “there was nothing stiff or formal in the air and manner” of Lincoln, no Weberian charisma. “President Lincoln received and conversed with me as though I had been one of his intimate acquaintances or one of his friendly neighbors.”

Payne’s reception set a pattern; it was followed by appointments with Alexander Crummell and John D. John­son three days later, the reception of black diplomats from Haiti and Liberia, and Frederick Douglass him­self in Au­gust 1863. Douglass was not entirely sure of how welcome he would be at the White House, since he had been sharp and unsparing in his criticism of Lincoln’s slow pace toward an emancipation proclamation, and of the president’s reluctance to promise reprisals against Confederate POWs when the rebels began threatening to enslave captured black soldiers. To his astonishment, Douglass “was never more quickly or more completely put at ease in the presence of a great man than in that of Abraham Lincoln,” who “listened with patience and silence to all” he had to say. When Douglass recounted this meeting at the American Anti-Slavery Society’s 30th-anniversary convention in Philadelphia the following December, he described his reception at the White House as what occurred when “you have seen one gentleman receive another”; “I tell you I felt big there.”

From that point, the stream of black visitors to Lincoln’s White House only widened further. For the first time, in January 1864, black callers joined the crowds waiting to shake Lincoln’s hand at his annual New Year’s levee. Free black Louisianans — Arnold Bertonneau and Jean Baptiste Roudanez — arrived to lobby for black voting rights in Re­construction Louisiana (triggering a letter from Lincoln to its new Unionist governor, Michael Hahn, urging the en­franchisement of “the very intelligent, and especially those who have fought gallantly in our ranks”). The cutting edge of American black leadership — Abraham Galloway, Martin Delany, Sojourner Truth, and once more Frederick Douglass — moved through Lincoln’s office, and in 1864, black missionary and fraternal organizations were authorized to hold fundraising picnics on the White House lawn.