A Meeting with the President

A Meeting with the President

President’s Day, a federal holiday, honors President George Washington, the first President, and President Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President. During the days of Washington and Lincoln, it was a lot easier to get an appointment with the President than it is today. In August 1863, Frederick Douglass, a human rights leader in the anti-slavery movement who himself was born into slavery, came to Washington, D.C. to meet with President Lincoln.

Frederick Douglass wanted an immediate meeting with the president to discuss the treatment of black Civil War Union soldiers who were captured by Confederate troops and were mutilated, tortured and assassinated. Some had even been sold into slavery. The White House had remained silent on these events, which deeply troubled Douglass, who had been instrumental in recruiting black soldiers to serve in the Union Army. He felt particularly responsible for their treatment upon capture.

 In describing the scene on the White House lawn, when he sought a meeting with President Lincoln, Douglass noted that all the others waiting in the crowd to see Lincoln were white. He said he expected to have to wait for at least a half day; however, he was wrong about that. It only took a couple of minutes for a White House messenger to come out of the White House and summon Frederick Douglass from the crowd, calling his name. It was an astonishing moment, one he often spoke of and included in his book, “Frederick Douglass: Selected Speeches and Writings.” 

After Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, which included a provision calling for black men to enlist in the U.S. Army, Douglass began recruiting for the Union. In fact, two of his sons were among the first black men to enlist, and they also recruited black men to join the Union Army.  It became common knowledge that black soldiers imprisoned by the Confederate forces were mutilated, assassinated and sold into slavery, yet the White House maintained its silence in the wake of these human rights violations.  This silence infuriated Douglass, who sought a meeting with Lincoln to address the subject. In his published writings at the time, Douglass explained that he could not in good faith continue to recruit black men, and he criticized Lincoln for failing to retaliate for the treatment endured by the black soldiers. 

When Frederick Douglass entered the White House that day, he had no idea how he would be received, but he was determined to argue his position. When he introduced himself to Lincoln, Lincoln said, “I know who you are, Mr. Douglass.” With that, Douglass wasted no time in getting to his point.  In addition to the atrocities and lack of protection of black soldiers, Douglass argued for equal pay for black soldiers. He urged the United States government to retaliate in kind for the treatment of the black soldiers, but Lincoln would not agree to retaliation or equal pay. He did, however, agree to sign any commission for black soldiers recommended by the secretary of war.  Douglass later wrote that while he was not entirely satisfied with the meeting, he was satisfied with Lincoln’s understanding of the circumstances.

For Lincoln’s part, he extended at least three more White House invitations to Douglass, including the president’s second inauguration. In his address, Lincoln called slavery “an offense against God.” When asked by Lincoln what he thought of the second inaugural address, Douglass replied, “Mr. Lincoln, that was a sacred effort.” This was particularly noteworthy, because prior to meeting Lincoln, Douglass had labeled Lincoln’s first inaugural address “a weak and inappropriate utterance” that announced, “complete loyalty to slavery in the slave States” and denied “all feeling against slavery.” Frederick Douglass, himself a great orator, seems to have had some influence with the President.


President’s Day, a federal holiday, honors President George Washington, the first President, and President Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President. During the days of Washington and Lincoln, it was a lot easier to get an appointment with the President than it is today.