With the 2nd inauguration of President Obama just completed, it set me to thinking about another Civil War relationship of note, and how it culminated at Lincoln's Second Inauguration in an episode that was unimaginable when he was first elected, a scant four years earlier. It was a rare moment of historical evolution made manifest in a flash, and more profoundly than any conscious attempt to do so would be likely to achieve.
A Harbinger of Change
Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln first met at the White House in the summer of 1863, when the abolitionist leader came to the White House to ask Lincoln to support equal pay for black Union soldiers, and to seek his condemnation of the summary execution of many captured black soldiers that was part of a new Confederate policy of treating Union POWs quite differently according to race.
Douglass was struck by how welcoming Lincoln was. "I was never more quickly, or more completely, put at ease in the presence of a great man than in that of Abraham Lincoln," he later recalled. Lincoln explained to Douglass that he was aware of both the unequal pay issue, and the Confederacy's criminal treatment of black prisoners, but had waited to publicly address these issues until black combat units had distinguished themselves in battle - as they recently had during several engagements. He thought that only then would white Northerners be receptive to a Presidential appeal for equality of treatment.
Douglass left feeling he'd learned a lot about the breadth of considerations great leaders must take into account before taking actions that seem like "no brainers" to outside observers. And he also left with the distinct sense that this man - Lincoln - possessed a "humane spirit" which drove all his actions. "I tell you I felt big there!" he said of their meeting.
The two men met again just before the election of 1864. Lincoln feared he would lose and wanted Douglass to help in a campaign to get as many slaves as possible to leave their plantations before a new President would take over, and possibly retract the Emancipation Proclamation. They talked for hours.
Lincoln, of course, did not lose the election, and it was at the Inaugural Ball held at the White House that they saw each other for the last time. The inertia of racism, though, almost prevented this meeting. Guards stopped Douglass as he attempted to enter the executive mansion, telling him that their orders were to admit no "colored" people.
Douglass had a white friend go inside and tell Lincoln that he was being denied entry. Within minutes word came that he - and any other blacks wanting entry - were to be allowed inside. This alone was an astounding development since, other than as servants, no blacks had ever been allowed into an inaugural ball before.
As Douglass entered and stood in the grand ballroom amidst hundreds of other well wishers, Lincoln suddenly spotted him and said in a loud voice for all to hear, "Here comes my friend Douglass." As he reached the President, Lincoln clasped his hand and said, "I am glad to see you. I saw you in the crowd today, listening to my inaugural address; how did you like it?". Douglass, thinking it a rhetorical question, mumbled an appreciative bromide, and aware of the throng seeking the President's attention, began to move on.
Lincoln, though, stopped him from departing so hastily and 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 thought of it?" There then passed a few moments in which the two men stood regarding each other - the throng around them now suddenly grown quiet - realizing that Lincoln was being completely sincere. Lincoln knew that Frederick Douglass, thus prompted, would speak his mind. Those listening knew this too.
Finally Douglass said in a loud, deep voice, "Mr. Lincoln - that was a sacred effort." Lincoln's face came alive with happiness. "I'm glad you liked it," he said, as the two men appreciatively looked deep into each other's eyes. And then the festivities continued.
Two Paths Crossed
Frederick Douglass had traveled a long path to that exchange. Having, on more than one occasion, questioned Lincoln's abilities and commitment to freedom, he now knew that this man had grown into a true friend, and a champion of racial justice. Whereas just a few years earlier such an exchange would've been an impossibility, the route they had both traversed to this night of triumph now made their words seem almost preordained. They had both matured and evolved into men that foreshadowed the emergence of an entirely new nation than the one they had both grown up in.
We are certainly still on that path toward the racial justice that each man so clearly perceived in the other that night. Tremendous achievements have been made, yet few would dispute that there is more work - more growing - to come. But what that brief public meeting signaled to all who witnessed it - then, and now - was that people really can learn, and grow. That evolution is about more than learning to walk on two feet, but also about learning how to live with each other - how to become humane - how to become one. And never has there been a more sacred effort than that.