Appeal to Lincoln

JONATHAN W. WHITE A house built by slaves enters the debate on Abraham Lincoln’s attitude and policies toward African Americans. What was Lincoln’s disposition towards African Americans? Did he see them as morally, politically, or socially equal? Was he too slow in issuing his declaration of emancipation on January 1, 1863? Where did Lincoln stand in the vanguard of anti-slavery and abolitionist advocates, and has his views changed over time?

A key participant in recent disputes over the removal of Lincoln statues and Lincoln’s name from public schools, White brings impressive credentials to this seminal book about Lincoln’s commitment to African Americans during his four years as President from 1861 to 1865.

From the start, he doesn’t pull historical punches. “Historians have underestimated the racial egalitarianism that arose in the Lincoln White House during the Civil War.” He writes that historians have made a number of assumptions about Lincoln’s views on race that have prevented them from doing the day-to-day historical detective work, which is at the heart of his extensive research into who actually visited the White House.

Many historians have attempted to understand Lincoln’s journey with slavery. How were Lincoln’s ideas about slavery influenced by his trip to New Orleans in 1828, where he first encountered the horrors of the slave markets at age 19? When the Kansas-Nebraska Act allowed slavery to expand west into the Territories, how did it restart Lincoln the lawyer’s political career? What did he say about African Americans in his 1858 debates with Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas, who attacked Lincoln as a “black Republican”? Recently, some have emphasized Lincoln’s support for colonization up to the moment when he first drafted an Emancipation Proclamation in 1862. Did he frame the final proclamation simply as a smart political or military act with no real sentiment for African Americans?

White references all of these questions in Lincoln’s journey with African Americans, but that’s not the story he wants to tell. Through searching through journals, letters, and memoirs, he has uncovered the visits to the White House by several African Americans, either at Lincoln’s invitation or on their own initiative. White’s analyzes of the nature of these engagements are the depth and breadth of this impressive book. To carefully authenticate his sources, an appendix includes a number of other meetings that he says may or may not have taken place, and thus defines them as “unconfirmed”.

In telling his story, White begins with the infamous episode of Lincoln’s August 1862 conversation with a committee of five African-American leaders visiting the White House. After telling them that Congress provided money for colonization and pointing out the difficulties of living together, he concludes: “It is therefore better for both of us to be apart.” Nikole Hannah-Jones recounts this story inside The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story — but it’s one of the few mentions of Lincoln. White wants us to know that there are so many other engagements.

Many African-American White House visitors recorded not only what Lincoln said, but also his expressive body language during their meetings. In his authorial voice, White summarizes these encounters by saying that, in today’s language, they encountered a leader who demonstrated “authenticity.” Among the first African American leaders to visit the President was Bishop Daniel Alexander Payne of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, who said of his visit: “President Lincoln received me and spoke to me as if I were one of his close acquaintances or one of his friendly neighbors.”

The most important visitor was Frederick Douglass. White begins his book with an inscription from their first meeting at the White House in August 1863. As Douglass related on several occasions, the President greeted him at the White House “as you have seen a gentleman receive another.” He was also “impressed by his complete freedom from popular prejudice against the colored race”. Douglass noted how the President stood when entering the room, which he took as a sign of respect.

Visitors to the White House came any day and any time. Presenting his business card, Douglass expected to wait hours or days to see the President and was surprised when he was quickly admitted. Union Sister Mary Livermore said, “For the lowly, the humble, the timid colored man or woman, he bowed in peculiar kindness.”

Lincoln understood that meeting Douglass and other African Americans in the White House could prove politically costly. In fact, these meetings did not go unnoticed. They were covered and criticized in various newspapers.

Not all of Lincoln’s encounters with African Americans took place in the White House. Every day in 1862, 1863 and 1864 Lincoln traveled three and a half miles to his summer residence at the Soldier’s Home – now restored as Mr. Lincoln’s Cottage. On his way to work, he is said to have stopped several times at a camp on Seventh Street populated by formerly enslaved people. A witness named Mary Dines said Lincoln listened intently to the singing there.

White poses a two-pronged question: what did Lincoln learn from these various encounters with African Americans, and what did African Americans learn about Lincoln? Did Lincoln change his mind because of these visitors and visits?

Douglass, who would go back and forth in his evaluation of President Lincoln (during Lincoln’s lifetime and thereafter), was absent from Lincoln’s first inaugural address. In 1861 he was disappointed when the new president, acting as an olive branch to the apostate southern states, hinted that he would retain the hated refugee slave law.

He attended Lincoln’s second inauguration on March 4, 1865, having met with Lincoln three times at the White House. As Douglass observed the silence of the crowd while the President spoke, he thought he understood why: “The address sounded more like a sermon than a state newspaper.”

At 8:00 p.m. that evening, the doors of the White House opened and free fighting ensued as people rushed in to witness the opening reception. In the East Room, Lincoln prepared to shake hands with more than 6,000 people.

Douglass was determined to take part, but the old rules still applied. Police officers blocked him twice. When he finally managed to enter, he asked a guest to tell Lincoln that he was being held. His appeal reached the President.

As he entered the East Room, Lincoln called out, “Here comes my friend Douglass.” The President took Douglass by the hand and said, “Glad to see you. I saw you in the crowd today listening to my inaugural address; how did you like it?”

The reformer replied: “Mr. Lincoln, I can’t keep you with my bad opinion when there are thousands waiting to shake your hand.”

“No, no,” Lincoln replied, “I want to know what you think of that.”

“Mr. Lincoln, that was a holy effort,” Douglass replied.

Both Lincoln and Douglass learned from each other. White’s accessible book puts a human face—many human faces—to the story of Lincoln’s attitude and commitment to African Americans.


Ronald White is the author of the New York Times bestselling biographies A Lincoln and American Ulysses.

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