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Abraham Lincoln, the Great Man of Our Century: An Address Delivered in Brooklyn, New York, on February 13, 1893



Brooklyn , 13 February 1893. Another text in New York , 14
February 1893.

After celebrating Haitian Independence Day at the World’s Columbian Ex-
position in Chicago, Illinois, Douglass returned to his home in Washington,
D.C., for most of the remainder of the winter. On the evening of 13 February
1893, however, Douglass attended a banquet given by the members of the
Union League Club of Brooklyn, New York, at their clubhouse on Bedford
Avenue. More than three hundred prominent Brooklyn Republicans attended
the dinner to commemorate the anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth. The
New York reported that the “big dining hall was handsomely decorated
with bunting, flags, and flowers, and a fine oil painting of the martyred
President was conspicuously displayed.” “After the cigars were lighted,”
according to the New York , the club’s vice president, Benjamin F.
Blair, made a brief address and then introduced Douglass, the principal speak-
er of the evening, to reply to the toast: “Personal Recollections of Abraham
Lincoln.” One account noted that Douglass “stood for several minutes look-
ing upon the cheering group, with a smile of evident satisfaction upon his
interesting features.” In praising Douglass’s speech, the reported that
“his manner was dignified, his style well composed, his language pellucid,
and his thought worthy.” The Indianapolis believed that Douglass‘s
attacks on racial discrimination in his speech “must have caused the cheeks of
more than one of his Caucasian listeners to burn and tingle with shame.” After
Douglass’s hour-long address, the Reverend Henry L. Wayland, former Con-
gressman Stephen V. White, and Edward L. Wallace offered briefer remarks
in response to other toasts regarding Lincoln. Howard M. Smith to Douglass,
10 January 1893, General Correspondence File, reel 6, frame 785. FD Papers,
DLC; New York , 14 February 1893; New York , 14 February
1893; New York , 14, 15 February 1893; Detroit , 24 Febru-
ary, 3 March 1893; Indianapolis , 25 February 1893.

Gentlemen—I beg to remind you at the outset that reminiscences are
generally tedious. I hope you may find mine an exception to the general
rule, though I fear the contrary, for speakers are often more interesting and
eloquent about what they do not know than about what they do know.
(Applause.) It is impossible for me and, perhaps, for anybody else, to say
anything new about Abraham Lincoln. (Applause.) He is in the minds and
hearts of all of us. We know him and know of him, as we know of no other
great man of our century. (Applause.)


I had the good fortune to know Abraham Lincoln personally and
peculiarly. I knew him, not on the side visible to the free, rich and power-
ful, but on the side which he presented to the unfortunate, defenseless, the
oppressed and the enslaved. (Applause.) It is something to know how a
man will deport himself to his admitted equals, but more to know how he
will bear himself to those who are recognized as his inferior. (Applause.) It
is this knowledge of Mr. Lincoln upon which I depend for any interest,
value or significance of my story to you this evening.

Of course, and on general principles, it is a great thing for any man of
what ever condition to know a great man. For a truly great man is rebuke to
pride and selfishness in the strong, and a source of strength to the weak and
unfortunate. The memory of such a great man is ennobling to men already
noble, and we shall all feel better for reviving and keeping alive the
memory of such a man tonight. (Applause.)

Gentlemen, let me be somewhat confidential and autobiographical. I
have sometimes been held up as a man without friends or associates, but
really I have been a very fortunate man during most of my life. Few men
have had a chance to get more that is desirable and valuable out of this life
than I. I have seen both sides of this great world. I have seen men of all
con[ditions,] I have seen men high and low, rich and poor, slave and free,
white and black, and hence I ought to be [a] broader if not a better man,
than most other men. I certainly have no excuse for narrowness or for race
prejudice. I feel it more to be a man and a member of the great human
family than to be a member of any one of the many varieties of the human
race, whether Anglo-Saxon, Anglo-African, or any other.

Among the circumstances in which I deem myself most fortunate, is
that of having seen many great men. They have not been of one country or
of one continent alone. I have seen such men in England, and I have seen
them in this Republic. I have seen men of whom we have all heard; men
who stood only a little lower than the angels.1Douglass adapts PS. 8: 5.


They were great and godlike men, divinely equipped and commis-
sioned from on high to serve the highest needs of mankind. They were not
only uplifted men, but they were uplifting men—men whose range was far
above all that is little, low and mean—but I have met with no such man, at
home or abroad, who made upon my mind the impression of possessing a
more godlike nature than did Abraham Lincoln. (Cheers and applause.)


Greater men than he intellectually there may have been, but, to my
mind measuring him in the direction of the highest quality, of human
goodness and nobility of character, no better man than he has ever stood or
walked upon the continent. (Cheers.) But you did not ask me for my
opinion of Mr. Lincoln. You asked me for my recollections of him, and,
these I shall proceed to give you.

It may be that the conditions surrounding Mr. Lincoln when I first met
him had something to do with the exalted impression I reserved of him. It is
one thing to see a man in prosperity and another thing to see him in
adversity. It is one thing to see him surrounded by hardships, difficulties
and dangers, and it is another thing to see him in his hours of ease and

The time to see a great captain is not when the wind is fair and the sea is
smooth and the man in the cross-trees or round-top can safely sing out, “all
is well.” At such a time a pigmy may seem a giant and a poltroon a hero.
You must see him under other conditions. You must see him when the sky is
dark; see him in rough weather; see him in the hour of danger when he is far
from land in mid-ocean, when his ship is in distress, tossed by the storm,
engine disabled, rudder gone, sails blown away, staunchions staved in,
mountain billows dashing over his deck. It is then, if ever that you may
know the true mettle, of the man. If then you find him calm, collected,
fearless and faithful, manly and undismayed, with no thought in his soul
but the one thought of absolute and over mastering duty, and determined to
do that duty at what ever cost to himself or others. I say that you may then
know that you are in the presence of a hero worthy of your highest human
worship, and such a captain was ours.

The sea was not smooth, the sky was not bright, the wind was not fair,
when I first met and measured Abraham Lincoln. It was in the darkest
hours of the late war. There was much in the situation to make men
anxious. It was a time to make the boldest hold his breath. No man could
tell, at that time, whether the cause of the country would be saved or lost, I
certainly was concerned, not only for the cause of the country, but for the
cause of the slave—a cause for which I had given the best energies of my
soul, the best years of my life, and the deepest longings of my heart.

The leaders of the rebellion were at this time, especially fierce, bold
and defiant. They had, in the pride of their power, scorned to accept the
terms of peace that Mr. Lincoln had a few months before offered them,
whereby they might have saved the lives of many men on both sides North
and South, and their slavery in the bargain.



But it was not only the rebels in arms at the South, but also the disloyal
men at the North, who complicated the problem, and gave Mr. Lincoln
much cause for anxiety. Our forces in the field were diminishing. Recruit-
ing was becoming difficult and well-nigh impossible. The draft was being
resisted. Loyal black men were being murdered in the streets of New York.
Asylums and houses of black people were being burned in resentment of
the draft and of the continuance of the war.2A reference to the attacks on blacks that occurred during the anti-draft riot in New York City from 13 to 16 July 1863. Besides, the administration
was being fiercely assailed by the press, the platform and the pulpit of the
North. Out of this darkness and storm the soul of Lincoln shone with a light
all the more clear, calm and steady. (Applause.)

I first saw Mr. Lincoln in the early summer of 1863.3This interview took place at the White House on 10 August 1863. I had a special
object in seeing him at this time. I had been engaged in raising two regi-
ments of colored men in Massachusetts, the Fifty-fourth and Fifty-fifth.
Two of my sons were in those regiments.4Charles Remond Douglass and Lewis Henry Douglass.
Jefferson Davis had taken notice
of those colored soldiers, and had notified the country that colored men
taken in arms would not be treated as prisoners of war by the confederate
armies, but would be shot or hanged in cold blood, or sold into slavery. It
was about this barbarous threat, in part, that I went to Washington to see
Abraham Lincoln.

It required some nerve to approach the chief magistrate of the Nation
for such a time. I did not know how he would receive a man of my
complexion, or whether he would receive me at all. I was not a member of
Congress, a United States marshal, a minister and consul-general to Hayti,
an elector at large, or even a citizen of the United States, was still under the
ban of the Dred Scott decision. So I felt it a bold thing for me to enter the
White House and presume to talk with the President of the United States.
Besides, I had no one to introduce me. Happily I was soon relieved at this
point. I met with the late Senator Samuel Pomeroy5Samuel Clarke Pomeroy (1816-91) was born in Southampton, Massachusetts, and educated at Amherst College. He became active in the Free Soil party and emigrated to Kansas in 1854 to fight the establishment of slavery there. Kansas Republicans elected him to two terms in the U.S. Senate (1861-73), where he was best-known as an advocate of subsidies to western development. Unsubstantiated charges of bribing state legislators caused his defeat for reelection. Pomeroy then settled in Washington, D.C., where he and Douglass remained friends. Douglass to Samuel C. Pomeroy, 12 November 1874, Samuel C. Pomeroy to Douglass, 14 June 1883, General Correspondence File, reel 2, frames 761-62, reel 3, frames 731-32, FD Papers, DLC; Wilder, , 241, 457, 521, 570; , 5: 60; , 12: 69-70; , 15: 54-55. (three cheers for


Pomeroy), a good and true man, with whom I had become acquainted
during the border-ruffian war in Kansas, and he kindly consented to accom-
pany me to Mr. Lincoln. It was a daring thing for him, Senator though he
was, to walk the streets of Washington with me at that time. To do so was to
invite insult.

This done, I went to the executive mansion, not however, without
much solicitude as to how I should deport myself; how I should order my
speech, and how this great man in his exalted office would be likely to
receive and treat a man of my condition. The result was altogether at
variance with my fears, I had not been an instant in the presence of this
great man before all apprehensions were dispelled.

I saw before me a man, a great man, a tall man physically, and l was not
long in discovering that I was in the presence of a great man mentally. I also
made the discovery that it is much easier to see and converse with a great
man than with a small man; with a big man than with a little one. (Laughter
and applause.)

I found Mr. Lincoln seated in a low chair, and surrounded on all sides
by unbound books and papers which I thought he had been overhauling.


I approached, he began to rise to receive me, and he continued to rise,
higher and higher, till I found myself looking up to him and he looking
down upon me. He gave me a welcome which was none too much, nor too
little, but just enough to make me at ease.

First, I began to talk of myself, as l have been doing this evening. I told
him what I had been doing. He blandly put an end to it all by saying: “Mr.
Douglass, you need not tell me who you are. I know who you are. Mr.
Seward6William Henry Seward. has told me all about you.” Brought thus to a standstill, I pro-
ceeded with the object of my visit.

I said: “Mr. President, I have been recruiting colored troops, and if you
want me to succeed I must be able to assure them that colored soldiers,
while in the service shall have pay equal to that of white soldiers; secondly,
that when they shall perform acts of bravery in battle, which would secure
promotion to white soldiers, the like promotion shall be accorded colored
soldiers; thirdly, that if the threat of Jefferson Davis’s carried out, you,
President Lincoln, will retaliate in kind.” (Good! Good!)

Feeling myself now perfectly free to say to Mr. Lincoln all that I
thought on the subject, I supported my demands as best I could with


arguments, to which he calmly and patiently listened, not once interrupting
me, and when I had finished he made a careful reply, covering each
proposition that I had submitted to him.

He admitted the justice of the demand for equal wages and equal
promotion to colored soldiers, but reminded me that for the moment there
were causes for delay in its execution. He called my attention to the
necessity at that critical time, of avoiding any shock to the prejudices of the
white soldiers, and told me of the many objections there were to making
colored men soldiers; of the doubts entertained of them; of how it was first
proposed that they should be employed simply as laborers; that they should
be clothed in a peculiar and inferior uniform; that they should not bear
arms, but that they should work in trenches with pick-ax and shovel; that,
as time went on, they were thought worthy to be soldiers, but were not to
take the field like other soldiers. They were only to hold fortified positions
in sickly places, after those places should be captured by white soldiers. He
thought it was a great thing that they could be armed and uniformed as
soldiers at all. He held however, that in time the first two points I had
insisted upon would be conceded; that colored soldiers would be equally
paid and equally promoted.

But when it came to the matter of retaliation, the tender heart of the
President appeared in the expression of his eyes, and in every line of his
care worn countenance, as well as in the tones of his appealing voice.
“Ah!” said he, “Douglass, I cannot retaliate. I cannot hang men in cold
blood. I cannot hang men who have had nothing to do with murdering
colored prisoners. Of course, if I could get hold of the actual murderers of
colored prisoners I would deal with them as they deserve, but I cannot hang
those who had no hand in such murders,” (Applause.) I was not convinced
that Mr. Lincoln himself was right. (Applause.)


I could, and did, answer Mr. Lincoln’s arguments; but was silenced by
his over-mastering mercy and benevolence. I had found a President with a
heart—one who could, even in war, love his enemies; and that was some-
thing. In parting he said: “Douglass, never come to Washington without
calling upon me.” And I never did.

Though neither of the objects sought were immediately obtained I was
full of faith in the man, and felt sure that he would do what he could to
secure justice to our soldiers and protection to the lives of colored pris-
oners. I saw Mr. Lincoln several times after this interview, and found him


ever the same large hearted man as when I first met him. At one time during
the war he sent for me to consult as to how to get more slaves into our line.7The second meeting between Douglass and Abraham Lincoln occurred at the White House on 19 August 1864.
He had offered them freedom and protection, but he said that they were not
coming in fast enough.

While we were talking over the matter, Governor Buckingham,8Governor of Connecticut from 1858 to 1866, William Alfred Buckingham (1804-75) was the son of a farmer from Lebanon in that state. He did not attend college and worked in a wide variety of occupations in his youth. In 1830, Buckingham became a carpet manufacturer in Norwich and later served four terms as the town’s mayor (1849, 1850, 1856, and 1857). A Whig turned Republican, Buckingham supported the Union effort in the Civil War by energetically raising regiments in his state where he had been governor since 1858. He declined renomination as governor in 1866 but accepted a seat in the U.S. Senate in 1869. Samuel G. Buckingham, (Springfield, Mass., 1894); Sobel and Raimo, , 1: 177; , 1: 438-39; , 10: 339-40; , 3: 228-29. the
war Governor of Connecticut (applause), was announced, and I at once
arose and asked leave to withdraw, saying to Mr. Lincoln: “I must not stay
to prevent your interview with Governor Buckingham.” Instead of allow-
ing me to leave, he said to the messenger, in his peculiarly high and honest
voice: “Tell Governor Buckingham to wait. I am talking with my friend
Douglass.” (Applause)

In this interview President Lincoln told me to devise some plan by
which to get more slaves within our line, and to submit my plan to him. I
did so; but it was never after to put the plan into operation. Our rapid
successes, and the increasing intelligence of the slaves concerning the new
departure of the loyal people and government in their favor, brought the
freemen into our lines much faster than the means we had could care for

I have often said that Mr. Lincoln was the first great man with whom I
could talk for hours without being once reminded, either by way of compli-
ment or condescension, of my color.

Perhaps this statement was a little too strong; but it seemed true when I
made it. The impression I designed to make was that Mr. Lincoln said and
did nothing during our interview that reminded me in any way of our
difference in color. He not only invited me to see him at the White house,
but he invited me to tea with him at the Soldiers’ Home (applause); and
convinced me that he was far above the prevailing prejudices of his coun-

I found Mr. Lincoln different from my expectation of him, not only in


his kindness to me, but also in his manners, which were very different from
the current representation of them. He had been described as wanting in
dignity, as jocose, and fond of telling witty stories. This description of him
doubtless has some foundation, for

“A little nonsense, now and then,
Is relished by the best of men.”9Horace Walpole and others adapted this epigram from an anonymous nursery rhyme. Edmund Fuller, ed., (New York, 1943), 220.


But I am bound to say of President Lincoln that it was never my lot to
find him in such mood. His whole deportment was a contradiction and a
rebuke to everything like levity or merry-making. He was not only intense-
ly in earnest but sadly in earnest. The dimmed light in his eye, and the deep
lines in his strong American face, told plainly the story of the heavy burden
of care that weighed upon his spirit. I could as easily dance at a funeral as to
jest in the presence of such a man. I feel that his heart was occupied with
thought of his imperiled country and of its brave sons, imperiled and dying
on the battle field. I was present at the beginning of President Lincoln’s
second term, and witnessed his second inauguration.10Douglass attended the second inauguration of Abraham Lincoln in Washington, D.C., on 4 March 1865. I saw and followed
his carriage that day from the White House to the Capitol. Pennsylvania
avenue had not then felt the energy of Governor Shepherd.11An allusion to the public improvements carried out in the District of Columbia in the 1870s under the direction of Alexander Robey Shepherd. It was a
thorough-fare of mud. The wheels of Mr. Lincoln’s carriage sank in it
nearly to the hubs, and it was easy to keep pace with his horses. For some
reason, or for no reason, I was oppressed with a dread foreboding as I
followed his carriage. The fear was upon me that Mr. Lincoln might be shot
down on his way to the Capitol, and it was a great relief to me when the trip
was safely ended. I know not why, but I felt that there was murder in the air
of Washington. No hint had then been given that in the dark places of the
city, some one was seeking the life of Mr. Lincoln.

I stood near the steps of the east front of the Capitol when Mr. Lincoln
appeared and had the oath of office administered to him by Chief Justice
Chase.12Salmon P. Chase. I heard his remarkable, memorable, and, I might say, wonderful
speech on that occasion. To me he seemed more the saint and prophet, in


his appearance as well as in his utterance, than he did the President of a
great nation, and the Commander-in-chief of its army and navy. To under-
stand that brief speech of Mr. Lincoln’s we must remember that he had
been fiercely and bitterly criticised from at least three different quarters. He
had been assailed by Northern Democrats for making the war an Abolition
war. He had been denounced by the Abolitionists for not making it an
Abolition war. He was denounced for not making peace at any price, and,
again, for not prosecuting the war with more vigor. He answered all his
critics with the following brief sentence: “Fondly do we hope, fervently do
we pray that this mighty scourge of war will soon pass away. (Applause.)
Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bonds-
man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until
every drop of blood drawn by the lash shall be paid by another drawn by the
sword, as was said three thousand years ago. so still it must be said: ‘The
judgements of the Lord are true and righteous altogether’ ”13Douglass accurately quotes from Lincoln's second inaugural address. Basler, , 8 : 333. (Applause.)


This was said in a voice of deep solemnity, bordering upon inconsola-
ble sadness; but a voice as firm as the ever lasting hills, and as pure and
clear as the “brave old overhanging sky.”14Douglass roughly paraphrases , act 2. sc. 2, lines 319-20. There seemed at the time to be
in the man’s soul the united souls of all the Hebrew prophets. l was much
relieved when the President returned in safety to his room, for I was, all
through his speech, haunted with the thought that he might be murdered
before he could finish what he had to say.

In the evening I attended Mr. Lincoln’s inaugural reception. It was a
new experience for Washington, a new experience for me, and a new
experience for the country, to see a person like myself present on such an
occasion (Applause.)

I was once in Albany, in company with that princely philanthropist, the
late Hon. Gerrit Smith, and was invited with him to dine with E.C. De-
lavan,15Born in Westchester County, New York, Edward Cornelius Delavan (1793-1871) was one of the nation‘s best-known temperance advocates. In the 1810s and 1820s, Delavan amassed a great fortune importing wine from Europe and speculating in real estate in the Albany, New York, area. He came to recognize the evils of alcohol and helped found the New York State Temperance Society in 1829. Six years later. Delavan became one of the original officers of the American Temperance Union and thereafter he contributed the bulk of his fortune and money to its work. , 2: 134; , 11: 207; , 5: 221. an eminent gentleman of that city. I was about declining to accept


this invitation, when the great hearted Gerrit Smith said: “Oh, yes, Doug-
lass go! Some one must break the ice!” (Laughter.) Well, I did go, and did
break the ice, and have been breaking ice ever since (laughter) and some of
it pretty hard and thick ice. Having witnessed the inauguration of Mr.
Lincoln in the morning, my colored friends urged me to attend the inaugu-
ration reception at the executive mansion in the evening. Here, indeed, I
found solid ice to break, for no man of my race, color or previous condi-
tion, had ever attended such a reception, except as a servant or waiter. I did
not look upon the matter lightly, either subjectively or objectively. To me it
was a serious thing to break in upon the established usage of the country,
and run the risk of being repulsed; but I went to the reception, determined
to break the ice, which I [did] in an unexpectedly rough way.

When myself and companion presented ourselves at the door of the
White House we were met by two sturdy policemen, who promptly in-
formed us that we could not be allowed to enter, and when we attempted to
enter without their consent they pushed us back with some violence. I was,
however, determined not to be repulsed and forced myself and lady inside
the door, despite the guard. But my trouble was not ended by that advan-
tage. A policeman inside met us and with a show of friendliness, said to us:
“Oh, yes; come this way! come this way!” Thinking that he was about to
conduct us to the famous East Room, where the reception was proceeding,
we followed the lead of our new, red-faced, burly, blue-coated friend; but
just when we thought that we were entering, we found ourselves being
conducted through an outside window on a plank for the exit of the visitors.


I never knew so exactly what was meant by walking the plank. (Laugh-
ter) I said, “This will not do.” To a gentleman who was passing at the
moment I said “Tell Mr. Lincoln that Frederick Douglass is at the door and is
refused admission.” I did not walk the plank, and, to the policeman’s
astonishment, was especially invited into the spacious East Room, and we
found ourselves in a bewildering sea of beauty and elegance (applause), such
as my poor eyes had never before seen in any one room at home or abroad.
High above every other figure in the room, and overlooking the brilliant
scene, stood the towering form of Mr. Lincoln, completely hemmed in by
the concourse of visitors passing and taking his hand as they passed. The
scene was so splendid, so glorious that I almost repented of my audacity in
daring to enter.


But as soon as President Lincoln saw me I was relieved of all embar-
rassment. In a loud voice, so that all could hear, and looking toward me, he
said “And here comes my friend, Frederick Douglass!” (Good! Good!) I
had some trouble in getting through the crowd of elegantly dressed people
to Mr. Lincoln.

When I did succeed, and shook hands with him, he detained me and
said, “Douglass I saw you in the crowd to-day, listening to my inaugural
address. How did you like it?” I replied “Mr. Lincoln, I must not stop to
talk now. Thousands are here, wishing to shake your hand.” But he said,
“You must stop. There is no man in the United States whose opinion I value
more than yours. How did you like it?” (Applause.) I said, “Mr. Lincoln, it
was a sacred effort,” and passed on, amid some smiles, much astonishment
and some frowns. And this was the last time that I heard the voice and saw
the face and form of honest Abraham Lincoln.

A few weeks later he fell before the bullet of the assassin. His murder
was the natural outcome of a war for slavery. He fell a martyr to the same
barbarous and bloody spirit which now pursues, with outrage and venge-
ance, the people whom he emancipated and whose freedom he secured.
Did his firm hand now hold the helm of state; did his brave spirit now
animate the Nation; did his wisdom now shape and control the destiny of
this otherwise great republic; did he now lead the once great republican
party, we should not, as now, hear from the Nation’s capital the weak and
helpless, the inconsistent humiliating confession that, while there are mil-
lions of money and ample power in the United States government to protect
the lives and liberties of American citizens in the republics of Hayti and
faroff Chili, and in every other foreign country on the globe, there is no
power under the United States Constitution to protect the lives and liberties
of American citizens in any one of our own Southern states from barbarous,
inhuman and lawless violence.


Douglass, Frederick, 1818-1895


February 13, 1893


Yale University Press 1992



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