Frederick Douglass, at the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln, 1865

“I was present at the inauguration of Mr. Lincoln, the 4th of March, 1865. I felt then that there was murder in the air, and I kept close to his carriage on the way to the Capitol, for I felt that I might see him fall that day. It was a vague presentiment.

At that time the Confederate cause was on its last legs, as it were, and there was deep feeling. I could feel it in the atmosphere here. I did not know exactly what it was, but I just felt as if he might be shot on his way to the Capitol. I cannot refer to any incident, in fact, to any expression that I heard, it was simply a presentiment that Lincoln might fall that day. I got right in front of the east portico of the Capitol, listened to his inaugural address and witnessed his being sworn in by Chief Justice Chase. When he came on the steps he was accompanied by Vice-President Johnson. In looking out in the crowd he saw me standing near by, and I could see he was pointing me out to Andrew Johnson, without knowing perhaps that I saw the movement, looked quite annoyed that his attention should be called in that direction. So I got a peep into his soul. As soon as he saw me looking at him, suddenly he assumed rather an amicable expression of countenance. I felt that, whatever else the man might be, he was no friend to my people.

I heard Mr. Lincoln deliver this wonderful address. It was very short; but he answered all the objections raised to his prolonging the war in one sentence — it was a remarkable sentence.

‘Fondly do we hope, profoundly do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war shall soon pass away, yet if God wills it continue until all the wealth piled up by two hundred years of bondage shall have been wasted, and each drop of blood drawn by the lash shall have been paid for by one drawn by the sword, we must still say, as was said three thousand years ago, the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’

-Image courtesy of Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, “Half-length portrait of Frederick Douglass, seated with body right, face forward. ‘Fred. Douglass’ stamped recto below photograph,” studio unknown, circa 1865

For the first time in my life, and I suppose for the first time in any colored man’s life, I attended the reception of President Lincoln on the evening of the inauguration. As I approached the door I was seized by two policemen and forbidden to enter. I said to them that they were mistaken entirely in what they were doing, that if Mr. Lincoln knew that I was at the door he would order my admission, and I bolted in by them. On the inside I was taken charge of by two other policemen, to be conducted as I supposed to the President, but instead of that they were conducting me out the window on a plank.

‘Oh,’ said I, ‘this will not do, gentlemen,’ and as a gentleman was passing in I said to him, ‘Just say to Mr. Lincoln that Fred Douglass is at the door.’

He rushed in to President Lincoln, and in almost less than a half a minute I was invited into the East Room of the White House. A perfect sea of beauty and elegance, too, it was. The ladies were in very fine attire, and Mrs. Lincoln was standing there. I could not have been more than ten feet from him when Mr. Lincoln saw me; his countenance lighted up, and he said in a voice which was heard all around: ‘Here comes my friend Douglass.’ As I approached him he reached out his hand, gave me a cordial shake and said: ‘Douglass, I saw you in the crowd to-day listening to my inaugural address. There is no man’s opinion that I value more than yours: what do you think of it?’

I said: ‘Mr. Lincoln, I cannot stop here to talk with you, as there are thousands waiting to shake you by the hand;’ but he said again: ‘What did you think of it?’ I said: ‘Mr. Lincoln, it was a sacred effort,’ and then I walked off. ‘I am glad you liked it,’ he said. That was the last time I saw him to speak with him.”
-Excerpt courtesy of Digital Public Library of America, Primary Source Sets, “Reminiscence about Abraham Lincoln,” by Frederick Douglass, 1888. (top) Image courtesy of Library of Congress, “The inauguration of Abraham Lincoln, 1865,” by, “an unknown cameraman, probably Alexander Gardner, taken at the east front of the Capitol Building, Washington, D.C., March 4, 1865. Discovered by Lloyd Ostendorf in the files of the National Archives in February 1962, this scene appears to be the earliest of the Second Inaugural views which shows Lincoln,” 1865

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