Calling on Lincoln

By Ronald WhiteJune 16, 2022

Calling on Lincoln

A House Built by Slaves: African American Visitors to the Lincoln White House by Jonathan W. White

JONATHAN W. WHITE’S A House Built by Slaves steps into the debate about Abraham Lincoln’s attitudes and policies toward African Americans. What was Lincoln’s disposition toward African Americans? Did he think of them as moral, political, or social equals? Did he move too slowly in issuing his Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863? Where did Lincoln stand in the vanguard of antislavery and abolitionist advocates, and did he change his views over time?

White, an important participant in the recent disputes over removing Lincoln statues and Lincoln’s name from public schools, brings impressive credentials to this pathbreaking book about Lincoln’s engagement with African Americans during his four years as president from 1861 to 1865.

From the beginning, he pulls no historical punches. “Historians have underestimated the racial egalitarianism that emerged in the Lincoln White House during the Civil War.” He writes that historians have made an array of assumptions about Lincoln’s views on race, which stopped them from doing the day-by-day historical detective work that is the heart of his extensive research about who actually visited the White House.

Many historians have tried to understand Lincoln’s journey with slavery. How were Lincoln’s ideas about slavery affected by his 1828 journey to New Orleans, where, at 19 years old, he first encountered the horrors of slave markets? When the Kansas-Nebraska Act made it possible for slavery to extend west into the territories, how did it restart the political career of Lincoln the lawyer? What did he say about African Americans in his 1858 debates with Stephen A. Douglas, the Illinois senator who attacked Lincoln as the “Black Republican”? Recently, some have emphasized Lincoln’s advocacy for colonization right up to the moment when he first drafted an emancipation proclamation in 1862. Did he craft the final proclamation simply as a shrewd political or military act without any real feeling for African Americans?

White references all these questions in Lincoln’s journey with African Americans, but this is not the story he has chosen to tell. By mining diaries, letters, and memoirs, he has uncovered the White House visits of multiple African Americans, either at Lincoln’s invitation or on their own initiatives. White’s analyses of the nature of those engagements are the depth and breadth of this impressive book. Careful to authenticate his sources, an appendix includes a number of other meetings, which he says may or may not have taken place and thus defines as “unconfirmed.”

In narrating his story, White deals at the outset with the infamous episode of Lincoln’s August 1862 conversation with a committee of five African American leaders who visit the White House. After telling them that Congress had appropriated money for colonization, and suggesting the difficulties of living together, he concludes, “It is better for us both, therefore, to be separated.” Nikole Hannah-Jones tells this story in The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story — but it is one of the few mentions of Lincoln. White wants us to know there are so many other engagements.

Many African American visitors to the White House recorded not just what Lincoln said but also his expressive body language during their meetings. In his authorial voice, White sums up these encounters by saying that, in today’s language, they encountered a leader who exhibited “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 and conversed with me as though I had been one of his intimate acquaintances or one of his friendly neighbors.”

The most important visitor was Frederick Douglass. White begins his book with an epigraph from their first White House meeting in August 1863. As Douglass would recount on several occasions, the president welcomed him to the White House, “just as you have seen one gentleman receive another.” He was furthermore “impressed with his entire freedom from popular prejudice against the colored race.” Douglass emphasized how the president stood up when he entered the room, which he received as a mark of respect.

White House visitors came on all days and at all hours. Douglass presented his calling card, expecting to wait for hours or days to see the president, and was surprised when he was ushered in swiftly. Union nurse Mary Livermore mentioned, “To the lowly, to the humble, the timid colored man or woman, he bent in special kindliness.”

Lincoln understood that to meet with Douglass and other African Americans in the White House could prove politically costly. Indeed, 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. In 1862, 1863, and 1864, Lincoln traveled three and a half miles each day to his summer retreat at the Soldier’s Home — now restored as Mr. Lincoln’s Cottage. On his commute, it is said that he stopped several times at a camp on Seventh Street populated by formerly enslaved people. A witness named Mary Dines recounted how Lincoln listened intently to the singing there.

White asks a two-sided question: What did Lincoln learn from African Americans in these various encounters, and what did African Americans learn about Lincoln? Furthermore, did Lincoln change his mind because of these visitors and visits?

Douglass, who would go back and forth on his evaluation of President Lincoln (during Lincoln’s lifetime and after), was not present at Lincoln’s first inaugural address. In 1861, he was disappointed when the new president, as an olive branch to the seceding Southern states, indicated that he would retain the hated fugitive slave law.

He attended Lincoln’s second inaugural on March 4, 1865, after having met with Lincoln three times in the White House. Observing the crowd’s silence as the president spoke, Douglass believed he understood why: “The address sounded more like a sermon than a state paper.”

That evening, at 8:00 p.m., the doors of the White House opened, and a free-for-all ensued as people rushed in to attend the inaugural reception. In the East Room, Lincoln prepared to shake the hands of the more than 6,000 people.

Douglass was determined to attend, but the old rules were still in place. Twice, police officers barred him. Finally managing to enter, he asked a guest to tell Lincoln he was being detained. His appeal reached the president.

When he entered the East Room, Lincoln called out, “Here comes my friend Douglass.” Taking Douglass by the hand, the president said, “I am 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 must not detain you with my poor opinion, when there are thousands waiting to shake hands with you.”

“No, no,” Lincoln answered, “I want to know what you think of it.”

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

Both Lincoln and Douglass learned from each other. White’s accessible book puts a human face — many human faces — on the story of Lincoln’s attitudes toward and engagement with African Americans.


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

LARB Contributor

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


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