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Such a statement would have perplexed most Americans who lived through the Civil War. History is written and documented pretty well across the board. In response, most black Americans who lived through the war looked to him with great admiration and respect. Among the thousands of letters that arrived at the White House during the Civil War, at least came from African Americans.
Their missives discussed a wide range of topics, including military service, inequality in society, the need for financial assistance, and the protection of their rights. To be sure, Lincoln saw very few of these letters, as his private secretaries typically routed them to other federal departments. But when presented with a case in which he could intervene, Lincoln often did so. Some of the most touching letters showed the personal connection that enslaved men and women felt with the president.
With many tears I send you this note through prayer and I desire to render you a thousand thanks that you have brought us from the yoke of bondage. And I love you freely. But I just put all my trust in the Lord and I believe he has brought me conqueror through.
The president, in turn, was so touched by the letter that he kept it in his personal collection of papers, which is now housed at the Library of Congress. Lincoln also met hundreds of African Americans in Washington during the war years. Some came to the White House at his invitation; others walked through the White House gates uninvited and unannounced. Regardless of how they arrived at his doorstep, the president welcomed these visitors with open arms and an outstretched hand.
Black visitors to the White House often remarked that Lincoln treated them with dignity and respect. Many were touched by how he shook their hands and made no acknowledgement of their race or skin color. Lincoln appears to have always shaken hands with his black guests. And, in almost every instance, he seems to have initiated the physical contact, despite the fact that shaking hands, for Lincoln, could be an understandably tiresome chore.
This seemingly small gesture should not be discounted, for it carried not only great personal meaning for the visitors, but also important symbolic meaning for all Americans who witnessed the encounters or read about them in the newspapers. Most white politicians would not have been so genuinely welcoming to African Americans.
As historian James O. Horton and sociologist Lois E. Reformers continued to offer snubs like this in the postwar period. During his run for the presidency infor example, newspaper publisher Horace Greeley ostentatiously showed disdain for a black delegation from Pennsylvania that sought to shake his hand. On April 29,a delegation of six black men from North Carolina—some born free, others enslaved—came to the White House to petition Lincoln for the right to vote.
As the men approached the Executive Mansion, they were directed to enter through the front door—an unexpected experience for black men from the South, who would never have been welcomed this way in their home state. One of the visitors, Rev. Isaac K. We seek, the President! We ask, and receive his sympathies and promises to do for us all he could. Lincoln spoke with the North Carolinians for some time. He shook their hands when they entered his office and again when the meeting ended.
Outside of the White House, Lincoln also showed kindness toward the black Americans he encountered. In Mayhe visited an army hospital at Columbian College now George Washington University where a white nurse introduced him to three black cooks who were preparing food for sick and wounded soldiers. At least one of the cooks had been ly enslaved. Lincoln has received a good deal criticism in the modern era for his views on race. For much of his adult life—including during part of his presidency—he pushed for African Americans to voluntarily leave the United States through a process known as colonization.
In Augusthe condescendingly lectured a delegation of black Washingtonians about why they should endorse this policy. As unfortunate as this meeting appears in retrospect and it did to many at the time as wellhe invited these men to his office in order to accomplish a larger political purpose. Soon afterward Lincoln publicized his words in the newspapers, hoping that they would help prepare the northern electorate for executive action regarding slavery. In essence, he hoped to persuade white voters not to worry about emancipation because he would promote policies that were in their best interest.
Meanwhile, Lincoln was planning to do something momentous and unprecedented—issue his Emancipation Proclamation. Such views have gained currency in the broader popular culture. By AugustLincoln had become convinced that he would lose reelection, allowing an incoming Democratic administration to undo all he had done to bring freedom to the enslaved. The president invited Douglass to the White House, where the two men devised a plan to encourage people still held in bondage to flee to Union lines before Lincoln would be out of office, should he lose.
Fortunately, nothing ever had to come of this desperate plan. The war took a turn for the better, and Lincoln easily won reelection in November And yet that is precisely what Lincoln did.
In daring to admit, nay in daring to invite a Negro to an audience at the White house, Mr. Lincoln did that which he knew would be offensive to the crowd and excite their ribaldry. It was saying to the country, I am President of the black people as well as the white, and I mean to respect their rights and feelings as men and as citizens.
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Abraham Lincoln's Secret Visits to Slaves