Frederick Douglass naturally voiced and wrote opinions of many leading figures of the age. Here are a few observations from this manliest of men on various presidents.
Unless otherwise noted, all excerpts are from The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass.
Douglass met Lincoln in person three times. On the third occasion, the day of Lincoln’s second inaugural, Lincoln greeted Douglass in the East Room of the White House as “my friend Douglass."
“Like a mountain pine high above all others, Mr. Lincoln stood, in his grand simplicity, and home-like beauty. Recognizing me, even before I reached him, he exclaimed, so that all around could hear him, "Here comes my friend Douglass." Taking me by the hand, he said, "I am glad to see you. I saw you in the crowd to-day, listening to my inaugural address; how did you like it?" I said, "Mr. Lincoln, I must not detain you with my poor opinion, when there are thousands waiting to shake hands with you." "No, no," he said, "you must stop a little, Douglass; there is no man in the country whose opinion I value more than yours. I want to know what you think of it?" I replied, "Mr. Lincoln, that was a sacred effort." "I am glad you liked it!" he said, and I passed on, feeling that any man, however distinguished, might well regard himself honored by such expressions, from such a man.”
“Mr. Lincoln was not only a great President, but a great man — too great to be small in anything. In his company I was never in any way reminded of my humble origin, or of my unpopular color.”
“Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent; but measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined.”
See separate entry Douglass on Lincoln in 1876 for details of this speech.
Andrew Johnson proved no friend of blacks and was one of the most virulently racist men to be president. Douglass got a first glimpse of this at Lincoln’s second inaugural, an impression confirmed when Douglass and a delegation of black leaders met with Johnson in 1866.
“On this inauguration day, while waiting for the opening of the ceremonies, I made a discovery in regard to the Vice-President—Andrew Johnson. There are moments in the lives of most men, when the doors of their souls are open, and unconsciously to themselves, their true characters may be read by the observant eye. It was at such an instant I caught a glimpse of the real nature of this man, which all subsequent developments proved true. I was standing in the crowd by the side of Mrs. Thomas J. Dorsey, when Mr. Lincoln touched Mr. Johnson, and pointed me out to him. The first expression which came to his face, and which I think was the true index of his heart, was one of bitter contempt and aversion. Seeing that I observed him, he tried to assume a more friendly appearance; but it was too late; it was useless to close the door when all within had been seen. His first glance was the frown of the man, the second was the bland and sickly smile of the demagogue. I turned to Mrs. Dorsey and said, "Whatever Andrew Johnson may be, he certainly is no friend of our race.”
Ulysses S. Grant
General and President Ulysses S. Grant fought for civil rights long after the general public had soured on Reconstruction. Because of Grant’s efforts, the 1872 elections in the South were the fairest until the 1960s. Grant names Douglass to serve on a commission related to his ill-fated attempt to annex Santo Domingo, but Douglass was disappointed that Grant never appointed him to an actual office.
“To [Grant] more than any other man the negro owes his enfranchisement and the Indian a humane policy. In the matter of the protection of the freedman from violence his moral courage surpassed that of his party; hence his place as its head was given to timid men, and the country was allowed to drift, instead of stemming the current with stalwart arms.”
(Source: Quoted in Frank Scaturro, President Grant Reconsidered)
“As it was, the question [of black enfranchisement] was speedily taken out of the hands of colored delegations and mere individual efforts, and became part of the policy of the Republican party, and President Grant, with his characteristic nerve and clear perception of justice, promptly recommended the great amendment to the Constitution by which colored men are today invested with complete citizenship -- the right to vote and to be voted for in the American Republic.”
During the election of 1872, when Douglass was chosen to be vice president on the Equal Rights Party, and liberal Republicans joined with the Democrats, Douglass chose to stick with Grant: “He was my choice upon grounds altogether free from selfish or personal considerations. I supported him because he had done all, and would do all, he could to save not only the country from ruin but the emancipated class from oppression and ultimate destruction, and because Mr. [Horace] Greeley, with the Democratic party behind him, would not have the power, even if he had the disposition, to afford us the needed protection which our peculiar condition required.”
When Grant considered -- and was considered for -- a third term in 1880, Douglass initially thought that Grant would be the better choice: “I was for General Grant, and for him with all the embarrassment and burden of a 'third term' attaching to his candidacy. I held that even defeat with Grant was better than success with a temporizer.”
Hayes appointed Douglass to the post of U.S. Marshall for the District of Columbia in 1877. There was some minor controversy over Douglass’ status as Marshall, which he explains in Life and Times. However:
“In so far as my intercourse with him is concerned, I can say that I at no time discovered in him a feeling of aversion to me on account of my complexion, or on any other account, and, unless I am greatly deceived, I was ever a welcome visitor at the Executive Mansion on state occasions and all others, while Rutherford B. Hayes was President of the United States. I have further to say that I have many times during his administration had the honor to introduce distinguished strangers to him, both of native and foreign birth, and never had reason to feel myself slighted by himself or his amiable wife; and I think he would be a very unreasonable man who could desire for himself, or for any other, a larger measure of respect and consideration than this at the hands of a man and woman occupying the exalted position of Mr. and Mrs. Hayes.”
Douglass came to appreciate Garfield in the latter's brief time in office. Garfield had named Douglass the Recorder of Deeds in the District of Columbia. In his last duty as U.S. Marshall, Douglass had been privileged to escort Garfield to his inauguration.
“…[S]oon after he came to Washington, I had a conversation with him of much interest to the colored people, since it indicated his just and generous intentions towards them, and goes far to present him in the light of a wise and patriotic statesman, and a friend of our race.”
“…[W]e have reason for profound regret that Mr. Garfield could not have lived to carry out his just and wise intentions towards us. I might say more of this conversation, but I will not detain you except to say, that America has had many great men, but no man among them all has had better things said of him, than he who has been reverently committed to the dust in Cleveland to-day.”
The 23rd president appointed Douglass as a diplomat to Haiti. In 1890, the president attempted to get a strong civil rights bill through Congress, attempting to secure the franchise and basic rights for blacks that had been under assault since the end of slavery. The bill failed when Congress changed hands.
“To my mind, we never had a greater President. [Harrison’s efforts] should endear him to the colored people as long as he lives.”
(Source: Benjamin Harrison by Charles W. Calhoun, citing Indiana Magazine of History, December 2004 issue. It’s a curious remark, considering Harrison failed to win his civil rights legislation, whereas Lincoln (obviously) and Grant were much more successful.)