October 29, 1864 (Saturday)
Many legends have since wandered into our national memory concerning the role Sojourner Truth, the former-slave and abolitionist, had in Lincoln’s administration. Though her influence in this specific area was overstated and, in many cases, completely fabricated, her own words describing the only time the President and she formally met remain for us to consider. Just over two weeks after their meeting, which took place on this date, she wrote to a friend, describing the event.
It was about eight o’clock, a. m., when I called on the President. Upon entering his reception-room we found about a dozen persons in waiting, among them two colored women. I had quite a pleasant time waiting until he was disengaged, and enjoyed his conversation with others ; he showed as much kindness and consideration to the colored persons as to the whites, — if there was any difference, more.
One case was that of a colored woman, who was sick and likely to be turned out of her house on account of her inability to pay her rent. The President listened to her with much attention, and spoke to her with kindness and tenderness. He said he had given so much he could give no more, but told her where to go and get the money, and asked Mrs. C [Lucy Colman], who accompanied me, to assist her, which she did.
The President was seated at his desk. Mrs. C. said to him : ‘This is Sojourner Truth, who has
come all the way from Michigan to see you.’ He then arose, gave me his hand, made a bow, and
said : ‘I am pleased to see you.’
I said to him : ‘Mr. President, when you first took your seat I feared you would be torn to pieces,
for I likened you unto Daniel, who was thrown into the lions’ den; and if the lions did not tear you into pieces, I knew that it would be God that had saved you; and I said if He spared me I would see you before the four years expired, and He has done so, and now I am here to see you for myself.’
He then congratulated me on my having been spared. Then I said: ‘I appreciate you, for you are the best President who has ever taken the seat.’ He replied thus : ‘I expect you have reference to
my having emancipated the slaves in my proclamation. But,’ said he, mentioning the names of several of his predecessors, (and among them emphatically that of Washington,) ‘they were all just as poor, and would have done just as I have done if the time had come. If the people over the river (pointing across the Potomac) had behaved themselves, I could not have done what I have; but they did not, and I was compelled to do these things.’
I then said: ‘I thank God that you were the Instrument selected by Him and the people to do it.’
He then showed me the Bible presented to him by the colored people of Baltimore, of which you have heard. I have seen it for myself, and it is beautiful beyond description. After I had looked it over, I said to him: ‘This is beautiful indeed ; the colored people have given this to the Head of the Government, and that Government once sanctioned laws that would not permit its people to learn
enough to enable them to read this Book. And for what? Let them answer who can.’
I must say, and I am proud to say, that I never was treated by any one with more kindness and cordiality than was shown me by that great and good man, Abraham Lincoln, by the grace of God
President of the United States for four years more.
He took my little book, and with the same hand that signed the death-warrant of slavery, he wrote
as follows: —
‘ For Aunty Sojourner Truth,
‘ Oct. 29, 1864. A. Lincoln.’
As I was taking my leave, he arose and took my hand, and said he would be pleased to have me call again. I felt that I was in the presence of a friend, and I now thank God from the bottom of my heart that I always have advocated his cause, and have done it openly and boldly. I shall feel still more in duty bound to do so in time to come. May God assist me.
Though this meeting was a short and simple affair, there was more to it than first appears. Lucy Colman wasn’t just someone who accompanied Ms. Truth, but was a force in and of herself. She was a champion not only of abolitionism, but of womens suffrage. She was well-known for renouncing Christianity and having a field day exposing the hypocrisy of her Christian hecklers and opponents. That said, she had a deep affection for both Truth and Frederick Douglass, both professed believers.
Her take on Truth’s meeting with the President showed the workings behind the scenes that were left out of the above record.
When Sojourner reached Washington she supposed she could walk right into the White House, have a good chat with the President, and be asked to call again, perhaps but it took some weeks to get an appointment for her. This I finally accomplished by the aid of Mrs. Knightly, Mrs. Lincoln’s dressmaker, a colored woman who, because of her business, was in almost daily communication with the President’s family. At last the appointment was made for one Saturday morning at eight o’clock, and promptly at the hour we were there.
The war was in progress at that time, and much business occupied even the morning hours of Mr. Lincoln. The receiving-room was well filled before nine o’clock, and still no call came for us. At last, at half-past eleven, the call came for Mrs. Colman and her friend. While we were waiting, there had come into the room a colored woman, whom I asked if she had an appointment with the President, or any one to take her into his presence, to which she answered, “No, but I must see him.” I said, “You may go in with me,” and so I went into the room with two of the blackest women I ever saw, not as my escort, but I as theirs.
Colman was much more critical of Lincoln than Truth was. Her account, written over twenty-five years after the meeting, is interesting, but should be taken with a grain of salt.
“Mr. Lincoln was not himself with this colored woman,” wrote Colman, “he had no funny story for her, he called her aunty, as he would his washerwoman, and when she complimented him as the first Antislavery President, he said, ‘I’m not an Abolitionist; I wouldn’t free the slaves if I could save the Union in any other way—I’m obliged to do it.'”
According to Colman, the woman asking for money appeared before the President after Truth had met with him. She claims to have stayed behind, and read to him the letter written by the aforementioned destitute woman. Apparently, she was the wife of a black soldier and was being evicted because her husband had not yet been paid.
As I read, Mr. Lincoln said, “Tis a hard case, but what can I do? I have no more money than she has. Can’t you take her off my hands?” “Mr. President,” I said, “when I came in I told you I had no personal favor to ask of you, but I shall be very happy to grant you one, and if you will put upon this envelope the words you have just repeated to me, ‘ I think this a hard case, but what can I do? I have no more money than she has,’ signing your name as the President of the United States, I will gladly relieve you of this woman.” He saw his inconsistency, but taking the letter, wrote upon the envelope, “I think this a worthy object.—Abe Lincoln.
The above is more or less believable, especially considering the stretch of a quarter-century between the meeting and the writing. Colman claimed to have a separate conversation with the President, and walked away with this impression:
When we had done talking, which was some minutes, I knew he was not glad that the war had made him the emancipator of four million slaves. Perhaps he came to rejoice over it, when he realized that by the logic of events his name would be immortal through that act, but at that time he did not see it. He believed in the white race, not in the colored, and did not want them put on an equality.
If Truth felt slighted in the least, she never mentioned it (and stated much to the contrary). After the war, she would continue to lecture and tour until her death at the age of eighty-six. In a biography written in the early 1900s, there appeared a story that encapsulates how Ms. Truth lived her life:
“She sometimes made very strong points in the course of her speech, which she knew hit the apologists of slavery pretty hard. At the close of one of these meetings a man came up to her and said, ‘Old woman, do you think that your talk about slavery does any good? Do you suppose people care what you say? Why,’ continued he, ‘I don’t care any more for your talk than I do for the bite of a flea.’
‘Perhaps not,’ she responded, ‘but, the Lord willing, I’ll keep you scratching.'”1
- Sources: Narrative of Sojourner Truth by Olive Gilbert; The Inner Life of Abraham Lincoln: Six Months at the White House by Francis Carpenter; Reminiscences by Lucy Newhall Colman; The Negro in American History by John Wesley Cromwell; Narrative of Sojourner Truth by Sojourner Truth. [↩]