02/09/2009 02:27 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A Valentine for President's Day

I've been thinking about an old letter we just put into a display case at the New-York Historical Society--a fragile bit of ink on paper, too delicate to see the light very often, but so full of meaning and emotion that we knew we had to get it out of storage and into public view for Abraham Lincoln's 200th birthday. It's the letter of tribute and consolation that Frederick Douglass wrote to Mary Todd Lincoln in 1865, following the president's tragic death. Somehow, as I reflect on its words, I feel this is one of the most appropriate documents we could be showing right now, not only for Lincoln's birthday and Black History Month but also, strangely enough, for Valentine's Day.

The story behind the letter might seem at first sight to be one of struggle, not love. As a white man formed in the culture of early 19th century Kentucky and Illinois, Lincoln had great difficulty believing that blacks and whites might be equal in character and ability. He had no experience of meeting black people as peers, socially or professionally--until Frederick Douglass entered his sphere, and the undeniable reality of an equal black man was sprung on him.

There were no guarantees that the resulting relationship would be cordial. Douglass pushed relentlessly in his determination to move Lincoln forward in his views on the pace of emancipation and the need for equal treatment of blacks and whites. And instead of feeling resentment, Lincoln came to regard Douglass as a true friend. When Lincoln thought he might lose the 1864 election, he turned to Douglass for a strategy to free as many slaves as possible before a new president took office. Douglass returned respect for respect, calling Lincoln "one of the noblest and wisest and best men I ever knew."

This is the context in which we ought to read Douglass's 1865 letter to Mary Todd Lincoln. When Douglass praises Lincoln for his "humane interest in the welfare of my whole race," we hear the lofty, semi-official tones of the public man. But then another note enters the letter, as Douglass thanks Mrs. Lincoln for making him a gift of her husband's cane, as a last memento of the devotion between these two men. The cane, he writes, was "formerly the property and the favorite walking staff of your late lamented husband the honored and venerated President of the United States." Its symbolism, I think, is almost as romantic as a lock of hair--and Douglass seems to say as much, when he notes how the gift affords him physical proximity to his deceased friend.

Today, we might well honor the close bond that developed between these men, now that the White House is occupied by someone who is, in a sense, a successor to both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. And yet, when President Obama has spoken of transcending differences through trust and goodwill, critics on both the right and the left have scoffed, as if his words were no more substantial than the sentiments on a Valentine's Day card. The evidence of history, though, is on Obama's side.

Lincoln began by thinking that the reforms Douglass called for went beyond what he could deliver while remaining viable as a leader and, eventually, as a candidate for reelection. But, ultimately, Lincoln responded, because he knew that what Douglass so fiercely advocated was right. As the historian James Oakes has pointed out, a democracy requires people like Frederick Douglass, who are indifferent to politics and relentlessly remind us of what must be done. And a democracy benefits when presidents act on good advice, no matter how uncomfortable, as Lincoln did.

The relationship between Lincoln and Douglass shows what friends are really for--and reminds us that some of the deepest, truest emotional ties may begin with an honest disagreement.