Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Just finished reading - The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics by James Oakes

James Oakes doesn't try to write a co-biography of these two fascinating and complex men, rather he examines their differences and similarities, and how those differences and similarities changed over time to eventually work in concert to eliminate the institution of slavery from America.

Oakes states that, "Lincoln and Douglass were very different men. True, there were parallels. Both had grown up in poverty; they were largely self-taught; in a generation of great orators they were two of the greatest; in the century of the self-made man both came to see their lives as exemplary. Still, they were very different men, and not merely because one was born free and white and the other black and enslaved. Though both hated slavery, they hated it in different ways and not always for the same reasons. Their personalities were different as well. Douglass had the blustery, oversize persona of a nineteenth-century Romantic. When he spoke, he roared, his booming baritone complemented by waving arms and devastating mimicry. Abraham Lincoln was the cautious grandchild of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. He stood still when he spoke, hands behind his back, his voice high-pitched but clear enough to he heard over large audiences." Now, if that isn't great historical writing, I don't think I will ever see it.

Oakes's point about Lincoln and Douglass's differences on slavery is a large part of what the book is about. See, Douglass was an abolitionist. By that I mean he wanted an immediate, uncompensated end to slavery right the minute he was speaking or writing about it. Lincoln was known to be more, shall I say, "antislavery" in his attempts to end the institution. By antislavery I mean that Lincoln felt that a gradual, compensated plan along with colonizing the slaves back to Africa, Central America, or the Caribbean islands was the best way to end the practice. Lincoln was the consummate politician. He fully understood America's attitude toward blacks leading up to the Civil War, and he wanted to do as little as possible to hurt his chances at election - and once the war started, he didn't want to lose the slave holding border states that remained in the Union by acting too aggressively. Whereas Lincoln was seen by Douglass as slow to emancipation, Douglass was on fire. In fact, Douglass did not come to fully support Lincoln until after Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation. He felt that Lincoln's promise in his first inaugural address to not interfere with slavery where it already existed was bad policy and didn't go far enough to overturn the status quo. One example of their diverse views on slavery was Douglass's reverence for John Brown and his violent tactics to end slavery. Whereas Lincoln saw Brown's effort as largely foolish and damaging to the real current interests of the nation.

Douglass and Lincoln met three times during his administration. All three times were at the White House and a fourth invitation was arranged for tea at the Presidential Cottage, but didn't work out. Douglass came away impressed all three times with Lincoln's sincerity and friendliness. Although Douglass harbored thoughts and feelings that Lincoln could have done more and earlier against the institution, he genuinely respected Lincoln and the pressures of his position. In the end both got what they wanted in the beginning. Douglass saw the end of slavery and Lincoln saw the Union preserved and the threat of the extension of slavery thwarted.

This is the third book I have read by historian James Oakes, and it is just as informative and entertaining as the other two; The Ruling Race: A History of American Slaveholders and Slavery and Freedom: An Interpretation of the Old South. I proudly recommend all three.

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