Title: The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics
Author: James Oakes
Categories: Political History, Intellectual History, Civil War
Place: The United States (Washington, D.C.)
Time Period: 1850-1865
James Oakes writes a political analysis of the relationship between Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. He begins with their divergent approaches to abolition in 1850: with Douglass advocating for radical, Garrisonian reform, and Lincoln representing an overly cautious political pragmatism. Over the course of the next two decades, the two men would move towards the center, with Lincoln shifting on issues of race and radical emancipation, and Douglass gradually recognizing the need for political maneuvering rather than ideological purity. In the 1850s, Douglass already began moving away from the Garrisonian view - realizing the Constitution held potential for use as an antislavery document (vs. Garrison's rejection of it) and embracing violent means, especially in John Brown's raid in 1859. Lincoln, meanwhile, began his conversion in 1854 with the Kansas-Nebraska Act - after that point, his political position moved from a more traditional Whig emphasis on national improvements of his hero, Henry Clay, and towards slavery being the focal point. Oakes argues that during the 1860 election campaign Lincoln used racism strategically, telling racist jokes and deflecting questions about racial equality in order to gain office.
Once in power, Lincoln began crafting emancipation quietly behind the scenes, first not wanting to scare off jittery border states and then wanting to lay the foundation in the Northern electorate for emancipation being a strategic and necessary component of winning the war. Even as he did so, Lincoln maintained the position that one could be against slavery and not for equality between the races - epitomized by a low point in his presidency's race relations when he lectured black delegates on the need for black colonization after the war. In two meetings with Lincoln, Douglass gradually converted to Lincoln's side - and while he still criticized him for being slow on emancipation and cautious in other issues regarding racial equality, he realized the need for political maneuver, compromise, and pragmatism. After Lincoln's death, Douglass's conversion was complete: he became a staunch Republican advocate and an unabashed political participant. For Oakes, although he tries to balance two sides, Lincoln's side is the one that eventually wins out. As such, this is mainly a book about Lincoln and his political evolution, and secondarily about Douglass. Oakes lobbies for the need for compromise and messy political action rather than staying above the fray in order to achieve political ends.
Key Themes and Concepts
- Importance of political compromise, coalition, and pragmatism rather than ideological purity
- Radical Reform (Douglass) vs. and Antislavery Politics (Lincoln) as two approaches to abolitionism
- Need to convince Northern electorate that emancipation was a key to winning war
U.S. History Qualifying Exams: Book Summaries
by Cameron Blevins
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