- The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics
All who appreciate fine political biography will find this an unusually rich and rewarding book. James Oakes develops an illuminating account of how two profoundly gifted political leaders—Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln—moved from deeply conflicting approaches to the problem of slavery to positions of mutual respect that made them significant wartime collaborators in the cause of emancipation. Absent the incessant efforts of charismatic agitators like Douglass in rousing opinion against slavery, Lincoln might well not have become the Great Emancipator. Absent the deep political pragmatism that was Lincoln's, Douglass's lifelong struggle to destroy the peculiar institution might well have concluded in failure. Because of Oakes's demonstration of these points, the threadbare debate over who "really" abolished slavery—Lincoln—the abolitionists—the slaves themselves—can, thankfully, be set aside. Only when the work of the war-energized, black-empowered abolitionist movement exemplified by Douglass began converging with the interests of mainstream Republican politics presided over by Lincoln did emancipation become a reality. Slavery was destroyed by powerful collective movements that evoked highly effective [End Page 89] responses from these two exceptional leaders; abolition was not the result of such leaders acting on their own.
The twisting paths toward political convergence taken by Douglass and Lincoln developed from starkly contrasting beginnings during the antebellum years. By tracing these personal odysseys so vividly and placing them in such revealing political counterpoint, Oakes proves himself a superb biographer. At first blush, the two could not have had less in common. Douglass, the escaped slave, embodied the demands of militant black abolitionism—immediate emancipation by whatever means available and full equality for all dark-skinned peoples. Lincoln, the cautious politician, trafficked in colonization and racial stereotypes, upheld slavery in the states where the law protected it, and opposed slavery not because of its inherent brutality but because it degraded the nobility of free labor. Yet along with these abrasive points of contention, Oakes argues, during the 1840s and 1850s Lincoln and Douglass underwent parallel processes of political evolution that brought them closer together ideologically and into increasingly open political engagement with one another.
Douglass, for his part, moved beyond Garrisonian disunionism to embrace abolitionist politics and the idea that the Constitution supported slave emancipation. Lincoln, meanwhile, jettisoned his initial commitments to high tariffs and internal improvements for an ever-deepening belief that slavery corrupted the American experiment and that it must, somehow, be done away with. By the later 1850s, according to Oakes, both agreed on at least this much: Slavery had proven incompatible with American values. The founding fathers had intended the Constitution as an antislavery document. The further expansion of slavery into western territories would be a moral and political disaster. By the 1860 elections, Douglass had moved from political alienation to full and highly critical engagement with the party of Lincoln, wishing the Republicans well but condemning them nevertheless for their racism and for opposing legislative emancipation.
This mutual ambivalence between Lincoln and Douglass became the hallmark of their estimates of one another throughout the war. Their convergence in no sense led to any deeper consensus. Frustrated by the president's continuing interest in colonization and his reluctance to enlist black soldiers, declare emancipation, and extend equal rights to freed people, Douglass condemned Lincoln incessantly and joined other disaffected radicals who supported John C. Fremont in the election of 1864. But at the same time, when Lincoln finally opened the army to black recruits and issued the Emancipation Proclamation, [End Page 90] Douglass extolled the president. On the three occasions Lincoln met with the great abolitionist, Douglass reported that Lincoln always treated him as an equal, to the point of introducing him publicly as "my good friend." In 1864, on the last of these occasions, Lincoln actually tried to persuade Douglass to lead an effort to infiltrate the South with agents who would help slaves escape into the union, thereby...