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5.0 out of 5 stars The Politician and the Reformer, March 22, 2007
This review is from: The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics (Hardcover)
Abraham Lincoln (1809 --1865) and Frederick Douglass (1818 -- 1895)are American heroes with each exemplifying a unique aspect of the American spirit. In his recent study, "The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics" (2007), Professor James Oakes traces the intersecting careers of both men, pointing out their initial differences and how their goals and visions ultimately converged. Oakes is Graduate School Humanities Professor and Professor of History at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He has written extensively on the history of slavery in the Old South.

Oakes reminds the reader of how much Lincoln and Douglass originally shared. Lincoln and Douglass were self-made, self-educated, and ambitious, and each rose to success from humble backgrounds. Douglass, of course, was an escaped slave. Douglass certainly and Lincoln most likely detested slavery from his youngest days. But Lincoln from his young manhood was a consummate politican devoted to compromise, consensus-building, moderation and indirection. Douglass was a reformer who spoke and wrote eloquently and with passion for the abolition of slavery and for equal rights for African Americans.

Much of Oakes's book explores the difficult subject of Lincoln's attitude towards civil rights -- as opposed simply to the ending of slavery -- and of how Lincoln's views developed during the Civil War. Oakes uses Douglass as a foil for Lincoln beginning with the Lincoln -- Stephen Douglas debates in Illinois in 1858. Steven Douglas tried hard to link Lincoln to Frederick Douglass and to abolitionism. He claimed that Lincoln favored equal rights for Negroes and raised the spectre of intermarriage between white women and black men. Portions of Lincoln's responses to Stephen Douglas were almost as distressing, as Lincoln carefully avoided supporting civil equality between the races and stressed instead the evil of slavery and the need to stop its expansion. It is not surprising that Douglass the abolitionist was ambivalent and mistrustful of Lincoln in the early years, doubting his committment to the cause of ending slavery.

Douglass continued to distrust President Lincoln. Douglass found the President too quick to temporize and too slow to act towards freeing the slaves. In widely publicized actions, Lincoln had rebuked two of his generals, Freemont and Hunter, who had tried to take aggressive action to free slaves. Lincoln had acted in order to keep on good terms with the border states whose support he deemed necessary to a successful war effort. But Douglass saw Lincoln's actions as weak and waffling.

Douglass's attitude gradually changed with the Emancipation Proclamation and with three meetings between the two men in 1863, 1864, and 1865. Douglass was won over by the President. Lincoln, for his part, seemed to view Douglass with genuine affection and friendship. Douglass gave masterful orations summarizing Lincoln's accomplishments following Lincoln's assassination, in 1876 at the unveiling of the Emancipation Monument in Lincoln Park, Washington, D.C., and throughout the rest of his life. Lincoln had fought slavery with every means at his command, Douglass came to believe, given the difficult political and military situation with which he had to deal.

Douglass' career moved in an opposite direction from that of Lincoln. He began as a reformer and a follower of the abolitionist William Garrison and he initially shared Garrison's contempt for the American political process. Gradually, Douglass found his own voice, and he became convinced the the United States Constitution did not support slavery. He came to conclude that it was possible to work for change through the political process, and this belief eventually allowed a convergence between him and Lincoln. With the conclusion of the Civil War, Douglass became a party man and a stalwart Republican -- perhaps giving up more than he should have of the passion of his early years. While he ultimately saw the failure of Reconstruction, Douglass remained for the rest of his long life firmly within the American political process.

Oakes does an excellent job of comparing and contrasting the work of Lincoln and Douglass. His accounts of the complex events leading to the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation are particuarly lucid. Oakes argues that Lincoln had surreptitiously delivered the death blow to slavery by the end of 1861. As to Douglass, I learned a great deal from Oakes's discussion of his three autobiographies, written in 1845, 1855, and 1881 (editied, 1891) and of how these works document the change of Douglass from reformer to an instance of the American success story. Oakes also describes well and detail a chilling meeting between Douglass and other African American leaders and President Andrew Johnson in which Douglass unsuccessfully tried to persuade Johnson to extend the right to vote to African Americans.

Oakes has written a readable, informed account of the achievements of two great American leaders. The attitudes which they represent -- the politican and the reformer -- and the issues with which they struggled remain with Americans today.

Robin Friedman
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Robin Friedman
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Location: Washington, D.C. United States