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5.0 out of 5 stars What changed Frederick Douglass' mind, April 23, 2007
This review is from: The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics (Hardcover)
Author James Oakes tells us this: in 1860 Frederick Douglass wrote of the upcoming presidential election "I cannot support Lincoln." But in 1888, Douglass said he had met no man "possessing a more godlike nature than did Abraham Lincoln." What had happened?

Oakes gives us a quick glance at his hypothesis within the subtitle of his book: the triumph of antislavery politics. As he explains, this doesn't apply to Lincoln. Lincoln was always an anti-slavery politician, although his thinking on how and how fast slavery should be destroyed changed over time. But with regards to the use of politics as the means to abolish slavery, the man whose thinking moved more was Frederick Douglass. And although the two men share the billing in Oakes' title, this is far more a book about Douglass than Lincoln. It is a book about the evolution of the reasoning of Frederick Douglass.

That evolution, as Oakes paints it, began for Douglass from the belief that the issue of slavery transcended politics and the compromises that came with it. Oakes traces how Douglass the reformer began to be drawn into the political arena, alienating the abolitionists who had first supported his career. But still he carried with him that insistence on absolutism. He brooked no delays, no strategic maneuverings. Lincoln and the Republicans were gradualists, and therefore were deemed irresolute and untrustworthy.

After the Civil War began, Douglass found even more reasons for outrage. Lincoln refused to immediately emancipate the slaves. The President even countermanded the Union generals who issued proclamations freeing the slaves in the territories they conquered. Lincoln had not yet issued a retaliation policy against confederates who captured and often executed southern blacks who had joined the Union army. Oakes gives us deft insights into Lincoln's thinking on all these issues. Douglass, who apparently was not himself an acolyte of consistency, bounced back and forth in his electoral attitudes. But he never let up in his pressure on Lincoln nor in his condemnation of the President's lack of strong steps against slave-holding interests.

Then, first in 1863, Lincoln meets with Douglass. About a year later, at Lincoln's request, they meet a second time and Lincoln asks Douglass to draw up a plan to get as many slaves freed under the Emancipation Proclamation as possible. Over that span Douglass' thinking with regards to Lincoln undergoes a dramatic shift. Afterwards, his criticism of Lincoln essentially stops.

Oakes describes these meetings, including a third just after Lincoln's second inaugural address, in as much detail as consistent with the small format of the book. He relies largely on Douglass' own recollections. Oakes also gives us dramatic retellings of other events in Douglass' career that illustrate the development of his thinking, but also the refinement of his skills as a political strategist.

We are still left wondering what exactly was the effect of those meetings with Lincoln. Was Douglass simply overwhelmed, as others were, by the force of Lincoln's understated humaneness and thereby convinced of the President's genuine concern for blacks? Or did Lincoln persuade Douglass that his political methods were the best possible under the evolving circumstances? Or did Lincoln flatter Douglass into acquiescence, especially in enlisting his help during that second meeting?

These possibilities are not mutually exclusive. Oakes in no way downplays the significance of these meetings. But I believe he wants us to see that what happened was entirely consistent with the evolution of Douglass' thinking with regards to politics. As a reformer, he saw it his job to always keep the pressure on. But where and how best to apply that pressure --- that changed in his meetings with Lincoln. And, near the end of Douglass' life, when he raised Lincoln to sainthood, he was still putting the pressure on. But he was using Lincoln's reputation to apply that pressure against the backsliding that the post-Reconstruction era had brought. Douglass had found a way to combine the duties of a reformer with a sophisticated instinct for politics.

"The Radical and the Republican" is not a dramatic retelling of events. It is certainly not a co-biography of its two principals. But it does have drama. That drama comes from taking Douglass' thinking seriously and mapping out its development and growing political sophistication. To do this, it uses comparisons with Lincoln's thinking and the interplay of the two men's principles and actions. But it's not by accident that Douglass comes first in the book's title and its cover. There are many books about Lincoln. This is a book about Frederick Douglass.
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