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Brenda Wineapple on Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass
Posted on Jan 23, 2009
Are you ready for Lincoln? With the bicentennial of his birth in sight—to say nothing of last Tuesday’s historic inauguration of President Barack Obama, who happened to launch his presidential campaign from Springfield, Ill.—new books about the 16th president, never in short supply, have been coming down the pike: Lincoln as emancipator, as passive pragmatist (the David Herbert Donald view), as melancholic, as homosexual, as husband, as racist, as Jacksonian, as Jeffersonian, as lawyer, as reader and canonical writer (a fine new book by Fred Kaplan), as reconsidered (the recent, excellent volume edited by Eric Foner), as containing multitudes (George Frederickson’s posthumous insight), and as brilliant commander in chief (the latest contribution of James McPherson). And that’s not all: Still coming are books on Lincoln in 1864 and Lincoln and his Cabinet secretaries and Lincoln and his admirals and Lincoln and Darwin (from the elegant pen of Adam Gopnik) and Lincoln and the Todds, as well as “Mary Todd Lincoln,” by Catherine Clinton, and “The Lincoln Anthology: Great Writers on His Life and Legacy,” edited by eminent Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer and published by the Library of America. In addition, a magisterial new biography, “A. Lincoln,” by the eloquent Ronald C. White Jr., will attempt to meld these Lincolns into a whole.
The Radical and the Republican
By James Oakes
W. W. Norton, 352 pages
Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln
By John Stauffer
Twelve, 448 pages
Most of these perspectives are interesting, some genuinely illuminating, and taken together suggest that the smiling aspects of American life, as novelist William Dean Howells, himself a Lincoln biographer, once infelicitously said, are not the most American after all: Lincoln presided over a bloodfest in which at least 620,000 men (2 percent of the population) died in uniform, often in unspeakable ways, as recently documented in Drew Gilpin Faust’s heartrending “This Republic of Suffering.” But as Howells also said, Americans like their tragedies to have happy endings, and Lincoln managed to do what other statesmen, abolitionists, preachers, insurrectionists, writers and people of good will could not: get rid, once and for all, of the barbaric business of slavery.
Did he do it alone? Of late, a methodical and centrist Lincoln has been placed next to Frederick Douglass, a man of very dissimilar character and outlook, to salutary effect. Significantly complementing one another in the struggle to end slavery, these two unusual men, a revolutionary black leader and a reluctant liberator, came to share a goal, or so Paul and Stephen Kendrick contend in their dual biography, “Douglass and Lincoln.” To them, Lincoln’s straightforward intention was first and foremost to save the Union and preserve the status quo while putting slavery “in course of ultimate extinction”; Douglass, by contrast, insisted on abolition, immediately and unequivocally, though he zigged and zagged about the best way to secure it, tacking from Garrisonian nonpolitical nonviolence to an allegiance with the Free Soilers to a flirtation with John Brown before re-embracing politics as a means for accomplishing his ends.
The various means Lincoln and Douglass proposed to eliminate slavery and their eventual agreement are the subject of historian James Oakes’ perceptive “The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics.” Explaining that his book is not a biography or a study of lives and times but rather “a close reading of the things Lincoln and Douglass had to say about slavery and race, about politics, and war, and about each other,” Oakes, a pellucid writer, avoids the unnecessary clutter of biographical detail without shortchanging his subjects’ singular early lives or the impact that slavery and poverty, to name just two salient elements, had on their thinking. Moreover, Oakes, Distinguished Professor of History at City University of New York, begins his book with a series of seemingly basic questions: “Here are two men whose historical reputations rest chiefly on their mutual hatred of slavery. Why did it take so long for them to appreciate each other? What kept them apart, and what eventually drew them together?”
According to Oakes, the simple answer (and simple answers are, to him, never that simple) is that though Lincoln was a practical and even conservative politician and Douglass a radical reformer, their essential dedication to equal rights actually linked the men long before either of them knew it. Plus, Lincoln and Douglass were both performers; they manufactured their own images (voice of moderation/aggrieved citizen; man of reason/man of passion; conservative/radical) to fit the moment, which just happened to be a national crisis. And “seen together,” Oakes declares, Lincoln and Douglass “reveal what can happen in American democracy when progressive reformers and savvy politicians make common cause.”
Lincoln slowly formulated his political identity out of the ashes of the Whig Party to emerge as one of the most eloquent anti-slavery politicians of the day—the “day” being 1854, when the Kansas-Nebraska Act effectively repealed the Missouri Compromise to allow the extension of slavery into free territories, and the day also being 1857, when the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision denied citizenship to blacks and declared unconstitutional any attempt to prohibit the spread of slavery. But if Lincoln seemed to share the white supremacist beliefs of most Republicans, clinging, for example, to the ridiculous idea of colonizing free blacks in Liberia or Central America, he abjured the racist rhetoric employed by Democrats like Stephen Douglas. That was not enough. To Frederick Douglass, Lincoln’s defense of black freedom was tardy, cold and indifferent.
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