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Arts and Culture

Brenda Wineapple on Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass

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Posted on Jan 23, 2009

By Brenda Wineapple

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. 

 

book cover

 

The Radical and the Republican

 

By James Oakes

 

W. W. Norton, 352 pages

 

Buy the book

 

book cover

 

Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln

 

By John Stauffer

 

Twelve, 448 pages

 

Buy the book

 

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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By John Mercer, January 23, 2009 at 9:57 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Ms. Wineapple does a nice job of reviewing recent publications on Lincoln/Douglass but I would like to offer a bit of perspective that I believe she fails to provide .  Lincoln was a politician, first and last, and he wisely understood that in order to be elected President he could never get too far out ahead of the public he intended to lead, no matter what his personal beliefs were.  In 1860 the white men and boys of the North had no intention to fight and die to free the slaves. They would and did, though, fight and die to preserve the Union.  As it was, as tepid as Lincoln’s views on race are considered to be by many present day reviewers, in 1860 they were radical enough to cause 7 states to secede from the Union before he was even inaugurated! Also, had the Democratic Party not splintered it is unlikely that Lincoln, who received just 40% of the popular vote, would’ve been elected at all.  Any person, white or black, with Douglass’ views was simply unelectable. And if you are not elected you can not lead.  Lincoln understood this.  In many respects, Douglass was much freer than Lincoln to voice what he truly believed.  Lincoln was neither spineless nor a racist, the false choices that James Oakes would leave us with.  He was, thankfully, a shrewd politician with a tremendously developed moral character who got himself elected President and managed to lead his countrymen to a better approximation of the American ideal.

Joshua Speed was also brought up in the review but I mention him here to illustrate that Lincoln’s sense of decency extended to men of all races.  The Know-Nothings or Nativist Party were an anti-immigrant (i.e.,anti German and Irish) and anti-Catholic party. They were so powerful at one point that they ran an ex-president (Millard Fillmore) for president on their ticket.  Many members of Lincoln’s former party, the Whigs, became Know Nothings.  Prominent members included Samuel Morse, inventor of the telegraph, and Lyman Beecher, father of Harriet Beecher Stowe (Uncle Tom’s Cabin) and famed minister Henry Ward Beecher.  It was somewhat ironic that many ardent abolitionists were so casually anti-Catholic and anti-Irish in their views.  However, such were the times that these prejudices were not a hindrance and an aspirant to public office crossed the Nativists at his peril.  In Lincoln’s famous letter to Speed he states. “I am not a Know Nothing. This is certain. How can anyone who abhors the oppression of Negroes be in favor of degrading classes of white people?  Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid.  As a nation we began by declaring, “All men are created equal.”  We now practically read it “all men are created egual, except negroes.”  When the Know Nothings get control it will read, “all men are created equal, except negroes and foreigners and Catholics.”  When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty, to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.” Here is Lincoln calling out some of his former Whig allies at potential political risk to himself.  Did Douglass ever call out his abolitionist friends on their anti-Catholic and anti-Irish views or was he silent?  That would be an interesting subject to explore.

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By Big B, January 23, 2009 at 5:52 pm Link to this comment

It’s a shame to think that if Douglass were around today, the white community would treat him like Al Sharpton, and the black community would ignore him.

We’ve come a long way(or have we)

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