February 23, 2017 Disclaimer: Please read.
Statements and opinions expressed in articles are those of the authors, not Truthdig. Truthdig takes no responsibility for such statements or opinions.
Brenda Wineapple on Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass
Posted on Jan 23, 2009
Moreover, Douglass came to believe that slavery violated the tenets of both the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence since it abrogated natural law and justice; to him, the Constitution, strictly construed, could be interpreted as an anti-slavery document, the Founding Fathers’ intentions notwithstanding. Lincoln too believed that slavery violated the principle of human equality on which the Declaration was founded, but he read the Constitution as an instrument whose necessary concession to slave owners had made the nation possible, no small thing. Yet though the Constitution compelled the protection of slavery where it existed, the document said nothing about restricting its expansion, a restriction that Lincoln assumed would (and should) hasten its eventual demise. Lincoln thus initially intended not to end slavery per se but to restore what he thought was a consensus about its fundamental wrongness so that it could in due time disappear. “There is something almost willfully naive,” writes Oakes, “in his vision of American history.”
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
One of the highlights of Oakes’ intelligent book is the way he separates the issue of slavery from the issue of race to suggest how Lincoln’s plan of gradual emancipation included what Oakes calls a “strategic racism”—that is, Lincoln pandered to racists to put a Republican majority in Congress and himself in the White House. “He accepted racial discrimination because that was what most whites wanted,” Oakes argues. “If this position earns a place in the catalog of political villainies, it comes under the heading of spinelessness, not racism.” Douglass was not so sure. But by comparing Douglass with Lincoln, Oakes does not dismiss Lincoln’s belated support for abolition as the pragmatic maneuvering of a master politician but rather renders it ethically and historically complex, for Douglass stood fast and courageously for emancipation, the enlistment of black troops and equal rights. As John Stauffer colloquially puts it, “Douglass knew that speaking truth to power could change the world.”
With its publication date on Election Day and its epigraph from Barack Obama’s “Audacity of Hope,” Stauffer’s “Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln” tried to jump the gun on the Lincoln extravaganza (an impossibility) by highlighting the obvious Lincoln/Obama connection. Calling “Giants” a “collective biography” about two men whose “inner turmoil” reflects the national scene and at the same time “provide[s] a roadmap for the changing political landscape,” Stauffer, a professor of English and African-American studies at Harvard, dramatizes Douglass’ 1863 meeting with Lincoln, when colonization, segregation, the treatment of black troops and the murderous riots in New York against conscription “may have been on Lincoln’s mind when his doorman told him that Frederick Douglass had just sent up his card.” Narrating the encounter in novelistic fashion, Stauffer claims that when Douglass left the president, he assumed he’d found an ally in the fight against slavery, mainly because they “shared strangely similar backgrounds”: Both had been poor boys, and though one, black, was born into slavery, they each loved Shakespeare and the Bible and Byron and Aesop’s “Fables”; they did not smoke or drink; they were fantastic orators and clear-eyed logicians, they were tall, and they were quintessentially self-made men, which is one of Stauffer’s major themes.
The 19th century was of course the century of the self-made. As James Oakes reminds us, the notion of the self-made was at the moral heart of Lincoln’s political philosophy, for it meant the “right to rise” in this world, to achieve or make something from nothing, and, significantly, to keep and enjoy the fruits of one’s labor. And as Stauffer aptly observes, most Northerners also believed that access to new land “was a prerequisite to self-making and economic growth.” Slavery threatened that. In fact, in most significant matters, Stauffer agrees with Oakes though he often adds into the mix the element of psychodrama that biography sometimes seems to inspire. For instance, following the lead of C.A. Tripp’s “The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln,” Stauffer names Joshua Speed as the love of Lincoln’s life and re-enacts their first meeting, after which, Stauffer says, the “two men became bedfellows.” Then, by detouring into the relationship of Melville’s Ishmael and Queequeg to expatiate on the erotic component of male friendship in the 19th century, Stauffer devotes several more pages to musings about Lincoln’s powerful libido before he marries Lincoln off to Mary Todd while admitting, almost ruefully, that “one would like to think that at the wedding Lincoln was thinking of him [Speed.]” Yet whatever Lincoln was thinking, after his wedding his political career—now “fueled and lubricated” by Mary, as Stauffer writes in deadpan fashion—flourishes. “If he [Lincoln] could not always control his sexual passions,” Stauffer writes in segueing back to public affairs, “neither could he contain his zeal for Whig politics.”
In his superb “The Black Hearts of Men: Radical Abolitionists and the Transformation of Race” (2002), professor Stauffer steers clears of costume drama. Perhaps the main difference between this book and “Giants” is one of method. “Black Hearts,” like Oakes’ “The Radical and the Republican,” examines person in relation to idea, never letting one drift far from the other, but in “Giants” he includes unsubstantiated or irrelevant detail—and fantasy. “Launching a paper felt a bit like arriving in New York City fresh from slavery,” Stauffer writes in the second person, as if to channel Douglass. “You lived on hope and adrenaline.” However, his account of Douglass’ miserable marriage is poignant; so too his discussion of the German woman, Ottilie Assing, one of the educated white women with whom Douglass maintained a long-term friendship and maybe something more. What this reveals in terms of Douglass’ attitude toward war or race or ethnicity (Assing was half-Jewish) is however too quickly summarized; “Douglass saw a close correlation between family and nation and opposed disunion and divorce,” Stauffer concludes.
New and Improved Comments
Right 3, Site wide - Exposure Dynamics
Right Skyscraper, Site Wide
Right Internal Skyscraper, Site wide