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Brenda Wineapple on Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass

Posted on Jan 23, 2009

By Brenda Wineapple

(Page 2)

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.” 


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


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. 

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By John Mercer, January 23, 2009 at 8:57 pm Link to this comment
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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 4:52 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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