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Brenda Wineapple on Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass

Posted on Jan 23, 2009

By Brenda Wineapple

(Page 3)

Though breaking no new ground, Stauffer deftly and reliably documents Douglass’ fury at Lincoln’s refusal to proclaim complete emancipation of all slaves once war had begun.  Lincoln wanted to appease the border states, insisting that without them the North would lose the war and the slaves their chance for freedom. Douglass impatiently disagreed. As Oakes shrewdly points out, Douglass and Lincoln “shared flip sides of the same delusion. Lincoln hoped that if the border states abolished slavery on their own, the Confederacy would throw up its hands in defeat. Douglass hoped the same thing would happen if the federal government declared slavery abolished in the border states.” 


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


Both Lincoln and Douglass also shared a talent for subterfuge, and each readily used the other to his own purposes. Sometimes, it suited Lincoln to have Douglass attack him, and doubtless it suited Douglass too when he let it be known how much he despised the president.  Though Stauffer notes that with the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, Douglass changed his attitude toward Lincoln from one of harsh skepticism to profound admiration, it was only after their second meeting, which took place in the summer of 1864, as Stauffer comments, that the president “had shown him the respect of one self-made man to another.” More than that, Douglass presumably left that meeting certain for the very first time that Lincoln possessed “a deeper moral conviction against slavery than I had ever seen before in anything spoken or written by him.” Lincoln would not compromise with slaveholders. And if he had moved too slowly to end slavery at the outset of the war, he at least now stood squarely and unswervingly for emancipation.

Lincoln had barely a year left to live, Douglass another 30, which Stauffer condenses in a brief epilogue; the days of Douglass’ “continual self-making” were over. “I felt I had reached the end of the noblest and best part of my life,” Douglass elegiacally wrote. “My school was broken up, my church disbanded, and the beloved congregation dispersed, never to come together again.” Still, in 1888, Douglass was protesting Jim Crow and lynching and voter registration fraud, mob violence and disfranchisement. And he remembered Lincoln, whom he refashioned for rhetorical purposes, in his own image, as radical reformer. So we too, today, continue to remake him. 

Brenda Wineapple’s most recent book is “White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson” (Knopf).

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By John Mercer, January 23, 2009 at 9:57 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 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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