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Brenda Wineapple on Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass
Posted on Jan 23, 2009
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.”
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
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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