Charles Petzold

“The Radical and the Republican”

February 14, 2007
A Snowy New York City

When the 20-year old Frederick Douglass escaped from bondage in 1838, he travelled first to New York City and then to New Bedford, Massachusetts, where he came under the influence of famed abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. The Garrisonians practiced a very pure form of radical abolitionism: They refused to get involved in politics because they believed the United States Constitution permitted slavery and hence corrupted the entire political system.

Abraham Lincoln always said that he hated slavery since he was a child, and there is no reason to doubt him. Lincoln's primary argument against slavery was not the cruelty of the system, but that it prevented a man from benefiting from the fruits of his labor, and hence to make himself a better person just as he had done. (When Lincoln begins talking about labor and capital, he sounds almost like a proto-Marxist!) But Lincoln was a lawyer and a politician. He didn't believe there was any legal way for the federal government to end slavery in the states where it already existed, and the best that could be hoped for was to prohibit it in the territories. He hated the Fugitive Slave Law and railed against the Dred Scot decision, but felt bound to support these laws.

The story of these two men and the evolution of their political beliefs is engaging told in CUNY professor James Oakes' new book The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics (W.W. Norton & Co, 2007). This is not a dual biography but instead, as the author says, "a close reading of the things Lincoln and Douglass had to say about slavery and race, about politics and war, and about each other" (p. 289), and in that the book succeeds immensely. Professor Oakes has constructed an exciting narrative that shows how Douglass got closer to Lincoln's politics at the same time that Lincoln got closer to Douglass's idealism.

Frederick Douglass first took notice of Lincoln in1858, during the Illinois Senate campaign in which Lincoln debated Democratic candidate Stephen Douglas across the state. By this time, Lincoln had made a solid commitment to anti-slavery politics, and he had to use all his political skill to navigate the race-baiting of his opponent. It is in these debates that Lincoln made some of his most distressing statements about not being in favor of racial equality or universal suffrage. It is still not known whether he believed what he was saying of if he was just being a cagey politician.

By the late 1850's Frederick Douglass's beliefs had matured to the point where he could view the political arena as a legitimate venue for anti-slavery activity, but the newly formed Republican Party was not quite anti-slavery enough for his tastes, and in the 1860 Presidential election, Douglass could not bring himself to support Lincoln. He liked much of what Lincoln was saying about slavery, but was disappointed that Lincoln had not pledged to eradicate it. Douglass's withholding of support suited Lincoln just fine — to be elected President the last thing Lincoln needed was to be too closely identified with a radical abolitionist like Douglass.

The secession of the southern states began right after Lincoln was elected President, even before he was sworn in, and the Civil War began in 1861. The Radical and the Republican is a book in which the actual battles of the war are relegated to the distant background while the author treats us to an equally exciting battleground of political maneuverings and clashing of ideologies.

Douglass spent much of the early years of the war complaining about the slow-footedness and over caution of the Lincoln administration. His change of heart came with the Emancipation Proclamation early in 1863 which freed the slaves in the Confederacy. What Lincoln couldn't do as President, he could do as Commander in Chief, and Douglass was now quite happy. For the rest of his life, Douglass would consider himself to be a supporter of the Republican Party.

There were still some problems in Douglass's view — many involving the treatment of the black soldiers who were now being enlisted to help fight the war — and he got to talk about these with the President himself in two face-to-face meetings in the White House, the first in August 1863 and the second a year later.

The third and final meeting between Lincoln and Frederick Douglass took place in 1865 following Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address. Douglass crashed the reception afterwards and the two men were able to share a few words as friends about to embark together on a new chapter in American history. Six weeks later, Lincoln was dead.

Frederick Douglass lived another 30 years — long enough to witness the collapse of Reconstruction and the period known in the south as Redemption. He died on a day in 1895 when he was scheduled to speak at a rally with Susan B. Anthony on women's rights.

I have one complaint about The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln were two of the greatest American orators in the nineteenth century, and their eloquence also comes through on the printed page. Here's Douglass, for example:

Professor Oakes often quotes from Lincoln's and Douglass's speeches, but never at length, and often combining short quotations with his own summaries. It wouldn't have hurt the book or made it too much longer to let these two men occasionally have a page or so of uninterrupted glorious oration.

While I was reading this book, Deirdre was reading North Star Country: Upstate New York and the Crusade for African American Freedom by Milton C. Sernett (Syracuse University Press, 2002), a book in which Frederick Douglass also has a large role. We hadn't deliberately set out to celebrate Black History Month in quite this way, but it worked out nice, as we were able to ask each other questions about Frederick Douglass and the abolitionist movement, and fill in the gaps in each other's knowledge.

Deirdre's blog review of North Star Country can be found here. As part of a "50 Book Challenge" on LiveJournal, she'll be using her blog to discuss all 50 books she reads this year (which shouldn't be a big stretch because she read over 50 books last year and 50 books the year before). The RSS feed for Deirdre's blog is here.