The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics
By James Oakes
328 pages, 2007. W.W. Norton and Company, 500 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York 10110, $26.95 plus shipping
Reviewer: James A. Percoco
James A. Percoco teaches U.S. and Applied History at West Springfield High School in Springfield, Va. He is author of A Passion for the Past: Creative Teaching of U.S. History and Divided We Stand: Teaching About Conflict in U.S. History. Percoco is a USA TODAY All-USA teacher and is an adjunct professor in the School of Education at American University where he serves as History Educator-in-Residence.
On April 4, 1864, Abraham Lincoln wrote Albert G. Hodges, "I am naturally anti-slavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I can not remember when I did not so think, and feel. And yet I have never understood that the Presidency conferred upon me an unrestricted right to act officially upon this judgment and feeling’Ä¶ In telling this tale I attempt no compliment to my own sagacity. I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me."
After reading James Oakes' compelling new book, The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics, one must question whether Lincoln in his famous letter to his friend in Kentucky was being cagey, ever the crafty politician, and whether the portrait we have been given by biographers of Frederick Douglass is accurate.
Oakes gives readers a fresh and fascinating look at the lives of these two pivotal players during the Civil War, limiting himself mostly to their own words and spinning a new and lively interpretation. In his hands his prose elevates this important story well beyond the genre of the "dual biography."
Carefully constructing his narrative Oakes traces the lives of Douglass and Lincoln, both self-made men, arguing they had much more in common than what other historians and biographers have given them credit for. He observes their respective shifts over time - Lincoln the Republican moving, during the Civil War, to become a radical reformer, while Douglass grew in his understanding of the political machinations necessary for compromise in a democracy.
In this context greater balance is offered to both men as is new insight into their behavior. In this regard this book makes a substantial and singular contribution to the literature.
The gift of this book is that the author has taken a complicated tale and made it understandable and accessible to the reader without being patronizing to the reader or the subjects.
What this reader found of great interest was Oakes' portrayal of Douglass. The Douglass found on these pages is very human, complete with his inconsistencies as a player in the national drama. Like Lincoln, who as a politician waffled on the issue of slavery, Douglass waffled on the issue of Abraham Lincoln, depending on the circumstances.
Douglass should not be faulted for this. In fact Douglass becomes a richer and more compelling figure in this context. As an outsider he had to learn the delicate dance political operatives must often take when wrestling with moral questions tied to politics.
As Lincoln actively moved towards emancipation, Douglass gradually, albeit somewhat grudgingly, recognized that Lincoln was a dancer in this convoluted waltz and must proceed as he saw fit.
In doing so Douglass realized that Lincoln's goal of the preservation of the Union was almost always square with his insistence that slavery was wrong and had to go, but that the timing was critical in order to secure a public sentiment that would support emancipation.
In a warm and engaging style Oakes' narrative brings to life two men, who although they only met on three occasions, came to respect, admire and genuinely like one another. Though their collaboration was brief and in some ways done at arms' length, it nevertheless was a crucial relationship that helped to further the American democratic experiment.