Monday, July 20, 2009

Book Review--The Radical and the Republican

Oakes, James. The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics. W.W. Norton and Co. New York, NY. 328 pages 288 pages text. Bibliographic essay, index, footnotes.

As the anti-slavery movement slowly grew two of it's leaders came from divergent backgrounds, went about things differently, and yet despite earlier animosity grew to be friends and respect each other. In his Lincoln Prize winning work James Oakes shows the intertwined yet different paths of Frederick Douglass, the radical, and Abraham Lincoln, the Republican.

Lincoln began his political life as a devoted follower of Henry Clay and the Whig party. While Clay was against slavery he also believed that once freed they should be relocated to Africa. From this Lincoln's views developed and led him to a group that ultimately became the Republican party. Republican beliefs included the fact that while slavery was wrong it would be allowed to continue where it was and that the Fugitive Slave Act would be enforced. Slavery however would not be allowed to expand to any new territory. Slavery would eventually die out due to it's inefficient use of labor. Douglass on the other hand was born a slave and after escaping north became a devoted follower of noted abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. Garrisonians were pacifists who believed that slavery degraded everything and everybody it touched. They worked through "Moral Persuasion" which in effect meant that they denounced anybody or thing that was not blatantly anti-slavery. In their mind this included the Constitution which they condemned as being pro-slavery. After returning from England Douglass began taking a more active interest in anti-slavery politics and after moving to Rochester, NY he began publishing The North Star, a newspaper with an anti-slavery bent. Here he also began to slowly convert to the views of Gerrit Smith who believed that the Constitution was actually not a pro-slavery document. He reasoned that the words of the document are what mattered and not what people felt the intent was. Seeing that slavery was not specifically mentioned clauses could not be assumed to apply to slavery itself. By 1851 he had converted to this view.

In October 1859 John Brown led his ill fated raid on the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry, VA. This attempt to lead a slave uprising failed completely and ultimately cost Brown his life. Douglass considered Brown a hero and his relations with Brown led to Douglass going into exile for several months first to Canada and then to Great Britain. He would not be gone long however. Northern politicians, including Lincoln, were quick to distance themselves from the "madman". Lincoln was a believer in the rule of law in the attempt to end slavery. Actions like John Brown's raid were unacceptable and could actually work against the abolition movement.

As the 1850s came to a close the major difference between Douglass and Lincoln was in their views of the Constitution and what it allowed. Douglass, believing it to be an anti-slavery document thought that the federal government was obligated to work aggressively end slavery. Despite his personal views Lincoln believed that the Constitution recognized slavery where it already existed and thus the government could not interfere. It could prevent expansion but not eliminate it where it already existed. Here Oakes points out a key difference in the two men. Douglass demanded action and that by eliminating slavery racism could be eliminated. Douglass thought northern racism was the "spirit of slavery" making its way into other parts of the country. For Lincoln race and slavery were not the same; not having a black woman for a slave did not mean he wanted her for a wife. Lincoln felt that slavery was a dying institution and was being killed by southern states continuing to make a focal point of it. In addition, once states seceded from the Union Lincoln felt he was no longer obliged to keep his promises regarding the protection of slavery.

Lincoln and Douglass met on three occasions. A mutual respect was earned with Lincoln enrolling Douglass to help spread the word of the Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln, the Republican, made a lasting impression on Douglass, the radical, in his sincerity toward ending slavery. Even after Lincoln's death Douglass continued to promote Lincoln and the ways he went about ending slavery.

This is an enjoyable book to read. It is accessible without being simple. Oakes has used the words of these great men as much as possible and has noted them well for further research if you are inclined. While certainly not a "Civil War" book this is one that should be read by anybody interested in the wars time frame, who has an interest in Lincoln or Douglass, or wishes to further understand the issues that brought our country to war.

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