- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 14, 2007


By James Oakes

W.W. Norton, $26.95, 320 pages


They were both self-made men, blessed with razor sharp minds and strong oratorical skills, though one was a white lawyer and the other a black fugitive slave. They shared a deep hatred of the institution of slavery, and in the end they combined in an uneasy relationship to destroy it during the Civil War. James Oakes of the City University of New York’s Graduate School has written not a traditional dual biography, but two studies that increasingly cut across each other as the war progresses. He calls Lincoln the Republican and Frederick Douglass the radical. But they shared many elements of style.

“The Radical and the Republican” is not an easy read, but it is studded with telling quotes from both men and comes to conclusions that are often really far reaching. Douglass was an advocate of not just abolition but also immediate equal rights for black Americans. He found few allies in white America. But he came to notice, as did the whole nation, the political emergence of a young lawyer from Illinois who talked passionately about the moral evils of human bondage.

When Lincoln ran for the Senate against Stephen Douglas, the latter expertly used frequent race baiting. He charged that Lincoln’s opposition to the spread of slavery was due to his desire to promote racial equality, even to the extent of desiring to marry a black woman. Douglas claimed to the crowd that he had seen himself an approving Frederick Douglass riding in a fine carriage filled with white women coming to hear Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln pleaded for an end to the race talk, but he ended up saying that he too did not believe in social equality. But still he insisted that slavery was a great moral issue, and that the Democrats conspired to spread its evils to the new territories. It was on that difference, opposition to the extension of slavery, that he drew the line, sensing that was all white voters would accept. And he chastised Douglas — just as he did not wish a black women as a wife, he didn’t want her as a slave; he just wished to leave her alone.

Despite his increasing reputation, Lincoln was not an abolitionist, so Frederick Douglass committed himself to the Liberty party and to abolitionist groups — these groups could not command much white support. Mr. Oakes skillfully shows how, in the early Lincoln campaigns and later during the war, Lincoln talked conservative while he committed the leery nation to radical measures.

He argues that the president’s much-publicized plans to colonize the slaves in Latin America was a rather bogus public relations stunt to overcome the revolutionary consequences of the Emancipation Proclamation. Previously he’d moved slowly, first to free the confiscated slaves, then to accept them and arm 180,000 of them to help the beleaguered Union forces, then to protect the black warriors from special Confederate retribution, then to final emancipation, on to the national end of slavery through the Thirteenth Amendment, and even to supporting some modest voting rights for blacks.

Douglass chastised Lincoln for his slowness and for his sensitivity to white public opinion, but the president realized that he could barely keep those Americans on board with his conservative rhetoric that he so skillfully used while he waged revolutionary war.

Douglass was both knowledgeable and deeply confused. He praised the Proclamation but wanted to know why full equality was not immediately granted. In 1864, he remarkably supported more radical Republicans over Lincoln, and he wrote a blistering letter to an English friend denouncing the president, which was made public.

Yet when he finally met Lincoln in the White House, he was genuinely charmed by his candor and concerns. After the Democrats discovered that Douglass was invited to the White House, they lambasted Lincoln. The president’s response was to invite him back again and again for tea. He even urged Douglass to spread the word of his Proclamation to the herementically sealed off plantations so that the slaves would move north with their feet.

These two men ended up enjoying each other’s company and understanding each other’s perspectives. Lincoln feared that his Proclamation would be undone after the war, so he pushed for a constitutional amendment ending slavery. Douglass insisted that full equality was the right of men who had fought so bravely for themselves and their racial compatriots. The heroism of black troops ended many doubts people had about their ability for mature citizenship. Lincoln publicly reminded white audiences, they were dying for you too.

Douglass’ opinions at times were confused and vacillating. That was his public reputation. Lincoln was resolute, and apparently he had decided much earlier than we have assumed that he would support emancipation and be its instrument.

After Lincoln’s death, Douglass called him the “black man’s president.” A few months later, he received a strange package from Mary Todd Lincoln — the president’s walking stick. Lincoln had a great respect for Douglass, she noted, and had talked previously about giving him some token of his regard. Douglass was overwhelmed and called Lincoln a great man and an honest politician who had, like Moses, led his people out of bondage.

Michael P. Riccards is the author of the two volume history of the presidency, “The Ferocious Engine of Democracy.”

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