The President and the Prophet

The President and the Prophet

The Radical and the Republican traces the antislavery politics of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln.


The abolition of slavery in the United States appears in retrospect so inevitable that it is difficult to recall how unlikely it seemed as late as 1860, the year of Abraham Lincoln’s election as President. Slaveowners had pretty much controlled the national government since its inception. The 4 million slaves formed by far the country’s largest concentration of property (their economic worth exceeded the value of all the factories, railroads and banks in the country combined). Racism was deeply entrenched, in the North as well as in the South. Blacks, free as well as slave, had few rights anywhere, and abolitionists were a despised minority.

Obviously, Lincoln’s election and the civil war it triggered made emancipation possible. But Lincoln campaigned for President pledging to prevent slavery’s expansion into Western territories, while insisting he had no intention of interfering with the institution where it already existed. It was by no means certain when the war began that it would become a crusade to destroy slavery.

Who was responsible for the end of slavery? Over the past two decades, historians have avidly debated this question. Did the Union’s initial lack of military success, the actions of blacks who, in increasing numbers, fled the plantations for Union lines and the pressure exerted by abolitionists and Radical Republicans compel a reluctant President to embrace emancipation? Or did Lincoln sagely wait until public opinion was ready and then act on a lifelong desire to see slavery abolished?

A spate of recent books have sought to restore Lincoln’s standing as the Great Emancipator, a reputation somewhat tarnished by studies of his far-from-egalitarian racial views. These books rightly emphasize Lincoln’s genuine hatred of slavery. But too often, they insist that the road he took to emancipation was the only possible one. Lincoln is hailed as a “responsible realist,” a practitioner of the “politics of prudence.” His opposites in this interpretation are the abolitionists, portrayed as self-righteous moralists who lacked a sense of practical politics.

The argument is entirely circular: We know Lincoln’s course was the only possible one because the pragmatic Lincoln chose it; anyone who demanded more was, by definition, asking for the impossible. These writers fail to understand that the abolitionists’ effort to arouse public sentiment regarding slavery was itself a political strategy. They helped to make the impossible possible. Without the abolitionists, there could have been no Lincoln.

One of the ways James Oakes’s The Radical and the Republican advances the study of Lincoln and emancipation is by making Frederick Douglass an equal protagonist. The addition of Douglass significantly deepens the analysis and the range of political views represented and allows Oakes to reach beyond the tunnel vision that afflicts so many recent studies of Lincoln.

Oakes does not entirely avoid some of the pitfalls that bedevil Lincoln scholarship. Like many other writers, he reproduces verbatim a number of Lincoln “quotations” of doubtful credibility. Did Lincoln really say in 1850 that the “slavery question can’t be compromised,” as his former law partner John Stuart later claimed? And did he speak in 1860 of the day “when there will not be a single slave within the borders of this country,” as Julian Kune, a Hungarian immigrant, asserted a half-century later? After Lincoln’s death, memory, even among his close friends, was filtered through the knowledge of his role in ending slavery.

Oakes cannot fully escape the gravitational pull of Lincoln’s image as emancipator, but he refuses to reduce Douglass to a foil for Lincoln’s greatness. Both played a role in the end of slavery. Emancipation, Oakes writes, shows “what can happen in American democracy when progressive reformers and savvy politicians make common cause.” This formulation enables us to understand emancipation as the product of a broad social and political movement, not of a single individual.

The Radical and the Republican does not claim to chronicle a personal relationship between the two men, because none existed. They met only three times. On the first occasion, in August 1863, Douglass urged Lincoln to order that black soldiers receive the same pay as white. Lincoln responded that the enlistment of blacks had offended many whites and that blacks would have to wait for their pay to be equalized. A year later, at a low point of his presidency when he anticipated defeat in the upcoming election, Lincoln asked Douglass to devise a plan to encourage as many slaves as possible to flee to Union lines, so that his successor could not undo emancipation. Then in March 1865, Douglass spoke briefly with Lincoln to congratulate him on his second inaugural address. This is the extent of their personal encounters.

More significant are the two men’s paths of personal and political development, and these Oakes traces expertly. A lively writer, Oakes offers striking portraits of their very different personalities. Douglass, the escaped slave who became a towering figure of the abolitionist movement, “had the blustery, oversize persona of a nineteenth-century Romantic.” He held his views with fierce commitment, even when he sometimes impulsively changed them. He spoke from personal experience of the bloody horrors of slavery.

Lincoln, a grandchild of the Enlightenment, was a man of iron self-control. Unlike Douglass, he never denounced slaveholders as sinners and sadists, and was more apt to condemn slavery for denying black men and women the fruits of their labor than to dwell on whippings and the breakup of slave families. Only in his majestic second inaugural address would he speak of the “blood drawn with the lash.” He appealed to his listeners’ logic and idealism, not their passions.

Oakes’s main theme is how, from very different beginnings, the views of Douglass and Lincoln converged. He is especially good at outlining Douglass’s shift from being a follower of William Lloyd Garrison, who insisted that the Constitution was inherently proslavery and therefore abolitionists should stand aloof from the electoral arena, to supporting antislavery politics. By the 1850s, instead of seeing the United States as fatally compromised by slavery and racism (a position that led some of his black contemporaries, like Martin Delany, to support emigration to a country where former slaves could rule themselves), Douglass insisted that blacks were as entitled to the rights of citizens as their white fellow countrymen. But, as Oakes shows, Douglass could not decide how to pursue this goal politically, vacillating between support for fringe groups like the Radical Abolitionist Party and for the Republicans who, despite their limitations, were at least battling the “Slave Power.” Douglass’s first mention of Lincoln came in 1858, when he praised him for upholding antislavery principles. But in 1860, he announced that while he hoped for a Republican victory, he could not vote for Lincoln because he was not an abolitionist.

On this point, of course, Douglass was correct–Lincoln was not an advocate of immediate abolition or the rights of black Americans. At one point in the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 (which pitted him against Stephen Douglas, not Frederick), Lincoln said the end of slavery in the United States might not come for another hundred years. But like Frederick Douglass, he underwent a political metamorphosis, from an Illinois Whig concerned mostly with internal improvements and the tariff to a Republican committed to slavery’s “ultimate extinction,” as he put it. By 1860, Oakes claims, Douglass and Lincoln were frequently “saying the same thing”–that slavery was a moral abomination, that the Founders were antislavery but the country had tragically betrayed their views and that the United States faced a momentous choice over whether freedom or slavery would shape the nation’s future.

If indeed Lincoln and Douglass converged during the 1850s, they moved sharply apart once the Civil War began. Almost immediately, Douglass demanded that Lincoln free the slaves and enroll black men in the Union army. Like other writers, Oakes explains Lincoln’s delay on emancipation by saying that he “was willing to wait until public opinion caught up with him.” This formulation cannot explain why equally pragmatic politicians in Congress–not only Radicals but many moderate Republicans as well–embraced emancipation much more quickly than Lincoln, enacting laws like abolition in Washington, DC, and the Confiscation Acts of 1861 and 1862, which granted freedom to hundreds of thousands of slaves well before the Emancipation Proclamation.

Douglass, meanwhile, tried in his own way to change public sentiment, speaking throughout the North and publishing Douglass’ Monthly. In 1862, with Lincoln resisting demands for emancipation, Douglass wrote, “the friends of freedom, the Union, and the Constitution, have been most basely betrayed.” He was ecstatic when Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, recognizing how it changed the character of the Civil War; but by 1864, upset by Lincoln’s failure to remedy the unequal treatment of black soldiers or to support black suffrage in a reconstructed South, he lent his support to the Radical Republican effort to replace Lincoln with John Frémont as the party’s presidential candidate. On the other hand, Douglass was impressed by how Lincoln treated him with respect in their personal encounters, never making him feel their difference in station or race. Lincoln, Oakes writes, was “radicalized by the war,” and by the end of his life he had adopted Douglass’s positions on emancipation and black troops and was even contemplating the right to vote for some Southern blacks.

On one key point, as Oakes notes, this convergence was far from complete. Douglass saw the struggles against slavery and racism as a single crusade. He insisted that Republicans betrayed their own supposed moral beliefs when they opposed black suffrage, as Lincoln did for most of his life (one reason Douglass refused to support him in 1860). Lincoln saw slavery and racism as two separate and in some ways unrelated questions. He claimed for blacks the natural rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence, which he understood to include the right to the fruits of their labor, but that was all. He had little contact with African-Americans and said almost nothing about race relations before the Civil War except when accused by Democrats of favoring “negro equality,” which he emphatically denied.

Oakes says that it is impossible to know how much of this Lincoln actually believed and how much reflected political expediency. But he leans toward the explanation that Lincoln practiced “strategic racism,” hoping to deflect Democratic charges so that the “real issue”–slavery–could occupy political center stage. Otherwise, he could never have been elected. But is this self-evidently true? Salmon Chase, who devoted much of his career to promoting the rights of free blacks, was elected governor of Ohio in 1855. Lyman Trumbull, who won a reputation as an “attorney for fugitive slaves” in Illinois, was elected and re-elected to the US Senate. Lincoln’s actions should not be taken as the sole barometer of the politically “possible.”

Oakes does not acknowledge that even “strategic racism” compromised Lincoln’s antislavery logic. As Richard Hofstadter pointed out sixty years ago in his brilliant essay on Lincoln in The American Political Tradition, Lincoln never confronted the question of how blacks were supposed to defend the natural rights to which he believed they were entitled, if they were deprived of the right to vote, testify in court and other rights taken for granted by white Americans. His answer, to the extent that he had one, was that blacks should emigrate to some other country, where they could enjoy all these rights.

Like many other writers on Lincoln, Oakes finds it impossible to take seriously Lincoln’s long embrace of colonization–that is, encouraging blacks to leave the United States. “I cannot make it better known than it already is, that I strongly favor colonization,” Lincoln said in a message to Congress less than a month before the Emancipation Proclamation. Oakes calls Lincoln’s August 1862 meeting with black leaders (not including Douglass), where he urged them to support colonization, “bizarre,” and explains it as an effort to “make emancipation more palatable to white racists.” As he notes, Douglass responded with one of his most bitter criticisms of the President. “Mr. Lincoln,” he wrote, “assumes the language and arguments of an itinerant colonization lecturer, showing all his inconsistencies, his pride of race and blood, his contempt for Negroes and his canting hypocrisy. How an honest man could creep into such a character as that implied by this address we are not required to show.” The real task of a statesman, he concluded, was not to patronize blacks by deciding what was best for them but to allow them to be free. Douglass realized what Lincoln did not–that advocacy of colonization exacerbated racism. But after issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln abandoned the idea of colonization and began to think seriously about the aftermath of slavery in a biracial society.

After his death, Lincoln was succeeded in the White House by Andrew Johnson, a Southern Unionist who was everything Lincoln was not–stubborn, narrow-minded and incorrigibly racist. In 1866 Johnson met with Douglass and a group of black leaders and hectored them about his opposition to black suffrage. When they left, Johnson remarked to an aide that Douglass was “just like any nigger, and he would sooner cut a white man’s throat than not.” I used to consider Johnson the worst President in American history. I don’t think that anymore. But his incompetence and resistance to equal rights for the former slaves eventually propelled Congress to embark on Radical Reconstruction, the failed attempt to build an interracial democracy on the ruins of slavery.

Douglass fervently embraced Reconstruction and became more and more alarmed in the 1870s as the Republican Party retreated from its commitment to equality. In 1876, with Reconstruction in its final months, he delivered a remarkable speech in Washington at the dedication of an emancipation monument built with funds donated by freed men and women. Douglass seems to have been taken aback when the monument was unveiled–it showed a standing Lincoln holding his hand over a kneeling slave, not the image of black self-reliance Douglass favored. In the speech, he called Lincoln “preeminently the white man’s President, entirely devoted to the welfare of white men.” Fourteen years after the event, Lincoln’s colonization meeting of 1862 still rankled–Douglass could not forbear mentioning that Lincoln had “strangely told us that we were to leave the land in which we were born.”

But, Douglass went on, Lincoln was also the author of great achievements, especially emancipation and the enrollment of black soldiers, and his name would always be cherished by black Americans. Douglass chided abolitionists, presumably including himself, for excessive criticism of Lincoln during his presidency. Overall, as Oakes notes, the speech was both an insightful assessment of Lincoln and a remarkable example of self-criticism on Douglass’s part. Like so many other Americans of his and succeeding generations, Douglass invoked Lincoln for a political purpose–to demand that the nation remember that slavery had been the central issue of the Civil War and renew its commitment to equal rights for black Americans. In memory, Lincoln and Douglass reached a convergence they never quite achieved in life.

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