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.