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Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery

by James Oakes

Pub Date: Jan. 15th, 2007
ISBN: 0-393-06194-9
Publisher: Norton

A sharp analysis by Oakes (History/City University of New York; Slavery and Freedom: An Interpretation of the Old South, 1998, etc.) of how Lincoln the politician and Douglass the reformer worked, separately and together, to abolish slavery in America.

The pair met only three times, but President Lincoln’s esteem for the most famous ex-slave in the nation prompted him to conspicuously welcome “my friend Douglass” to the White House. After the assassination, Mary Lincoln sent the martyr’s walking stick to Douglass as a memento and an expression of the president’s personal regard. Thirty years later, after a lifetime of working first against slavery and then against legal discrimination, and after many revisions of opinion, Douglass came to see Lincoln as a kind of saint. Oakes’s narrative focuses on the fascinating symbiosis between these two highly public men as each worked in his own way towards a common goal, but it’s also a brilliant meditation on the timeless, crucial roles played by the radical and the politician to resolve any public issue, especially one as contentious as slavery in 19th-century America. Almost from the time of his escape from bondage, the uncommonly eloquent Douglass was on the forefront of the abolitionist movement. As his career progressed, and though he never deviated from his goal, he moved gradually and not always consistently from contempt for the political process to grudging appreciation to active participation. Though he always opposed slavery, such was Lincoln’s caution on the subject that Douglass declined to vote for him in 1860. In Douglass’s opinion, Lincoln never moved swiftly or decisively enough, the classic complaint of any activist about political leaders forced to accommodate multiple interests. Lincoln, however, was a consummate politician, able to take advantage of events and perfectly gauge the public mood. In the White House, he moved to eradicate slavery even as he achieved his principal goal of saving the Union.

A readable account of the intersection of Lincoln and Douglass’s careers, but an even better demonstration of the interplay between the agendas of passionate, single-minded reformers who prepare the public for change, and the talented politicians who master the art of the possible.