Book Review: The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics
The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics is a three hundred and twenty eight paged historical book authored by James Oakes in the year 2007. The second edition of the same was printed in 2008 and its central subject matter is African American abolitionism in the fight against slavery, consequently leading to the formation of antislavery interest groups. From the book title, the reader is given a glimpse of the book by the understanding stemming from the first two words: radical and republican. A radical is an individual who exhibits revolutionary and activist ideas in all or a particular endeavor in life. On the other hand, a republican is an individual who supports democracy as the optimal type of governance. With this, the reader is mentally prepared to convene with radical and republic ideas from the two mentioned men, Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln in the war that culminates to the triumph of antislavery politics.
The book is written from the Oakes’ point of view infusing an element of biasness in the publication. The author is very critical on Douglass as opposed to Lincoln as seen in the disapproval he levies against Douglass by dismissing him as inexperienced in his support for Brown. On the contrary, only positive compliments are offered for Lincoln. This bias acts as a weak point for the book. The setting is the late nineteenth century and it opens with the author’s introduction of Frederick Douglass, specifically in the year 1863. The day is identified as 10 August with Douglass set for a conference with President Abraham Lincoln. At that time in history, America was in the midst of the Civil War that led to the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation that abolished slavery. The Blacks joined forces with the Union in the Civil War, yet discriminatory practices raged raw within the troops. The Black soldiers were underpaid, had to fight without proper uniforms, and had less food and water provisions as compared to the white soldiers. In addition to this, various statements had been filed with the assertion that all black soldiers incarcerated by the revolt fighters were persecuted and murdered gruesomely, and yet the news prompted insignificant reaction from the Union. This prejudice levied against the black troops acted as the impetus for the scheduled meeting as Douglass felt that the slaves had been freed on theoretical terms only.
Accompanied by Senator Samuel Pomeroy of Kansas, the two were ushered into the president’s chambers in the White House. The author argues that this initial meeting marked an important milestone in conflict resolution between the two leaders. A comparison carried out between the two revealed that both individuals were greatly ethical, self-educated people, from poor backgrounds who with the passage of time became accomplished spokespersons and exceptional leaders. Even better, they both reviled the establishment of slavery. The author’s focus however rests on the tension that existed between Lincoln and Douglass. The latter incessantly campaigned for abolitionism and impartiality towards the Blacks embedded in his individual moral ideologies and although the principle shared in the same sentiments, he often merged his ideologies with politics. This followed his view that the public (democracy) held the highest voice regarding all social and political matters. Hence, for Douglass’ ideas to be approved, they had to be supported by the majority of public views.
Oakes uses both evocative and argumentative formats in the development of the book’s ideologies. Citing the year 1862 as being the source of Lincoln and Douglass’ tense relation, the author is able to develop his intended hypothesis and subject with regard to slavery and antislavery. Douglass had been pressuring the president into a public speech that would inform the Americans that the cause of the Civil War was for slavery eradication and not the assertion that the War was for Union safeguarding. However, Lincoln was reluctant with Douglass’ proposition with the knowledge of the dominance of American racial prejudice and the extensive abhorrence for abolitionists. This perhaps stemmed from the president’s earlier efforts in the acquisition and infusion of Kentucky, Maryland and Missouri into the Union. Being a republican, the president held the view that any effort championed by a government with regard to political and social matters with the exclusion of the public would result to conflicts. Therefore, the president was always careful in the execution of his orders in order to maintain political alliance. Lincoln had earlier countered Douglass’ efforts in the acquittal of slaves prior to the institution of the Emancipation Proclamation. He believed that the act would result into an illegitimate move since only he held the power to act under such conditions.
Lincoln’s stand acted as point of conflict for Douglass who asserted that such political minutiae were frustrating. Lincoln and Douglass’ points of view acted as the main conflicting points as argued by the author. The other notable instance that indicated a tense relationship could also be traced to a preliminary meeting that the president had arranged with African American leaders before the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation. In this meeting, Lincoln reasoned with the Black leaders that only in areas outside America could the liberal slaves realize parity and ultimate freedom from racial prejudice. The proposition was for the liberalized slaves to be relocated to areas like Caribbean or Liberia. Douglass who had been absent in the meeting later went through the meeting’s statements and he was enraged by the discussion. Regarding the matter, he held the position that both Whites and Blacks could be persuaded into nonviolent coexistence within the American borders with the application of the rights included in the Constitution.
The conflict in this situation as argued by Oakes stemmed from misinterpretation. Douglass viewed Lincoln’s intentions as politically instigated. This was not the case as Lincoln had used the meeting as a cover up for his intentions, the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation. The main aim of the meeting was the creation of a disguise for the sake of the Whites. It was a purely calculating move on the president’s side. The earlier tensions between the two were however resolved on their initial in person meeting held at the White House in 1863. As the two conversed, their individual positions on the fight against slavery were revealed, acting as the resolution point. Later, Douglass expressed that he was profoundly impressed by the president’s thoughtfulness leveled towards antislavery and in the earnest that the president spoke with concerning the issue. With Douglass’ misconceptions, the president had exhibited much tolerance that earned him a polite welcome and handling from Lincoln, bearing in mind that he was a major critique towards the president.
With Douglass and Lincoln finally having a good relation, they had two other informal meetings and with their combined efforts, their dreams and considerations for each other were enhanced, with Douglass learning Lincoln’s humane value towards the Blacks. The author uses the three meetings to give first hand information for the evolution of the relationship between the two leaders and this acts as a strength in the validation of the research and the views presented in the book. Oakes further argues that with time, Douglass became more of a liberalist from the president’s influences while the president became more radical in his decisions attributed to Douglass’ influences. The book winds on a sad note with the president’s assassination that very much adversely affected Douglass in individual and political terms. With the reign of Andrew Johnson, the Reconstruction era set in and the Blacks were even more oppressed such that Douglass felt the void left by Lincoln. Oppression continued to rise under Johnson’s leadership until Douglass died in the year 1895 without witnessing absolute freedom for the Blacks.
I believe that Oakes chose to pursue this subject because of his vast knowledge on American slavery and the subject as seen in his earlier publications on the same topic. Being a history professor in the Graduate Center of the City University of New York acts as the credibility for the historical information narrated in the book. The book fits in the genre of history as it gives biographical information of President Lincoln and the Douglass the abolitionist. The setting having being an actual representation of events that took place in America fits the book as a historical account.
The intended audiences are history students and enthusiasts for Lincoln and Douglass. The style used to write the publication is formal as it recounts the conversations held between the two leaders. The book is very forceful in its idea presentation and text originality. The book has a good flow that infuses and elements of fluidity and consistency. The publication was able to achieve its goal as a historical record and more so in its exemplification of the conflicts that existed between Douglass and Lincoln, and the positive impetus acquired from the same in the fight against slavery practices. A few yet major errors occur in the publication acting as a weakness in the book. The author asserts that the debated held between Lincoln and Douglass took place in Chicago yet in actuality they were held in Illinois. Another mistake is seen in the excerpt where the author asserts that William Stanton was the president’s attorney and in actuality, it was Edwin McMasters Stanton.
Personally, the book provided a lot of additional insight with regard to the fight against slave abolition and it offered a lot of information that I did not know about Douglass. I would strongly recommend this publication to other readers as it serves as a short biographical edition for both Lincoln and Douglass. Although I must admit the biographies are just but a snippet outlook of the lives of these exemplary men, they provide a deeper level of understanding regarding the works that both men contributed to slave abolition. The use of conflict infuses a level of pragmatism in the publication as the reader gets to interact with the humane aspects of these two leaders. Truly, this is a historical recount of two dignified men struggling to draw out the preeminence in Americans; but they do not live to see their efforts fruitfulness.