The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics
by James Oakes
Lincoln and Douglass: Great Men Who Didn't See Eye to Eye
A review by Chuck Leddy
Early on the morning of Aug. 10, 1863, former slave, renowned black
leader, and newspaper editor Frederick Douglass stepped from his
Washington, D.C., hotel room, in hopes of a meeting with Abraham
The Civil War was raging and the Emancipation Proclamation had been
signed but Douglass was far from complacent. Black troops were fighting
on the Union side, but not receiving equal pay, uniforms, or rations.
Also, there were reports that captured black soldiers were being
tortured and killed in cold blood by rebel troops -- reports that
spurred little or no response from Union leaders.
In theory, the slaves were finally free, but Douglass was focused on the appalling injustice that still prevailed.
Kansas Sen. Samuel Pomeroy walked with Douglass to the White House,
where a staircase was jammed with supplicants, each hoping for a
presidential audience. Almost as soon as Douglass presented his card,
however, an aide arrived to speed him to Lincoln's office.
There he was, Douglass would later recall, lying on a couch reading,
long legs stretching into "different parts of the room." Lincoln rose
immediately and stretched out his hand to the visitor. "Mr. Douglass,"
he said. "I know you."
Actually, it was the first time these two remarkable men had ever
met. At the time, Douglass was certainly a famous man (better known by
far than the senator acting as his escort.) And there was much that
Lincoln and Douglass had in common. Both were highly principled,
self-taught men, born into poverty, yet skilled orators and gifted
leaders. In addition, they shared a deep hatred of the institution of
But there had long been tension between these two men, as historian James Oakes explains in his new book, The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery, an eye-opening and absorbing account of their relationship.
While Douglass ceaselessly championed abolitionism and equal
treatment for African-Americans, President Lincoln understood politics
as "the art of the possible," believing that even the most righteous
cause must have the support of public opinion. Thus, while it was easy
for the "outsider" Douglass to rely upon the purity of his principles,
the elected Lincoln was forced to meld principle with politics.
A great example of the Lincoln-Douglass tension came in the summer
of 1862, as Lincoln was considering using his "war powers" to free the
slaves. Douglass had long agitated for Lincoln to publicly declare that
the Civil War was being waged in an effort to abolish slavery and not,
as Lincoln contended, for the preservation of the Union. But Lincoln
understood the prevalence of American racism and the widespread public
loathing for abolitionists. Among his top priorities early in the war,
notes Oakes, was keeping the border states (Maryland, Kentucky,
Missouri) on the Union side.
As an astute Republican politician, Lincoln believed that if he got
too far in front of public opinion, he risked losing his carefully
created political coalition.
When a few Union generals began unilaterally freeing slaves before
the Emancipation Proclamation (delighting Douglass), Lincoln had
countermanded their orders -- not because he didn't want to free
slaves, but because he did not believe his generals legally could.
Lincoln contended that he himself had this authority, acting as
commander in chief through his "war powers," but he wanted to exercise
it at the right time.
For Douglass, however, such legal and political niceties were simply exasperating.
In August 1862, one month before he issued his preliminary
Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln met with a delegation of
African-Americans (Douglass did not attend) and argued for the notion
of "colonization," that freed slaves should move outside the United
States to Central America, Liberia, or the Caribbean, where they'd find
better treatment. (Lincoln never hid his view that the differences
between the two races forbade their "ever living together on terms of
social and political equality.")
When Douglass read accounts of the meeting, he was livid. Douglass
believed firmly in integration, that the races could peacefully coexist
within the US if African-Americans were granted the rights guaranteed
by the Constitution.
But what Douglass had misunderstood about the White House meeting,
says Oakes, was that Lincoln's motives were political. The president
knew something Douglass didn't -- he'd be issuing his preliminary
Emancipation Proclamation within weeks -- and the meeting provided
Lincoln with much-needed "political cover" among whites who feared
miscegenation. Yes, Lincoln was being cynical and calculated with his
speech, but he felt he was promoting a goal both men shared.
However, whatever their past tensions, on that August day when the
two men finally met, Douglass was deeply impressed, Oakes writes, by
Lincoln's patience, "the sincerity and humaneness of his replies, and
the decency with which he treated a longtime critic." The president
received him, Douglass would later recall, "just as you have seen one
gentleman receive another."
The two would only ever meet face to face twice again, but there is
evidence of deep regard on both sides, particularly as, with the
passage of time, their visions drew closer, with Lincoln becoming more
of a radical and Douglass more of a Republican. Douglass learned to
value Lincoln as a leader who was imperfect but willing to listen
sincerely to the concerns of African-Americans.
Douglass was devastated, Oakes writes, by Lincoln's assassination,
both personally and politically. Lincoln's successor, Andrew Johnson,
was a former slaveholder who simply couldn't stand Douglass and his
The Radical and the Republican is ideological more often than
anecdotal and is not a light read. But the book succeeds quite well at
charting the ups and downs of a complex and seminal relationship
between two great men, both dedicated to making America live up to its
Chuck Leddy is a writer and book reviewer in Quincy, Mass.
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