James Oakes. The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics. New York: W. W. Norton, 2007. Pp. 328.

Modern historians are virtually unanimous in rejecting the Great Man theory of history. Meanwhile, the public's appetite for books celebrating the lives of great men is undiminished, and academic historians have contributed more than their fair share of the recent biographies of the Founding Fathers. Even among social and cultural historians there is a trend toward biography and political history, yielding also a number of scholarly works on Lincoln. James Oakes, author of a new book on Lincoln and the abolitionist Frederick Douglass, began his career as a social historian of the Old South, exploring not the great planters, but rather the ordinary slaveholders who owned at most a mere handful of slaves. [1] By contrast, The Radical and the Republican is very much in the mold of popular history, an engaging tale of two heroes who triumph over adversity during a great crisis, yet grounded in a professional historian's command of the extensive literature on abolitionism, Lincoln, and the Civil War era. While Oakes is careful to avoid the obvious pitfalls of hero-worship, his ardent sympathy for both Lincoln and Douglass is apparent throughout.

Considering that professional historians have long taken a dim view of celebratory biography, it is remarkable that nearly all of the latest crop of books on Lincoln are unstinting in their praise. By contrast, the two great leaders of the early national era—Jefferson and Hamilton—have numerous detractors, in part because the admirers of the one are naturally critics of the other. Lincoln also had a bitter rival, but today virtually no one has a kind word for Stephen A. Douglas. For an earlier generation of "revisionist" historians, Douglas stood apart from the "blundering generation" of politicians who unwittingly brought about the carnage of civil war. But today the consensus is that the war arose from an "irrepressible conflict" between slavery and freedom, and in the wake of the Civil Rights movement few would stand up for Douglas who so blatantly flaunted his racial bigotry. Where Hamilton is still the darling of conservatives and Jefferson remains the hero of most liberals, Lincoln is celebrated equally across the political spectrum, either for preaching the gospel of free competition or as the early champion of racial equality.

Two themes prevail in the recent literature: Lincoln's masterful statesmanship during the nation's greatest crisis and, of course, his role in ending slavery. There was once an inclination to debunk the Great Emancipator myth, most notably by Richard Hofstadter, who saw Lincoln as an opportunist, and also by radicals and black nationalists who charged that he was a racist.[2] Today most historians emphasize his firm commitment to the egalitarian principles of the Declaration of Independence and his crucial role in advancing the cause of freedom, first by issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, then by giving full support to a Constitutional amendment that would eliminate slavery altogether. The Radical and the Republican takes much the same ground by showing how Lincoln's ever more radical stance on slavery during the war converged with the abolitionism of Frederick Douglass, who in turn began to temper his moral absolutism with his own brand of pragmatic realism.

Oakes is an engaging writer who tells his story well, shifting back and forth between Lincoln and Douglass, culminating in their well-known meeting in the White House in 1863. Ultimately, Oakes claims, the two formed a kind of tacit alliance despite Douglass's early mistrust of Lincoln as an opportunistic politician. The story is contrived, for the actual connections between the two men were very few, but it is a clever contrivance, artfully executed to illustrate the blend of pragmatism and idealism that ultimately destroyed slavery. Oakes traces the shifting positions of both Lincoln and Douglass with abundant good sense and occasional flashes of brilliance, painting a picture of two very different men, both impelled by the highest of motives, but both entirely human, the one sometimes overly cautious, the other sometimes tending to righteous intransigence.

Lincoln's eventual friendship with Douglass was ennobling, says Oakes. But ironically he notes that the first one to draw a connection between the two men was Stephen A. Douglas, who sought to discredit his rival by linking him to the widely hated abolitionist and by stirring up fears of race mixing. Indeed, Senator Douglas figures prominently in Oakes's narrative as a means of demonstrating, by contrast, Lincoln's uncommonly enlightened views on race. It was during the debates with Douglas in 1858 that Lincoln uttered his notorious words affirming his opposition to political and social equality for blacks, but Oakes shows how Lincoln's comments on race carefully avoided outright claims of white superiority. He makes his case well, and there is no doubt that Lincoln recoiled from Douglas's pandering to the base prejudices of his audience. Still, Oakes overlooks the fundamentally racist argument of the entire Free Soil movement—that slavery should be banned in the territories to ensure that the land would be tilled by free white men. Lincoln adopted precisely that line in his earliest speeches against the Kansas-Nebraska Act: "We want [the territories] for the homes of free white people. This they cannot be, to any considerable extent, if slavery shall be planted among them. Slave States are places for poor white people to remove from; not to remove to." [3] Oakes ignores that part of Lincoln's argument against slavery extension, emphasizing instead the sharp contrast between his carefully worded concessions to racial prejudice and Douglas's demagogic appeals to rank bigotry, which strike the modern reader as grossly offensive.

There can be no question that Stephen Douglas appealed relentlessly to racial prejudice, but Oakes leaves the impression that racism was the beginning and end of his politics, a view not far from Lincoln's famous charge that Douglas intended to spread slavery throughout the Union. For all his demagoguery, Douglas was fiercely devoted to preserving the Union in the face of growing dissention between North and South. Fearing that agitation of the slavery question by Republicans and pro-slavery Southerners posed a dangerous threat, he urged leaving the decision up to the people in the territories and states, thus taking the question out of Congress where it made so much mischief. Oakes points to the Democrats' racist rhetoric in the presidential campaign of 1860, but he ignores Douglas's warning that Lincoln's election would provoke secession and civil war. For all his sins, surely Douglas was onto something.

Oakes's narrative rests upon two prevailing assumptions about the Civil War: that it was a good thing because it led to the abolition of slavery, and that it was inevitable because it arose from an irrepressible conflict between the institutions of North and South. No one today can reasonably doubt that slavery was a great evil, but it should be remembered that virtually no one thought the war either inevitable or a good thing at the time, though Frederick Douglass was an exception on both counts. Lincoln famously embraced the notion of inevitability in his Second Inaugural Address, but he can hardly be regarded as a disinterested observer, for many Americans charged that the war was his fault.

Inevitability aside, there can be no question that there is a certain dynamic of events, especially in wartime, that confounds the expectations of all parties. Oakes shows how the slavery question was brought to the fore by the vicissitudes of war, and by the large numbers of slaves who took the opportunity to free themselves wherever Union forces advanced into Southern territory. Yet we do not get a picture of Lincoln as a reluctant emancipator, forced by the war to abandon his support for gradual emancipation and colonization. Rather, Oakes portrays a Lincoln who turned toward emancipation because of his commitment to the principles of liberty and equality, though he took his time in making his radical sympathies apparent to the public.

Naturally, Oakes makes Lincoln's decision to issue his proclamation in the summer of 1862 the dramatic turning point of his narrative. Up to that moment Douglass frequently castigated the president for his apparent indifference to the plight of the slaves. Yet Oakes argues that as early as February, Douglass was showing signs of a sophisticated political realism: "From then on Douglass fell into a pattern of tempering his own misgivings about Lincoln whenever he realized that the Democrats, not the abolitionists, were the real alternative to Lincoln" (178–79). (One suspects that Oakes may be drawing a parallel with recent political events.) Douglass had nothing but contempt for the Democrats who were relentless in their vicious attacks on African Americans throughout the North. However, Oakes fails to underscore the internal divisions in the party between War Democrats and Peace Democrats or "Copperheads." This division is the key to explaining Lincoln's cautious approach to emancipation. Copperheads charged that the talk of a war for the Union was merely a ruse for freeing the slaves in the South, thereby hoping to turn the War Democrats against the war. Lincoln rightly feared alienating War Democrats, not to mention Border State Unionists, by acceding to the demands of abolition-minded Republicans.

Interestingly, Oakes shows that Douglass failed to notice Lincoln's hints at a coming change in policy in his famous letter to New York Tribune editor, Horace Greeley on August 22. Lincoln publicly rebuked the editor for demanding that he free the slaves, insisting that his sole purpose was to save the Union: "If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it be freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could do it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that." Having already drafted the proclamation, Lincoln was slyly preparing the public for the substance of his emancipation policy—"freeing some and leaving others alone." But Douglass failed to take the hint, assuming that the president had once again demonstrated his opposition to freedom for the slaves. If Douglass missed the warning of a change, so did nearly everyone else. Oakes lauds Lincoln's tactical brilliance in casting the radical policy of emancipation as a conservative measure to save the Union.

Oakes notes that the Greeley letter came shortly after Lincoln published an "Address to a Committee of Colored Men," urging that a colony be established in Central America where freed slaves could be put to work mining coal. His words strike the modern reader as callously racist, suggesting that black people were responsible for a war in which white people were cutting each others' throats. Naturally Douglass was incensed, and the incident helps to explain why the abolitionist remained blind to the president's intentions. Lincoln's address seems to fly in the face of the claim that he was committed to racial equality. Oakes insists that the speech did not reflect Lincoln's true sentiments, but was instead a clever device to allay white fears of the consequences of the emancipation that he had already decided to implement. The wording of the address, and its immediate publication in the newspapers, lend credence to Oakes's argument. The problem is that it forces us to choose between two heroic images of Lincoln by upholding the "Great Emancipator" and rejecting "Honest Abe." The notion of a pure and saintly Lincoln is surely mythical, yet Lincoln was by all accounts exceptionally honest, careful always (or almost always) to avoid an outright lie. The case for such a thoroughly devious emancipator seems to stretch the point.

Oakes's view that Lincoln's egalitarian principles impelled him toward emancipation is strikingly similar to Allen Guelzo's account of the origins of the Emancipation Proclamation. Guelzo states unequivocally that Lincoln intended to emancipate the slaves from the very moment of his inauguration because of his dedication to the principle of human liberty. Guelzo's main target is Richard Hofstadter, who famously scoffed at Lincoln's celebrated proclamation as a mere political balancing act by an ambitious opportunist. Yet Guelzo's Lincoln was no radical. His seemingly hesitant route to emancipation was not a function of his cautious temperament, but rather was based upon the conservative principle of prudence.[4] Unlike Oakes, Guelzo gives virtually no credit to the force of events. His claim that emancipation grew out of Lincoln's abstract principles assumes what Lincoln denied: "I claim not to have controlled events but confess plainly that events have controlled me." Clearly, it was the duration of the war that made emancipation possible. Was Lincoln unscrupulous enough to prolong the war so he could free the slaves? Once again, Honest Abe seems an unlikely candidate for such Machiavellian duplicity.

Unlike Guelzo, Oakes is a man of the political left, but nevertheless he paints a picture of a pragmatic Lincoln much like Guelzo's prudent emancipator. Oakes's main target seems to be those on the far left who charge Lincoln with racism, which is why Douglass is critical to his argument. None can doubt Douglass's radicalism, and by showing how the great abolitionist gradually tempered his intransigence, converging with the increasingly radical but ever pragmatic Lincoln, Oakes is invoking Douglass's authority against leftists who reject the compromises necessary for effective engagement in the public realm. Douglass's final conversion to pragmatism, according to Oakes, came during the election of 1864. At first Douglass favored replacing Lincoln with a more radical candidate, but after the Democrats nominated General George McClellan, and after meeting personally with Lincoln for a second time, he decided that Lincoln was the best man for the job at hand, that is, defeating the Democrats. Oakes writes: "This was a far cry from 1860, when Douglass had withdrawn his support for Lincoln and voted instead for a radical third-party candidate" (228). Oakes's praise for Douglass's realism in 1864 calls to mind the widespread disillusionment, even on the left, with Ralph Nader and the Green Party in the wake of the election of 2000. Oakes is a careful historian with an eye to the forgotten context of past events, but his underlying purpose is to draw lessons for the present. As he puts it in his introduction, "Lincoln and Douglass, seen together, reveal what can happen in American Democracy when progressive reformers and savvy politicians make common cause" (xx).

Historians might well question such present-mindedness, but Oakes's point is not without merit. Throughout history reform movements have been divided between moderate pragmatists and radical intransigents. Though it may be doubted that it is always the moderate reformers who get the job done, that was certainly the way it worked in the Civil War. In the end it was Lincoln and the Republicans who ended slavery, not the Garrisonians.

Oakes concludes with the story of Douglass's later years, now no longer a voice in the wilderness, but an active member of the Republican Party. As the party grew more complacent and conservative, Douglass invoked the authority of Lincoln the emancipator to challenge the drift toward accommodation with the South. His personal relationship with Lincoln, however brief, lent credence to his claim to speak for the martyred leader, and there is little doubt that he was sincere in believing that Lincoln would have stood with him for principle against expediency. Nevertheless, Douglass's use of Lincoln was clearly a tactical device for advancing his own agenda. These later invocations of the Great Emancipator tell us more about the allure of the Lincoln myth than about Lincoln the man. The same might be said of Douglass's famous remark that Lincoln was free of the prejudice that characterized most whites in the nineteenth century. It may have been true, but despite resting on a recollection of Douglass's own conversation with Lincoln, it cannot be taken as gospel. Memory has a way of serving the needs of the moment.

History also serves the needs of the moment, though not necessarily by distorting of the historical facts, for we can indeed draw lessons from past experience. But that is quite different from invoking the authority of dead heroes to support the policies of the present, and such use of Lincoln could have unintended consequences. Lincoln the emancipator has served as a convenient weapon in the struggle for equal rights, but when the question of the day has more to do with the wartime powers of the president, historians might well begin to see the Lincoln myth in a different light.


  1. James Oakes, The Ruling Race: A History of American Slaveholders (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982).return to text
  2. Richard Hofstadter, "Abraham Lincoln and the Self-Made Myth," in The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1948); Lerone Bennett, Forced into Glory: Abraham Lincoln's White Dream (Chicago: Johnson Publishing, 2000).return to text
  3. Speech at Peoria, Illinois, October 16, 1854, Roy P. Basler et al., ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 9 vols. (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1953–1955), 2: 268.return to text
  4. Allen C. Guelzo, Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004).return to text