James Oakes, The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics

Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass are arguably two of the most studied historical actors of the mid-nineteenth century, and in The Radical and the Republican James Oakes assesses their antislavery attitudes jointly, providing the reader a greater understanding of both men.  Oakes argues that though both men were marked by skepticism in the early 1850s—Lincoln of the effectiveness of radical abolitionism, Douglass of the depth of Lincoln’s commitment to antislavery—by the late 1850s the positions of the two men came closer together, as two of the most dominating figures championing the cause of antislavery, if still approaching the issue with different means.  While Oakes notes Douglass’s continued skepticism of Lincoln extending into the war years, he argues that the Civil War radicalized Lincoln’s approach to antislavery, and this in turn allowed Douglass to take a more practical, republican approach to antislavery politics.  Even as their actual views and positions edged closer together, “so long as they found it necessary to present themselves as the conservative politician and the radical reformer, the differences between them would seem greater than they actually were” (xx).  Ultimately, by the end of the war, Oakes argues that Lincoln and Douglass both shared a commitment to equal rights for African Americans, making Lincoln’s republicanism seem more radical, and Douglass’s radicalism seem more republican

Part of me questions Oakes assessment of Lincoln’s views on and approach to antislavery as becoming increasingly radicalized during the war years.  To me, he takes a more direct approach to emancipation during the war years not because he has become more radical, but because it was not until involved in a military conflict that the constitution permitted him to do so.  The war powers act, and military necessity abetted Lincoln’s “radicalism” during the Civil War, perhaps calling into question Oakes’s model of Lincoln and Douglass slowly coming around to one another’s position.

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