Book Talk

Parsing the Great Lincoln-Douglas(s) Debate

By Gary Schmidgall

The 1850’s was a chaotic and ominous decade in American politics. The flames under the pressure-cooker issue of slavery were rising fast: the antislavery candidate in the 1844 presidential election garnered 60,000 votes, but in 1856 the newborn antislavery Republican party’s candidate got more than 2 million. An outburst of belligerence grew increasingly likely.

In one of his famous 1858 debates with the ferocious race baiter Stephen Douglas, Abraham Lincoln opined that the peaceful dismantling of slavery would take “a hundred years at least,” but for several years he had sensed that the fuse on war over slavery was very short.

Those seven three-hour marathons with Douglas did not gain Lincoln the Senate seat for Illinois he was vying for, but his consolation prize was the 1860 Republican presidential nomination. The debates put Lincoln on the national political map and surely deserve the newly published book by Gettysburg College historian Allen Guelzo, Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates that Defined America.

But they pale in comparison with the years-long debate between Lincoln and Frederick Douglass (then easily the nation’s most prominent black man) that began in the 1850s and lasted until the 1865 assassination. This is what one is left feeling after reading James Oakes’ The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics (W.W. Norton), which focuses on this tussle of titans: Douglass the quintessential trumpet-blaring reformer, Lincoln the nonpareil deliberative incrementalist.

Writing the book was clearly gratifying labor for Oakes, a professor of history and Humanities Chair at the CUNY Graduate Center and author of two prior books on American slavery. He says the two men “are among the people I most admire in all of nineteenth-century American history.” His labor was rewarded Feb. 12 when The Radical and the Republican became a co-winner of the 2008 Lincoln Prize.

Oakes points to many striking similarities between Lincoln and Douglass that leveled their playing field: Both grew up in poverty (Lincoln in Kentucky, Douglass as a slave in Maryland), were largely self-taught, self-made men, and became two of the greatest orators in an era of great orators. And both hated slavery.

But what creates the forensic fireworks in Oakes’s study is the central difference between the two: “At heart Douglass was… a radical reformer. At bottom Lincoln was a cautious politician,” he sums up.

Douglass’ rampant posture was clearly formed under the early influence of his mentor, the rabidly abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, whose followers hated the Constitution (they called it a “pact with the devil”) because of three clauses in it that, without ever mentioning the word, protected slavery.

In the opposite corner stood Lincoln, who, Oakes says, saw the Constitution as the result of compromise. Oakes even suggests that Lincoln indulged in “strategic racism” to eke out ultimate victory. Hence his allowing in one debate with Stephen Douglas that “there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will for ever forbid the two races living together.” Hence, too, Lincoln’s entertaining for too long the hopeless notion of exporting blacks back to colonies in the Caribbean or Africa.

An exemplary instance of Lincoln and Douglass locking horns came in the Civil War’s first year, when Gen. John C. Frémont, without consultation, suddenly proclaimed the freedom of Missouri’s slaves (he was at St. Louis in charge of the western front). Douglass danced for joy, but Lincoln—knowing the action was a civil, not a military matter, unconstitutional under the disgusting Dred Scott decision, and (most important) risked flipping over to the South border states like Missouri, Kentucky and Maryland that harbored strong proslavery sentiments—ordered Frémont to rescind. The general refused unless ordered to do so. “I very cheerfully do,” Lincoln shot back. Douglass fumed, but Oakes says Lincoln realized Frémont’s “irresponsible pen…had put the entire Union effort—and with it the fate of emancipation—at serious risk.”

Douglass was always exhorting Lincoln to emancipate sooner the South’s slaves, begin sooner enlisting black soldiers, pass sooner an Order of Retaliation for the abuse of captured black soldiers. And yet…as Oakes convincingly shows, deep mutual respect underlay all the public jousting in the arena of the press. The first of only three meetings, at the White House in August 1863, comes on the 212th of Oakes’s 300 pages. The meeting, about which Douglass wrote many years later, left him deeply moved—and convinced “slavery would not survive the War and that the Country would survive both slavery and the War.”

A highlight of The Radical and the Republican is the passage describing their final meeting, in March 1865 following Lincoln’s second Inaugural Address, which Oakes calls “perhaps the greatest speech ever delivered by an American President.” Douglass, deeply moved, decided to break all precedent and crash the reception afterward at the White House.

Guards told him they were instructed to “admit no persons of color.” Douglass refused to believe this—or to budge. He saw a familiar face and asked that Lincoln be informed that “Frederick Douglass is detained by officers at the door.” Douglass was instantly ushered in and greeted by Lincoln, “Here comes my friend Douglass. I am glad to see you. I saw you in the crowd today, listening to my inaugural address; how did you like it?” Douglass replied, “That was a sacred effort,” and Lincoln said, “I am glad you liked it!” Six weeks later Lincoln was dead.

Oakes’s last chapter, on Douglass after Lincoln, is melancholy reading, for the firebrand had to watch as the aureate glow of early Reconstruction faded to, well, black. By 1888 he could write in anger and frustration that the Negro in the South “is worse off, in many respects, than when he was a slave.” He denounced the “so-called emancipation as a stupendous fraud....It was not so meant by Abraham Lincoln.”

Three score and eight years after Douglass died in 1895, Martin Luther King, Jr., standing in front of a (I have always thought) sad-eyed Lincoln on the Washington Mall, was obliged to make exactly the same point, updating the fraud analogy to passing a “promissory note” against “insufficient funds.”


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