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Friendly Persuasion

The Lincoln-Douglass debates.

Dec 8, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 12 • By CLAUDIA ANDERSON
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The Radical and the Republican

Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics

by James Oakes

Norton, 352 pp., $16.95

Douglass and Lincoln

How a Revolutionary Black Leader and a Reluctant Liberator Struggled to End Slavery and Save the Union

by Paul Kendrick and Stephen Kendrick

Walker, 320 pp., $17

Giants

The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln

by John Stauffer

Twelve, 448 pp., $30

A leading 800-page American history textbook of a generation back--The National Experience, published in 1963 and written by the star-studded lineup of John Morton Blum, Bruce Catton, Edmund S. Morgan, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., Kenneth Stampp, and C. Vann Woodward--devotes precisely half a sentence to Frederick Douglass. The recent crop of books pairing Douglass with no less a figure than Abraham Lincoln, then, is notable beyond their individual merit: It is the latest fruit of the continuing rediscovery of a life too long overlooked.

All three of these books cover the essentials of the relationship between Douglass and Lincoln, a story every American should know. The heart of each is a detailed account of their three meetings at the White House, in August 1863 at Douglass's request, in August 1864 at Lincoln's request, and on Inauguration Day 1865; the prelude to those meetings in Douglass's fierce criticism of Lincoln in his newspaper and speeches, as well as the 15 mentions of Douglass by Senator Stephen A. Douglas during his famous debates with Lincoln in 1858; and the meetings' aftermath, confirming the profound mutual regard that developed between the two men--Douglass's extemporaneous eulogy the day of Lincoln's death, Mary Lincoln's gift to Douglass (in keeping with her late husband's wishes) of his favorite walking stick, and especially Douglass's great speech at the dedication of the Freedmen's Monument in Lincoln Park, 11 blocks from the Capitol, on the eleventh anniversary of the president's assassination, before an audience consisting of President Grant, his cabinet, the Supreme Court, many members of Congress, and some 25,000 Washingtonians, mostly black.

Beyond that shared storyline, each book has its own distinctive emphasis and strengths. James Oakes's The Radical and the Republican is the most disciplined. Unlike the other two, it makes no attempt to be a joint biography, though Oakes is fully alive to the intrinsic fascination of these two personalities. Instead, it concentrates on the political meaning of the tension between them and their ultimate convergence "at the most dramatic moment in American history." What interests Oakes is ideas and institutions: how the moral fire of the reformer and the legal scruples and necessary pragmatism of the elected leader interacted under the American system to end slavery and preserve the Union.

Both men always regarded slavery as evil. Yet in Douglass's eyes, the president unaccountably dragged his feet. Whether the issue of the hour was declaring the war an "abolition war," or using the war powers of the presidency to emancipate slaves who escaped to Union lines, or allowing black men to enlist in the Union army, or giving black soldiers equal pay with whites and protection from execution or reenslavement if captured, or promising freedmen citizenship, or promising black citizens the vote on the same terms as whites--Douglass was at Lincoln's heels every step of the way, constantly pressing the president toward the goal that, by then, had been clear to Douglass for a decade, namely, colorblind government under the Constitution.

A professional historian at the City University of New York, Oakes has produced a polished work. The father and son team of Paul Kendrick and Stephen Kendrick, authors of Douglass and Lincoln, are serious amateurs: The former is the assistant director of a nonprofit working with children in Harlem, the latter a Unitarian Universalist minister. Their book reflects extensive familiarity with both manuscript collections and secondary sources. Abundantly illustrated, it tells its story in straightforward chronological order and with a good eye for matters of human interest. It is the obvious choice for the general reader.