The Lincoln-Douglass debates.
Dec 8, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 12 • By CLAUDIA ANDERSON
The Radical and the Republican
Douglass and Lincoln
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.
John Stauffer's book is the quirkiest of the three, though it has the best title, Giants. Stauffer is chairman of the History of American Civilization Department and professor of English at Harvard, and a whiff of academic trendiness emanates from his pages. He begins with an epigraph from Barack Obama. He obsesses over Lincoln's sexuality, specifying three times in the space of seven pages that the young Abraham and his roommate Joshua Speed, "the love of his life," shared a bed for four years. He sometimes seems bent on catching Lincoln in contradictions and lapses, as when he overinterprets the absence of any record of Lincoln's mentioning former president and antislavery crusader John Quincy Adams, with whom he overlapped for a year in the House of Representatives, as meaning "Lincoln pretended that [Adams] didn't exist."
Yet Stauffer redeems himself with some valuable insights. His chapter "Privileged Slave and Poor White Trash" drives home a startling contrast between Lincoln's and Douglass's early years. If you'd taken a snapshot of each at the age of 22, it's the runaway slave who would have stood out as much the more worldly-wise. Douglass, by then, had lived in small country towns, on plantations both wealthy and modest, and in the bustling shipbuilding ports of Baltimore and New Bedford; he had ridden on trains and even visited the metropolis of New York City (population 300,000). Lincoln was still a backwoodsman. He'd briefly visited New Orleans (population 46,000) but he wouldn't set foot in New York for another 30 years.
And Stauffer's intelligent discussion of Ottilie Assing, the German intellectual and journalist with whom Douglass had a close relationship for over two decades, deserves special mention. Assing was one of several educated women with whom Douglass maintained long friendships. She was an acute observer of the American scene, and she was clearly in love with Douglass. Their acquaintance began when she sought him out at his home in Rochester to propose translating his second autobiography into German. Her introduction to the translation rhapsodizes over the great man's physique, his genius, his powers of persuasion. In the ensuing years, she stayed with the Douglasses for part of many summers, and Frederick frequently stopped at the boarding house where she lived in Hoboken.
Did they have an affair? It is certainly possible, and it would be naïve to assume that they didn't. But writers have handled the absence of proof differently. Drawing on the work of Maria Diedrich (Love Across Color Lines: Ottilie Assing and Frederick Douglass, 1999) and Christoph Lohmann (editor of Radical Passion: Ottilie Assing's Reports from America and Letters to Frederick Douglass, 2000), Stauffer places the relationship in the context of Assing's pattern of modeling her life, at least in her imagination, on romantic fiction. One of her favorite novels was Aphra Behn (published in 1849, seven years before she met Douglass), in which "the heroine Aphra becomes the lover of a sublime black revolutionary" who is married.
Stauffer is scrupulous to note that "the only surviving sources suggesting sexual intimacy" between Assing and Douglass are letters the somewhat unbalanced Ottilie (she made her first, melodramatic attempt at suicide at 24) wrote to her detested sister Ludmilla after the latter married a German aristocrat. Ottilie's "descriptions of a love deeper than marriage," Stauffer writes, "could thus reflect wishful boasting."
This correspondence the Kendricks take at face value: "[Ottilie's] letters to her sister describe an idyllic scene of two lovers feeding peaches and cherries to each other, while enjoying the lush, picturesque region around Rochester." The Kendricks assert that Assing "most certainly claimed [Douglass's] bed," implying that he conducted this illicit romance in the very bosom of his family. They speculate that Douglass had several reasons for not seeking a divorce. Even though his wife, Anna, was illiterate and could never be an intellectual companion, he was genuinely devoted to her and their five children. Divorce would have damaged his standing as the most prominent black leader of the day. And Douglass, who had always excoriated the violation of the family under slavery, saw the building and protection of his own family as central to his existence as a free man.
In addition to these, Stauffer addresses two other significant barriers between Assing and Douglass that elude the Kendricks. One is Assing's elitism. The product of advanced artistic circles in Hamburg, she was openly contemptuous not only of the homebound Anna who stood in her way but of the poor and unschooled generally. She found it irksome that Douglass was patient and generous with needy relatives. Another was her atheism. Whereas Douglass was fervently grounded in the Bible, she disparaged religion as a disease. She herself wrote that "there was one obstacle to a loving and lasting friendship [with Douglass]--namely, the personal Christian God."
By the time Douglass's 44-year marriage ended with Anna's death, Assing had moved back to Europe. Still, when she received word of his remarriage--and to a white woman--she took her own life. Self-dramatizing to the end, she went to the Bois de Boulogne and swallowed poison.
We've come a long way from 1963, when an attentive reader of The National Experience could have learned of Frederick Douglass that even he, "once the militant leader of the Negroes, accepted office under [Rutherford B.] Hayes's administration." It turns out there is quite a lot more worth knowing about this remarkable man. If our scholars and popular historians are having a field day with Douglass and Lincoln--and Ottilie Assing into the bargain--it's only because this work of recovery is long overdue.
Claudia Anderson is managing editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.