Abraham Lincoln at the intersection of principle and politics
Two new books document Lincoln's difficult passage through the politics of race.
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It was at the Freeport debate that Lincoln doomed Douglas's presidential hopes for 1860 by pointing out the inconsistency between "popular sovereignty" and the idea that slaveholders had a "property right" in their slaves, enforceable wherever they went (as asserted in the Supreme Court's infamous "Dred Scott" decision of 1857. If slaves were property in one locale but not another, what were those property rights worth? Douglas's appeal in the South was dead after Freeport.Skip to next paragraph
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Lincoln lost narrowly in 1858, but he'd effectively ruined Douglas's political ambitions. At the same time, he'd gained national recognition of the "moral wrongs" of slavery by questioning the idea that it could be a right in one place yet wrong in another. "If it is wrong," Lincoln told voters, "[Douglas] cannot say people have a right to do wrong." In 1860 Lincoln defeated Douglas to become president.
The Kendricks, a father-son team, focus on the relationship between Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. They describe a "strange partnership," where "in the midst of deep and weighty disagreements, they managed to forge a strong mutual understanding and respect." The abolitionist Douglass urged Lincoln to move faster on emancipation and civil rights, while the politically minded Lincoln would only go as fast as public opinion allowed.
The Kendricks attempt to portray the political restrictions on Lincoln, but they're not above accusing him of racism. Even after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, the authors show Douglass advocating tirelessly to enable African-American soldiers to fight in the Union army, to earn equal pay and promotions.
At their first meeting, Douglass pleaded with Lincoln for equal pay and advancement for African-American troops. Lincoln listened attentively, but explained that granting equal pay would create rebellion among white troops already angered about serving alongside African-Americans.
In typical fashion, Lincoln said he was committed to equal pay and promotions, but they'd have to wait until the right time.
The second time they met, just before the 1864 presidential election, Lincoln told Douglass about the tremendous political pressure he was under to seek a negotiated peace with the South, a peace that might reestablish slavery. Douglass passionately urged Lincoln not to seek peace by moving backward on emancipation, no matter the political costs.
A wavering Lincoln was persuaded: "Douglass offered strength to the president on a decision that could have huge ramifications," explain the Kendricks.
The Kendricks are right in stating that both Lincoln and Douglass came to see the war, with its 620,000 dead, as the horrific price the nation paid for the sins of slavery. Unfettered by politics, Douglass reached this conclusion first, yet Lincoln reached it in the end, achieving deeply moral goals through the imperfections of politics.
After Lincoln's assassination, Douglass grieved not just for the fate of African-Americans, but for a lost friend: "We shared in common a terrible calamity, and this ... made us more than countrymen, it made us kin."
Guelzo's book is perhaps more scholarly and measured, revealing the careful political calculations leading Lincoln to power, while the Kendricks have done wonderful work exploring one of the most complex and important relationships in American history. There's much in both books for history lovers to savor.
• Chuck Leddy is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and writes frequently about American history.