Lincoln at the intersection of principle and politics
Abraham Lincoln’s difficult passage through the politics of race
It’s February, the month in which we celebrate President’s Day, and so once again the stores are full of books about Abraham Lincoln. Among this year’s crop are a pair with disarmingly similar titles – Douglass and Lincoln and Lincoln and Douglas.
The books treat two very different relationships – from separate vantage points – but study the same phenomenon: Lincoln’s uneasy balance between principle and politics. Neither book celebrates Lincoln as a hero, but both depict him as an intelligent, caring man forced to find a way through the 19th century’s ugly thicket of slavery, race, and politics.
In “Douglass and Lincoln” (about Lincoln’s relationship with black leader Frederick Douglass) Paul Kendrick and Stephen Kendrick call Lincoln “a reluctant liberator.” In “Lincoln and Douglas” (about Lincoln’s famed debates with rival politician Stephen A. Douglas), Allen C. Guelzo depicts Lincoln as sincerely devoted to emancipation but restricted by politics.
Lincoln, Guelzo makes clear, was a politician who needed votes and was not above pandering to popular prejudices to get them. While abolitionist lecturers and antislavery journalists were free to condemn white supremacy, Lincoln was not.
In 1858, Lincoln was running for the US Senate against incumbent Stephen Douglas. Douglas, a white supremacist, thought the answer to slavery was “popular sovereignty.” Local electorates in the new western territories would vote for or against slavery, leaving Congress out of the picture. Lincoln viewed “popular sovereignty” as unworkable and amoral.
The Lincoln-Douglas campaign, and the series of seven Illinois debates between these ambitious men, often “skidded to new levels of nastiness,” notes Guelzo. Douglas was not shy about playing “the race card”: “[T]his government of ours is founded on the white basis,” he claimed.
Playing on the deepest fears of some voters of his time, Douglas told the audience at the famous Freeport debate about seeing Frederick Douglass in a carriage with a beautiful, young white woman. The senator's point was clear: a vote for Abraham Lincoln meant equality for "negroes," who might then marry voters' daughters. The senator referred to Lincoln's "friend" Douglass 15 times during the debates. Such racial assaults placed Lincoln in a tough position politically.
But with his trademark combination of common sense, political acuity, and oratorical skills, Lincoln fought back.
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.
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.