Saturday, May 12, 2007

James Oakes's "The Radical and the Republican"

James Oakes is professor of history at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and the author of, most recently, The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery.

He applied the "Page 99 Test" to the book and reported the following:
Page 99: It is the winter of 1859-1860. Frederick Douglass is in Europe, in part because authorities have found evidence of his connection to John Brown, who has just been executed for treason against the state of Virginia after his abortive effort to provoke a slave uprising at Harpers Ferry. Douglass is defending Brown vociferously, excessively — even though Douglass himself had refused to participate in a plot he considered “desperate.” Why is he doing this?

Think of what’s going on back in the United States. The most momentous presidential election on the nation’s history is getting underway — an election that would determine whether the country would split apart, whether there would be civil war, whether slavery would survive. Douglass’s praise of Brown’s antislavery radicalism sets the black leader apart from the political mainstream. The Democrats are divided between proslavery southerners and belligerently racist northerners. The antislavery Republican Party is committed only to halting slavery’s expansion into the western territories. That’s not good enough for Frederick Douglass. In pronouncing Brown an antislavery hero — virtually a saint — Douglass is staking out a position at the left flank of American politics. It is the classic stance of the reformer — to needle the consciences of elected politicians who must temper their ideals as they answer to a broader constituency.

In this case, Douglass’s enthusiastic encomiums to John Brown sharply distinguish him from Abraham Lincoln’s cautious dismissal of Brown’s insane and criminal act. And therein lies the central theme of the book — the difference between two men whose historical reputations rest on their shared hatred of slavery, one of them a radical and the other a Republican.
Visit the publisher's website to learn more about The Radical and the Republican.

--Marshal Zeringue