The Radical and the Republican


The Radical and the Republican is a book by James Oakes, a prolific scholar and a respected Humanities Professor at the Graduate school of City University of New York. He has written one of the most comprehensive books about the lives of two great men who stood to be counted during the most controversial political times in American history. Presented in prose under appropriate headings, the book utilizes simple language making it very easy to understand.

Fredrick Douglas was a freed slave who felt like he had something to contribute towards the freedom of fellow slaves. He has tasted freedom and he cannot wait to see others being set free. When he goes to New York and gets a job as a free man, he does it despite the fact that it is not a good one. The job is “…new, hard and dirty…” (Oakes 3)

Prof.Oakes has a clear understanding of what he needs to give to the readers so as to make them understand his material as well as he does. Picking two men with a set of parallels is a good starting point. President Abraham Lincoln was not born to fortune. He began from extremely humble beginnings and lost elections a number of times before getting elected eventually. This is the same thing with Fredrick Douglas e was freed as a slave and his life was in his hands. He worked up his way and gained ground till he had the clout to seek audience with the president so as negotiate for the release of slaves.

Other qualities shared by the two outstanding characters of that Prof.Oakes has lucidly written are ambition and education. Abraham Lincoln was an extremely ambitious fellow and this is why even after losing a number of times, he does not give up. Instead he works harder and eventually gets elected as president f the United States. Douglas on the other hand is a highly ambitious guy whose back cannot be broken by slavery. Immediately he is released, he rehabilitates himself by learning how to read…” he taught himself how to read by mastering the Columbian Orator, a children’s book filled with the inspiring speeches of great politicians who sang the praises of liberty and the rights of man…” (Oakes 6).He then decided to come back to speak on behalf of his unfreed brothers and sisters. It is also crucial to note that the president studied law on his own just like Douglas studied a variety of subjects on his own. This kind of sharing in terms of qualities makes the study of the two characters more interesting.

Why radical?

Fredrick Douglas is rightfully described as a radical because of the positions he took on the issue that was close to his heart. He never minced his words when he was given a chance to state his position of slavery, a character that earned him a huge number of admirers. After listening to Abraham Lincoln speak on the issue of slavery, Lincoln spoke something he liked. The statement had the phrases “slavery or Liberty must become the law of the land” (Oakes 5).Douglas went ahead and repeated that particular statement because it reflected his radical ideas on slavery. According to him and many others who were true believers in freedom and equality, if the white racists who were still holding slaves in the south did not stop, then there was need for a confrontation so that if slavery wins, everyone becomes free but if the racists won the all become slaves.

What issues are dealt with by Prof.James Oakes in the book?

Prof.Oakes addresses a number of issues that were controversial at the time when the two men lived. The issues that professor tackles are racism, slavery, politics, the American civil war and equality. These are the major issues that are so prominent in the book that brings together a radical ( Fredrick Douglas) and a Republican (Abraham Lincoln).They are the issues that bring the hardliner and hot-blooded reformer and the calculative and cautious politician together. They are the issues that make a president and a former slave share a table and look for the best way forward.

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From the time Fredrick Douglas gets to know the president to the time when the president is assassinated, the two men hold not less than three meetings focusing on slavery. The president is against slavery but his political cards are not permitting him to just declare slavery over. There is a civil war that requires planning and strategy and the pressure from Douglas must wait. This is what happened during the time of the American civil war. Lincoln is quoted in the book as saying “…we must free slaves or be ourselves subdued.”( Oakes 173). This clearly shows that the president knew very well that slavery had to be ended at that particular point in history but the time was not just right. The slow pace at which he was moving with the issue of ending slavery almost annoyed Fredrick Douglas.

But there is an interesting change that takes place in the two men till it is difficult to understand what really happened. From the hard bargainer and firebrand advocate for “freedom now” Fredrick Douglas underwent unique transformation and became a moderate negotiator who would listen and make compromises. On the issue of slavery, as noted earlier, the president was willing to declare freedom for slaves as soon as he got to office. But something else came in and created confusion. The American civil war broke out and with the southern states full of backward people who still clung to slavery, he had to take his time and wade through the muddy waters of the civil war before coming up with the emancipation proclamation.

The theme of race has been given a lot of attention by the author. The most outstanding evidence that proves that race was an issue is its twin brother called slavery. The rationale that the radical racist southerners gave for keeping on holding slaves was that African American were meant to be working for them in their plantations. This kind of bigotry is what made them go to church and still enslave fellow human beings and all Abraham Lincoln would do was wonder the kind of God they were worshipping because the God he knew wanted all men to be free and be accorded fair treatment. Fredrick Douglas also faced race issues when he escaped slavery from Baltimore Maryland. When he reached New York, friendly abolitionists advised him to move to a more friendly territory. This is because New York was racist and they viewed Douglas as a runaway slave who was supposed to be handed back to his master. So Fredrick followed the instructions he was given and preceded to New Bedford, Massachusetts where he was able to learn more and meet more people who gave him more ideas (Oakes 8).

The concept of politics has also been given substantial airtime in the book. Abraham Lincoln is presented as a very calculative politician who made political moves that shocked even his enemies. This is confirmed by the fact that he is able to deal with the political opponents ne co-opted to his cabinet after he became president. In such a case, the easiest thing to do is to forget about the people who gave you hard time on the campaign trail and instead pick different people to fill your cabinet positions. This is not what Abraham Lincoln did. Fredrick Douglas also brings in another angle of politics when he jokes about a candidate for the Senate who is being pushed down by Democrats. The candidate’s name is Douglas and he tells him how he hoped that he would bring a good reputation to his name but it is now not possible given that he is losing the position to Democrats (Oakes 4).

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Still on the issue of politics, the slavery issue was highly political with some political leaders from the south holding it a political card for not supporting Lincoln on his war strategies if he abolished it. This kind of tactic contributed to the delayed announcement of the emancipation proclamation that waste free slaves. The issue of politics covers a wider scope and perhaps we can say that it is what Prof.James Oakes’s book is all about. Fredrick had political ambitions and he was heard declaring that he would not stop till he was in the United States Senate. This is something that he well understood was nearly impossible but he still had that kind of idea in mind. According to his friends who hear him make this kind of comment, they wondered because slaves were not supposed to think of such things as leadership or freedom (Oakes 6).This goes ahead to still show how much this man was determined to live his life even after he had suffered under slavery.

Prof.Oakes also brings out a very crucial point of racial understanding. He achieves this by showing us how the president took his time to listen to Fredrick Douglas and how Douglas, despite the bitterness he had in his soul given that he and people like him had suffered, had listened to him. They deliberated from time to time and later a solution for a complex problem was found. It is no surprise that by the time the President was assassinated, the two had become very close friends and it was a model relationship for interaction among the races as well as cooperation.

In summary, Prof.Oakes has written an excellent book about the President who did the most challenging job on behalf of the people of the United States of all generations. He has also been able to draw the near exact picture of how Fredrick Douglas, a former slave was able to rehabilitate himself, get organized and become someone recognizable in society. All it took was deliberate effort and the right amount of ambition, we have also seen the issues that emerge as one goes through this highly readable text. There are issues such as race problems, slavery problems, the civil war and the very changing and challenging political games in the United States. The professor is able to communicate his message well in the book by using simple language, excellent prose and direct speech at some points. It is the book that can give a researcher on the civil war, slavery or Lincoln a lot of valuable information.

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