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« Groups Fighting Voter Suppression Laws | Main | Radical Power »


Abraham Lincoln and the Radical Abolitionists

By Angelo Lopez
October 20, 2012

Recently I watched on the internet a movie preview of the upcoming Steven Spielberg movie on Abraham Lincoln. I'm really looking forward to this film, as Spielberg is one of my favorite filmmakers and Lincoln is my favorite President. In this election season, it's especially appropriate that we look at Abraham Lincoln and his presidency, as many historians and presidential scholars consider Lincoln to be one of our best Presidents. I've read a lot of books on Lincoln, and one of the things that I most admire about Lincoln was his capacity to listen and grow as he was exposed to the radical abolitionists, the freed slaves, the African American soldiers of the Union Army. His capacity to grow helped Lincoln to be the leader who was able to preserve the union and to abolish slavery from this country.

One of the things that most fascinates me about Abraham Lincoln was how he was able to grow and become a great reformer as a result of circumstances and the influence of the radical abolitionists who were constantly pressuring Lincoln and the country to abolish slavery. Eric Foner, a DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University the author, of The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, wrote an article in the January 7, 2009 edition of the Nation which comments on Lincoln's relationship with the radical abolitionists:

In the wake of the 2008 election and an inaugural address with "a new birth of freedom," a phrase borrowed from the Gettysburg Address, as its theme, the Lincoln we should remember is the politician whose greatness lay in his capacity for growth. Much of that growth stemmed from his complex relationship with the radicals of his day, black and white abolitionists who fought against overwhelming odds to bring the moral issue of slavery to the forefront of national life.

Until well into the Civil War, Lincoln was not an advocate of immediate abolition. But he was well aware of the abolitionists' significance in creating public sentiment hostile to slavery. Every schoolboy, Lincoln noted in 1858, recognized the names of William Wilberforce and Granville Sharpe, leaders of the earlier struggle to outlaw the Atlantic slave trade, "but who can now name a single man who labored to retard it?" On issue after issue--abolition in the nation's capital, wartime emancipation, enlisting black soldiers, amending the Constitution to abolish slavery, allowing some blacks to vote--Lincoln came to occupy positions the abolitionists had first staked out. The destruction of slavery during the war offers an example, as relevant today as in Lincoln's time, of how the combination of an engaged social movement and an enlightened leader can produce progressive social change.

Paul Kendrick and Stephen Kendrick wrote in their book Douglass and Lincoln: How a Revolutionary Black Leader and a Reluctant Liberator Struggled to End Slavery and Save the Union a similar point:

In the most incisive estimation of Lincoln that Douglass was ever to make, the speaker reminded his audience that at the time of the beginning of the war, abolitionists (including Douglass) had seen him as 'tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent,' but when Douglass measured him against the rest of the country at the time, Lincoln was 'swift, zealous, radical, and determined.' Douglass now fully understood what Lincoln had gone through, balancing public opinion and justice.

In the end, Douglass' people had come to love this president, and for a simple reason: 'We came to the conclusion that the hour and the man of our redemption has somehow met in the person of Abraham Lincoln.'

This vital address was skilled and subtle in what it conveyed. Douglass, in emphasizing Lincoln's racist attitudes, actions, and propensities, did not do in a tone of accusation, blame, or even regret. In the end, Douglass wanted the crowd to know that Lincoln was, in fact, not different from them; even in his evident greatness, he was one of them, sharing the limited views and blindness born of the nation's burden of race - and yet he had done marvelous acts to move this country forward and to give justice to African-Americans. They could do the same.

Everyone in the crowd knew that Lincoln had invited Douglass to the White House to speak with him. He had not given Douglass all he wanted, or all his people deserved, but he had listened. He even did Douglass the courtesy to disagree, to gently argue, to treat him simply as a man. Douglass told white America that their instinctual prejudices were forgivable if their actions reflected an openness to listen and to grow, as Lincoln did. W.E.B. DuBois took the same meaning from Lincoln's life that this speech reflects: 'I love him not because he was perfect, but because he was not and yet triumphed... The world is full of folk whose taste was educated in the gutter. The world is full of people born hating and despising their fellows. To these I love to say: See this man. He was one of you and yet became Abraham Lincoln.'"

This relationship between radical activists, who pressure the political system from the outside, and reform politicians, who use that outside pressure to get the system to enact necessary reforms, is well articulated by historian Howard Zinn. Zinn has postulated in many of his works the idea that social change always originates in the grassroots efforts of radicals, activists, and reformers who work to change opinions and protest for change. Howard Zinn, in the article Abolitionists, Freedom Riders and the Tactics of Agitation in The Zinn Reader, wrote:

In all ages, it has been first the radical, and only later the moderate, who has held out a hand to men knocked to the ground by social order.

The moderate, whose sensitive ears are offended by the wild language of the radical, needs to consider the necessary division of labor in a world full of evil, a division in which agitators for reform play an indispensable role… In Abraham Lincoln we have the prototype of the political man in power, with views so moderate as to require the pressure of radicals to stimulate action. The politician, by the very nature of the electoral process, is a compromiser and a trimmer, who sets his sails by the prevailing breezes, and without the hard blowing of the radical reformer would either drift actionless or sail along with existing injustices…

In the fascinating dialogue- sometimes articulated, sometimes unspoken - between Abraham Lincoln and the abolitionists, we have the classic situation of the politician vis-a-vis the radical reformer. It would be wrong to say that Lincoln was completely a politician- his fundamental humanitarianism did not allow that - and wrong to say that some of the abolitionists did not occasionally play politics- but on both sides the aberrations were slight, and they played their respective roles to perfection.

The lessons of Abraham Lincoln and the abolitionists are applicable to all social change that has happened in the United Sates, from the work of the women's suffragists to pressure Woodrow Wilson and Congress to pass the 19th Amendment, to the agitation of the labor movement that pushed FDR to the more radical phase of the New Deal, to the great civil rights campaigns that pushed John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson to pass the great Civil Rights legislation of the 1960s. We're learning the lessons today, as the incomplete progress that President Barack Obama has achieved has disappointed many progressives. While some progressive groups seem to think that Obama and the Congress were going to achieve the reforms on their own and have been disappointed that more hasn't been done, other groups have persisted in lobbying the government and have continued to protest and to try to change public opinion on issues important to them. Rob “Biko” Baker, Executive Director, League of Young Voters Education Fund, wrote a blog about the importance of continued grassroots organizing and protesting even after the elections are over:

But while Obama’s message powerfully underscored his economic and diplomatic prowess, the truth is that unless we as young people and people of color push Obama to do more in his second term, our communities are unlikely to experience the transformative change needed to end the cycles of violence and joblessness that plague our community. In reality, it is highly unlikely that we will have another shot at having another president of color in the very near future.

Yesterday, I was criticized by many in the grassroots community for stating that I felt Bill Clinton’s speech did not do enough to raise the tough socio-economic issues impacting the nation’s working poor. But unlike many activists who engage in progressive politics, I don’t believe our generation is strengthened by remaining quiet about the issues most affecting our community. In fact, if there is anything that Obama has shown us during his first term; it’s that he is willing to make bold decisions when he is pushed by to do so.

Unlike many of us in the Hip-Hop generation who repeatedly complain about how little Obama is doing for inner city neighborhoods, these last four years, immigrant and gay rights groups used the power of direct action to advance their communities’ policy agenda. Whether it was through the power of petition, public spectacle or civil disobedience, during his first term, Obama’s most bold moves came as result of grassroots organizations forcing him to take decisive action.

That’s why it doesn’t really matter how good Obama’s speech was last night. If our communities are going to get significant investment and attention from the federal government these next four years, we are going to have to force Obama’s hand. Yes, this fall we will all work hard to get the president reelected, but immediately following the election, the minute the polls close, we must step up our civic action.

There are many great Abraham Lincoln books. Here are a few recommendations:

The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery by Eric Foner

Douglass and Lincoln: How a Revolutionary Black Leader and a Reluctant Liberator Struggled to End Slavery and Save the Union by Paul and Stephen Kendrick

The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politic by James Oakes

Lincoln's Virtues: An Ethical Biography by William Lee Miller

Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin

A preview of Steven Spielberg's movie on Abraham Lincoln

An interview with historian Eric Foner about Abraham Lincoln and American slavery

Author John Stauffer talks about the relationship between Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass

An interview of historian Doris Kearns Goodwin on Abraham Lincoln and her book "Team of Rivals"


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