Oh, No, the Dreaded Question: Is My Book Relevant?


Mr. Oakes is the author of the recently published, The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery (W.W. Norton, January 2007).

I should have known better.  My book is a few weeks old and already I’ve been asked to “apply” its lessons here, there and everywhere.  I should have predicted that reporters would inevitably ask me to compare Abraham Lincoln to George Bush.  What I did not expect was the reaction of some good friends in the profession, who find my book helpful in their own work—a model, of sorts, for the way radicals and liberals, reformers and politicians, interact in settings other than that crisis of slavery and the Civil War.  How does it help explain the troubled dynamic between student radicals and liberal administrators at Berkeley in the sixties?  Wasn’t there something similar in the relationship between civil rights activists and presidents during the Kennedy-Johnson years? 

I want to say, “I don’t know.”  When the editors of HNN invited me to write a brief essay expanding on the remarks I make in my book about politicians and reformers,  my first impulse was to crawl into the historian’s shell:  I will defend, successfully or not, whatever I have to say about Lincoln and Douglass, but that’s as far as I’m comfortable going.  It’s a healthy impulse, I think, but in the end not an entirely honest one.  So let’s see if I having anything worth saying.

The workings of democracy have always been somewhere close to the center of my interests as a historian.  I’ve gotten tied up in debates about slavery, about capitalism, and the relationship between the two, but at bottom I was always more concerned with the nature and problems of American democracy.  Slavery was a good place to look, I thought, because it posed the issue so starkly.  I was dissatisfied with the too-easy claim that slavery was an anomaly waiting to disappear.  So I asked myself a few questions.      Could a slave society be a democracy in any meaningful sense?  How do democratically elected politicians defend slavery?  Did slavery force into the open a larger debate about the meaning of democracy itself?

Abolitionism and antislavery politics posed a different but related set of problems about democracy.  It’s a commonplace in the scholarly literature that the party systems of antebellum America successfully suppressed the slavery issue.  (One of the reasons I so admire Sean Wilentz’s The Rise of American Democracy is because it shows, better than anything else, exactly how this happened.)  It was the abolitionists who broke through this wall of silence, forcing politicians to confront the issue of slavery.  Almost by definition this put radical reformers into an odd and difficult relationship with democratic politics.  Initially they had no choice but to attack from the outside, but as they succeeded in getting the slavery issue inside the mainstream they had to adjust their own stance.  This was a difficult adjustment for both politicians and abolitionists to make, and I chose Lincoln and Frederick Douglass as examples of the difficulty. 

The larger point, I suppose, is that no matter how successful radicals are in bringing issues of social and political justice to the political forefront, there is always a history of suspicion that inhibits a complete convergence.  No matter how far politicians move in the direction of reform, it will never be enough to satisfy the radicals.  To some extent that’s how it should be.  Reformers are good for democracy insofar as they are the standard bearers for justice and decency.  But when the democracy fails them—which it is nearly always bound to do in some measure—too often the radical impulse is to repudiate democracy itself.  And the way to do this is by repudiating “compromise.”

Democracy does not work without compromise.  Nobody enjoys the spectacle of politicians trimming their ideals to broaden their appeal.  But in a democracy politicians must build electoral coalitions, and that requires compromise.  Once in office they must build governing coalitions, and that requires compromise.  So when reformers—and the historians who admire them—dismiss compromise in principle, we can sympathize but we must also be very careful.  Political compromise too often reduces ideals to banality and cynicism, subverting the goals of justice and equality.  But radicals have their own unfortunate tendencies.  They move from idealism to santimoniousness and condescension with disturbing ease and frequency.  And too often there’s an anti-democratic impulse lurking beneath the surface of the reformer’s high-sounding resistance to compromise.

This comes close to what I ended up admiring so much in Lincoln and Douglass. Lincoln was by nature a cautious politician who eventually drew a line beyond which he would no longer compromise with slavery. Douglass was by instinct a radical who eventually overcame his contempt for the Constitution and the political process, who made his peace with the demands of coalition building, and was thereby able to balance his unwavering commitment to the highest principles of justice and equality with a due respect for the underlying requirements of democracy itself.

Whether any of this lends itself to a broader application, to lessons that go beyond the sectional crisis of the mid-nineteenth century, I’m still reluctant to say. Have I written, in the guise of a history book, a surreptitious screed against Ralph Nader’s 2000 presidential campaign? I don’t think so. But I will at least allow this much: I wrote a defense of political engagement, with “politics” defined in an old-fashioned, colloquial sense of organized activity aimed at influencing state policy. When we abandon that, we’ve given up.

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Rob Willis - 3/15/2007

"Reformers are good for democracy insofar as they are the standard bearers for justice and decency."

I can't allow the argument to be framed so simply. Reform and reformers may be positive or negative, depending on their agenda. Are the "reformers" at NAMBLA standard-bearers for justice and decency?

Please unpack this statement a little further, if you don't mind.


Jason Blake Keuter - 3/15/2007

Bush came to office with a coalition of different Republican Constituencies just like Lincoln. As circumstances merited, he chose policies favored by "radicals", and he did so at a time in which those policies had the potential to be favored by most Americans. In other words, a foreign policy based on freedom. This was in contravention of a Cold War consensus that regarded such a policy as reckless and a post-Cold War consensus that regarded it as unrealisic given the suppressed social forces that bubbled to the surface following the end of the cold war (of which Islamism was one). Like Lincoln, Bush argues that a house divided against itself cannot stand; further he argued so in the face of an ideology contrary to freedom that must spread to survive. Also like Lincoln, he is viewed as repugnant by his opposition, who is seizing on the crisis of the situation he created in order to insure that that creation has a reactionary result. Hopefully, we won't wait for 100 years to realize that democracy and freedom must exist for all the same way we waited 100 years to render the freedom won by the civil war real.

But, we probably will.

Hyman Kuritz - 3/12/2007

Slavery was central to the definition of democracy. Blacks, from the very beginning, had no trouble pointing out that a democratic society could not exist in the midst of slavery. The meaning of freedom was measured by its relationship to slavery. Jefferson's tortured efforts to reconcile his Enlightenment views with the reality of slavery inevitably failed. The logical extension of views that Blacks simply could not co-exist as equals in society came to include women, immigrants, American Indians, etc. Bariers aainst them would endure until the barriers against blacks were removed. It is no accident that the struggles against Jim Crow paved the way for women's rights and the rights of other minorities.
In a word, slavery was not an aberration. It was cetral to the way American democracy was defined.
Hyman Kuritz

Simon Doubleday - 3/12/2007

Isn't it striking that, whereas we so often claim that our field is important by virtue of its importance for understanding the present, we are so collectively reluctant to establish just _how_ the lines of relevance work? Prof. Oakes' own present-framed interests (e.g. in the workings of democracy) reflect the presence of a personal or cultural 'need' for elucidation of some aspect of the past -- how, then, does the past help? I've found Beverly Southgate's _What is History For?_ very stimulating in rethinking this kind of question, and I wonder if it isn't one of the next great intellectual challenges to overturn comfortable traditions of own-sakism and, as Prof. Oakes suggests he is forced to do, to honestly examine the contemporary importance of our respective fields.