OAH Distinguished Lecturer Profile

James Oakes

Portrait of James Oakes

Currently a Distinguished Professor at the City University of New York Graduate Center, James Oakes has been teaching and writing about slavery, antislavery, and the origins of the Civil War for nearly thirty years. Most recently, he is the author of The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics (2007) and Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861–1865 (2012), winner of the Lincoln Prize.

Featured Lecture

OAH Lectures

It's well known that slaves resisted their bondage when and where they could, but that was always true. This essay raises a series of questions designed to specify when and how slave resistance contributed to the Civil War and abolition. How did slave autobiographies translate slave resistance into the abolitionist agenda? How did fugitive slaves contribute directly to the coming of the Civil War? How did the slaves' loyalty to the Union push federal antislavery policy toward universal emancipation? How did black troops contribute to the adoption of the thirteenth Amendment?
By the time he became president Abraham Lincoln had committed himself to a number of antislavery policies that closely tracked those proposed by radical abolitionists: aboltion in Wasington, D.C., radical revision of the Fugitive Slave Act, a ban on slavery in the western territories, and suppression of slavery on the high seas. He justified these positions by invoking the "antislavery constitutionalism" developed by more radical abolitionists. Yet in nearly every specific case Lincoln adopted a slightly less radical variation of the abolitionist policy, enabling him to distance himself from abolitionism and even claim that he was a "conservative."
The firewall that has long marginalized abolitionists beyond the mainstream is breaking down. The old cliches about abolitionists representing a "tiny minority" who were hunted down in the northern streets are crumbling. A new generation of historians is recovering the close relationship between radical abolitionism and the "broader antislavery movement" and the profound influence radicals had on antislavery politics. The result is a much more satisfactory account of the origins of the Civil War.