A President and His Foil

By Cathy Jedruczek

James Oakes, here with son Daniel, illuminated another side of Lincoln.
James Oakes got the idea to write the book that won him the Lincoln Prize more than 15 years ago after reading an 1876 speech by abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

"I thought it was brilliant," says Oakes, distinguished professor of history and humanities chair at the Graduate Center. "It was his big summation speech of everything he had come to terms with about Lincoln. I thought about doing a general history of slavery, but I couldn't get [the speech] out of my mind and though I thought I understood Lincoln, I didn't understand Douglass very well, so I thought, 'let me put the slavery book aside and work on these guys.'"

The Lincoln Prize, which recognizes the year's best book on Lincoln and the Civil War, was awarded to Oakes in 2008 for The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics.

It came as no surprise to Oakes that President Barack Obama has an interest in Lincoln. "I think what he admires about Lincoln, and it's a good thing to admire, is the way Lincoln balanced the need to be flexible and pragmatic at critical points in order to achieve victory and to get things done while holding fast to his principles and refusing to compromise on the most fundamental and moral commitments he made," says Oakes. "He likes the way Lincoln was able to articulate in a very plain and beautiful language the basic principles, the ideals upon which the United States is grounded."

Published in 2007, The Radical and the Republican is among a new round of books celebrating the bicentennial of Lincoln's birth. Reviewers have praised it for advancing the study of Lincoln and emancipation by making Douglass an equal protagonist.

Oakes grew up in Staten Island and entered Baruch College in 1970 intending to become an international banker. But he became inspired by the writings of historian Kenneth Stampp, who was known for his scholarship on slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction. Oakes was accepted to a graduate program at the University of California Berkeley, where Stampp became his advisor. After Berkeley, he taught history at Princeton and Northwestern Universities and in 1997 he joined the Graduate Center faculty.

That same year, one of Oakes' students at Princeton, John Matteson, joined the faculty at John Jay College of Criminal Justice to teach English. The two men had lost touch years ago and didn't meet again until last year when Matteson won a Pulitzer Prize for his biography of Louisa May Alcott and her father. "He gave me useful and mature advice as I moved forward with the most important work of my undergraduate life," Matteson says of his time as a student with Oakes. Now they hope to teach a class together at the Graduate Center on literature written about the Civil War.

"I came back to CUNY because I wasn't getting my writing done," says Oakes. "The Graduate Center creates an environment very conducive to writing. And the proof is in the results. My productivity has gone way up since I came back to CUNY, plus I'm from New York, so coming back to New York was like putting on a comfortable pair of shoes."