The acclaimed biographer, with a thought-provoking exploration of how Abraham Lincoln’s and John Quincy Adams’ experiences with slavery and race shaped their differing viewpoints, provides both perceptive insights into these two great presidents and a revealing perspective on race relations in modern America.

Lincoln, who in afterlife became mythologized as the Great Emancipator, was shaped by the values of the white America into which he was born. While he viewed slavery as a moral crime abhorrent to American principles, he disapproved of anti-slavery activists. Until the last year of his life, he advocated “voluntary deportation,” concerned that free blacks in a white society would result in centuries of conflict. In 1861, he had reluctantly taken the nation to war to save it. While this devastating struggle would preserve the Union, it would also abolish slavery—creating the biracial democracy Lincoln feared. John Quincy Adams, forty years earlier, was convinced that only a civil war would end slavery and preserve the Union. An antislavery activist, he had concluded that a multiracial America was inevitable.

Lincoln and the Abolitionists, a frank look at Lincoln, “warts and all,” provides an in-depth look at how these two presidents came to see the issues of slavery and race, and how that understanding shaped their perspectives. In a far-reaching historical narrative, Fred Kaplan offers a nuanced appreciation of both these great men and the events that have characterized race relations in America for more than a century—a legacy that continues to haunt us all.

The book has a colorful supporting cast from the relatively obscure Dorcas Allen, Moses Parsons, Violet Parsons, Theophilus Parsons, Phoebe Adams, John King, Charles Fenton Mercer, Phillip Doddridge, David Walker, Usher F. Linder, and H. Ford Douglas to Elijah Lovejoy, Francis Scott Key, William Channing, Wendell Phillips, and Rufus King. The cast includes Hannibal Hamlin, Lincoln’s first vice president, and James Buchanan and Andrew Johnson, the two presidents on either side of Lincoln. And it includes Abigail Adams, John Adams, Henry Clay, Stephen A. Douglas, and Frederick Douglass, who hold honored places in the American historical memory.

The subject of this book is slavery and racism, the paradox of Lincoln, our greatest president, as an antislavery moralist who believed in an exclusively white America; and Adams, our most brilliant statesman, as an antislavery activist who had no doubt that the United States would become a multiracial nation. It is as much about the present as the past.

Published: June 13, 2017

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My Review

Interesting how the distorted lens of history gives us a rose-colored view of Abraham Lincoln as a slave-fighting hero. He was not, at least not in the way he’s typically portrayed. While he found slavery morally troubling, without the threat of secession by the south he likely would have been content to leave things as they were. In our modern-day terms, Abraham Lincoln could easily be described as a White Supremacist. Of course, we can’t judge past generations by current standards, though it is important to note that Lincoln was not all that different from many of his contemporaries in this respect. He was not unique, nor was he particularly concerned with the suffering endured by the millions of slaves.

Like most of his contemporaries in the country as a whole and especially in Illinois, whose southern and central sections were more like Kentucky than any Northern state, Lincoln believed that America was for white people; that abolition would greatly increase the free black population and black labor would drive down white wages; that the white and the black races were not compatible; and that the best hope for an all-white America was encouraging, through assistance and exhortation, as many blacks as possible to return to Africa.

John Quincy Adams, on the other hand, had remarkably progressive opinions on the issues of slavery and (de)segregation. He was outspoken and passionate, and today would be considered an activist. Yet our textbooks and history lessons largely leave out Adams while putting Lincoln on a pedestal, simply because Lincoln happened to be president when the country was forced to decide between a united nation and slavery.

Slaves and free blacks were here to stay, Adams believed. He would not support colonization. Blacks should and eventually would be citizens. Slavery, though, was the problem, to be resolved, probably convulsively and violently, Adams anticipated.

Fred Kaplan lays the truth out for us in this exceptionally researched book. The author’s focus is not on the war itself, but on the people and politics leading up to and surrounding it. We see the nation and its people as they really were, absent the shiny polish and pedestals we tend to give our historical heroes.

Kaplan’s writing is an intelligent narrative without the academic pretense. This is an in-depth but easy book to read.

Kaplan gives us a gift here by giving us the truth. We need to know and to acknowledge the truth of where we’ve been if we ever hope to create a better future.

*I received an advance copy from the publisher, via Amazon Vine, in exchange for my honest review.*


Thanks for reading. 🙂