On Lincoln, Garrison and emancipation

Tewksbury author Robert MacDougall

It may be hard to believe, but the coronavirus pandemic isn’t the worst thing to happen in America over its nearly 250 year history. The Spanish Flu, which didn’t actually originate in Spain, killed millions of Americans 100 years ago.

Of course, some would argue the darkest period in American history involves slavery. Men and women were stolen from their home countries and brought to America only to endure brutal beatings and much worse.

Many people think President Abraham Lincoln ended slavery, and he did, but he didn’t do it alone. In the north especially, some men fought against slavery and fought for emancipation for black men and women. One such man, William Lloyd Garrison, born in Massachusetts, stood on the front lines of the abolitionist movement.

To capture the journeys of these two men, Lincoln and Garrison, former Tewksbury Memorial High School teacher Robert MacDougall published a book back in 2005 called “The Agitator and the Politician: William Lloyd Garrison, Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation of the Slaves.”

Feeling the book could use a “makeover,” as he called it, MacDougall just recently released “The Agitator and the Politician: William Lloyd Garrison, Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation of the Slaves, Second Edition.”

“If you email me your mailing address and a check for the cost of the book ($20), I will pay the sales tax and shipping cost and send it to you right away,” MacDougall offered.

The former teacher - he taught for 33 years, from 1971-2004 - said he first tried to get the book published in 1975.

“I wrote ‘The Agitator and the Politician’ - on paper, in long hand - intending to get it published, but I never got it accepted anywhere and I was too busy teaching, coaching and raising a family to spend a lot of time on it. So, the book gathered dust for 30 years,” MacDougall noted.

Once he retired in 2004, he “dusted it off and got it published and had moderate success with it.”

It’s the story of two men from different worlds, one born in the northeast and one born in the midwest, who both fought for the same cause. However, that’s where the similarities end. While Lincoln went into politics and eventually became the country’s 16th president, Garrison became a writer and agitator, hence the title of MacDougall’s book.

“The two men were very different and grew up and had their careers in different parts of the country,” MacDougall pointed out. In fact, MacDougall said they never met until the Civil War.

“Lincoln probably only knew of Garrison as that crazy firebrand in Boston, and Garrison probably never heard of Lincoln until the time of the Lincoln-Douglas debates in 1858, and then passed him off as just another politician who had no strong anti-slavery feelings.”

But, though Lincoln arguably became the more well-known of the two men, MacDougall admitted Garrison’s story inspired him to write the book.

“As I say in the preface of the book,” MacDougall noted. “William Lloyd Garrison's story inspired me when I was in high school. I was intrigued by a man who could devote his entire life to a cause that he didn't really have to undertake and that would leave him impoverished.”

Garrison wrote for many newspapers including “The Liberator,” which he founded back in 1831 and published in Boston, 34 years before the US Constitution officially abolished slavery. Sadly, living and printing in Massachusetts didn’t save Garrison from hatred; he was reportedly burned in effigy and a gallows was erected in front of his Boston office.

Garrison died in 1879, living long enough to see “the success of his crusade,” as MacDougall pointed out. But, as the author also notes, “it became clear to me as I read more about the abolitionist movement that emancipation would not have happened without the political skills of Abraham Lincoln.”

He added how the two men needed each other, and for any history buff that makes sense: Lincoln needed men to fight for the cause and those men needed someone who could actually see it through to fruition. Ironically, though they helped each other, the two men might not have gotten along had they met prior to the war.

“Garrison scorned President Lincoln during the Civil War because he would not free the slaves; Lincoln felt that Garrison and all the other firebrands were making it hard to keep the North united because many Northerners - like him - only wanted to defeat the Confederacy and restore the Union.”

But the two eventually came together for the betterment of the country, because it’s what needed to happen. It’s no different than women marching 100 years ago for the right to vote or members of the LBGTQ community demanding the right to marry. Every cause needs two things: people to take up said cause and people to push it across the finish line.

The two men finally met, as MacDougall noted, “after Lincoln had decided that he needed to free the slaves in order to win the war and had issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Their meeting was warm and friendly and they had a moment when they each appreciated the role the other had played in the great story of emancipation.”

MacDougall said the story of the two men “drew me into history as an academic discipline; I majored in it in college (University of Michigan) and became a history teacher.”

That’s when he first wrote “The Agitator and the Politician.” Since then, he retired from TMHS, taught at Northern Essex Community College and then Central Catholic High School, and wrote three more books: “Leaders in Dangerous Times, Douglas MacArthur and Dwight D. Eisenhower;” “American History: It's More Than The Crap You Learned in High School;” and “Rants, Raves and Reflections of an American Historian.”

But MacDougall decided to return to his first book, and perhaps his first passion, because “I thought I could tell the story better, and that the book needed illustration and a much better cover. So, I spent a year re-writing it and working with the skilled people at Word Association Publishing in Pittsburgh, got it much more to my liking.”

A book about emancipation, Lincoln and ending slavery is just as relevant today as it was in 1975 or in 2005. While the act of slavery may not exist in the same form as it did before and during Lincoln’s time, racism is still alive and well in the 21st century through police brutality, income inequality, housing, health care, and even, sadly, the confederate flag and confederate monuments dedicated to confederate soldiers.

What’s different from the first edition to the second edition? MacDougall said he eliminated some sections “I thought people might find boring and that didn’t add a great deal to the dynamics of the story.”

As a history teacher, it’s safe to say MacDougall has regurgitated the story of Lincoln and the Civi War year after year. While it’s a fascinating bit of history, not to mention perhaps the most important for Americans, how does it sit with students?

MacDougall admitted the story of Lincoln and Garrison doesn’t resonate with students like it did with him.

“Of course, in my youth the civil rights movement was at its height and race issues were very much on all of our minds. I certainly haven't given up on reaching high school students with this story, but I'm finding lately that it resonates more with adults, particularly older adults who vividly remember the civil rights struggles.”

Honestly, everyone from the young to the old should care about civil rights; therefore, students should devour the story of Lincoln, Garrison and emancipation. Not to mention the simple fact that both men lead fascinating lives and accomplished extraordinary things.

“(Lincoln) deserves the accolades historians have given him and his ranking by most historians as the greatest of all the presidents,” MacDougall suggested. “He had such a heavy burden, but his timing on important decisions was impeccable and his eloquence in his writings and speeches was the greatest of all. It was a pleasure to write about him.”

Of course, hindsight is 20/20 and MacDougall noted Lincoln “was NOT very popular in many quarters in his time as president. Indeed, he was hated by many and, even just a few weeks before his re-election, he was convinced he would lose.”

Lincoln would go on to win re-election, but was assassinated in April and only served a few months of his second term. Who knows how different the world would be had he served at least two terms.

MacDougall pointed out that while Garrison was also eloquent, like Lincoln, he inspired hatred, as well.

“He, also, was much reviled, and would very likely have been only a footnote in history as a crazy fanatic had not the Civil War turned out as it did.”

Anyone who wishes to buy a copy of “The Agitator and the Politician” should email MacDougall at: rmacdougall66@gmail.com.

(1) comment


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