Opus Exclusive: James Oakes

We’re so thrilled that James Oakes will join us for this year’s virtual Opus & Olives gala. In preparation for the big event, we asked James a few questions to help you get to know him better.

How have the challenges of the past year and a half affected your writing? 

It’s counter intuitive.  I work at home, and I assumed that being stuck at home would improve my productivity.  But I found the experience so anxiety-inducing that I have not been nearly as productive as I hoped.  At the same time, there have been a lot of big changes in my life in the past year, and they compounded the disruption in my writing.  Finally, having published a book earlier this year, I’ve been asked to give a bunch of talks and interviews, and that’s also eaten into my writing time—though in an enjoyable way.  It feels like all of those distractions are easing up and I’m starting to get back into a more productive pattern.   

What do you hope people learn or take away from this book? 

There’s an orthodoxy out there that the Constitution was a proslavery document.  I hope people will come to appreciate that when we say that slavery was a “compromise,” that means that both the supporters and opponents had to compromise with each other.  So the Constitution had both proslavery and antislavery elements, and it was understood that way right from the start.  That leads to my second point:  there was an antislavery constitutional tradition that developed over several decades and that Abraham Lincoln inherited and adopted that tradition as his own.  Finally, I hope readers will appreciate that Lincoln’s policy toward slavery during his presidency was profoundly shaped by that antislavery constitutional tradition. 

Tell us something that people might not know about you. 

Hmmmm.  Being a history professor is my day job; it pays the rent.  But at heart I’m a writer and would prefer to spend all my time researching and writing. 

Tell us what you love about libraries. 

I love libraries.  I love the smell of stacks.  I love the quiet.  I love the idea that I can sit down at a table or in a carrel and work for hours on end without anyone thinking that’s a problem.  I tend to work in big academic research libraries.  I squirrel myself away in the stacks and work, knowing that at some point I’m going to have to go find a book or an article and that I can just get up from my seat, walk a few minutes, and find just what I need.  And despite the explosion of digital resources, there are some indispensable resources that only libraries have:  manuscripts, map rooms.  And librarians!  Who know things and know where to find things! 

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