Review

Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln

by John Stauffer

With the hindsight that makes for history filled out and fully
viewed, we can make linkages that, in their time, might not have
been apparent or apropos. Such is the case with GIANTS, the linkage
between two great men whose contemporaneous lives filled the stage
with action, philosophy and legacy, but who, in their lifetimes,
were neither close friends nor fellow travelers.

John Stauffer, a professor of English at Harvard and author of
several noted history books (METEOR OF WAR: The John Brown Story,
and THE BLACK HEARTS OF MEN: Radical Abolitionists and the
Transformation of Race), has highlighted here the similarities
between the rough-cut, self-educated Civil War president, Abraham
Lincoln, and the renowned human rights autodidact, agitator, orator
and editor, freed slave Frederick Douglass. Both men sought to
break free from the limitations of their childhood circumstances,
fought literally and figuratively for what they believed and
were admired as great strategists on the battlefields they found
themselves on. Both were alcohol- and tobacco-free at a time when
nearly all men indulged in both habits. Both had numerous sexual
liaisons, and both loved poetry. One man was tasked with uniting a
nation torn apart by the onerous stigma of human slavery, and the
other was charged with exhorting his people to free themselves from
that stigma and rise above it. Both had some success and some
notable failures.

Douglass wrote his autobiography, MY BONDAGE AND MY FREEDOM, and
it is a remarkable work. Simple, articulate and honest to a painful
degree, it clearly delineated what it meant to be a slave in
America. A tall, strong adolescent, Douglass learned early on that
even his benign masters (and there were several, possibly because
he had been fathered by one of their extended family) did not
shrink from sending him out to work for people with a cruel streak
and a taste for torture. His benign masters were forced by the
strictures of presumed white superiority to allow the young man to
be flayed bloody and to defend the rights of the men who did
the whipping. That a person in their care could starve, hide and
wait long nights in terror rather than face another such
punishment did not seem outrageous to his white owners. Douglass
was smarter than many slaves and not bound by
superstition. His young life reached a turning point when one
overseer engaged him in a physical fight and was unable to win
after four hours of continuous exertion. Though that victory did
not bring release to the slave, it did instill in him the courage
to overcome a master whose weakness was now obvious. He tried over
and over again to escape and finally succeeded, only to face the
deprivations of a runaway until he was made a free man by legal
means and was able to begin a self-actualizing life at
last.

With his eloquence and passion, partly learned by observing
black revival preachers of the time and also liberally sprinkled
with sharp humor, Douglass quickly rose to prominence in the
abolitionist North and made such a reputation that when he went to
call on President Lincoln, he was brought to the head of the line.
As he passed forward, he heard his fellow petitioners refer to him
as a simply "the nigger." For his part, Lincoln stood morally high
above most men of his time in being willing to let a black man
cross his threshold and converse as an equal.

Lincoln had risen from the plainest poverty, son of a backwoods
family whose greatest ambitions were to become shopkeepers on what
was still the frontier land of the midwest. Men made their names by
being fierce and violent, by drinking and fighting one another in
bouts that had no rules except the assertion of total physical
dominance. Lincoln was called on to participate in one such rough
and tumble, but by insisting on fair rules of "wrestling" rather
than the lawlessness of the usual brawls, he emerged as a local
hero. Finding himself with little talent for commerce, he chose
politics as a way to earn a living and learned he had a gift for
debate, combining a natural intelligence with a folksy bent for
telling tales.

Like Douglass, Lincoln was not only tall, as is well known, but
also physically powerful and unafraid. Like Douglass, he had to
make an "escape" from the woods to the town and finally to the
city, where, like Douglass, he found a constituency. The author
points out that both men altered their speech patterns and accent
as they rose to national recognition. Lincoln would have talked
like a Shakespearean bumpkin with harsh enunciation and truncated
consonants, while Douglass was very conscious of the nuance
of gentlemanly speech as opposed to the sloppy patois of
the slave quarters.

Lincoln showed his self-made independent temperament by
accepting Douglass at the White House not once but several times.
Despite Lincoln's assertion that the war was being fought not to
free the slaves but to save the Union, Douglass exerted influence
to gain the right of conscription of black soldiers
(though at a rate of pay half that of white soldiers). Douglass was
convinced that the war would bring an end to slavery and a
beginning to racial parity. He was only partly right, and Lincoln
was only partly successful. Douglass was welcomed by Lincoln after
his immortal second inaugural address ("with malice toward none;
with charity for all"), and Douglass told him his words were "a
sacred effort." The two men knew that greater struggles were ahead.
And though Lincoln greeted Douglass as "my friend," he knew
that Douglass was one of his most vocal critics. Douglass quietly
believed in Lincoln, wanted him to show himself better than he was,
and mourned bitterly after the president's
assassination. Douglass lived to see the nation reunited,
but he also recognized that the rift caused by slavery
and the unwillingness of the warring factions to enforce human
rights for all would leave scars deeper than those of mere
warfare.

Douglass was able to lay down his armor after the war was won,
and in later years he left the battle for African American rights
mostly to others. He frequently eulogized Lincoln and was once
called upon to dedicate a statue depicting the late president with
a grateful slave kneeling at his feet. Lincoln "as the Christ
figure was more accurate than Douglass wanted to admit," Stauffer
states. It was the recalcitrant South that in a few short years had
overturned the policies that Lincoln had hoped would have
guaranteed black male suffrage and universal citizenship to anyone
born in the United States. The freed slaves had much to thank
Lincoln for, and Douglass, who had once referred to Lincoln as "a
genuine representative of American prejudice," made of him a
martyred hero and a god. But Douglass had not become a lamb in his
old age. Not long before his death, he advised a young student to
"Agitate! Agitate! Agitate!"

GIANTS will satisfy with the fresh light it casts upon two
towering figures in American history as they played out the roles
that destiny had chosen for them --- neither fully right and both
flawed, but hewn from the same tree of idealism,
determination and love of their people.

Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott on January 22, 2011

Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln
by John Stauffer

  • Publication Date: November 3, 2008
  • Genres: History, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Twelve
  • ISBN-10: 0446580090
  • ISBN-13: 9780446580090