Two civil rights leaders with varied pasts find common ground in a new book by John Stauffer.
ONE OF THE MOST BRILLIANTLY conceived books of 2008 is John Stauffer’s dual biography of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, entitled Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln (Twelve, $30). Douglass, the freed slave with no formal education but a gigantic intellect, has, of course, been written about in many books. And President Lincoln, another self-made man, might be the subject of more biographies than anyone else in American history.
Though these two historical figures have appeared in many of the same works, no previous biographer has intertwined their lives as skillfully as Stauffer, a Harvard University history professor, does here. Braiding together their stories, Stauffer says, “gives us multiple voices from different vantage points. … The result is a fuller, rounder understanding of each person and of the past, much as taking multiple photographs of a subject, each from a different perspective, offers a more complex portrait.”
Set against the ugliness of the Civil War, Stauffer’s book shows how effectively Douglass nudged Lincoln to declare slaves free of their masters. It’s touching to see how the unlikely friendship blossomed between the two men. Stauffer writes that Douglass was “overcome with grief” after Lincoln’s assassination. Douglass wanted to believe that Lincoln’s passing would lead to sincere reconciliation between the races.
Throughout the book, Stauffer not only shares these men’s stories with expert grace but also demonstrates the centrality of dynamic individuals in the study of history.
“In many respects, I agree with Ralph Waldo Emerson, who said there is properly no history, only biography,” Stauffer says. “What he meant is that in order for history to have social value, it needs to be personal and intimate, revealing the passions and problems of people in the past so that it connects with the present, enabling history to come alive.”
The dual biography began as a larger project by Stauffer on the subject of interracial friendships. He wrote an essay on the thorny topic for Time magazine. Still, he muses about how these two leaders were able to find mutual affection and respect despite such vast differences, noting that their coming together at the White House during the Civil War “was the first time that an African- American and a U.S. president had met as near-equals in the sense that they were cultural ambassadors of their respective races.”
Stauffer’s narrative is far more than a feel-good historical saga. Among its virtues, it offers hope for true dialogue among those who could just as easily hate as they could reason.