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Review: In 'Giants,' historian John Stauffer traces similarities in lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln

On Aug. 10, 1863, Frederick Douglass, 45-year-old former slave, leading abolitionist and journalist, and one of America's most dazzling orators, walked into the White House to meet with President Lincoln — without an invitation.

Elbowing past a stairway filled with white patronage seekers leering at him maliciously, Douglass was determined to discuss with the president several crucial military issues: Why, for instance, was it taking the president so long to retaliate against those rebels who murdered or enslaved black Union soldiers? Why were black soldiers paid only half as much as white soldiers? And why were black soldiers not promoted after distinguishing themselves on the field of battle?

To Douglass' utter astonishment, Lincoln not only summoned him to his office within two minutes of his arrival, but seriously talked over with him the sensitive questions almost to Douglass' full satisfaction. Struck by Lincoln's honesty and sincerity, Douglass, upon leaving the White House, mused gratefully, "I was never in any way reminded of my humble origin, or of my unpopular color."

In his perceptive, well-researched dual biography, Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, John Stauffer, Harvard professor of English and the history of American civilization and author of The Black Hearts of Men (2002), clearly captures his subjects' grapplings with the fierce racial tensions of 19th century America. He also carefully delineates their similar socio-economic backgrounds and paths to exalted prominence.

As Stauffer makes clear, Douglass' struggle was certainly the more challenging: He was born into slavery on Maryland's Eastern Shore in 1818. But because the wife of one of his masters taught him to read — to glimpse a world of freedom from works such as the popular elocution reader the Columbian Orator, the Bible, Shakespeare, Byron — his self-identity as a slave was markedly weakened.

Upon his initiation as a field hand, 15-year-old Frederick was unable to control two charging oxen that demolished a wagon and gate. Edward Covey, a well-known "n----- breaker," was hired to "correct" young Frederick's incompetent, unslavelike ways by clubbing and whipping the boy.

Stauffer informs us that when Covey attempted to whip him, Frederick, as he would later relate in My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), knocked Covey down. "The fighting madness had come upon me and I found my strong fingers firmly attached to the throat of my cowardly tormentor. . . . I had reached a point at which I was not afraid to die."

Douglass did not kill Covey, but the lesson he learned forever was to always resist tyranny. "A man without force is without the essential dignity of humanity," Douglass wrote.

In 1838, at age 20, Douglass escaped by rail and ship to New York City. Within 10 years he had become one of the most important orator-leaders of the antislavery movement in the nation, editor of the abolition journal the North Star and author of the 1845 bestseller Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave.

Although he didn't enter the world a slave, Abraham Lincoln's early life was also hardscrabble. Lincoln, Stauffer emphasizes, "was born dirt poor" in 1809 in Hardin County, Ky. His bastard mother died when he was 8, his sister died at birth, and he almost died after being kicked by a horse.

He never got along with his father, whom he considered ignorant and impoverished. Pigeon Creek, Ind., where the family moved when Abe was 14, was "a world where fighting and heavy drinking were main pastimes, the primary source of male status and sociability."

Like Douglass, Lincoln found his way out of his primitive existence through words — specifically, the same popular reader, the Columbian Orator, that Douglass had discovered. Shakespeare, Byron and Robert Burns were also Lincoln's comforting companions.

Stauffer says that, also like Douglass, Lincoln found himself obligated to fight a man. Jack Armstrong, a neighbor, wanted to test tall Abe's strength. It was agreed upon that the usual biting, eye-gouging and testicle-pulling would be prohibited. The relatively civilized contest, which took place in 1831, ended in a draw. But Lincoln now had social standing in the community. And, significantly, he considered this fight "the turning point" of his young life.

Throughout Giants the author points out in great detail how books and physical confrontations both had a profound bearing on the future course of each man's life.

Stauffer convincingly shows how each affected the other's decisionmaking during the Civil War — how the complex interplay of powerful political forces, Douglass' urgings and the war's breathtaking ups and downs gradually altered Lincoln's views of blacks, from his initially considering sending them back to Africa, to his astounding signing of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862.

In his deeply probing psychological study, Stauffer vividly evokes a coarse, hurly-burly America where, just as today, politics was vicious, and ambitious men had to completely transform themselves in order to advance great social causes, or even, against all conceivable odds, to gain entry to the White House.

Chris Patsilelis has reviewed books on military subjects for the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln

By John Stauffer

Twelve, 432 pages, $30

Review: In 'Giants,' historian John Stauffer traces similarities in lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln 01/17/09 [Last modified: Saturday, January 17, 2009 3:30am]
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