John Stauffer


On his book GIANTS: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln

Cover Interview of December 04, 2008

The wide angle

It’s often said that biographies reveal as much about their biographers as their subject.  I plead guilty, for I was born in Lincoln (Nebraska) and fell in love with the Civil War era at age fourteen, which is when I began reading Lincoln and Douglass.

Moving was the central experience of my formative years, and literature and history offered alternative realities that could redeem the constant dislocations and confusions of my adolescence in the late 1970s.  I hungered for characters I could identify with; and those from the Civil War era seemed larger than life, more heroic, able to give meaning and purpose to my present.

I was especially drawn to Douglass.  I loved the way he wrote, I yearned to have something of his undaunted courage, and, strange as it may seem now, I wanted to be like him.  Here was a slave—a total outsider—who stood up to the meanness around him at the risk of losing his life, and who found in books a way to “give tongue to his thoughts,” as he put it.  A few years later, I realized that Lincoln too, had been an outsider, escaping the fighting and drinking of his backwoods communities through literature.  They learned how to use words as weapons, and I desperately wanted a dependable weapon.

Years later, while in graduate school, I realized just how significant Douglass’s and Lincoln’s rise really was; they are the two preeminent self-made men in American history.  (Other contenders like Ben Franklin began life with more comfort and status.)  I was researching abolitionists and had fallen in love with some wonderfully weird men and women, from blacks and whites to rich and poor, their wild utopian visions, and their extraordinary journeys through life.  I wanted to know how they were able to remake themselves, what the costs of doing so were, and how self-transformation related to race and reform.

I addressed these themes in my first book, The Black Hearts of Men, and while writing it, discovered that Douglass and Lincoln ultimately became friends, despite the social and political gulfs separating them.  I wanted to know how and why Douglass and Lincoln were able to come together as they did; and I decided to write about their self-making.  Their friendship, I realized, depended in part on their having continually remade themselves.

In the past fifty years, scholars have largely disparaged the concept of self-making.  They see it as a term for Madison Avenue, not the Ivory Tower; it has the ring of an advertisement, not scholarship.  Yet the concept of self-making, its rewards and costs, is central to the American experience, for it functions as a barometer of the ideals of freedom and equality of opportunity.  I also felt that scholars have not adequately accounted for the significance of self-making in the personalities, politics, and decisions of Douglass and Lincoln.  Too often, these men are written about as though they were born brilliant, a cut above other mortals.  Too often, Lincoln has been characterized as America’s Christ, the redeemer president.  The result is a static, romantic, mythic figure rather than a man born dirt poor living, striving, grappling in a distant past.