John Stauffer


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

Cover Interview of December 04, 2008


I wrote GIANTS during a propitious time:  Barack Obama’s The Audacity of Hope became a bestseller and then of course Obama ran for and was elected president.  Fittingly, GIANTS was published on election day.  And Lincoln’s bicentennial is in 2009.

Obama’s journey, like Douglass’s and Lincoln’s, has been nothing short of breathtaking.  It is not coincidental that Obama knows Douglass and Lincoln better than many scholars.  He has steeped himself in their writings and has been deeply influenced by them.  From Douglass he understands that artists, whether as writers, orators, or politicians, can break down racial barriers; and Douglass also taught him that power concedes nothing without a fight.  From Lincoln, Obama has learned how to gauge public opinion and to reach beyond social divisions for common understanding.  And from both men Obama has learned how to use words as weapons that can inspire and transform a nation.

Writing the book has thus given me a much better understanding of our own time.  We carry the past within us and are unconsciously shaped by it, to paraphrase James Baldwin.  In certain respects, the Civil War is not over; we are still fighting about the meanings of America on cultural and political fronts.  Indeed, while steeped in the writings of Lincoln and Douglass, and sometimes dreaming of them, I found myself quoting Faulkner’s famous maxim, “The past is not dead.  It’s not even past.”

GIANTS reveals two legacies of Douglass and Lincoln for our own time.  One is the Obama phenomenon.  The book enables us to understand how Obama rose up from poor black kid to president.  Indeed, without Douglass and Lincoln, Obama never could have become president.  The other legacy is as inspiration:  Douglass and Lincoln call on us to bind up the nation’s wounds and to fulfill the ideals of freedom and equality of opportunity for all.  They inspire us to be audaciously hopeful.

© 2008 John Stauffer