GIANTS: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln is a dual biography of the two preeminent self-made men in American history. Lincoln was born dirt poor, had less than one year of formal education, and became the nation’s greatest president. Douglass spent the first twenty years of his life as a slave, had no formal schooling, and became the most famous black man in the Western world and one of the nation’s greatest writers. The book tells the story of how and why Douglass and Lincoln rose up from the dregs to become two of the most important men in America.
In braiding their lives together, reflecting the one off the other, we gain a fuller, more nuanced picture of each man’s character and career than has been possible with a single biography. We understand for the first time how important friends, mentors, lovers, and rivals were in shaping them. We grasp for the first time their deep flaws, which allow us to see them as men rather than as perfect myths. And we appreciate how important religious faith, chance (or circumstance), and the power of language were in their self-making. In their worlds, God was a palpable force, words were forms of action.
Douglass and Lincoln were pragmatists, able to put aside their vast differences and come together as friends. In 1860 Douglass helped elect Lincoln as president. At a time when most whites would not let a black man cross their threshold, Lincoln met Douglass three times at the White House. Their friendship was chiefly utilitarian: Lincoln needed Douglass to help him destroy the Confederacy; Douglass knew that Lincoln could help him end slavery. But they also genuinely liked and admired each other.
Douglass and Lincoln ultimately understood that continual self-making was antithetical to racism. This was because the idea of “whiteness” as a sign of superiority depended on a self that was fixed and unchanging. They stood at the forefront of a major shift in cultural history, which rejected fixed social stations and included blacks and whites, though rarely women, in the national ideals of freedom and equality.
GIANTS opens a window on the transformation of American society during the Civil War era. Douglass’s and Lincoln’s personal conflicts often paralleled the nation’s conflicts, their inner turmoil reflecting national turmoil. In fact, their responses to each other provide a roadmap for the changing political landscape. Douglass repeatedly lost faith in Lincoln, only to find it again. His changing perspectives chart not only the political journeys of both men but also the nation’s journey toward its Second Revolution. Their intertwined story, of change and self-making, conflicts and alliances, is also the nation’s story.
“Douglass and Lincoln ultimately understood that continual self-making was antithetical to racism. This was because the idea of “whiteness” as a sign of superiority depended on a self that was fixed and unchanging. They stood at the forefront of a major shift in cultural history, which rejected fixed social stations and included blacks and whites, though rarely women, in the national ideals of freedom and equality.”
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.
One of my favorite moments in Douglass and Lincoln’s relationship was at Lincoln’s second inaugural, when they met for the last time. It was as though in four years, the world had been turned upside down. After all, after Lincoln’s first inaugural, Douglass had been so fed up that he called the president the greatest obstacle to freedom in America and a representative racist. In fact, he had made plans to emigrate to Haiti. But then the war intervened, opening the way to destroy slavery, and so Douglass had abandoned his plans to move to Haiti.
Now, on March 4, 1865, the mood in Washington was celebratory. The war was almost over; 170,000 blacks were in uniform, marching triumphantly across the South; and Congress had recently passed the Thirteenth Amendment, abolishing slavery throughout the United States.
The day was bleak and rainy. Mud covered the unpaved streets and people “streamed around the Capitol in most wretched plight.” Many of them had been up all night, having taken special inaugural trains that arrived in Washington that morning. Between the cinder dust from trains and the mud and rain, the thirty thousand people attending the ceremony looked gray and worn out. “Crinoline was smashed, skirts bedaubed, and moiré antique, velvet, laces and such dry goods were streaked with mud from end to end.”
The ceremony was “wonderfully quiet, earnest, and solemn,” Douglass noted. There was a “leaden stillness about the crowd” as Lincoln delivered his address, and Douglass thought it sounded more like a sermon than a state paper.
In his speech Lincoln emphasizes God’s inscrutability. “Both sides read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other.” He imagines a wrathful God wreaking vengeance against slaveholders but carefully avoids presuming to know God’s will. Such presumption would be hubris, he implies. “The Almighty has His own purposes.” The proper attitude toward people and nations should be one of humility, tolerance, and forgiveness. “With malice toward none; with charity toward all.”
After the ceremony Douglass went to the reception at the White House. As he was about to enter, two policemen rudely yanked him away and told him that no persons of color were allowed to enter. Douglass said there must be some mistake, for no such order could have come from the president. The police refused to yield, until Douglass sent word to Lincoln that he was being detained at the door.
Douglass found the president in the elegant East Room, standing “like a mountain pine in his grand simplicity and homely beauty.”
“Here comes my friend,” Lincoln said, and took Douglass by the hand. “I am glad to see you. I saw you in the crowd today, listening to my inaugural address.” He asked Douglass how he liked it, adding, “there is no man in the country whose opinion I value more than yours.”
“Mr. Lincoln, that was a sacred effort,” Douglass said.
“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 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.
John Stauffer is the Chair of the History of American Civilization and Professor of English and African and African American Studies at Harvard University. Among the leading scholars of the Civil War era, antislavery, social protest movements, and visual culture, he is the author or editor of seven books and more than 45 articles, including The Black Hearts of Men: Radical Abolitionists and the Transformation of Race (2002), which won four major awards, including the Frederick Douglass Book Prize, the Avery Craven Book Award, and the Lincoln Prize runner-up; and The Problem of Evil (with Steven Mintz, 2006). His essays have appeared in Time Magazine, Times Literary Supplement, The New York Times Book Review, Raritan, New York Post, 21st: The Journal of Contemporary Photography, and The Harvard Review, as well as scholarly journals. John has appeared on national radio and television shows, and currently is completing a book with Sally Jenkins on radical interracialism and Unionism in Civil War era Mississippi. The story, Free State of Jones, will appear as a major motion picture by the filmmaker Gary Ross, with whom John served as a scholarly consultant. John received his Ph.D. from Yale University in 1999, began teaching at Harvard that year, and was tenured in 2004. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with his wife, Deborah Cunningham, and their two-year-old son, Erik Isaiah Stauffer.