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Interview with John Stauffer, author of Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln

One man was a former slave and a radical reformer who became one of the nation’s most brilliant writers and speakers. The other was an outsider, born dirt-poor, who became one of America’s greatest presidents. While the Civil War raged, the two titans—Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln—formed an unlikely friendship that changed the nation’s course. Each man needed the other to forward his own agenda: Douglass needed Lincoln to end slavery, and Lincoln needed Douglass to mobilize blacks and destroy the Confederacy. In his latest book, Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, John Stauffer traces how each man used the other—and how their political game ultimately led to mutual admiration and respect.

Stauffer, a Harvard English professor and chair of the university’s Program in the History of American Civilization, examines how Lincoln and Douglass both mastered the art of reinvention. Naturally physically strong men, each grew up in a violent culture. Between them, they had less than one year of formal schooling; each taught himself to read, write and orate. And both married women with higher social statures—all similarities that facilitated their successes and, eventually, led to their friendship.

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The first biography that evaluates Lincoln and Douglass side by side arrives when America is witnessing a compelling black leader soar far beyond barriers that these two 19th-century friends helped destroy. President Barack Obama has made no secret of his personal interest in Lincoln—even being sworn in to the presidency using the same Bible as Lincoln used—and numerous historians and commentators have compared the two. But Douglass—one of the first black political figures in the United States, who ultimately earned a nomination for vice president—was also a significant influence, though less frequently acknowledged. While Obama learned how to be a successful politician from Lincoln, he learned how to inspire crowds from Douglass.

For Black History Month—chosen in 1926 because Lincoln and Douglass were both born in February—Stauffer spoke with AARP Bulletin Today about the two men’s relationship and how both figures resonate today.

Q. Why did you handle Lincoln and Douglass as a dual biography?

A. I felt like I could add a new understanding and a new appreciation of both men by framing them against the other. Dual biography allows you to move the lens, so that you obtain a fuller, rounder picture of each person. I think Abraham Lincoln has been romanticized and mythologized by many writers, especially in the way that people refer to Lincoln’s presidency as being perfect—that he made no mistakes. That creates a myth, not a man.

When you see Lincoln from Frederick Douglass’ eyes, he made numerous mistakes. He had flaws, and to be human is to have flaws. I felt that by allowing Frederick Douglass to highlight some of Lincoln’s flaws, it ultimately reveals Lincoln to be a more human figure who deserves even more respect. I also think Douglass continues to be underappreciated; in his own way, Douglass was just as significant and important to American history and literature as Lincoln.

Q. How close was their friendship?

A. Lincoln and Douglass eventually became genuinely good friends, even though they often disagreed politically. Their friendship highlights something that I think is too often lost today—that political differences don’t necessarily correlate to social relationships. In many ways, their relationship was utilitarian: Douglass understood that he needed Lincoln on his side to help end slavery, and Lincoln understood that he needed Douglass to help win the war because he could rally blacks to support the Union.

In total, though, Douglass and Lincoln only met three times, all at the White House.

Q. Was a friendship between a white man and an African American unusual at the time?

A. Yes. In fact, Douglass was the first African American to meet a U.S. president on equal terms. The next closest analogue to Douglass and Lincoln was Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King Jr.

Q. You say that one of the main things Lincoln and Douglass had in common was that they were both “self-made men.” Can you elaborate?

A. The term “self-made man” was coined in 1832 by Lincoln’s hero, Henry Clay, and it was a prominent concept at that time. Lincoln and Douglass both thought of a self-made man as one who continually evolves, and they believed that “self-making” was not simply about getting rich, which is how some thought of it, but that a true self-made man reformed or reshaped society as he remade himself. Lincoln and Douglass’ notion of self-making is crucial, because it contradicts the very notion of racism. Racism depends upon a self that’s fixed: In racism, one self is always superior to another self. This was particularly important for Lincoln, because as he continually remade himself, he ultimately burst free of the profoundly racist views of most of his peers.

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Q. For a long time, Douglass and Lincoln disagreed on how best to approach abolition and emancipation, correct?

A. True, but Douglass and Lincoln always shared a common hatred of slavery. Douglass hated it because he had been a slave and he’d experienced it firsthand, and Lincoln said on numerous occasions that he hated slavery as much as any abolitionist.

But they differed in the sense that Douglass was always a radical abolitionist, meaning that he sought an immediate end to slavery, universal freedom for all humans, and equality under the law. That’s what he devoted his life to as an activist. While Lincoln hated slavery, his strategy for ending it was very conservative. He thought slavery should end very gradually over numerous generations. In fact, in his debates with Stephen Douglas [during the U.S. Senate race in Illinois] in 1858, Lincoln said, “When should the ultimate end of slavery occur? Not less than 100 years,” which meant slavery would not end until 1958.

Second, Lincoln called for compensating masters for the loss of their so-called property, which was outrageous to someone like Frederick Douglass. And third, Lincoln called for colonization with emancipation—sending free blacks to colonies outside of the United States, which meant that for the vast majority of his life, Lincoln had a hard time envisioning a democratic nation that encompassed both blacks and whites. So for a long time, Douglass considered Lincoln profoundly conservative, and almost an enemy of Douglass’ vision of racial equality.

Q. How did Douglass and Lincoln become friends?

A. Well, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, first of all, and then they converged profoundly at their first meeting. After the Emancipation Proclamation, Douglass’ views toward Lincoln completely changed. Douglass immediately started recruiting blacks to the Union army. But black soldiers were being paid only half of what white soldiers were being paid, and they weren’t being promoted for valiant service. So in August of 1863, Douglass decided to go to Washington and make a case to Lincoln to treat black soldiers as equals. He arrived at the White House early in the morning. There was already a long line of men waiting to see the president, and Douglass thought he was going to have to wait all day, maybe two. But within a minute after Douglass' card was sent up, Lincoln called him to his office; and as Douglass passed all these white men in line, he heard one say, “I see how it is. They let the nigger through.”

Q. Why was Lincoln so eager to see Douglass?

A. Because Douglass was already world-famous, and Lincoln certainly knew of him. Just about everybody knew of him. Douglass was considered a better orator than Lincoln was in his own day. So when Douglass entered Lincoln’s office in the White House, the first thing Lincoln said is, “Hello, Mr. Douglass. It’s good to see you. I know of you. What can I do?” Douglass made his case about paying black troops as much as white troops and promoting them for valiant service; and Lincoln acknowledged to Douglass that he was tardy on many factors related to race. They spoke for quite a while in that first meeting, and although they still disagreed on fundamental issues, by the end of it they considered each other friends.

Q. Why do you think they got along so easily, despite their political differences?

A. They both had enormous respect for each other as self-made men. In fact, after that meeting, Lincoln told the next person he saw that he considered Frederick Douglass “one of the most meritorious men in America.” And Douglass said that he thought of Lincoln as “the king of self-made men.”

Q. What influence has Lincoln had on President Obama?

A. For one, Obama has said that Lincoln taught him that a political leader must reach for a common understanding beyond social divisions. I think Obama has also learned a lot about the relationship between a political leader and the public from Lincoln. Lincoln had a brilliant sense of public opinion. He understood that as a political leader he needed to know about public opinion, but could not simply internalize it and be a slave to it.

Conversely, you could not put a noose around the public and yank them to where you want to go. Rather, you try to understand public opinion, and then you seek to inspire the public to a higher moral ground. Lincoln was brilliant at that, and Obama has been brilliant at that as well.

But I think Obama has been deeply influenced by both Lincoln and Douglass. Obama is one of the great self-made men of our day, just as Douglass and Lincoln were in theirs. He also learned from both men the power of words to sway and convert the public to your cause—especially from Frederick Douglass, because Douglass was such a brilliant orator, and Obama is one of the great orators of our day.

Q. Why do you think Obama hasn’t publicly embraced Douglass the way he has Lincoln?

A. It may be that if he did, opponents would quickly realize that Frederick Douglass was a radical and they’d accuse Obama of associating with a terrorist. But it’s clear that Obama has been deeply influenced by Douglass.

Where he understands the importance of political pragmatism from Lincoln, Obama writes in The Audacity of Hope that from Frederick Douglass he learned that in certain circumstances power will concede nothing without a fight. And like Frederick Douglass, Obama understands that you fight power most effectively with words. He understands that words are your most potent weapon.

Krista Walton is an assistant editor of Preservation magazine.

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