Monday, January 12, 2009

Book Review: Giants, by John Stauffer

TitleGiants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln
AuthorJohn Stauffer
Tagsabraham lincoln, frederick douglass, civil war, reconstruction, slavery, abolitionism

I saw this book originally on one of the lists of best books of 2008, and I heartily concur with that assessment. It is a dual biography of Frederick Douglass, the black slave who rose to be one of the greatest advocates of abolition, and of Abraham Lincoln.

The two men had backgrounds that were more similar than one would think. Both grew up poor, with almost no formal education. Douglass was in his early years rather fortunate for a slave, he grew up rather pampered (it was likely that he was his owner's son) and his first duties were as a house servant, the best condition for a slave. He was even taught a bit of reading and writing. Lincoln, while not a slave, was grindingly poor, and subject to his father's control until his 21st birthday, and felt trapped by being so. Both men loved reading passionately, and read similar works - the Bible, Shakespeare, and particular book of great speeches that included a dialog between master and slave. Both learned speechcraft from this book and became among the best orators of their day.

Both had to deal with a great deal of brutality. Lincoln, in the rough and tumble area he grew up in, had to fight to prove his manhood. Douglass was beaten severely to break his spirit.

There are many in the U.S. who like to underplay the role of slavery in the run-up to the Civil War. However, this book shows that it was the insolvable issue, a legacy that stemmed from the failure of the Founding Fathers to solve the problem. It had to be resolved eventually.

Abolitionists were fairly popular speakers in the North, and Douglass became their most popular. It spurs the imagination to think of the effect he must have had on his audiences... a black man who was obviously intelligent, a mature man, a thinker, a great orator, who could talk about slavery as one who endured it. How many of his hearers must have had their myths of white superiority at the least badly damaged by hearing many men have this kind of life-changing impact on so many?

Other events leading to the Civil War include the repeal of the Missouri Compromise and the Dred Scott decision in the Supreme Court, both of which opened the possibility that slavery could be reimposed on states that had rejected it. In addition there were the Lincoln Douglas debates, John Brown's raid, the publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin (by Harriet Beecher Stowe) which had a tremendous impact on Northern society. Then, finally, came the election of Abraham Lincoln on a platform of not expanding slavery, and the secession of the Southern States.

It is hard to recognize now that Lincoln was actually fairly conservative on the issue of slavery. He did not want it expanded, and wanted to put in place policies that would lead to its eventual demise everywhere. But his priorty in his presidency was restoring the Union, not abolishing slavery. For this reason Douglass was often disappointed in him, and a vocal critic. Yet the two men met three times and became friends. Douglass was enthralled that Lincoln treated him as an equal, and as a friend, and forever loved him for that.

Truly fascinating story that reminds me of why I love history. Stauffer is to be commended.
PublicationTwelve (2008), Hardcover, 448 pages
Publication date2008
ISBN0446580090 / 9780446580090

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