A dual biography highlighting the remarkable similarities and the crucial differences between “the two pre-eminent self-made men in American history.”
The interest in linking Lincoln and Douglass has never been greater—see, for example, Paul and Stephen Kendrick’s Douglass and Lincoln (2008) and James Oakes’s The Radical and the Republican (2007)—and surely the intertwined careers of both men support continuing efforts to understand their combined, enduring impact. In five double-barreled chapters focusing on comparable stages in each man’s life, Stauffer (History of American Civilization and English/Harvard Univ.; The Black Hearts of Men: Radical Abolitionists and the Transformation of Race, 2002, etc.) explains how Douglass the slave and Lincoln the frontiersman emerged from a culture of poverty, ignorance and violence to international renown. Both were physically imposing; both abstained from tobacco and alcohol at a time when few men did. Both were poetry lovers—they had Robert Burns in common—and both were unsuitably married, Douglass to an illiterate, Lincoln to a termagant. A naturally talented orator, Douglass worked to perfect his writing. Always a good, later a great writer (and a superb editor), Lincoln slowly emerged as an effective public speaker. Addressing public issues, Douglass decided quickly and frequently changed strategies. Lincoln always made up his mind slowly, but then rarely reversed course. Douglass, the radical, never befriended an enemy until after converting that man to his cause. Lincoln, the conciliator, believed that “if you would win a man to your cause, first convince him that you are his sincere friend.” Notwithstanding calculated, public statements by Lincoln and Douglass, Stauffer goes too far in claiming “an interracial friendship.” The author is also oddly willing to speculate broadly on Lincoln’s premarital sexual history, and unwilling to reciprocate when it comes to Douglass’s extramarital relations. Despite these lapses, Stauffer’s dexterous interweaving of biographical detail makes for enjoyable reading and serves as a useful introduction to understanding the dynamic between two 19th-century giants.
A frequently insightful look at the makeup of two men who helped remake the country.