John Stauffer's book Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln will be one of the more controversial explorations into the lives of America's most notable characters of the 1800s; one a former slave, determined abolitionist, and advocate of civil rights in his time; the other a "frontier politician" and staunch Whig Party member. After reading Stauffer's book, Lincoln's pedestal crumbled a bit, at least in my mind. My previous exploration of Lincoln's life through the works of other authors rendered a more fatherly portrait, and certainly his part in abolishing slavery is given greater emphasis in those than Stauffer suggests his actions warranted. Was he the "great emancipator" that many historians have long heralded him to be, or was he really a reluctant emancipator and a man striving to gain peace for a national dividing even if it meant delaying or denying the right of freedom to an entire race of people? Certainly Lincoln was a catalyst for action, and a source of frustration, and perhaps a muse for the great orator and activist Frederick Douglass.
As for Douglass, I had little knowledge of the man and the true level of his achievements before reading this book. I recall him being mentioned in many texts used in history classes, but they placed little emphasis on his true role in the abolition movement and what he had to endure first to even play a part. So Stauffer's book achieved two things: it made me rethink my understanding of Lincoln, his actions and his policies, and it gave me insight into a uniquely important figure, Frederick Douglass. Yet I did not come away with the sense that these men's paths were on parallel courses as the author suggests, though there are similarities in their histories. It is obvious that they were on convergent paths, though taking a long time in coming together, a union that would allow them to talk and become respected friends at a time when such friendships were almost unheard of.
It is certainly true that the men desired to better themselves through self-education and mental endeavors, and that they were not afraid of physical labor. They also paid attention to the issues of their day and would invest themselves to effect change. But Douglass's focus was outward, toward bettering the condition of his fellow man - particularly those held in bondage - for their sakes as much as his own. While Lincoln espoused that he thought slavery evil, his motivations for action were more self-serving, and serving the agendas of others at other times, with abolition almost an afterthought. Lincoln was quick to avoid conflict on that issue even if it meant sacrificing needed change.
If one looks at these men's lives as Stauffer presents them, Frederick Douglass ran a much straighter line toward abolition and emancipation of the slaves than did Lincoln. Douglass focused on a singular goal, abolition, with all expediency. Lincoln's path crisscrosses Douglass's as Lincoln pursues his political career, remaining reluctant even in the last years of his presidency to act decisively where the issue of slavery was concerned. It would take the deaths of more than 600,000 Americans in the bloodiest of civil wars for Lincoln to learn there was no good compromise when it comes to slavery.
I chose not to give Stauffer's book a five-star rating because I have serious apprehensions concerning some of his claims in Chapter Two, chiefly his assertions that Douglass perhaps, but more particularly Lincoln, engaged in or was inclined toward homosexual relationships prior to his marriage. Stauffer claims that society winked at such relationships as a natural event, in keeping with the looser sexual mores of the time. Stauffer also contends that people's differing interpretations of the Bible made it somehow more accepted. The author contends that society made no distinction between same-sex relations and heterosexual relationships and that the "moralists" were in the minority.
Stauffer has perhaps read too much into or taken out of context the "intimacy" spoken of with respect to these men's kinship or feelings of brotherhood and that in the process of doing this his focus shifted. His writing becomes a defense of homosexuality for a few pages, even alluding that modern society has perhaps declined in maturity by aspiring to a stronger sense of morality than existed in the days of Lincoln and Douglass. At first Stauffer sounds confident that what he has concluded about these men and the possibility of their involvement in same-sex relationships with others is clear if one is willing to see it. Why else make such a claim? However, on Page 113, the author undermines his own presumptions, admitting "there is no explicit evidence that Lincoln and Speed enjoyed carnal love," and states that Speed's (Joshua Speed, a man whom Lincoln befriended and shared quarters with for several years) letters to Lincoln during the time were lost and unavailable to corroborate. If the author wishes his statements to be received with confidence, he must have "explicit evidence" to support them.
With respect to Douglass, the issue of a homosexual encounter is fleeting, while Stauffer does suggest that Douglass engaged in extra-marital affairs, causing jealousy and contention with his wife. Stauffer goes on to say that Douglass most certainly loved Anna, his wife, but that they shared little in common, with Anna's focus on domestic matters and Douglass's more on the intellectual. However, they did share a love of music, Anna being accomplished in that area.
When Stauffer does regain his focus on comparing Lincoln and Douglass's lives, what results is an interesting and more in-depth exploration with much emphasis on contradictory points about Lincoln's actions as president, particularly with respect to emancipation, and the things he said he wanted to do while in office. History has long promoted Lincoln as the "great emancipator," but Stauffer contends that Lincoln cared least about abolition and more about just keeping the states together. He wouldn't have cared if slavery had remained in the Southern states, so long as no one tried to carry it beyond those established boundaries – say, for instance, into the North, where trade laborers would have had to compete for work.
Stauffer's research paints Lincoln as a double-minded man. And, as the Bible teaches, "A double-minded man is unstable in all his ways," (James 1:18). Was Lincoln really praying for the abolishment of slavery, yet not believing it could or would be? Did he sign the Emancipation Proclamation because he believed in its purpose, or had the pressure just finally become too much that he signed it because he simply didn't want the personal conflict in his life to continue? Many people don't know, but will after reading this book, that the proclamation finally signed was not the only one drafted. In many other drafts, Lincoln continued to strive for a compromise, something less difficult for Southern slaveholders to accept.
Lincoln, as Stauffer paints him, was a man of contradictions, far too concerned with trying to please all the people and making himself subject to men of superior education who played upon his insecurities to further their own agendas. Speed, particularly, though Lincoln considered him the closest and dearest friend he had ever known, allied himself with the pro-slavery camp, and Lincoln listened to his counsel far too intently.
I came away from reading this book feeling that perhaps Lincoln had been mislabeled all these years, that perhaps it was Frederick Douglass who more played the role of the "great emancipator," having stated his hatred for slavery, allied himself with those who were like-minded, and worked tirelessly to see slavery eradicated. Lincoln may have signed the proclamation, but it was in fact Douglass and other committed abolitionists who, for their own reasons, did the physical labor to make it a reality. I find it interesting that the quote which opens Giants is an excerpt from Barack Obama's The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream (2006). Since the 2008 election, there are those insistent on perceiving Mr. Obama's impending presidency as an ultimate victory for the former President Lincoln, a culmination of his intent to free the slaves.
I would disagree for the reasons stated above. Obama's victory is not a culmination of Lincoln's efforts, but rather those of Douglass and the early civil rights activists as well. Insistence otherwise does an injustice to men like Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King, Jr., and John F. Kennedy, as well as women like Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth and Julia Griffiths, who used her money and her contacts to aid Douglass in his start in the abolition movement. It slaps in the face those men and women who fought daily for the abolition of slavery, who protested, who traveled the land speaking against it, who continued to support and encourage Douglass throughout his career by buying his books and supporting his work through newspapers and attending speaking engagements. They invested themselves personally and poured out their sweat, tears, and even their blood in some cases, to win the freedom of the slaves and to ensure that civil rights and equality under the law had a definitive beginning.
Though I give this book only three stars, I heartily recommend it for the positive attributes it does have and the depth of perspective that the author applies to its majority. Certainly, it is a book that has the ability to foster broader debates and that warrants further reflection, and perhaps even rereading.