Book Review of “Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln”

Book Review of “Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln”

Book Review of “Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln”

This is the first of a series of blogs reviewing the book, Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, by John Stauffer.

As a child, my fascination with Abraham Lincoln began when I heard the story of how Lincoln, influenced by a letter from an eleven-year-old girl, decided to grow a beard. You can read the letter here. That he paid attention to the opinion of a child set him apart from all the other Presidents (and grown-ups in general) in my little girl mind.

Although I’m sure at some point during my formative years I had heard of Frederick Douglass, it wasn’t until my final year of earning my undergraduate degree, in a literature class focusing on slave narratives, that I developed a fascination with Douglass. I wrote several blogs about his writing: Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom, The Soul’s Complaint, and The Climax of All Misnomers.

In the preface of Giants, Stauffer writes,

This collective biography opens a window on the transformation of American society by the Civil War. The two men’s personal conflicts often paralleled the nation’s conflicts, their inner turmoil reflecting national turmoil. In fact, the two men’s 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 changing and self-making, alliances and conflicts, is also the nation’s story.

In the prologue, Stauffer paints an interesting picture of the first time Douglass and Lincoln met,

[…] Douglass sensed a kindred spirit in Lincoln, and the affection was mutual: “Mr. Douglass, never come to Washington without calling upon me,” Lincoln told him after their August 10, 1863, meeting. He regarded Douglass “as one of the most meritorious men, if not the most meritorious man, in the United States.” And Douglass called Lincoln “the king of American self-made men.”

Why the mutual affection and respect, despite their vast differences? Their meeting was the first time that an African American and U.S. President had met as near “equals” in the sense that they were cultural ambassadors of their respective races. They could help each other to vanquish slavery and create a new Union. They wanted to like and respect each other, and they were also alike in numerous ways. They shared strangely similar backgrounds.

Stauffer draws several parallels throughout the book:

  • between lives and backgrounds of the two men
  • between the two men’s personal conflicts and inner turmoil and the nation’s conflicts and turmoil
  • and “the two men’s responses to each other provide a roadmap for the changing political landscape.”

In this blog series, I will note the spiritual implications of Stauffer’s parallels, both historical and modern, and draw another parallel, that is, between slavery and spiritual oppression.

  • Mary Vanderplas February 22, 2015 at 5:26 pm

    The book sounds fascinating – especially the author’s tracing of how the personal struggles and transformations of these two leaders in relationship with each other reflect the nation’s struggles and the changes that were taking place in the nation at that time. I look forward to reading your summary-review and your insights into the spiritual implications, along with your thoughts about the connection between slavery and religious/spiritual oppression.

    I love the story about the little girl persuading Lincoln to grow a beard despite his initial disinclination for the idea. It does say something about the kind of man he was that he would heed the advice of a child. I’ve enjoyed also the stories that tell of his honesty and of his penchant for coming to the aid of victims of abuse of various kinds. In so many ways he was a man to be admired.

  • Stephen Helbig February 26, 2015 at 6:27 pm

    In explaining their destiny, Douglass and Lincoln both quoted the same line from Shakespeare’s Hamlet: ~
    ~ “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, / Rough-hew them how we will.”

    ~ The above sentence is found in both the preface and chapters of this wonderfully imposing book.

    p.s. ~ A thought and quote which becomes applicable to a the summary of these “GIANTS” we find within our humanity ~ “The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.” ~ This quote is from Elisabeth Kübler-Ross; (who is the author of “On Death and Dying”)

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