Monday, January 05, 2009

The Most Important Debate

The Lincoln/Douglas debates are justifiably famous, much written about still, and a source of endless interest to scholars and readers alike.  But the Douglas who now towers over our memory of the Civil War, is not "the Little Giant" who fought Lincoln for the Illinois Senate seat.  There is perhaps no more important American thinker and writer of the period, from the modern perspective, save possibly Lincoln himself, then Frederick Douglas.  A former slave, author of a remarkable autobiography that to my knowledge has never since been out of print, an abolitionist, newspaperman, a philosopher, and a champion of his people, and of civilization, Frederick Douglas is among the most inexhaustible subjects for study in our history.

His name is inevitably linked to that of Lincoln.  Now there are two books -- one new and the other from just a year ago -- that make that connection explicit.  John Stauffer's Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglas and Abraham Lincoln is the latest, and has, rightly, received a great deal of press.  It is an excellent book; well researched and well told by this young Harvard professor.  Stauffer's equitable division of attention, even as the l
ives of his subjects both grow increasingly complex and eventually intersect, is handled masterfully throughout, never stinting either man. 

The slightly older title, Douglas and Lincoln: How a Revolutionary Black Leader and a Reluctant Liberator Struggled to End Slavery and Save the Union, by Paul and Stephen Kendrick, who are father and son, is more concerned with Douglas and specifically his campaign to free his people, with or without the assistance of the President of the United States.  The perspective is that of Frederick Douglas here and, without the constraints of writing a dual biography, the Kendricks can and do concentrate on Douglas and his amazing achievements, not least of which was hectoring, denouncing, eventually meeting with, and even coming to respect Abraham Lincoln.   The scene of their first actual meeting is electrifying in both tellings, and is, for me, one of the most dramatic moments in our history, though the meeting itself was nothing if not civil on both sides.  Still, at that moment, the United States, was changed.

Having two such richly detailed books about two such remarkable figures is a bonanza for students of American history.  That both are accessible, well researched and well written is a delight and a surprise for readers in this Lincoln Bicentennial Year.

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