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The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln: An interview with John Stauffer

John Stauffer is Chair of the History of American Civilization at Harvard University.  He is a leading scholar of slavery, protest and interracial relations.  Among his seven books (authored and edited) is The Black Hearts of Men: Radical Abolitionists and the Transformation of Race (2002), winner of the Frederick Douglass Book Prize.  His most recent book, Giants, examines two of America’s cherished self-made men: Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.

As you set out to write a dual biography of Douglass and Lincoln, were there any models that you looked to?  What do you hope the reader will learn from your approach to these great men?

When I set out to write the dual biography, my models were Louis Menand's Metaphysical Club; a number of other dual biographies with Lincoln in them (Lincoln and Whitman, Lincoln and Roger Taney); and then a lot of fiction that focuses on the dialectical relationship between two characters:  Gatsby; much of Cather; Twain's Huck Finn.  I think biographers and historians can learn a lot structurally from great fiction.

Both Lincoln and Douglass struggled to balance their family and public lives.   The tendency is to place these two seminal figures in the scope of history--to treat their words as sacrosanct, to cast their development in abstract intellectual terms, and to understand their actions as heroic undertakings.  You give us quite a different picture. I am wondering to what extent Lincoln and Douglass felt unfulfilled by their home lives.  It seems as though Douglass never quite could feel like he was on the same level as his first wife Anna. He moved his family all over the northeast, and often had other women living in his household.   We hear very little about his children.  Lincoln also had a somewhat bizarre string of personal relationships.  He lived with Joshua Speed for four years and then they grew apart.  He had to break off an engagement, and then married Mary Todd (though I don't get the sense it was the kind of love worthy of poetry).  He then had to cope with the passing of several of his children.  Perhaps these men, who belong to history, could not also have belonged to their families?

As Douglass and Lincoln became more public figures, they increasingly felt unfulfilled in their home lives.  It's a common trend:  the more you define yourself as a public persona, the more difficult it is to be happy in a private persona.  Neither one spent much time with their children.  And Lincoln was probably happiest in his private life (as an adult) during his young friendship with Speed in Springfield.

In Douglass's meeting with Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, he emphasized his desire to mitigate negative black stereotypes, but also the stereotype that blacks could be a source of national redemption.   But he also was historically conscious and sensitive to symbolism.  He wanted blacks to participate in the Civil War, not just as a pragmatic means to an end, but because of the moral weight carried in blacks emancipating themselves.  For Douglass, emancipation was a part of national salvation--blood would be spilled, but in final judgment, the United States would grow.  How do you assess Douglass's waffling?  Does this speak to any of the theological differences between Lincoln and Douglass that you highlight in the book? 

In Douglass's meeting with Stanton, his main point was that whites too often treated blacks not as men but as symbols; and once you do that, you dehumanize them or objectify them in certain degrees.  True, he could symbolize the nation, and saw emancipation as part of national salvation.  But a nation wasn't a person; there wasn't the same downside to symbolizing a nation.

Abraham Lincoln's assassination elevated him to the level of a "secular Christ." Your discussion of Douglass suggests that he failed to successfully "remake" himself after the war, and the death of slavery took with it some of Douglass's passion.  You mention a shift in his theology, changes in his disposition towards social revolution (some of his quotes about social revolution towards the end of his life echo Edmund Burke), and a generally new approach to life.  As a biographer, do you find this period somewhat less compelling to write about?  How would you characterize this change?

In Douglass's postwar period, I very much wanted to develop it and chart the changes; and I'm fascinated in the era.  But since it was a dual biography, I was also sensitive to not writing another hundred or so pages about Douglass's shift after the Civil War after Lincoln had already died, to avoid imbalance.  I thought about writing the postwar period, since I'm so fascinated by it, focusing on Lincoln's memory, but it would have moved away from biography on Lincoln's part.

As for the shifts, Douglass's growing secularism was common; most Northern reformers saw the war in millennialist terms; it was as though with the war, the apocalypse had come, but the new age was nowhere in sight, precipitating a crisis of faith in the ability to believe that God could enter into and affect the affairs of the world.  And Douglass was now an insider, meaning that the risks of radical or revolutionary or extra-violent means to achieve racial equality were far greater than before.  He stood a lot more to lose.  He also became aware of the costs of trying to realize his vision of racial equality.  Luke Menand discusses how pragmatism emerged with the Civil War:  people concluded in the post-bellum era that they would sacrifice their moral/religious certainty for order and the prevention of bloodshed.  And after the Civil War, it makes sense.

I talk about this in an article on Douglass in Raritan, Summer 2005, called "Frederick Douglass and the Aesthetics of Freedom."