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Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln

by John Stauffer, Twelve, 2008, $30

You’ll be hard-pressed to find a list of preeminent “self-made men” in American history that doesn’t include either Abraham Lincoln or Frederick Douglass. Until recently, however, few books about the relationship between the two 19th-century icons have been written. Giants, by Harvard University professor and Civil War historian John Stauffer, thankfully is one of the first.

Starting with the deprived upbringing that both men endured, Stauffer traces the similar though starkly separate paths they followed to prominence. Douglass, who escaped slavery at the age of 20, was self-taught just like Lincoln and read many of the same books as the future president. As Stauffer is quick to note, “They learned how to use words as weapons.”

Their paths converged during the Civil War. Douglass was a frequent critic of Lincoln, but was also a guest at the White House three times. By their first meeting in August 1863, Douglass had decried the administration’s initial lack of response to news that black soldiers in the Union Army were being treated unfairly. Douglass called the president “a man of action rather than words.” Lincoln, however, eventually “recognized that he needed Douglass to help him destroy the Confederacy and preserve the Union.”

The two men rarely saw eye to eye. The shrewd, pragmatic Lincoln was far too conservative for Douglass and his relentless crusade to abolish slavery. But despite the gulf that separated them, the two ultimately became friends. “In placing their lives side by side,” Stauffer reflects, “we gain a fuller picture of each man’s career and character, and a better understanding of how friends, mentors, lovers, and rivals shaped them.”

Stauffer’s engrossing narrative is balanced and reader-friendly. His extensive and richly detailed endnotes are another great bonus to this book.


Originally published in the September 2009 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here