Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln (2008)

Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln (2008)


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Douglass and Lincoln were the preeminent self-made men of their time. In this masterful dual biography, the first to view the two great leaders as self-made men, Stauffer describes the transformations in the lives of these giants during a major shift in cultural history, when men rejected the status quo and embraced new ideals of personal liberty. As Douglass and Lincoln reinvented themselves and became friends, they transformed America. Lincoln was born dirt poor, had less than one year of formal schooling, and became the nation's greatest president. Douglass spent the first 20 years of his life as a slave, had no formal schooling, and became one of the nation's greatest writers and activists. At a time when most whites would not let a black man cross their threshold, Lincoln invited Douglass into the White House. Lincoln recognized that he needed Douglass to help him destroy the Confederacy and preserve the Union; Douglass realized that Lincoln's shrewd sense of public opinion would serve his own goal of freeing the slaves. Their relationship shifted in response to the debate over slavery and emancipation. Stauffer describes their personal and political struggles with a keen understanding of the dilemmas they confronted and the social context in which they occurred. What emerges is a brilliant portrait of how two of America's greatest leaders lived.


Prologue: Meeting the President (August 10, 1863) 1
1 Privileged Slave and Poor White Trash 25
2 Fugitive Orator and Frontier Politician 67
3 Radical Abolitionist and Republican 129
4 Abolitionist Warrior and War President 213
5 Friends 273
Epilogue 303
Acknowledgments 315
Notes 319
Index 417


* Annual Iowa Author Award (2009)
* Boston Author's Club Book Award, Honorable Mention (2009)
* A History Book Club featured selection
* A Boston Globe and Amazon bestseller

Richard S. Newman, author of Freedom's Prophet
In this stunning book, John Stauffer has given us the most insightful portrait of either Lincoln or Douglass in years. In graceful prose, he tells a moving story of the two men who dominated nineteenth century American life -- as allies across the racial divide, friends who drew common inspiration from hard scrabble beginnings and a love of language, and fellow travelers on the road of American self-making. Giants is simply must reading!

David W. Blight, Yale University, author of Frederick Douglass' Civil War
John Stauffer's Giants is a lyrical, insightful treatment of the fascinating relationship between two geniuses, one a politician and the other a radical reformer. Both Lincoln and Douglass heard the music of words in their heads as few others, and Stauffer has an ear for the two of them in harmony. That they started in such different places ideologically and yet moved together at the critical moment of emancipation makes this a timely and important book. Stauffer brings the tools of literature and history to bear on this comparison with unmatched skill.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Harvard University, author of The African American Century
Stauffer's collective biography stands apart from other biographies by focusing on how each man continually remade himself, with help from women, words, self-education, physical strength, and luck. In the process Stauffer gives us the texture and feel--a "thick description"--of the strange worlds that Douglass and Lincoln inhabited. The result is a path-breaking work that dissolves traditional conceptions of these two seminal figures (Lincoln the "redeemer" president, Douglass the assimilationist). He reveals how Douglass towered over Lincoln as a brilliant orator, writer, agitator, and public figure for most of his life. He shows us how words became potent weapons for both men. And he tells the poignant story of how these preeminent self-made men ultimately converged, despite their vastly different agendas and politics, and helped transform the nation.

Steven Mintz, Columbia University, author of America and Its Peoples
Like a daguerreotype, which nineteenth-century Americans thought captured not simply surface appearances but peoples' souls, this book moves beyond biography to allow us to recover the inner lives of two utterly uncommon common men. This is the most insightful book about race and friendship in the
nineteenth century that I have read. It's poignant and perceptive, a book to be savored, a book that will last.

The Washington Post
Giants is a perfect starting place for those whose interest in two of American history's most important figures has been piqued.

The Weekly Standard
Valuable insights . . . Stauffer's intelligent discussion of Ottilie Assing, the German intellectual and journalist with whom Douglass had a close relationship for over two decades, deserves special mention.

The Newark Star Ledger
Stauffer describes Douglass and Lincoln as ‘the two pre-eminent self-made men in American history,’ a fairly bold claim that he backs up with wonderful narrative verve. Stauffer manages the nifty trick of reinterpreting the familiar story of Lincoln, the Civil War and slavery by introducing Douglass as an important character in this narrative. Douglass was disappointed with Lincoln at first, but grew to become friendly with the president. This fascinating book will be of interest to popular audiences and academics alike.

Roanoke Times
Stauffer has crafted a masterful portrait of the two men who led the nation to an expansion of the definition of ‘freedom for all and tyranny toward none’ . . . In telling the stories of these two American giants, Stauffer paints a detailed portrait of the social and political atmosphere of mid-19th-century America and the struggle to make the United States truly united.

With the hindsight that makes for history filled out and fully viewed, we can make linkages that, in their time, might not have been apparent or apropos. Such is the case with Giants. . . Giants will satisfy with the fresh light it casts upon two towering figures in American history as they played out the roles that destiny had chosen for them -- neither fully right and both flawed, but hewn from the same tree of idealism, determination and love of their people.

Steve Weinberg, American Way
One of the most brilliantly conceived books of 2008. . . no previous biographer has intertwined their lives as skillfully as Stauffer . . . Throughout the book, Stauffer not only shares these men’s stories with expert grace but also demonstrates the centrality of dynamic individuals in the study of history . . . Stauffer’s narrative is far more than a feel-good historical saga. Among its virtues, it offers hope for true dialogue among those who could just as easily hate as they could reason.
Last updated on 08/12/2011