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Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln [Kindle Edition]

John Stauffer
4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (32 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln were the preeminent self-made men of their time. In this masterful dual biography, award-winning Harvard University scholar John Stauffer describes the transformations in the lives of these two 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 ultimately 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 twenty years of his life as a slave, had no formal schooling-in fact, his masters forbade him to read or write-and became one of the nation's greatest writers and activists, as well as a spellbinding orator and messenger of audacious hope, the pioneer who blazed the path traveled by future African-American leaders.

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 nation's blacks. Their relationship shifted in response to the country's debate over slavery, abolition, and emancipation.

Both were ambitious men. They had great faith in the moral and technological progress of their nation. And they were not always consistent in their views. John Stauffer describes their personal and political struggles with a keen understanding of the dilemmas Douglass and Lincoln confronted and the social context in which they occurred. What emerges is a brilliant portrait of how two of America's greatest leaders lived.

Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

Like Paul and Steven Kendrick, authors of the recent Douglass and Lincoln, Stauffer has to scale up to achieve book size, since the men’s personal relationship consisted of just three meetings. Stauffer does that partially by using the Kendricks’ method of chronicling Douglass’ criticisms of Lincoln and partially by presenting a dual biography couched in the theme of the self-made man. As he hits the mile markers of the men’s rise from nothing, Stauffer, an English professor, often speculates about what each man “certainly” or “would have” thought about events in their lives (such as Lincoln’s supposed homosexuality, of which Stauffer is convinced, despite acknowledging there is no explicit evidence). This casts his narrative more as historical essay than straightforward history. Stauffer also emphasizes what he regards as key features of the men’s interaction, such as a friendship, perhaps genuine, perhaps diffident, growing out of Lincoln’s incremental adoption of the abolitionist position championed by Douglass. A work well worth the attention of students of emancipation. --Gilbert Taylor


"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."—David W. Blight, Yale University, author of Frederick Douglass' Civil War and A Slave No More

"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!"—Richard S. Newman, author of Freedom's Prophet: Bishop Richard Allen, the AME Church, and the Black Founding Fathers

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.—Steven Mintz, Columbia University, author of America and Its Peoples: A Mosaic in the Making

"John Stauffer's collective biography of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln 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."—Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Harvard University, author of The African American Century: How Black Americans Have Shaped Our Century

Product Details

  • File Size: 962 KB
  • Print Length: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Twelve (November 3, 2008)
  • Sold by: Hachette Book Group
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B001IZC3TM
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Enabled
  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #551,159 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
47 of 50 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Revisionist-good, not great August 9, 2009
There are some problems with "Giants." I have to agree with the review by person from Louisville that the characterization of Lincoln and his family as "white trash" was over the top. That term has contemporary implications which were not true for the Lincoln family.

Furthermore, I have a problem with the author blanketing the relationship between Lincoln and Speed as homosexual. If he were writing about contemporary people who had said the things Speed and Lincoln wrote to one another I would tend to agree with his conclusions. But this was a different age. The language of expression and relationships were quite different. It was not unusual for men to sleep together as a matter of convenience. We do not know what happened between Lincoln and Speed. For the author to broach the subject is not a problem, but to reach the conclusions he did without examining other possibilities is completely revisionist. I have read other biographies of Lincoln that discuss the relationship, but are willing to look at the relationship with open minds. Certainly those we admire, respect and look to are human as are the rest of us. Many outstanding intellects and leaders have been homosexual, but right or wrong, it is a stretch to attribute tendencies to an individual where such a tendency may not exist. It is not good history. Whether Lincoln and Speed were in a homosexual relationship is not the issue. Such a relationship would not diminish the greatness of Lincoln. The historical assumption of such a relationship were none may have existed is the problem. This assumption leads me to question other conclusions of the author.

"Giants" is a fine concept. I did not find as many parallels between Lincoln and Douglass as I had anticipated, but it was a fascinating study.
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16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant as a Powerful Novel November 5, 2008
This is a brilliant and deeply moving book. There is no reason for me to repeat the praise others have so justly given it, but I would like to mention one feature that has not yet been pointed out. Stauffer's prose reads with the same brilliance of a powerful novelist's prose. I hate to use a cliché, but I couldn't put it down. I opened it planning to read a bit and then go on to other things I had to do that afternoon. But I read into the evening and then the following days until I quickly finished it. It is not merely the beauty of Stauffer's prose style that pulls the reader in, but also his skillful handling of the two narratives he unfolds. Even though I knew the general facts of both men's lives, I was captivated by the way Stauffer developed their characters, and I kept wanting to know what was going to happen next. John Stauffer is not only a major historian, he is also a great story teller.
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16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Best book I've read for a very long time November 6, 2008
As the nation's preeminent scholar of interracial friendship, John Stauffer turns in Giants from his previous prize-winning work on abolitionist friends to offer the first collective biography of the two preeminent self-made men in American history: Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. That previous book, The Black Hearts of Men, was a hard act to follow but Stauffer goes even further here in Giants. Vivid, insightful, exceptionally well-researched and beautifully written, Giants restores to both mythic figures their complexity, ambiguity, and humanity, giving us an entirely fresh vision of two individuals who transformed themselves before they could transform society. Just as exciting, though, is the parallel narrative of national identity. As Stauffer reflects one giant off the other, we see in their intersecting lives a national journey toward the Second Revolution of the 1860s. This braided story of Lincoln and Douglass, one of change and self-making, alliance and conflict, faith and loss, is the nation¿s own story of bonds and betrayals during the nineteenth century. In fact, while other books might focus on Douglass and Lincoln's politics during the Civil War, only Stauffer examines the bigger picture: the ways they made and remade themselves and the nation their lives, loves, friendships, and the whole nature of love and friendship in the Civil War era. He weaves together themes of historical memory, race, gender, loyalty and forgiveness, empathy, outsiders, and the boundaries of the personal and political. The book therefore gives us a deeper, fuller picture of both men's lives and characters, and also a window on a whole era. Read more ›
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars ENTIRE FREEDOM January 24, 2010
By Union65
In an 1865 speech, Frederick Douglass called Lincoln "Emphatically the Black Man's president." Douglass also has written, "In all my interviews with Mr. Lincoln, I was impressed with his entire freedom from popular prejudice against the colored race." [1881]

Lincoln's claim to being the Great Emancipator lies not just with his Emancipation Proclamation, but also with the 13th Amendment, which he insisted on including in the 1864 Republican platform, & which he sheparded through Congress. Those who feel Lincoln was insincere about freedom and equality would do well to read LaWanda Cox's Lincoln and Black Freedom: A Study in Presidential Leadership, Richard Striner's Father Abraham: Lincoln's Relentless Struggle To End Slavery, and Harry Jaffa's Crisis of the House Divided: An Interpretation of the Issues in the Lincoln-Douglas Debates, as well as Allen Guelzo's Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America; and James Oakes's The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics. Lincoln felt that politics was the art of the possible. His political artistry included an acute knowledge of public opinion (and prejudices), a finely-honed sense of timing, and political discretion. Lincoln never retreated from emancipation once it was decided upon, just as he never affirmed black inferiority to be inherent. During his debates with Stephen Douglas he never said that he would never (in future) support equality. He didn't put stock in physical differences--in a well-known private memoranda he mused how anyone could be enslaved if the criterion was to have darker skin, or lesser intellect, because everyone was lighter or darker, or of varying degrees of intellect.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Published 24 days ago by Alpha
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Loved the book, but now lost my Kindle!
Published 2 months ago by Pamela Morrone
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Great gift for a history buff!
Published 3 months ago by Julie Koval
5.0 out of 5 stars douglas and lincoln
gift to one who loves reading about American men who influenced moral climate
Published 8 months ago by Kathleen Driver
4.0 out of 5 stars Two Giants in Our History
I enjoyed reading this book. It was really the first thing I have read about both of them. It provided some great information about both people and also showed how their lives... Read more
Published 9 months ago by Maurice Troop
5.0 out of 5 stars Giants
I am a student of Lincoln, his life, his accomplishments as president and his death. Had not seen thiss comparisn previously and reall enjoyed the read. Read more
Published 12 months ago by D.W.Guthrie
5.0 out of 5 stars Very happy
I bought this as a Christmas present for my sister who is an admirer of both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, and she really loved it.
Published 14 months ago by Alexander Tonks
5.0 out of 5 stars Awesome.
Fantastic Book and a very smooth transaction. I read it a couple years ago and just purchased as a gift to my boss. Excellent read.
Published 14 months ago by Whitehall Health Centre
5.0 out of 5 stars Douglass & Lincoln
I read this fine dual bio before & bought it as a gift for a friend who's keen on history & is a particular fan of both Douglass & Lincoln. Read more
Published 17 months ago by C. R. Keenan
5.0 out of 5 stars Two great men.
Historical its a wonderful read, especially if you love the original intent of the US Constitution. Douglas and Lincoln saved this Union with their actions and their words, words... Read more
Published 19 months ago by Karen C. Kelleher
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More About the Author

JOHN STAUFFER is Chair of the History of American Civilization and Professor of English and African and African American Studies at Harvard University. Among the leading scholars of the Civil War era, antislavery, and interracial alliances, he is the author or editor of seven book and more than 50 articles. GIANTS: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln (2008), received the 2009 Iowa Author's Award, a Boston Writer's Club award, and was a Boston Globe and bestseller and a History Book Club featured selection. His other books include The Writings of James McCune Smith: Black Intellectual and Abolitionist (2006), which showcases the work of the foremost black intellectual in the nineteenth century; The Problem of Evil: Slavery, Freedom, and the Ambiguities of American Reform (with Steven Mintz, 2006); Meteor of War: The John Brown Story (with Zoe Trodd); and The Black Hearts of Men: Radical Abolitionists and the Transformation of Race (2002), a collective biography of black and white abolitionists that won four major awards, including the Frederick Douglass Book Prize, the Avery Craven Book Prize, and the Lincoln Prize runner-up.
John's essays have appeared in Time Magazine, Times Literary Supplement, The New York Times, Huffington Post, Raritan, New York Sun, and 21st: The Journal of Contemporary Photography. He has appeared on national radio and television shows, including the Diane Rehm Show and Book TV with Susan Swain, and he has lectured widely throughout the United States and Europe.
In 2006-08 John served as a consultant for the filmmaker Gary Ross (Seabiscuit, Dave, Big, Pleasantville, The Tale of Desperaux), who has completed a screenplay and will direct a film on Unionism and interracial alliances in Civil War Mississippi. John co-authored a history of the story, The State of Jones, with Sally Jenkins, which was published by Doubleday in July 2009.
John received his M.A. from Purdue University in 1993 and his Ph.D. from Yale University in 1999, when he began teaching at Harvard. He received tenure in 2004. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with his wife, Deborah Cunningham, and their sons Erik Isaiah and Nicholas Daniel Stauffer.


Topic From this Discussion
What are the same 6 books Lincoln and Douglass read?
Well you have probably given up on this ever being answered as it has been over a year or perhaps you have already found the answer but to anyone else interested there were actually a same core set of books the two read: the Bible, Shakespeare, Lord Byron, Robert Burns, Aesop's Fables, and The... Read More
May 26, 2010 by Michael Branch |  See all 3 posts
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