Customer Reviews: Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln
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on 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. The author did a wonderful job of pointing out Lincoln's prejudice again blacks, something that is often overlooked today. He also did a fine work of showing how Lincoln grew, not only in his relationship with Douglass, but in his realization that emancipation was the only answer to the slavery question. I wish he would have explored the reasons for Douglass' moderation in his later years. I kept wanting a bit more depth and examination of the Douglass. The last decades of his life were glossed over. I would have liked more

For the potential reader, it is an easy read and moves quite well. Whether one agrees with my criticisms or not, there is a lot to learn in "Giants."
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on 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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on 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 nationĂ‚¿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. This is history and biography written in glorious techicolor: set against Douglass, Lincoln comes alive anew - and vice versa - but so too does the intense drama of the time. And that history is a living drama: after the election of Barack Obama, a man who is said to transcend race but also has finally replaced Lincoln (and Clinton) as the nation's first 'black president,' has publicly grappled with the changing nature of his own friendships, and acknowledges the political and personal inspiration of both Douglass and Lincoln, we might find in Stauffer's dazzling page-turner a framework for understanding the story of Obama and ourselves in 2008. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.
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on January 24, 2010
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. In Chicago, in July 1858, he implored people to "discard" all their "quibbling" about supposed inferiority, and unite around the equality of the Declaration of Independence. However, a race-baiting Stephen Douglas forced him to subsequently in those debates down-play the full implications of his anti-slavery position. Again, he was a politician seeking an anti-slavery (extension) victory in a racist state [Illinois]. But, during his presidency he approved of bills abolishing segregation on horse-drawn streetcars in D.C.; for equal pay for black troops; for black witnesses in federal courts; for equal penalties for the same crimes; for the Freedmen's Bureau. He supported education for the freedmen. He had African-Americans picnic on the White House lawn; bowed publicly to a black gentleman in Richmond; welcomed (for the first time in U.S. history) an ambassador from Haiti; and met African-American leaders in the White House for discussions. Any colonization (Lincoln recognized the intransigence of white prejudice "even when freed") was to be voluntary, and was later dropped, whites and blacks having to "live out of the old relation and into the new." Sojourner Truth said that she had never been treated with more "kindness and cordiality" by anyone. Lincoln called for the vote for educated blacks and soldiers [a first step]. John Wilkes Booth was in the audience, and told a companion that that meant "N-- citizenship" and vowed it would be Lincoln's last speech. He was assassinated 3 days later. Lincoln was a friend of freedom and equality, but he worked as a politician. Stauffer's book needs to be supplemented with others to gain a more rounded view of Lincoln's record on race.
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VINE VOICEon October 30, 2008
"Giants," John Stauffer's account of the lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln is an excellent introduction to these self-made men who had much in common. Both came of age in milieus in which brutality was commonplace, Douglass as a slave on a Maryland plantation and on the streets and wharves of Baltimore, Lincoln as a poor young man in backwoods Indiana and Illinois. Both were largely self-taught, sharing even a common source of reading material, "The Columbian Orator." Douglass did not know his father, a white man, and Lincoln had little regard for his. Both were tall, imposing men who could and did win battles not only of words but of physical strength. The parallels are numerous and striking. Abolition, of course, brought them together (although not always in agreement), but so did a mutual respect for each other's intellectual and oratorical abilities. Stauffer's account is most compelling in its description of the forces that shaped both men. Look again at Twain's description of Pap in "Huckleberry Finn" and you'll understand exactly the kind of men that attacked Douglass when he attempted to speak on abolition in Indiana. "Giants," is, I think, less strong in its account of the meetings between the two during the years just prior to and during the Civil War. The material itself is interesting, but many of the events are also familiar. Here, the reading feels a bit like a college course, with Stauffer filling in the details of events that the reader might have forgotten about, like the Kansas-Nebraska Act. This need to provide historical context slows things down a bit. Still, the book is absorbing to the end and offers a great deal of interesting detail about Douglass, in particular, that will not be well known to readers who are familiar only with his "Narrative." The elegiac conclusion of "Giants" is particularly graceful in its incorporation of the advice the elderly Douglass gives to a younger admirer, whom he urges to "Agitate! Agitate! Agitate!"
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on September 2, 2015
I thought that this book was well written and certainly well researched. I do feel that since we didn't know President Lincoln, that conjecture about his sexuality is out of place, to the degree that it was examined. There should be more respect, whether he was gay or not. We have loss respect for the office of the President. No matter what we think of an occupant of that office politically or personally, the position should be revered, unless an impeachable act occurs. After all, the "President of the United States", is still the most powerful position in the world.
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on November 25, 2008
John Stauffer has written a rather incredible book. And while it is not exactly the dual biography it has been touted as, the whole is still much larger than the sum of the parts: It is timely, well researched and nuanced; and accomplishes the tricky task of following the parallel lives of these two preeminent self-made men until they converge. And then it explores the importance of that convergence to the development of our democracy during the period surrounding the Civil War.

Stauffer whets our appetites by pointing out the numerous similarities between these two giants of American history: they were both dirt poor, self-made and self-taught men who read the same books and had fights that helped shape their adult lives, as they went on to grow into larger than life speakers, writers and national icons.

However, the main menu of this presentation is how these two men -- with such similar personal backgrounds, but with such equally dissimilar political backgrounds (Douglass was a revolutionary; Lincoln a political conservative) - were nevertheless eventually drawn into the same political orbit where out of necessity, they came to trust, admire and then even to depend on each other. This book then is about how their separate lives converged and were intertwined to produce the greater good for the American nation. Both had to evolve and first transform themselves before they could help transform the country.

But Stauffer's greatest contribution to American history is in re-humanizing Lincoln. This author, (as was the case with the much more difficult book "Force into Glory, by Lerone Bennett) dispels forever the mostly romanticized fiction of Lincoln as being a flawless and unquestioning champion of Black rights. In fact, the one thing consistent about Lincoln was that he "was a man of his times" in regards to the issue of race. That is to say he was more concerned with saving the union than with freeing the slaves. In fact, the point at which the two lives began to converge was when Douglass started writing about Lincoln's backward and racist attitudes and political positions towards blacks, in his abolitionist newspaper.

Among the things that upset Douglass most about Lincoln was the fact that Lincoln ran for re-election as Congressman from Illinois on promises to strictly enforce the dreaded and draconian fugitive slave laws. Douglass was even more bitter over the fact that when Lincoln was reelected he refused to support a bill to emancipate Blacks in Washington D.C. Douglass also wrote about Lincoln's support of the aborted first draft of the 13th Amendment, which advocated enshrining within the Constitution slavery for blacks in perpetuity. Later, in his second inaugural address, Lincoln made clear that although he personally hated slavery, he did not want to free the slaves if it meant upsetting the social status quo. He preferred gradual emancipation: over a period of 100 years or so. In addition, Lincoln insisted that slave owners be compensated for the slaves they freed; and suggested that the U.S. government subsidize a "back to Africa" program for all blacks.

Despite these differences, what Douglass liked and admired about Lincoln was that, unlike his liberal Abolitionists friends, who were "theoretical non-racist," but "practical racist," Lincoln's views on race were clearly evolving. Plus Lincoln's roots were from the poorer class and he and Douglass over time learned to understand and respect each other even when they disagreed. Douglas said that Lincoln was the only white man that treated him like a man instead of like a "Black man."

The most important part of their collaboration was on how to end the war. Douglass' influence on Lincoln's decision to free the slaves under Southern control, according to Stauffer, has been under appreciated. It was Douglass' advice that was decisive in convincing Lincoln that the easiest way to both win and end the war was to free the four million slaves in the South who made up an important part of the South's critical war infrastructure. It was southern blacks that took care of the home front for the rebel armies. Among other things, Lincoln failed to realize that the Civil War was as much a social revolution as it was a military campaign. Thus their friendship was a utilitarian one: Lincoln needed Douglass to help win and end the war; Douglass needed Lincoln to help end slavery: They leaned on each other, and out of this an enduring friendship and mutual admiration club formed.

A great read, easily five Stars
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on September 27, 2012
Stauffer tells a great story, highlighting the similarities between the Civil War president and the renowned human rights agitator and freed slave. Both men had to fight, literally and figuratively, to break free from the limitations of their childhood circumstances. Both were tall, physically powerful, and unafraid. Both were alcohol-and-tobacco-free at a time when nearly all men indulged in both habits. Both had numerous sexual liaisons, and both loved poetry. One man was tasked with uniting a nation torn apart by the stigma of human slavery, and the other was charged with exhorting his people to free themselves from that stigma and rise above it. Lincoln, unlike most men of his time, was willing to let a black man cross his threshold and converse as an equal. The two had several meetings at the White House and mutually influenced one another as they helped to transform the nation.
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on February 10, 2014
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. Douglassmade great contributions to gaining Freedom for people wrongfully enslaved.
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on November 16, 2011
What a great book to start your journey on understanding these two great men. What I really loved was the pace at which you can read this book. I took me two flights to enjoy it. Granted they were coast to coast, so I had the time, but it is unusual for me to read a book in that short a time. That is why I had to write this review. I enjoyed the facts and the foot notes as well as the author pointing to the parallels in time. One of my favorite parts about history is seeing it from different perspectives at the exact same time. What a way to see both sides of the argument in the tumultuous times leading up to and including the Civil War.

Seeing Lincoln in his own words opens your eyes to not only the self made man, but the racism and politics of the times. Reading Douglass in his own words and thoughts was just as enlightening. Many times as I read I thought of how much of this applies today in our society. The politics, the debating, the discourse, the press and how they were locked into one political party or the other.

Well played Mr. Staufer. I look forward to reading more about these two great men, the times, and other parallels in time. Thank you for making history readable. This book should be a must read on any history professors course on the Civil War, or Race in America.
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