Lincoln Essay

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In the past two years four authors have undertaken joint biographies of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. Contextualizing the overlapping roles of these complex personalities proves to be a fascinating and challenging litmus test of the political values not only of two iconic individuals but also of the historians interpreting them. Lincoln and Douglass met only three times, so it can be misleading to make too much of their personal ties. Doug­lass was a radical abolitionist who was highly critical of the conservative presi­dent for most of the war. In 1861 Douglass wrote of Lincoln, "what an excellent slavehound he is," and a year later exploded, "Mr. Lincoln assumes the language of an itinerant Colonization lecturer, showing…his pride of blood, his contempt for Negroes and his canting hypocrisy." Their relationship was more often antagonistic than mutually supportive. All four authors are aware of this conflictual interaction. While James Oakes and the father-and-son team of Paul and Stephen Kendrick focus on the Civil War period, John Stauffer spends two-thirds of his book on the subjects' earlier lives. Stauffer's longer-term framework follows an observation that Douglass himself made well after Lincoln's assassination, that each had understood the other because both were self-made men. As this was the century of the self-made man, this parallel is unsurprising, and many of the shared characteristics that Stauffer discusses are somewhat commonplace. At his best, Stauffer adds new interpretive insights to well-known biographical information, particularly when describing Lincoln's intimate relationship with Joshua Speed, "his soulmate and the love of his life." But this and many other biographical details Stauffer discusses are unrelated to Lincoln's ties with Douglass, the book's ostensible subject. Stauffer is at his most incisive, in tandem with the other

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