DALLAS (Reuters Life!) - A new “double biography” of two 19th century American icons has a special resonance this political season with the election of Barack Obama.
“Giants: The Parallel lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln”, by Harvard academic John Stauffer, traces the lives of these two self-made men who became unlikely political allies in the struggle against American slavery.
Douglass was an ex-slave who became one of America’s greatest orators. Lincoln raised himself up from his “white trash” upbringing to become the great emancipator.
A conservative Republican, Lincoln opposed the extension of slavery into “free” areas but only embraced the idea of its total abolition - long promoted by Douglass and other radicals - in the midst of the Civil War.
Along the way they cemented a rare friendship and their interlinked biographies shed light on a gripping era in American history.
Stauffer spoke to Reuters about his new book and the significance of Obama’s election victory.
Q: The reconstruction period that followed America’s Civil War has been called the country’s “unfinished revolution” because the freed black population was soon subjected to terror and saw many of its newly won rights and opportunities for economic advancement stripped away. Does Obama’s election finish this revolution or is it a new chapter in its unfinished business?
A: “I would say it’s a new chapter in its unfinished business. I think that the civil rights era that began really with World War II and culminates with the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and then 1965 was considered the second reconstruction and then there was kind of a backsliding and regression during the 1980s and 90s in terms of African Americans as a whole ... And I think Obama’s election is a great symbol of the fact that we are now moving forward. I think Obama’s election has the potential to revitalize race relations in the United States in truly profound ways.”
Q: Would Lincoln recognize or identify with the conservative Republicans of today?
A: No, he would not identify (with them). In fact I say he was a conservative Republican in the sense that, as he himself said, he hated slavery as much as abolitionists but his goal for ending it was far more gradual or conservative than many of his own party members. He said (in 1858) his vision for ultimate extinction (of slavery) would not occur for 100 years. In other words not less than 1958. He also believed that emancipation should come with compensation for slaveholders for the loss of their property ... I think Lincoln is much more similar to a conservative Democrat. The Republican Party then was much more similar to the Democratic Party today. For one their emphasis on minority rights and their emphasis on the role of the federal government as a force of positive change.
“I think from this perspective that Obama has been deeply influenced by both Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. Obama learned from Lincoln a number of things such as the importance of being pragmatic. Obama (like Lincoln) believes in reaching across deep divisions for common understanding. Like Lincoln, Obama I think has a brilliant sense of public opinion. Also from Lincoln and Frederick Douglass I think Obama has learned ways in which words can be the most potent weapon.”
Q: You describe the fears about plots to kill Lincoln in the lead up to his swearing-in ceremony while he was president-elect - they bring to mind, in a chilling manner, similar concerns about Obama at the moment. What is it about racial issues and racism? Why do they incite some extremists to such murderous fury?
A: Race is one of the central defining aspects of the American experience and of American history ... There has been throughout American history varying degrees of whites who define themselves first and foremost as a white man and a white woman. And so no matter how bad things are, they lose their job, they’re poor, the very fact that their self-definition is as a white man means in their minds that they are superior to non-whites. It’s a source of what they believe to be an appropriate social hierarchy. And for someone like Obama to be as good as he is and now the most powerful man in the United States profoundly threatens some of these racist whites (and) the very core of their being, their identity.