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Frederick Douglass (September 2018): Comparative Biographies

By Duncan R. Jamieson

Comparative Biographies

In Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, English professor John Stauffer defined Douglas and Lincoln as the preeminent self-made men of their time. Once inaugurated, Lincoln realized he needed Douglass to preserve the Union, and Douglass knew he needed Lincoln’s position and power to bring about the ultimate end of slavery. Together they lived through one of the most momentous shifts in American constitutional and cultural history. Historian David W. Blight’s Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln: A Relationship in Language, Politics and Memory is the tenth volume in the Frank L. Klement lecture series from Marquette University.  Blight recounts how both Douglass and Lincoln read Caleb Bingham’s The Columbian Orator, a collection of prose, poetry, and plays, all with an obvious anti-slavery tone. Bingham’s work cemented Douglass’s dream of liberation, both physical and intellectual. When Douglass attended Lincoln’s second inaugural reception, despite his printed invitation the ushers denied him entrance. Lincoln heard the commotion and intervened, telling everyone “here comes my friend Douglass.”  The abolitionist told the president his address was a “sacred effort.” 

Lincoln the politician remained sharply critical of the abolitionist movement in 1860 when he first ran for president. At the same time Douglass was a deeply committed abolitionist who had hopes for the Republican Party but who remained skeptical of their standard bearer. Historian James Oakes explores the ways in which the two men drew closer during the Civil War. The Radical and Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics chronicles how Douglass became a Republican and Lincoln a radical. Yet another comparative biography of the abolitionist and the president is by popular historians Paul and Stephen Kendrick, who wrote Douglass and Lincoln: How a Revolutionary Black Leader and a Reluctant Liberator Struggled to End Slavery and Save the Union. At the beginning of the Civil War Lincoln called for volunteers to preserve the Union, but only after more than a year of bloody conflict was Douglass able to convince the president that the only way to achieve that goal would be with the assistance of the South’s four-million slaves. Lincoln wrote the Emancipation Proclamation to disrupt the Confederacy’s ability to wage war by declaring slaves in those areas in rebellion against the United States would be henceforth and forever free.

While the connection between Lincoln and Douglass has garnered the greatest attention, it is not the only one worthy of note. Harriet Beecher Stowe and Frederick Douglass shared a passion for abolition, gender equality, nationalism, and religion. In Reading Abolition: The Critical Reception of Harriet Beecher Stowe and Frederick Douglass, Professor of English Brian Yothers explores their rhetorical genius as a key factor in the literature of abolition. Professor of English Robert Levine’s Martin Delany, Frederick Douglass, and the Politics of Representative Identity examines the lives of these two men, both considered the black Moses of the 1850s. In 1847 Delany went to work on Douglass’s abolitionist newspaper, The North Star. Whereas Douglass prized his American heritage and identity, Delany, who may be acknowledged as the first black nationalist, saw no future for blacks in the United States. With Professor of English Samuel Otter, Levine co-edited Frederick Douglass and Herman Melville: Essays in Relation. Eighteen authors examine the status of freedom, race, gender, sexuality, and the place of the United States as seen by Douglass and Melville. The authors consider the similarities and differences of these men, pairing them for their impact on their contemporaries. While it is uncertain if they ever met, in their own ways they confronted the major issues of their time.

Independent scholar William S. King, in To Raise Up a Nation: John Brown, Frederick Douglass, and the Making of a Free Country, focuses on the destruction of slavery. He examines the role of these two men in bringing about emancipation. Douglass welcomed the Civil War as a means to hasten the end of slavery. Never a pacifist, he was a long-time friend and confidant of John Brown, who led the 1859 raid on the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry.

Dismantling Slavery: Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, and Formation of the Abolitionist Crusade, 1841–1853, by Afrocologist Nilgun Anadolu-Okum, explores how Garrison and Douglass focused their argument on emancipation, women’s rights, and suffrage to prove the centrality of abolitionism to progressive social reform. Their relationship was critical to the expansion of the abolitionism movement; together they placed it at the center of moral and democratic reform.

Not all civil rights activists agreed on the appropriate strategies to improve the condition of their compatriots. In Creative Conflict in African American Thought, African American historian Wilson Jeremiah Moses examines the complexity and the contradictions in the political thinking of Frederick Douglass, Alexander Crummell, Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Marcus Garvey, considering strategies for black improvement by including it in the main currents of Jeffersonian and Jacksonian democracy. Professor of English Gregory Stephens takes this idea one step further in On Racial Frontiers: The New Culture of Frederick Douglass, Ralph Ellison and Bob Marley. Representing different generations and careers—the first a popular orator, the second a novelist, and the last an influential songwriter—each is a symbol of a racialized culture. Stephens investigates the common historical and cultural contexts they helped create for popular audiences. Professor of Philosophy Cynthia R. Nielsen’s Foucault, Douglass, Fanon and Scotus in Dialogue: On Social Construction and Freedom is an interdisciplinary analysis of four diverse philosophical thinkers from different eras and countries. She brings them together to examine their beliefs in a new, interpretive fashion. 

Works Cited