Tuesday, June 22, 2010


A review of Stephen and Paul Kendrick’s Douglas and Lincoln: How a Revolutionary Black Leader and a Reluctant Liberator Struggled to End Slavery and Save the Union (2008)

(Rating 5 of 5)

President Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass came from two different walks of life and led very different lives. They were both, as Douglass would later describe it, ‘self-made men’ with Douglass rising out of slavery and Lincoln out of poverty to become leading figures of the nation. Lincoln would become a politician and rise to become the sixteenth president of the United States. Frederick Douglass would become a politician too, but not an office-seeking one. He would be on the outreaches of power doing all he could, in his genius, to fight for the enslaved and for justice for all African-Americans. Stephan and Paul Kendrick, father and son, recreate the epic political battles of the Mid-Nineteenth century United States over slavery and the Constitution.

Both Lincoln and Douglass had to overcome many hurdles in life to get to their destinies. Lincoln was born into extreme poverty. He had a cruel and overbearing father who worked all he could out of him until he was twenty-one. Douglass had been born into slavery. He did not even know who his father was, although he had a strong suspicion that it was the man who, by the law, owned him. Both would over come these obstacles on the road to greatness.

Lincoln managed to educate himself and ‘read law’ in order to join the bar and become a frontier lawyer. He would win election to the state legislature and become a vocal minority leader as a member of the Whig Party. He would serve one mediocre term in the United States House of Representatives. In the 1850s, two failed Senate bids, one against the legendary Stephen Douglas, established Lincoln as one of the leading voices against slavery, the expansion of slavery, and slave power. Although against slavery, he had a strong dislike for the radical Garrisonian Abolitionists, who in his view undermined the Anti-slavery movement by making it unelectable, unappealing, and anarchistic.

(Beardless Lincoln)

Douglass managed to escape to chains of slavery and went to the North, where he dodged slave catchers, educated himself, and was found by William Lloyd Garrison. Garrison himself, recruited Douglass into the movement. As time went on, however, Douglass started to become very critical of the movement that he had joined. The Garrisonian abolitionists were pretty good at getting nothing accomplished; they made a lot of people mad at them but did nothing to really damage slavery. Douglass would leave to start his own movement one that would be more mainstream without being mainstreamed.

(Young Douglass)

“To fully break from Garrison and his philosophies was wrenching, but Douglass had tired of conceding to the South their argument that the United States Constitution was a proslavery document. Further, he now resisted William Lloyd Garrison’s often expressed notion that seceding from the Union was a viable option for northern states. Instead, Douglass came to view the Declaration of Independence’s proclamation that ‘all men are created equal’ as the proper lens though which to understand the essential meaning of the Constitution with the additions of the Bill of Rights.” p.44

When Lincoln was elected in 1860, Douglass was disappointed. Lincoln was not really the type of person he wanted as president. Although the most openly anti-slavery president ever elected, Douglass thought Lincoln’s approach was too slow and his willingness to enforce fugitive slave laws too cruel.

(Fredrick Douglass)

However as the war went on Douglass’s view on President Lincoln began to change, first by meeting him and deciding upon that meeting that Lincoln was nothing if not honest. When the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, Douglass started recruiting young black men, including his own sons, to fight for the Union cause. Douglass would even collaborate with Lincoln in a plan for Douglass himself to go down to the South personally and try to start up a slave rebellion, but the war ended before that became necessary.

(Lincoln at work)

“Douglass had clearly made quite an impression on the president. It was now Lincoln himself prompting a second meeting. In thinking about the ease and evident lack of prejudice that marked his meetings with Lincoln, Douglass maintained that this connection was forged in their both being self-made men. Though it might be audacious to compare a president’s early days with his own, Douglass was well aware of the grinding poverty of Lincoln’s childhood, and he later pondered that this commonality was a source of their ease with one another. Douglass concluded, ‘I account partially for his kindness to me because of the similarity with which I had fought my way up, we both starting at the low rung of the ladder.’ So when receiving the invitation, Douglass resolved to go ‘most gladly.’”

(Lincoln on the field)

After the war was over, Lincoln would, though some backroom strong-arming, get the eventual Thirteenth Amendment though the Congress of the United States. President Lincoln would not live to see it though; John Wilkes Booth took his life on April 14, 1865. Although he and Lincoln had their differences, Douglass would never have it so good with a president again*. Lincoln’s immediate successor was more of villain to his cause than an ally. Douglass would spend the rest of his life fighting for justice and civil rights. He would live until 1895, fighting forever to the end.

(Douglass from his senior years)

I highly recommend this book to anyone interested to anyone interested in U.S. history, the Civil War, and centuries-long struggle for civil rights. This book captures the essence of two incredible leaders who lived and lead in incredible times.

*Although, he did have a positive opinion of President Grant.

{Video is from a biography channel preview on the life of Fredrick Douglass}

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