- The Lincoln-Douglass Debate
John Stauffer’s Giants joins The Radical and the Republican (2007) by James Oakes and Douglass and Lincoln (2007) by Paul Kendrick and Stephen Kendrick on a suddenly sagging bookshelf of works about Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. It is a rapid succession of books—three volumes in two years—that seems, at first, unlikely. After all, Douglass and Lincoln met only three times, all in Lincoln’s last two years. And although all three books pivot on these meetings, our knowledge about them depends almost exclusively on Douglass’ perspective. Douglass recorded many of the details of his Lincoln meetings twenty years later in his final autobiography. Lincoln’s impressions must be inferred from Douglass’ accounts, or from second-hand testimony like that of Freedmen’s Bureau official John Eaton.
Eaton’s 1907 memoir, for example, recalled an 1864 interview between Lincoln and Eaton concerning Douglass. Eaton informed Lincoln that he had recently heard a speech by Douglass critical of the president, prompting Lincoln to invite Douglass to the White House. Later, Eaton recalled seeing Douglass after this meeting, now finding him full of admiration for the president. Yet although Stauffer cites Eaton’s memoir as evidence for the relationship between Douglass and Lincoln, it underlines the sparseness of the documentary record. Eaton’s memoir contains no direct claims about Lincoln’s reaction to meeting Douglass, aside from claiming that Lincoln “previously assured me that considering the conditions from which Douglass rose . . . he was, in his judgment, one of the most meritorious men in America.” The main lesson Eaton drew from this story, moreover, was not that Lincoln and Douglass were close, but that Lincoln always won over his critics.1 Indeed, as all three books detail, the vast majority of references that Douglass made to Lincoln in speeches and editorials were critical. For most of his career, Lincoln kept his distance from abolitionists, black or white, while abolitionists like Douglass often castigated Lincoln for his vacillation on important issues. [End Page 169]
Given the limited sources about their meetings and the abundant proof that the two protagonists were usually antagonists, the recent bonanza of Lincoln-Douglass books seems against the odds indeed. Viewed from another perspective, however, the impulse to consider these giants together grows out of broader historiographical trends. Many scholars have recently defended Lincoln from charges that he was a racist antiabolitionist and reluctant emancipator; demonstrating his friendship with Douglass would help the effort to refurbish Lincoln’s reputation.2 Yet friendship between Lincoln and Douglass, if established, would also change our view of abolitionists’ political efficacy. As James Brewer Stewart recently observed, historians have mostly avoided the question of whether abolitionists affected policymakers.3 Douglass’ meetings with Lincoln tantalize with the possibility that at least one abolitionist did make a difference. Stauffer, for example, asserts that although Lincoln long believed that “blacks would need to leave the country . . . Douglass helped him to alter this view” (p. xiii). If they enjoyed that kind of influence, abolitionists, instead of quixotic giant-killers, would be “giants” in their own right.
Yet these historiographical impulses require all three books to strike a delicate balance. They argue, on the one hand, that Lincoln and Douglass were similar enough in their views to absolve Lincoln of the charge of insincere antislavery sentiments. Yet all three acknowledge that Lincoln and Douglass were different enough that their views had to change before political and personal alliance was possible. Lincoln, thanks to prodding from critics like Douglass, finally lost hope in colonizationism and modified his views about the Constitution, which long made him wary about interfering with slavery in the South. Douglass, for his part, had to move away from a dogmatic insistence on principled purity learned from William Lloyd Garrison, embrace the Constitution as an antislavery document, and overcome constant disillusion with both America and Lincoln in order to support the president at all. In tracking these dual transformations in Lincoln’s and Douglass’ political, moral, and legal views, much of Giants...