Monday, June 18, 2012

"My Friend Douglass": Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass: The Story Behind An American Friendship by Russell Freedman

Heads turned when Frederick Douglass walked into the White House on the morning of August 10, 1863. It was still early, but the waiting area was crowded with citizens of all kinds, seeking an audience with the president.

Douglass was the only black man among them. The others seemed surprised to see him and some were none too pleased.

Douglass handed his calling card to a clerk and looked around for an empty chair. None was available, so he found a place to sit on the stairway crowded with other men hoping for a moment with the nation's chief executive.

Douglass had no appointment. He hoped "to secure just and fair treatment" for the thousands of black troops now fighting for the North.

Douglass and Lincoln had never met, but they had much in common.

A fiery and feared Abolitionist and a careful centrist President caught between clashing philosophies in his own party, facing a contentious campaign for re-election to the presidency of an already divided nation, the two men seemed unlikely to have ever crossed paths. Lincoln had managed to gain the nomination of his party by representing a compromise position aimed at preserving the union while allowing slavery to continue only in the original slave states whch ratified the Constitution. Forced into the war unwillingly, Lincoln had good reason not to receive the elegant and prepossessing Frederick Douglass who dared enter through the main door and seat himself among white men, into his inner office, a place where no black man save servants had ever entered.

But Douglass came prepared to wait, and Lincoln had never lacked for courage in reaching for new opportunities to learn.

"Mr. Douglass, I am glad to see you."

Lincoln's courage and Douglass' audacity likely changed the course of the Civil War and American history itself. Out of that meeting was forged a friendship and a mutual respect and understanding that led to the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which enabled the reconciled states to go forward into the future not as "a house divided" but as one nation of citizens with common liberties.

Newbery Award winner Russell Freedman's premise in his Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass: The Story Behind an American Friendship (Houghton Mifflin Clarion, 2012) is that despite their obvious racial differences, they shared a strangely common background. Both were self-educated: Lincoln had less than a year's schooling; Douglas had only a few lessons in reading from a kind mistress; but each had read the same works, even studying some of the same books at the same time--notably The Columbian Orator, which helped make them the best-known orators of their time. Both were raised on back-breaking work and rough living conditions, both losing a parent, and both rising to positions of national leadership through qualities of character.

Freedman explores the very roots of those characteristics which drew the two men to form a brief but deep friendship at a time of nation breaking and nation building unlike any other in our history. With his graceful style and clear narrative, in parallel and alternating chapters, the author manages to tell both men's life stories interwoven with the history of racial politics and policy from the compromises of the Constitution through the Missouri Compromise, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, to the Thirteenth Amendment. Russell Freedman, author of the Newbery Award-winning Lincoln: A Photobiography, (Houghton Mifflin social studies) as well as Immigrant Kids, The Wright Brothers: How They Invented the Airplane, and Freedom Walkers: The Story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott (see my review here) and other noted bio-histories, knows how to craft a spirited narrative, filled with primary-source photos and drawings, letters, and anecdotes, which provides for easy and compelling nonfiction fare for middle readers, a book which is not only informative but inspirational in its portrayal of how the character of two disparate citizens changed the course of history through the confluence of their ideas. With backmatter that provides ample sources for research and on-line references to cited texts as well as a full textual index, this book is must-reading for our times.

Kirkus Reviews adds, "...all of this in a lucid and fascinating narrative that never sacrifices depth and intellectual rigor. A marvel of history writing that makes complicated history clear and interesting."

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