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“A New Look at the Abraham Lincoln-Frederick Douglass Relationship”
by Russell Freedman
Photo courtesy of the author
I first wrote about Abraham Lincoln ages ago. My book, Lincoln: A Photobiography (Clarion, 1987), was researched during the 1980s, and in 1988, it won the Newbery Medal—the first nonfiction book to receive that award in more than 30 years.
At the time, Lincoln’s brief but telling friendship with Frederick Douglass was not a subject that had received much attention in the vast and ever-expanding Lincoln literature. Photobiography includes several references to Douglass’s meetings with Lincoln and to his changing opinion of the president, but it does not delve into the parallels in their lives or the implications of their friendship.
Frederick Douglass around 1847. Madison County Historical Society, Oneida, NY
That was then. As new evidence comes to light, our understanding of the past keeps changing. Recent years have seen the emergence of a group of scholars who have examined in considerable depth the Lincoln-Douglass relationship and its consequences for the conduct of the Civil War and for race relations in America. I became aware of this view when I read Garry Wills’s essay, “Lincoln’s Black History,” in the June 11, 2009, issue of The New York Review of Books. That led me to John Stauffer’s June 4, 2005, Time Magazine essay, “Across the Great Divide,” and, finally, to the books cited in the bibliography of my Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass: The Story Behind an American Friendship (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012), which have advanced the study of Lincoln and emancipation by treating Frederick Douglass as an equal protagonist.
While I was writing Photobiography, I followed the Lincoln Trail, visiting all the significant sites in Lincoln’s life, from his log-cabin birthplace in Kentucky to the rooming house across the street from Ford’s Theatre where he died. For Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, I went to Douglass’s last home, Cedar Hill in Washington, DC. The 14-room house and its contents have been preserved as a National Historic Site. Douglass’s library, with more than a thousand books and the rolltop desk where he wrote many speeches and his final autobiography, serves as a poignant reminder that he was entirely self-taught.
Frederick Douglass in his library at Cedar Hill. National Park Service
As I stood at the doorway to that library with its floor-to-ceiling shelves, I could imagine Douglass selecting a book and settling down to read. From time to time, he must have recalled those distant days in Baltimore, MD, when he was forbidden to read, an enslaved, determined child who owned one book, a single volume that he kept hidden from view and read in secret.
– An original article by Russell Freedman
This material may not be used without the express written consent of Russell Freedman. All images courtesy of Russell Freedman.
More online resources about Russell Freedman:
Hear Russell Freedman share the pronunciation and story of his name. Listen now
Hear Russell Freedman share the backstory for and read an excerpt from Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. Listen now
See all online resources for Russell Freedman.
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