Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass: The Story Behind an American Friendship by Russell Freedman

Sometimes I get a book and think, shucks, this is too hard for most of my half-pints. Throw in a very real picture of a black man hanging on a rope and I'm tossing it upstairs to the Middle or High School libraries. The reading level says this book is best for students at the end of 8th grade. Bummer. My loss, their gain. Actually my budget loss.

Frederick Douglass's life frames the first part of the plot. Born into slavery and fathered by an unknown white man, he was deemed trouble as a teenager for his brains and size (over 6 feet tall). When an employer's wife taught him to read, he discovered the freedom of education and the wretchedness of his condition. The seed to runaway and become a free man set root. He endured cruel slave masters and not so cruel. One master let him learn the skill of ship caulking and gave him some independence. He read whenever he could and self-educated himself. Eventually he ran away to New York where he married and had a family. He was active in the Abolitionist movement and was asked to speak at a two-day convention of the Massachusett's Anti-Slavery Society. He was so eloquent and charismatic, he was hired to be on the lecture circuit. After publishing his autobiography, his previous slave owners learned his whereabouts and sought to recapture him. He fled to Europe where money was raised to pay for him to be legally free.

Chapter four slips into Abraham Lincoln's poor upbringing and his insatiable desire to read. Like Douglass, he taught himself. He became a lawyer and later ran for the Illinois Senate, losing to the incumbent, Stephen Douglas. He ran for the presidency later in his career when the United States became severely divided over slavery. Once he became President, the Civil War broke out, and he signed the Emancipation Proclamation freeing slaves. Frederick Douglass criticizes the Lincoln administration's handling of affairs and it isn't until he meets with Lincoln that the two understand each other and Douglass realizes that Lincoln was slow in implementing policies because he first got buy-in from the public. Douglass wanted to take action immediately and he saw the wisdom in Lincoln's leadership after speaking with him. The two became good friends and great admirers of one another.

The theme of freedom through self-education and hard-work is exemplified in Douglass and Lincoln. Both set goals and then educated themselves how to reach it whether that was being a public speaker, author, lawyer or politician.  The two were quite brilliant and yet their personalities were different. Douglass is more of an in-your-face let's cause change RIGHT NOW, while Lincoln was kind, humble, methodical, analyzed public opinion sought to get others to buy-into his policies.

I was looking for more of Lincoln's personality to come through when he is first presented in the text. The facts were too overwhelming for me, but then I am not a regular nonfiction reader. If you love facts then this probably won't bother you. I also wanted a little clearer explanation of when Lincoln ran for presidency. The author presents it from Douglass point of view and I found it slightly confusing. The end gives an excerpt of The Columbian Orator that is fantastic! I think they should have put it on page 10 along with the title. The immediacy would have been more powerful there rather than tucked in the Appendices.

A lot of turf is covered in this book and it is well-done. If you like nonfiction books with lots of facts about slaves, Civil War, and Lincoln's Presidency, then you will like this one.

Reading Level 8.7
4 out of 5 Smileys

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