Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln forged friendship

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MANCHESTER >> When Frederick Douglass came to Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural reception in 1865, policemen blocked his way — until the President came to welcome him.

"Here comes my friend Douglass," Lincoln said, taking Douglass by the hand."There is no man in the country whose opinion I value more than yours."

Harvard Professor of English and Civil War historian John Stauffer tells this story, reflecting on the friendship between two powerful men in a time of conflict.

On Wednesday, Feb. 4, he will come to Vermont Humanities First Wednesdays with a talk sponsored by the Manchester Community Library and held at the First Congregational Church on Main Street in Manchester.

"Douglass and Lincoln are two giants among men – courageous men who came from humble beginnings, held to their principles, and used their superb oratory skills in their efforts to abolish slavery," said Cindy Waters, Adult Services and Programing coordinator at Manchester Community Library. "We are fascinated by them, and for good reason."

Stauffer has been fascinated since he was 13, when he first read Frederick Douglass' "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself."

"I really fell in love with it, and that led me to other Civil War writings," he said.

His interest in the Civil War era gave him an outlet, he said, as his family moved frequently in his early school years throughout Iowa, North Dakota and Nebraska.

"We are thrilled John Stauffer is coming to Manchester," Waters said. "He's one of the world's leading Civil War historians."

Stauffer's research — and next Wednesday's talk — explore and investigate the friendship between Lincoln and Douglass,

"Much of my scholarship and books have focused on inter-racial friendships and alliances," Stauffer said. "I discovered when I was working on my first book that Douglass met with Lincoln three times at the White House and was the first black man to meet with a U.S. president. At that time, no one had written on this fact — and the next time that a black man met with the president was Martin Luther King, Jr. with Lyndon Johnson and they never considered themselves friends."

Douglass and Lincoln's friendship helped both men personally and politically, Stauffer said.

"Lincoln needed Frederick Douglass in order to achieve his chief aim of restoring the Union during the Civil War — as much as Douglass needed Lincoln," Stauffer said. "Douglas was a radical abolitionist whose life's mission was to end slavery and achieve equality. Lincoln took the oath of office to preserve the Union ... This white president and former slave became friends who genuinely liked each other."

Stauffer underscores their influence on American history through their writing. They cultivated their own social and political influence, he said, in part by the eloquence of their letters, speeches and texts.

"They both rose up by embracing the humanities the ability to express oneself," he said, "I think Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln are two of the nation's greatest non-fiction writers of the English language."

Because Vermont historically has been home to many of the nation's great creative figures, he believes local audiences will agree with his understanding of the two men as literary geniuses.

His connection to Vermont is both personal and professional, he said — He has family in Bennington and has visited Vermont for talks in his field. His familiarity with the area has taught him to expect an eager audience.

"Vermont audiences are terrific," he said. "They're engaged and excited."

Familiar with many First Wednesdays talks, Waters also sees audiences joining in enthusiastically.

"We've been delighted with how fervently local high schools, in particular Burr and Burton Academy, have embraced First Wednesdays and encouraged student involvement," she said. "The participation of students in the Q&A sessions creates a rich, multi-generational interchange."

Waters expects Stauffer's talk next Wednesday to see a large turnout drawn by Stauffer's research and writing the Civil War, a topic she says is always popular.

Douglass and Lincoln did not always agree, Stauffer said. As an activist and a politician, they might push against each other on questions of what should happen and when. But they respected each other — and they let people know it.

In his speech on the 79th Anniversary of Lincoln's Birth in Washington, D.C., Douglass recalled the day he heard Lincoln's second inaugural address — and got close to Lincoln, he said, and ate at his table and talked with him. That day gave Douglass "a deep insight into [Lincoln's] mind and his heart."

If you go ...

What: First Wednesdays talk, 'Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln,' by John Stauffer

Where: First Congregational Church, 3624 Main St., Manchester

When: 7 p.m. Wednesday

Info: 802-362-2607, vermonthumanities.org


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