The Magazine

Friendly Persuasion

The Lincoln-Douglass debates.

Dec 8, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 12 • By CLAUDIA ANDERSON
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John Stauffer's book is the quirkiest of the three, though it has the best title, Giants. Stauffer is chairman of the History of American Civilization Department and professor of English at Harvard, and a whiff of academic trendiness emanates from his pages. He begins with an epigraph from Barack Obama. He obsesses over Lincoln's sexuality, specifying three times in the space of seven pages that the young Abraham and his roommate Joshua Speed, "the love of his life," shared a bed for four years. He sometimes seems bent on catching Lincoln in contradictions and lapses, as when he overinterprets the absence of any record of Lincoln's mentioning former president and antislavery crusader John Quincy Adams, with whom he overlapped for a year in the House of Representatives, as meaning "Lincoln pretended that [Adams] didn't exist."

Yet Stauffer redeems himself with some valuable insights. His chapter "Privileged Slave and Poor White Trash" drives home a startling contrast between Lincoln's and Douglass's early years. If you'd taken a snapshot of each at the age of 22, it's the runaway slave who would have stood out as much the more worldly-wise. Douglass, by then, had lived in small country towns, on plantations both wealthy and modest, and in the bustling shipbuilding ports of Baltimore and New Bedford; he had ridden on trains and even visited the metropolis of New York City (population 300,000). Lincoln was still a backwoodsman. He'd briefly visited New Orleans (population 46,000) but he wouldn't set foot in New York for another 30 years.

And Stauffer's intelligent discussion of Ottilie Assing, the German intellectual and journalist with whom Douglass had a close relationship for over two decades, deserves special mention. Assing was one of several educated women with whom Douglass maintained long friendships. She was an acute observer of the American scene, and she was clearly in love with Douglass. Their acquaintance began when she sought him out at his home in Rochester to propose translating his second autobiography into German. Her introduction to the translation rhapsodizes over the great man's physique, his genius, his powers of persuasion. In the ensuing years, she stayed with the Douglasses for part of many summers, and Frederick frequently stopped at the boarding house where she lived in Hoboken.

Did they have an affair? It is certainly possible, and it would be naïve to assume that they didn't. But writers have handled the absence of proof differently. Drawing on the work of Maria Diedrich (Love Across Color Lines: Ottilie Assing and Frederick Douglass, 1999) and Christoph Lohmann (editor of Radical Passion: Ottilie Assing's Reports from America and Letters to Frederick Douglass, 2000), Stauffer places the relationship in the context of Assing's pattern of modeling her life, at least in her imagination, on romantic fiction. One of her favorite novels was Aphra Behn (published in 1849, seven years before she met Douglass), in which "the heroine Aphra becomes the lover of a sublime black revolutionary" who is married.

Stauffer is scrupulous to note that "the only surviving sources suggesting sexual intimacy" between Assing and Douglass are letters the somewhat unbalanced Ottilie (she made her first, melodramatic attempt at suicide at 24) wrote to her detested sister Ludmilla after the latter married a German aristocrat. Ottilie's "descriptions of a love deeper than marriage," Stauffer writes, "could thus reflect wishful boasting."

This correspondence the Kendricks take at face value: "[Ottilie's] letters to her sister describe an idyllic scene of two lovers feeding peaches and cherries to each other, while enjoying the lush, picturesque region around Rochester." The Kendricks assert that Assing "most certainly claimed [Douglass's] bed," implying that he conducted this illicit romance in the very bosom of his family. They speculate that Douglass had several reasons for not seeking a divorce. Even though his wife, Anna, was illiterate and could never be an intellectual companion, he was genuinely devoted to her and their five children. Divorce would have damaged his standing as the most prominent black leader of the day. And Douglass, who had always excoriated the violation of the family under slavery, saw the building and protection of his own family as central to his existence as a free man.