Published Thursday, Feb. 6, 2014

Lincoln Lecture demonstrates power of reading, speaking well

John StaufferIt’s time to crack open a book.

A major theme of the 2014 Lincoln Lecture was the six books and authors that indisputably shaped the lives of both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, ultimately allowing them to become “the two preeminent self-made men in American history.”

In his address before nearly 160 people Thursday night, Harvard Professor John Stauffer explained several circumstances that connected the lives and experiences of Lincoln and Douglass before they met and ultimately developed a genuine friendship.

Among those parallels, as young men both had memorized or virtually memorized the following six books or authors:

  • The King James Bible
  • Shakespeare
  • The Columbian Orator
  • Lord Byron
  • Robert Burns
  • Esop’s Fables

“Those six books were absolutely indispensable to their rise up,” Stauffer said. “Both understood words were their most important weapon.”

It was from those works, Stauffer presented, that both Lincoln and Douglass developed their skill as writers and speakers in an era when orators were celebrities and traveling 100 miles to hear a rousing debate was like today’s trip to Wichita for a concert.

When Frederick Douglass made his escape from slavery, Stauffer said, the only thing he took with him was his copy of The Columbian Orator. The book was designed to teach young men who lacked the means for formal education to speak like “Democratic Gentlemen,” and thereby be taken seriously by those born into privilege.

In 1863, Lincoln and Douglass met in person for the first time. After talking through their differences of opinion on the matter of the abolition of slavery for more than an hour, each man considered the other his friend.

“Today, friendship has been commodified,” Stauffer said. “At that time, friendships were between two equals.”

In addition to their similar readings and passion for education, parallels in the lives of these indisputable leaders include a fight that shaped how the man saw himself, a strong spouse who was able to help him in a specific way and an emotionally unavailable father.

The writings and speeches of both Lincoln and Douglass are widely available today. “If everyone were required to read Douglass and Lincoln, this nation would be a better place,” Stauffer said. “Hopefully they will continue to inspire us to bind up the nations wounds and fulfill finally the promise of equality and opportunity for all.”