Stauffer Lectures on Lincoln, Douglass and Great Books

John Stauffer
John Stauffer
“I’ve long been interested in Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln,” announced Harvard professor John Stauffer to his audience in the Kennedy Auditorium on March 30. As a child, Stauffer frequently moved from one house to the next – nine times, to be exact – and as such, his experience of childhood was that of something impermanent and perpetually transitory. “Along with tennis, my constants were history and literature,” he said. No matter where he went, he could count on those things to remain the same. Significantly, at thirteen years old, a friend lent him Douglass' Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass – something that indeed changed his life for good. “I loved the way he wrote, and the power of writing resonated with me,” Stauffer explained. He read Abraham Lincoln a short time later, and soon become permanently enthralled with antebellum American history. 

“Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln are poster children for the significance of Great Books,” he said, a self-proclaimed “evangelist” for a Great Books program. According to Stauffer, there were five reasons why students and teachers should focus on the Great Books. First, these books force us to read critically, to speak and write eloquently. Second, they force us to understand our history and our traditions. Third, they create a common community where everyone can discuss similar topics, effectively expanding the classroom. Fourth, they reassert an interest in the humanities, a particular aspect of higher education that is slowly being eroded by a growing obsession with vocational training. And fifth, they are a solution to a society in which there are no common books that everyone reads. 

According to Stauffer, Douglass and Lincoln were two of the greatest nonfiction prose writers of all time, since they both fell in love with language and recognized that “words were the most potent weapon they had access to.” And this was the secret to their success, their self-making. The two men led strikingly parallel lives, in that they received little to no formal education in their youth but managed to become some of the most influential figures in history. They both read the same Great Books in adolescence – the King James Bible, Aesop’s Fables, Shakespeare, Lord Byron, Robert Burns, and The Columbian Orator – and Stauffer explained that “these six books were indispensible, crucial to what Douglass and Lincoln became.” 

The two men had great respect for each other as self-made men and considered each other friends. (In fact, Douglass was the first African American man to meet with and advise a US President on terms of near equality.) Lincoln once said that Douglass was “one of the most meritorious men in the United States,” and Douglass said that Lincoln was “the king of self-made men.” This notion of self-making, Stauffer explained, was (and still is) integral to democracy, the American dream, and social mobility. 

There were a few lessons that one could glean from the friendship between Douglass and Lincoln, Stauffer said. First, this aforementioned friendship was utilitarian: the two men needed each other in order to achieve the respective ends (for Douglass, to end slavery and attain equality, and for Lincoln, to preserve the Union and win the Civil War). Second, they both came together because they faced a common enemy, the Confederacy. And third, they both harbored a notion of self-making that was distinct from that of most Americans. For most people in the South, to “remake oneself” was simply to get rich and benefit of slave labor; only intellectuals like Douglass and Lincoln realized that true self-making comes from literacy, from the Great Books, and that it was inseparable from social reform. 

“Douglass and Lincoln show us a way to keep the humanities alive,” Stauffer explained. The two men were intellectuals; they hungered for knowledge. “You must read and reread,” he said.

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