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

Abraham Lincoln and Frederick DouglassAbraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass: The Story Behind an American Friendship by Russell Freedman. Clarion Books (an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company), 2012. 128 pages. Recommended for ages 9-14. ISBN: 9780547385624.

In school in the 1960s and 70s I learned that the Civil War was fought to free the slaves and that Abraham Lincoln was the great emancipator. Much later, I learned that the Civil War was fought to maintain the Union. In this book, Freedman presents a much more nuanced history.

Freedman starts with a biography of Frederick Douglass, then moves on to a biography of Abraham Lincoln. Both men were self-educated and both were avid readers. Douglass was an activist and Lincoln was an analytical, pragmatic politician.

At the time of Lincoln’s Senate race against Stephen Douglas he believed that “’A house divided against itself cannot stand,’” and “’I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free.’” It was at this point that Douglass began to notice Lincoln.

When Lincoln ran for president, he was opposed to the expansion of slavery beyond the states that ratified the Constitution, but he ”believed that the Constitution protected slavery in the southern states.” He thought that as long as slavery didn’t spread, it would eventually die out.

After becoming president, not at all certain the North could with the Civil War, Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. The proclamation appears to have been a pragmatic move to deprive the South of the workers it needed for its economy and to add soldiers to the Union army.

When Lincoln and Douglass first met, they didn’t agree. They did admire each other. And they did listen to each other

Lincoln asked Douglass to the White House for a second visit. He hoped Douglass could help spread the word about the Emancipation Proclamation in Southern states so more former slaves would move North. He also wanted to talk with Douglass about his idea of a 13th amendment to the Constitution that would abolish slavery.

Douglass and Lincoln met for the third time on the occasion of Lincoln’s second inauguration. Douglass was nearly turned away from the celebratory gala. He sent word to Lincoln that he was being detained. He was immediately escorted into the White House and Lincoln said “’Here comes my friend Douglass.’”

As the war drew to a close Lincoln focused his attention on the 13th amendment. It’s clear that, while Lincoln may have originally thought Civil War was about maintaining the Union, his ideas developed and he saw the importance of ending slavery as well. What part in this development Douglass played is not completely clear, but it’s very clear that Lincoln valued Douglass’s thoughts.

Lincoln’s view of Douglass as an equal and a sometimes ally, sometimes opponent, says a great deal about what Lincoln the individual thought about African-Americans.

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The Vine Basket

The Vine BasketThe Vine Basket by Josanne La Valley. Clarion Books (an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company), 2013. 256 pages. Recommends for ages 9 and older. ISBN: 9780547848013.

Mehrigul is a fourteen year old Uyghur girl. Her Chong Ata, or grandfather, remembers what life was like for Uyghurs in East Turkestan before the Chinese came and made East Turkestan Xinjiang.

Mehrigul’s brother Memet used to help his father on their farm. He was involved in a protest against the Han Chinese occupation of East Turkestan and had to flee the area. This means Mehrigul must leave school and help her father on the farm. A Uyghur girl who is not in school can be sent to China to work in a factory. This is a constant fear for Mehrigul. But one market day, as Mehrigul tries to sell items from her family’s farm while her father is off drinking and gambling, an American woman comes and asks to purchase a vine basket that Mehrigul made. The American woman offers Mehrigul the unheard of sum of 100 yuan for the basket. She tells Mehrigul that when she returns in three weeks she will buy all the baskets Mehrigul has been able to make by that time. Mehrigul’s father, on hearing this, demands that Mehrigul spend no time making baskets. It is, he says, a waste of time. Thus begins Mehrigul’s struggle to make baskets secretly, as her father tries to thwart all her attempts.

There is terrible pain and sadness in this book. Mehrigul’s mother has withdrawn into herself and is barely able to help out around the house or on the farm. Her father is angry, constantly lashing out at whoever is in his way. The family all remembers a happier time, a time when Mehrigul’s uncle and his family had lived with them on the farm. The occupation by China has changed everything. Mehrigul’s uncle could no longer earn a living in East Turkestan and had to move his family to China. Set against this pain is Mehrigul’s hope of making baskets and the light that comes from her younger sister Lali.

As it happens, this is a timely book. There is currently a concerning amount of unrest among the Uyghur people in Xinjiang. The Chinese government is trying to stop the unrest. But it’s hard to put down a group of people who have lived in the same place and had the same culture for thousands of years.

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