Lincoln: A Photobiography

LincolnLincoln: A Photobiography by Russell Freedman. Clarion Books (an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), 1987. 160 pages. Publisher recommends for ages 9-12. ISBN: 9780395518489.

1988 Newbery Medal.

Russell Freedman takes kids seriously. This is not a “nice” biography that gives kids a story about honest Abe. This is a serious attempt to write about Lincoln in all of his complexity.

Freedman shows Lincoln as a human being. Lincoln was sometimes deeply depressed, as was his wife, Mary. He sank into despair after the deaths of his two sons. Lincoln had a self-disparaging sense of humor that he used to put people at ease and to please crowds when he gave speeches. Above all, Lincoln had an interest in and concern for his fellow human beings regardless of the color of their skin. Frederick Douglass is quoted as saying that Lincoln was unique because he never reminded Douglass of the different colors of their skin. Every afternoon Lincoln talked with constituents who lined up to ask the president for help.

Ambition was always a part of Lincoln’s personality. He wanted to learn to read, and then to read widely. He wanted to study the law, and eventually had a successful legal practice. He wanted to win elections, and he did.

Lincoln was not a leader in the cause of abolition. He believed slavery would end naturally. Freedman allows the reader to watch as Lincoln’s attitude toward slavery gradually changes until close to the end of his life he pushes hard for the 13th amendment to the Constitution which outlaws slavery.

Preserving the union was the original purpose of the Civil War. Freedman shows the reader how the view of the purpose of the war changed slowly until at the end of the war it was clear the war was about freeing the slaves.

The day-to-day details of the Civil War were a frustration to Lincoln. It took him several years to find the right generals, but when he finally did the war ended quickly.

The text is full of quotations from Lincoln and others. The quotations are woven into the text so well that the reader is never jolted out of the story by the quotations.

The book contains many pictures. Some are of Lincoln. Some are of political rivals, and generals and soldiers. There are pictures of Lincoln’s wife and his sons. I was particularly struck by a photograph of Lincoln taken on April 10, 1865, just before his death. The photo captures Lincoln’s eyes, rich with intelligence and feeling. Freedman captures the same richness in Lincoln the man.

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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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