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Originally published Thursday, December 25, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

Two perspectives on the life of Lincoln

"Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln" by John Stauffer and "Lincoln and his Admirals" by Craig Symonds offer new perspectives into the life and times of our 16th president.

Special to The Seattle Times

"Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass & Abraham Lincoln"

by John Stauffer

Twelve, 448 pp., $30

"Lincoln and his Admirals"

by Craig Symonds

Oxford University Press, 416 pp., $27.95

With the approaching bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln's birth, historians continue finding new ways to parse the life of the 16th president. In "Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass & Abraham Lincoln," author John Stauffer finds similarities between Lincoln and civil-rights leader Frederick Douglass.

Lincoln and Douglass are "the two pre-eminent self-made men in American history," says Stauffer, a Harvard historian and professor of English. They also "led strikingly parallel lives."

"Lincoln was born dirt-poor, had less than one year of formal schooling and became one of the nation's greatest presidents. Douglass spent the first 20 years of his life as a slave, had no formal schooling, and became the most famous black man in the Western world and one of the nation's greatest writers," Stauffer writes.

Both "learned to read and remake themselves from the same set of books ... They avoided tobacco and alcohol at a time when people regularly chewed and drank on the job. They became dazzling orators when public speaking was one of the few forms of entertainment."

Both also had to free themselves from oppressive circumstances. After several unsuccessful attempts, Douglass finally escaped from slavery. Lincoln had to escape dire poverty.

As a free man, Douglass took up the cause of abolition, founded his own newspaper and became a great writer and speaker. He also became one of Lincoln's toughest critics when Lincoln, as president, moved slowly toward emancipation. But when the two finally met they became fast friends, and Douglass became a firm supporter of Lincoln. Stauffer tells the parallel stories of these two giants with grace and insight.

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Scores of books have detailed Lincoln's struggles with reluctant generals during the Civil War, but few have examined his relationship with naval leaders. Craig Symonds, professor emeritus of history at the Naval Academy, sets out to change that in "Lincoln and his Admirals."

Symonds describes how Lincoln confronted a naval crisis — what to do about Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor — on his first day in office. His efforts to solve the problem prompted the first shots of the Civil War.

Lincoln's management of the crisis "demonstrated three things," Symonds writes: "That he had not yet taken the reins of authority firmly into his own hands; that his talented cabinet members had not yet melded into an efficient or even a competent team; and that the machinery of America's peacetime military establishment could not shift smoothly or easily into crisis mode."

Things got better after that, and Lincoln was largely able to leave management of naval affairs to Gideon Welles, his navy secretary, and Welles' assistant, Gustavus Fox. But Welles' fussy, confrontational manner precipitated a number of personnel squabbles that forced Lincoln to intervene.

Symonds delivers a fast-paced, crisply written account of the naval war and Lincoln's patient handling of Welles, Fox and the men who served them, including such famous admirals as David Glasgow Farragut, David Dixon Porter and John Dahlgren.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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