Review of “The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery” by Eric Foner

Writing in the New York Times Book Review about this book, David S. Reynolds asked “Do we need yet another book on Lincoln….?” To summarize his answer, it is: yes, if the author is Eric Foner. I absolutely agree with that assessment.

Foner is a first-rate historian and an expert on this period in history. His book on Reconstruction (Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877) is considered the standard, and is mesmerizing. For The Fiery Trial, Foner narrows his historical lenses to get to the heart of the controversy over Lincoln’s stand on slavery: was he pulled along by northern radicals, or did he step out in front of them? Was his endless procrastination intentional for political reasons? Was he, in the final analysis, a racist?

Before the Civil War, Foner contends, Lincoln expressed racial views typical of northerners of his time. That is, while he didn’t believe in the institution of slavery, neither did he desire to associate with blacks. As he told a delegation of five black men invited to the White House in 1862:

… there is an unwillingness on the part of our people, harsh as it may be, for you free colored people to remain with us…. I do not propose to discuss this, but to present it as a fact with which we have to deal. I cannot alter it if I would…. It is better for us both, therefore, to be separated.”

Like Henry Clay, his political idol, Lincoln was in favor of colonization, i.e., sending blacks to live in “their native land” of Africa. (Although almost all blacks at this time were actually born in America, they were not considered to be “Americans” but rather, were thought of as aliens best situated elsewhere.)

It took Lincoln a very long time to stop pushing for colonization. It was not until the middle of the Civil War that he finally gave up the idea. Foner explains that the evolution of Lincoln’s thought on this matter occurred in part because by this time he had encountered quite a few intelligent blacks who disabused him of his prejudices; in part because of the valuable and courageous service of blacks on behalf of the Union in the Northern Army (some 200,000 by the war’s end); and in part because blacks themselves had no interest in signing up for any colonization plan.

Lincoln was also greatly influenced by some of the “radical republicans” in Congress, including Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, who in many ways is also a hero of this story.

Senator Charles Sumner

And indeed, this change in thinking by Lincoln demonstrates the core of why Foner considers Lincoln great: his capacity and willingness to change. As Foner emphasizes, on issue after issue, Lincoln came to occupy positions formulated by the abolitionists but previously rejected by him; his openness, and compassion, and intelligence allowed him to grow with the job and attain greatness.

One explanation for why it took Lincoln so long to gravitate to the positions of the abolitionists was his belief in the sacredness of the law as the most important embodiment of the experiment of democracy in which America was engaged. Thus he always believed that – while he personally abhorred the institution – slavery was a matter for the states to address (unless of course a constitutional amendment altered that situation). His objections to slavery all through the period prior to his presidential election only applied to new territories. Further, when he issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, it only applied to those states over which he could legitimately exercise war powers. Therefore, contrary to myth, not all slaves were freed by the Emancipation Proclamation; bondage in the north and in the border states was left undisturbed.

Abraham Lincoln, November 8, 1863, Alexander Gardner photograph

Abraham Lincoln, November 8, 1863, Alexander Gardner photograph

Another factor was Lincoln’s strategy for keeping the Union together and winning the war: as Commander-in-Chief, he was loathe to take any action that could drive the border states into the Confederacy. He also was careful not to alienate racist northern soldiers, who would fight to save the Union, but not to free the blacks. And in fact, he understood full well that slavery continued in the United States only with, and because of, the complicity of the North, whether in order to preserve the Union, or out of more racist and/or venal concerns. It is for this reason that in his second inaugural address he uses the phrase “American slavery” and admonishes the North to “judge not, lest ye be judged.”

Although we can’t of course know what was in Lincoln’s heart, it is clear that he had a considerable number of strategic reasons not to push the issue beyond what public opinion would allow. [As Frederick Douglass said later, “Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent; but measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined.” Frederick Douglass, Autobiographies, p. 921]

With the capitulation of Richmond on April 3, 1865, Lincoln could finally turn to the question of what to do about the blacks who would now be free and hoping to integrate into society. But he didn’t have much chance to consider it; he was killed less than two weeks later.

Last photograph of Lincoln, taken February 5, 1865

Evaluation: There is something so compelling about the history of the Civil War and about Lincoln. This period in history has all the elements of great drama: epic sweep, passionate engagement, life and death decision-making, and characters for the ages. Eric Foner knows how to tell this history in the gripping manner it deserves, without any conjecturing, speculating, axe-grinding, tediousness or other practices that characterize lesser historians. This book helps us understand what a tortured and convoluted process it is to make a social revolution, and the mettle of the man it takes to lead it.

Rating: 4.5/5

Published by W. W. Norton & Company, 2010

Note: Eric Foner was awarded the $50,000 Lincoln Prize for this book as well as the 2011 Pulitzer Prize in History and the Bancroft Prize.

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