The Fiery Trial : Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery

by Eric Foner

Paperback, 2010




New York: Norton, 2010


In a landmark work of deep scholarship and insight, Foner gives us a life of Lincoln as it intertwined with slavery, the defining issue of the time and the tragic hallmark of American history. The author demonstrates how Lincoln navigated a dynamic political landscape deftly, moving in measured steps, often on a path forged by abolitionists and radicals in his party, and that Lincoln's greatness lay in his capacity for moral and political growth.

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LibraryThing member nbmars
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.

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 process). 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, 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.

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 save 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.

Evaluation: There is something so compelling about the history of the Civil War and about Lincoln. It 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.

Note: Eric Foner was awarded the $50,000 Lincoln Prize for this book.
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LibraryThing member wildbill
enjoyed reading this book very much. It is well written and covers an interesting topic. Eric Foner knows the subject matter very well and the end of slavery in America is an uplifting story. Lincoln was able to bring to life the promise contained in the words of the Declaration of Independence. In contrast to the brutality of slavery and the war that ended it there was a real change for the good in the relationships between blacks and whites in America.( Unfortunately much that has come from this beginning has been very ugly.)
Lincoln always maintained that he was naturally anti-slavery. Despite this he married into a family that owned slaves and included someone who was in the slave trade. There is no evidence of his anti-slavery feelings in his career as an attorney. It was only in the 1850's when he joined the Republican party that he showed his opposition to slavery.
About one-third of the way through the book the House Divided speech is discussed. This speech brought Lincoln to the attention of Frederick Douglass and elevated his status in the Republican Party. Foner points out that Lincoln chose his words carefully in writing this speech. He opposed the extension of slavery without advocating abolitionism. Using the words of the Declaration of Independence Lincoln said the Negro had an equal right to the fruits of their labor which was denied by slavery.
The Lincoln-Douglas debates made Lincoln a well known politician in the Northwest. Douglas was an able opponent who made Lincoln formulate responses to tough questions. In 1860 a speech at Cooper Union put Lincoln on the national stage. Lincoln worked very hard preparing his speech. The theme was that the Founding Fathers wanted to see control of the expansion of slavery leading to it's end. Lincoln wrote a scholarly speech to counter his image as an ignorant Westerner. The speech was immediately popular and was a factor in Lincoln getting the Republican nomination for President.
Lincoln had served one term in Congress from 1846 to 1848. In 1854 His political career was dead in the water. As a Republican Lincoln attracted attention with his anti-slavery attitude without alarming voters. Seward and Salmon Chase were considered more radical on slavery than Lincoln.
At the beginning of the Civil War Lincoln's attitude toward slavery was tempered by political necessities. In 1861 Lincoln was focused on keeping the border states in the Union. If Kentucky and Maryland seceded the South was likely to win the war. In 1861 and early 1862 Lincoln was promoting compensated emancipation and colonization as the way to end slavery. Generals John C. Fremont and David Hunter ordered immediate emancipation for slaves in areas under their control. Lincoln rescinded these proclamations.
In the fall of 1862 Lincoln announced the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation and changed the focus of the war to ending slavery. The Emancipation Proclamation announced January 1, 1863 also provided for the enlistment of black soldiers in the Union army. Foner has a map which shows that contrary to what I thought there were some slaves freed by the Proclamation. Emancipation grew stronger with a provision that the families of blacks enlisted in the Union army would be freed. At the same time blacks in the army were guaranteed equal pay. As the war ended Lincoln began pushing for the right to vote for certain blacks.
Lincoln lead the country from compensated emancipation in 1862 to Senate passage of a constitutional amendment ending slavery in April of 1864. The lack of cooperation from conservatives forced Lincoln to more radical measures to achieve emancipation. The war created a revolutionary situation and Lincoln's leadership provided the direction for changes the country has not yet caught up with. Prior to Sherman's capture of Atlanta Lincoln felt certain that he was going to lose the election of 1864. In the face of defeat he maintained his policy of emancipation. In his Second Inaugural Address Lincoln eloquently speaks of the connection between slavery and the Civil War. God willed to remove slavery and gave to both the North and the South a terrible war "as woe due to those by whom the offense came". Perhaps this belief drove Lincoln to lead the country to end slavery no matter what consequence he might suffer.
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LibraryThing member fig82
Very interesting book. The author conducts a thorough examination of Lincolns personal views and political policy positions on issues involving race and slavery. It's a journey that takes a look at how his views may have been initially formulated - and how/why his views and policy changed over time. Foner is an excellent writer - you can almost feel the personal struggle Lincoln goes through as he strives to keep the Union alive - which was clearly his initial goal of the war. We see Lincoln having to deal with intense political opposition, cognizant of having to appease public opinion to a degree- all the while actively running a Civil War that starts out horribly wrong for the Union. We also see his imperfections - such as his desire to "colonize" African-American slaves back to Africa or South America. But ultimately Lincoln issues the emancipation proclamation, delivers his Gettysburg address, and starts the talk of reconstruction.… (more)
LibraryThing member rivkat
History of Lincoln’s relationship with slavery and to some extent with African-Americans. Lincoln never had much use for slavery, but he also began with very little use for African-Americans and supported colonization for a while as a solution to the slave problem. This changed over the course of the war. Foner emphasizes the extent to which the slaves liberated themselves, changing the facts on the ground and forcing the North to recognize that people who’d been slaves were not going to go away when slavery did.… (more)
LibraryThing member jrpalin
Lincoln is shown to be quite complicated in this very complete history of his attitude and actions towards slavery in America. Civil War enthusiasts will most likely enjoy the book's thorough treatment of the sixteenth president, but casual readers of history might be turned off by the book's level of detail. On one hand, the book demonstrates that relative to dominant opinion during his lifetime, Lincoln could be viewed as a true progressive. Yet, the author (Eric Foner, Columbia University) documents that Lincoln believed in constitutional protection for slavery, hoped for colonization for blacks rather than American citizenship and equality, and wasn't above telling racist jokes. Foner makes clear that Lincoln's views were certainly shaped to some extent by 19th-century political realities, which also perhaps slowed and limited Lincoln's ability to act on his natural anti-slavery tendencies. In the end, however, this fact remains: Lincoln the politician, by virtue of navigating to the presidency and by tactfully negotiating among demands from northeast radicals, Union military, his Cabinet, other valued opinions, popular sentiment, and his own beliefs, did more than any other to affect significant racial change in the developing America. The book reaffirms that all great presidents, and perhaps most great figures, must be judged in their totality. Certainly, from a civil rights perspective, Lincoln was a flawed person. Yet, Lincoln is a civil rights hero.… (more)
LibraryThing member Schmerguls
Since this book won the Pulitzer Prize for history this year and also the
Bancroft Prize, I felt I had to read it. It is the 51st such Pulitzer winner I have read and the 33rd such Bancroft winner I have read. It is an excellent study of Lincoln's attitude to slavery, and shows his growth from the attitude common in his day to the role he attained as the Emancipator. I found the book eloquent and at time poignant, especially when echoing Lincoln's oratory on the subject while President. Linclon's Second Inaugural speech is surely one of the greatest speeches ever given. This book well deserves the prizes it has won… (more)
LibraryThing member billiecat
We tend to think of Lincoln as the "Great Emancipator," single-handedly breaking the chains of millions of slaves. Of course it was nothing like that. This book shows how Lincoln evolved into this role, and how much he was pushed, pulled and prodded both by abolitionists and by the recalcitrance of slave-owners, into his policy on slavery. What I find so compelling about this book is how it places Lincoln in context as a politician and a 19th century man. The book is about Lincoln and his personal struggle with slavery, but it shows that struggle as part of the national scene, and how Lincoln both formed and was formed by that larger struggle. Well written, well documented, compelling and a worthy winner of the Pulitzer Prize.… (more)
LibraryThing member pidgeon92
It took me two whole months to get through this 18-hour audiobook, but it was hugely interesting and educational. I'd probably never have plowed through it had I actually read it, but it was a pleasure to listen to.
LibraryThing member Othemts
Every year on or around Lincoln's Birthday I read a book about Abraham Lincoln, and this year I read this study about Lincoln's evolving views on slavery. Some people consider him the great emancipator while others think he was racist and never freed a slave. Both views have an aspect of truth. Foner shows that Lincoln was anti-slavery from early in his life but did not think freed black persons were equal or capable of living alongside white Americans. Until late in his Presidency he held true to a plan of colonization and resettlement of freed blacks in Africa or Latin America. Yet, even these views were modified over time as during his Presidency he was actually exposed to meeting and respecting black individuals on a regular basis. It's an interesting look at how a mind changes and how the country changes as Lincoln was often just a step ahead of popular opinion.… (more)
LibraryThing member stevesmits
We know Lincoln as the “Great Emancipator”. While he certainly was that his views and policies on slavery and race were intricate, astutely politically crafted and, most importantly, evolved significantly over time under the exigencies of circumstances.

There are three fundamental aspects of Lincoln’s views on slavery: 1) slavery was morally wrong; 2) it was constitutionally sanctioned in the states where it existed; there was no constitutional way to eliminate it through national legislation; and, 3) most critically, the Congress did have the power to proscribe its expansion where it did not already exist. Lincoln was decidedly not an abolitionist. He hoped and believed that slavery would wither over time, most likely through a gradual and compensated approach, but he held that there was no legal way consistent with the Constitution to abolish it. He recognized and feared that the contention over slavery could threaten the preservation of the union.

Lincoln’s moral views of slavery were grounded not on the Constitution (which implicitly, he felt, foretold a nation eventually without slavery), but on the natural rights of man articulated in the Declaration of Independence. He believed that slavery was inimical to the inherent rights of man to “pursue happiness” and benefit from the toils of his own labor. As the nation expanded into new territories the introduction or importation of slavery would undermine the opportunities for “free labor” to prosper.

The Missouri Compromise had held the tensions of slavery in check for many years, but two cataclysmic events in the 1850’s brought the sectional conflict to a boil. The Kansas-Nebraska Act, championed by his rival Stephen Douglas, would allow the introduction of slavery in newly forming states by the will of the voters there. This would, and did, create bitter rivalries amongst pro and anti-slavery factions. The second crisis was instigated by the Dred Scott decision of the Supreme Court that held that blacks – enslaved or free – were not and could never be citizens of the country. Hence, they had no judicial standing to petition for freedom even in states where slavery was proscribed.

This tumult led to the strengthening of the new Republican party and fractured presidential election of 1860 in which the splintered Democratic party left enough Northern votes to the Republicans to bring about a plurality for Lincoln. While Lincoln professed that he had no intention to interfere with slavery where it existed, his position known opposition against slavery and its expansion pushed the Southern states over the brink to succession and war.
Lincoln’s overarching goal as war time president was to preserve the union and not to abolish slavery in the south or border states (Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland and Delaware) where it existed under state laws. There was quickly created the dilemma of what to do with slaves who came under the aegis of the Union army. Several field generals took unilateral actions regarding the legal status of slaves who came under Union control or who made their way to Union camps. Lincoln and the Congress sought to deal with this tricky matter, particularly as it was the government’s position that property holders of the rebellious states could not be deprived of their property. Lincoln was acutely worried about the potential effect of freeing slaves on the border states whose loyalty to the Union he knew was crucial to the war effort. Lincoln made several attempts to persuade these states to accept a compensation plan for freeing slaves held there, but to no avails. Lincoln’s position on the status of slaves under Union control was that they were thus freed and could not be re-enslaved.

As the war progressed Lincoln considered whether as a war measure he did not have executive authority to declare slaves in the rebellious states to be free. It is important to note that his position would be legitimate as an emergency war time measure to hasten the demise of the rebellion. His Emancipation Proclamation was not based on moral authority or legislative enactment, but on the necessities of the war effort. Thus, emancipation was limited to those states in rebellion against the union and did not apply to the border states. Lincoln also carved out significant exemptions in rebel states where unionist sentiment was strong such as Tennessee and parts of southern Louisiana. (Ironically, when West Virginia was created from Virginia it was initially a slave state exempted from emancipation, but its constitution required the immediate elimination of slavery.)
There was widespread negative reaction to the Emancipation Proclamation by many who held that the proper aim of the war was not the abolishment of slavery, rather the preservation of the union. But, the country began to realize that the union could not be restored and maintained in the long term with continued sectional antipathy over the matter of slavery, that an outcome of military triumph without restructuring the place of slavery in the United States would be a pointless return to the status quo ante. By the end of Lincoln’s life, the Constitution was amended to move emancipation from a war time measure to a constitutional prohibition.

While Lincoln had firm views on the immorality of slavery based on the natural rights spelled out by the Declaration of Independence, but tempered by its legal condition under the Constitution, he decidedly did not believe that political and social equality was due to blacks. He repeatedly voiced his opposition to the “amalgamation” of blacks into white society; he believed that the two races could not co-exist in the country. He advocated from an early time until far into the war for the colonization of blacks, their voluntary deportation to lands set aside for them in Africa or Central America. As late as 1862 Lincoln met with black leaders to push for colonization and perhaps only gradually came to understand that blacks did not want such an approach for their future in freedom.

This book provides a deep understanding of the political acumen employed by Lincoln leading up to and during the Civil War. His genius in crafting positions and policies balancing starkly disparate political factions (and the public’s opinions) on how to deal with the place of slavery in the Union are clearly presented here, the genius even more vividly seen by his ability to evolve his views as circumstances required. Whether Lincoln would have evolved to a point of accepting the positions of Radical Republicans on legal and political rights of black Americans cannot be known.
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LibraryThing member charlie68
A look into the era of the American Civil War, pre, during and after, and the issue of slavery. And how Abraham Lincoln's views changed or evolved over time, or did they, maybe the world evolved to his original point of view.
LibraryThing member SigmundFraud
I read on line several chapters of The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery by Eric Foner. It is very well written. Doesn't have the stilted academic style and is a compelling read. I guess I have to download the entire book.



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