The Fiery Trial

By ERIC FONER

Just after publishing TheBlack Jacobins (1938), his great historyof the Haitian slave revolt, the Trinidadian man of letters C. L. R Jamessettled in the United States, where, in due course, he began to think ofwriting about Abraham Lincoln. The project that took shape in his mind wasunusual. For one thing, James thought historians should look at history frombelow, with an eye to how the slaves had fought back against their oppression.He wanted to treat Lincoln as part of their story, not vice versa. But Jamesalso wanted the book he had in mind to discuss both Shakespeare’s play King Lear and the Russian revolutionaryV. I. Lenin.

Peculiar as this maysound, it made a kind of sense. For James, Lear is the definitive picture of anold social order in the process of disintegration, while Lenin was thevisionary architect of a new way of life (though James, as a fierceanti-Stalinist, had nothing good to say about what had been done with theblueprints meanwhile). In effect, Lincoln would appear in the middle panel of atriptych: the most Shakespearean of presidents, and one whose enemies saw himas a dictator.

Only fragments of theproject were left behind when James died in 1989—and I doubt very much thatEric Foner had any of it in mind while writing The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, which is as painstakingand straightforward a book as James’s would have been imaginative andidiosyncratic. But there is an affinity between them, even so. The Fiery Trial is not, strictlyspeaking, a biography of Lincoln; the attention is always focused on hisrelationship to slavery, with other aspects of his life and personalityrefracted through that question. And because slavery was the fault line runningthrough the very depths of American society, each nuance or shift in Lincoln’sattitude is charged with enormous implication. Foner shares James’s feel forhow a leader’s outlook is shaped by (and then responds to) tensions unfolding onthe world’s political stage.

Foner is one of the great contemporary U.S. historians, and onedoesn’t want to go too far with comparing this book—in some ways a prequel tohis 1988 book  Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877—to awork of drama. But his method throughout TheFiery Trial takes advantage of the fact that we, the audience, knowsomething the main character cannot: that the attitudes towards slaveryexpressed in his early life (when he hated it while also keeping his distancefrom abolitionism) are so many steps along the way to the enormous cataclysm ofthe Civil War. Foner takes care to emphasize Lincoln’s own words as they wererecorded at the time—not the later recollections of them by people who knew, aswe do, what was coming.

He registers each littleshift of attitude and widening of perspective along the way, while continuouslysituating Lincoln’s opinions (and his occasionally maddening silences) in thecontext of the debates of the time. While there is no reason to doubt thestatement, near the end of his life, that he had always hated slavery, thatrevulsion reflected a sense that it was morally damaging to white people—muchlike alcoholism. Like other reformers of the day, he saw “genuine freedomas arising from self-discipline rather than self-indulgence,” writesFoner, “something violated by both drinkers and slaveholders, whoallegedly lived according to their passions.” This Calvinist streak wasaccompanied by a policy wonk’s sense of how the problem could best be solved—throughcompensating slaveholders for emancipation while relocating freed slaves toAfrica.

Somuch for trying to patch over a crack in the foundation. In time, Lincolnshared the conviction that the country faced “an irrepressible conflictbetween opposed and enduring forces” that would make it “eitherentirely a slaveholding nation, or entirely a free-labor nation,” to quotea famous speech from 1858 by William H. Seward, his future Secretary of State.But Lincoln remained persistent in trying to pursue gradualist efforts toeradicate slavery, well into the Civil War—with no regard, most of the time,for any notion that black people might have a say in the matter.

Foneris too serious a historian to editorialize about how Lincoln was a racist. Surehe was; the point is cheaply made. But as ex-slaves throw themselves intocombat against the Confederacy—and the need to destroy the old system, root andbranch, becomes inescapable—Lincoln begins to develop a conception ofAfrican-American citizenship with implications that can only be called radical.This is a powerful book, confirming the point that C. L. R. James often made: aleader, however farsighted, may unleash forces that then push him further thanhe ever imagined going. 

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