The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery

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From a master historian, the story of Abraham Lincoln's—-and the nation's—-transformation through the crucible of slavery and emancipation.

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The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery

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From a master historian, the story of Abraham Lincoln's—-and the nation's—-transformation through the crucible of slavery and emancipation.

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  • The Fiery Trial
    The Fiery Trial  

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
A mixture of visionary progressivism and repugnant racism, Abraham Lincoln’s attitude toward slavery is the most troubling aspect of his public life, one that gets a probing assessment in this study. Columbia historian and Bancroft Prize winner Foner (Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men) traces the complexities of Lincoln’s evolving ideas about slavery and African-Americans: while he detested slavery, he also publicly rejected political and social equality for blacks, dragged his feet (critics charged) on emancipating slaves and accepting black recruits into the Union army, and floated schemes for “colonizing” freedmen overseas almost to war’s end. Foner situates this record within a lucid, nuanced discussion of the era’s turbulent racial politics; in his account Lincoln is a canny operator, cautiously navigating the racist attitudes of Northern whites, prodded--and sometimes willing to be prodded--by abolitionists and racial egalitarians pressing faster reforms. But as Foner tells it, Lincoln also embodies a society-wide transformation in consciousness, as the war’s upheavals and the dynamic new roles played by African-Americans made previously unthinkable claims of freedom and equality seem inevitable. Lincoln is no paragon in Foner’s searching portrait, but something more essential--a politician with an open mind and a restless conscience. 16 pages of illus., 3 maps. (Oct.)
David Brion Davis
“While many thousands of books deal with Lincoln and slavery, Eric Foner has written the definitive account of this crucial subject, illuminating in a highly original and profound way the interactions of race, slavery, public opinion, politics, and Lincoln's own character that led to the wholly improbable uncompensated emancipation of some four million slaves. Even seasoned historians will acquire fresh and new perspectives from reading The Fiery Trial.”
The 2011 Pulitzer Prize Committee
“A well orchestrated examination of Lincoln’s changing views of slavery, bringing unforeseeable twists and a fresh sense of improbability to a familiar story.”
Library Journal
★ 01/01/2015
Foner's nuanced account contends that Lincoln unwaveringly opposed slavery throughout his life and moved in a consistent, calculated antislavery direction during his presidency. Race emerged as a focal point when it became necessary to convey how enlisting African Americans was vital to saving the Union. (LJ 8/10)
Library Journal
Foner (DeWitt Clinton Professor of History, Columbia Univ.; Reconstruction), our most distinguished scholar assaying the meaning of American freedom, ventures boldly into the tangled study of Lincoln's relationship with slavery and race to produce an original and compelling argument. Based on a close rereading of Lincoln documents and careful consideration of the changing contexts in which Lincoln thought and acted, Foner shows that Lincoln's relationship to slavery was sometimes contradictory in the details but persistent in his belief that slavery must somehow die so that the nation might live. Foner argues that Lincoln was sometimes conflicted on race but that antislavery sentiments shaped his policies as much as wartime demands for party unity, border-state loyalty, and public support affected his move toward emancipation and arming blacks. To Foner Lincoln both operated within and transcended the politics of slavery in his day. His capacity for growth was the lodestar of his greatness as an instrument for freedom. VERDICT In the vast library on Lincoln, Foner's book stands out as the most sensitive and sensible reading of Lincoln's lifetime involvement with slavery and the most insightful assessment of Lincoln's—and indeed America's—imperative to move toward freedom lest it be lost. An essential work for all Americans.—Randall M. Miller, Saint Joseph's Univ., Philadelphia
Kirkus Reviews

Renowned scholar Foner (History/Columbia Univ.; Forever Free: The Story of Emancipation and Reconstruction,2005, etc.) adroitly traces how personal conviction and force of circumstance guided Abraham Lincoln toward the radical step of emancipation.

The author's observation that Lincoln was slow "to begin to glimpse the possibility of racial equality in America" will come as no surprise to academics, but this impressionist portrait of the president vividly details an unexpected aspect of this famous life—how Lincoln pursued his destiny within the larger antislavery movement, a broad-based network of pressure groups that encompassed everything from abolitionists, who insisted on social and political equality, to racists, who loathed the presence of blacks as a social and economic threat. In the 1850s, Lincoln re-entered politics by identifying containment of the "peculiar institution's" westward expansion as "the lowest common denominator of antislavery sentiment." Foner is particularly impressive in explaining the hesitations, backward steps and trial balloons—including placating slaveholding border states and proposing colonizing blacks outside the United States—that preceded his embrace of emancipation.While many key events in the legendary career are examined—e.g., the debates with Stephen A. Douglas—other formerly unnoticed aspects appear in unexpected bold relief—e.g., a thriving Illinois legal practice in which only 34 cases out of 5,000 involved African-Americans. Lincoln's assassination left unanswered how he would have integrated freed slaves into American society. But Foner's summary of his qualities—"intellectually curious, willing to listen to criticism, attuned to the currents of northern public opinion, and desirous of getting along with Congress"—leaves little doubt that he would have managed Reconstruction better than his haplessly stubborn successor, Andrew Johnson.

Look elsewhere for an understanding of the president as person, but linger here for an indispensable analysis of Lincoln navigating through the treacherous political currents of his times.

David S. Reynolds
Do we need yet another book on Lincoln…Well, yes, we do—if the book is by so richly informed a commentator as Eric Foner…[he] tackles what would seem to be an obvious topic, Lincoln and slavery, and manages to cast new light on it…Because of his broad-ranging knowledge of the 19th century, Foner is able to provide the most thorough and judicious account of Lincoln's attitudes toward slavery that we have to date…More cogently than any previous historian, Foner examines the political events that shaped Lincoln and ultimately brought out his true greatness.
—The New York Times
Fred Kaplan
The value of Eric Foner's The Fiery Trial lies in its comprehensive review of mostly familiar material; in its sensible evaluation of the full range of information already available about Abraham Lincoln and slavery; and in the deft thoroughness of its scholarship. The Fiery Trial does well what has already been done before "but ne'er so well expressed."
—The Washington Post
San Francisco Chronicle
“Moving and rewarding. . . . A master historian at work.”— David W. Blight
New York Review of Books
“No one else has written about [Lincoln's] trajectory of change with such balance, fairness, depth of analysis, and lucid precision of language.”— James M. McPherson
The New York Times Book Review
“Do we need another book on Lincoln? Yes, we do—if the book is by so richly informed a commentator as Eric Foner.”— David S. Reynolds
From the Publisher
"[A] searching portrait." —Publishers Weekly
David W. Blight - San Francisco Chronicle
“Moving and rewarding. . . . A master historian at work.”
James M. McPherson - New York Review of Books
“No one else has written about [Lincoln's] trajectory of change with such balance, fairness, depth of analysis, and lucid precision of language.”
David S. Reynolds - The New York Times Book Review
“Do we need another book on Lincoln? Yes, we do—if the book is by so richly informed a commentator as Eric Foner.”
The Barnes & Noble Review

Just after publishing The Black Jacobins (1938), his great history of the Haitian slave revolt, the Trinidadian man of letters C. L. R James settled in the United States, where, in due course, he began to think of writing about Abraham Lincoln. The project that took shape in his mind was unusual. For one thing, James thought historians should look at history from below, 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 James also wanted the book he had in mind to discuss both Shakespeare's play King Lear and the Russian revolutionary V. I. Lenin.

Peculiar as this may sound, it made a kind of sense. For James, Lear is the definitive picture of an old social order in the process of disintegration, while Lenin was the visionary architect of a new way of life (though James, as a fierce anti-Stalinist, had nothing good to say about what had been done with the blueprints meanwhile). In effect, Lincoln would appear in the middle panel of a triptych: the most Shakespearean of presidents, and one whose enemies saw him as a dictator.

Only fragments of the project were left behind when James died in 1989 -- and I doubt very much that Eric Foner had any of it in mind while writing The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, which is as painstaking and straightforward a book as James's would have been imaginative and idiosyncratic. But there is an affinity between them, even so. The Fiery Trial is not, strictly speaking, a biography of Lincoln; the attention is always focused on his relationship to slavery, with other aspects of his life and personality refracted through that question. And because slavery was the fault line running through the very depths of American society, each nuance or shift in Lincoln's attitude is charged with enormous implication. Foner shares James's feel for how a leader's outlook is shaped by (and then responds to) tensions unfolding on the world's political stage.

Foner is one of the great contemporary U.S. historians, and one doesn't want to go too far with comparing this book -- in some ways a prequel to his 1988 book Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 -- to a work of drama. But his method throughout The Fiery Trial takes advantage of the fact that we, the audience, know something the main character cannot: that the attitudes towards slavery expressed in his early life (when he hated it while also keeping his distance from abolitionism) are so many steps along the way to the enormous cataclysm of the Civil War. Foner takes care to emphasize Lincoln's own words as they were recorded at the time -- not the later recollections of them by people who knew, as we do, what was coming.

He registers each little shift of attitude and widening of perspective along the way, while continuously situating Lincoln's opinions (and his occasionally maddening silences) in the context of the debates of the time. While there is no reason to doubt the statement, near the end of his life, that he had always hated slavery, that revulsion reflected a sense that it was morally damaging to white people -- much like alcoholism. Like other reformers of the day, he saw "genuine freedom as arising from self-discipline rather than self-indulgence," writes Foner, "something violated by both drinkers and slaveholders, who allegedly lived according to their passions." This Calvinist streak was accompanied by a policy wonk's sense of how the problem could best be solved -- through compensating slaveholders for emancipation while relocating freed slaves to Africa.

So much for trying to patch over a crack in the foundation. In time, Lincoln shared the conviction that the country faced "an irrepressible conflict between opposed and enduring forces" that would make it "either entirely a slaveholding nation, or entirely a free-labor nation," to quote a famous speech from 1858 by William H. Seward, his future Secretary of State. But Lincoln remained persistent in trying to pursue gradualist efforts to eradicate 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.

Foner is too serious a historian to editorialize about how Lincoln was a racist. Sure he was; the point is cheaply made. But as ex-slaves throw themselves into combat against the Confederacy -- and the need to destroy the old system, root and branch, becomes inescapable -- Lincoln begins to develop a conception of African-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: a leader, however farsighted, may unleash forces that then push him further than he ever imagined going.

--Scott McLemee

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393066180
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 10/4/2010
  • Pages: 448
  • Sales rank: 487,112
  • Product dimensions: 6.50 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Eric Foner is DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University, where he earned his B.A. and Ph.D. In his teaching and scholarship, Foner focuses on the Civil War and Reconstruction, slavery, and nineteenth-century America. His Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877, won the Bancroft, Parkman, and Los Angeles Times Book prizes and remains the standard history of the period. In 2006 Foner received the Presidential Award for Outstanding Teaching at Columbia University. He has served as president of the Organization of American Historians, the American Historical Association, and the Society of American Historians. He is currently writing a book on Lincoln and slavery.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 17 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 17 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 19, 2011

    Lots of promise, less delivery

    Make no mistake - the Fiery Trial is an engaging, well written work that makes a familiar subject exciting to read about. But upon finishing it I couldn't escape a feeling of let-down from everything that was promised.

    The author uses his prologue and opening chapter to make a bold and energizing pledge: he plans to give a frank examination of Abraham Lincoln's racial views and lifelong struggle around the issue of slavery. Shedding a century of egalitarian hagiography and explicitly avoiding excessive commentary on what others have interpreted into Lincoln's familiar words and actions, he instead proposes a "warts and all" dive into what quickly becomes a very complex subject matter. He takes up Lincoln in all his faults - his denunciation of racial egalitarianism in the 1858 Senate campaign, his slow and hesitant course of emancipation, his reluctance to take an early stance on civil rights, and his embrace of a scheme to deport the ex slaves to Liberia and Panama. These are not subject matters that many Lincoln biographers enjoy touching, even where they must for history's sake, because they are thorny. They don't fit the Lincoln ideal we all come to know as school children. But Foner makes no bones about his intent to touch them, and boldly so.

    But that's where the book loses its traction. For all the bravado of its introduction Foner simply fails to deliver. It only takes a few chapters for him to revert right back to the standard old line of an "evolving" Lincoln who starts out as an unrepentant (albeit slavery-hating) racist and experiences a miraculous conversion over the next four years through a harrowing little event called the Civil War, all wrapped up in a bow in the end. By the last page, we've gone from Lincoln the flawed and racist sinner to Lincoln the redeemed (and redeemer) in a plodding, successive, but must of all absolutely certain and positive evolution towards modern notions of justice and fairness and equality.

    It's all nice and pleasant sounding when done, except that Foner bends the facts to get there. For example, Lincoln's conversion to black voting rights was VERY passive and slight at its most generous reading. And Lincoln's vision of Reconstruction was a hugely deferential & conciliatory program that probably would have ended up much closer to Andrew Johnson than Benjamin Wade. Contra the author, Lincoln also never really gave up colonizing the slaves in Africa - he clung to the program to his dying day. There's plenty of evidence of this (see Lerone Bennett's work, which is admittedly biased and bomb-throwing but the underlying research is there, at least on these points). But Foner chooses mostly to ignore it and ends up with the pretty picture of Lincoln we all think we "know" and most of us certainly expect, even if it isn't a very realistic one.

    You should still read the book - it starts with a refreshing premise that needs to be stated, and asks questions that many other authors don't. But for all that promise, it ends on a sputter that's little different than any other example of the thousands of run-of-the-mill "Lincoln the Great Emancipator" biographies you can find in any book store.

    11 out of 12 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 17, 2011


    The Kindle edition of this book is $9.88. Why so much more for the Nook edition?

    11 out of 24 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 14, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Classic book on Lincoln

    We see Abraham Lincoln as "The Great Emancipator", who ended slavery in the United States of America. Lincoln's words describe and inspire us, remaining as current as the day they were spoke. We see Lincoln not as the man but as the larger than life occupant of the Lincoln Memorial. Lincoln's 1860 nomination is not because he is or is thought to be "The Great Emancipator". Lincoln is a moderate on slavery and race, acceptable to both wings of the party.
    Abraham Lincoln's and Americans journey to emancipation is the subject of this excellent book. America faces serious divisions over slavery but very few over race. The wish to end slavery often did not include what to do with the former slaves. Northern states, with few slaves, accepted gradual emancipation and managed to tolerate their Black population. In the majority of Northern states Blacks could not vote, could not serve on a jury nor could they testify against a White person. Some Northern states essentially ban Blacks. In many more states, they are under server restrictions and required to post bonds to insure good conduct. Garrison said that Illinois is essentially a "slave state" due to the restrictive laws on Blacks.
    This is a book about race relations more than about slavery. The majority agreed that slavery is "bad" but cannot see a reasonable exit. Gradual Emancipation is an acceptable answer. Slaves born after a set date become free when they become n years old. The current slaves either remain slaves or become free after n years. This pushes the race problem away, leaving it for another generation to deal with. Immediate Emancipation ends slavery but has few answers to the race question. Colonization is a popular answer. Questions on transporting four million people to Africa or some other location is not answered. Nor is the question of how many Blacks voluntary will leave the United States.
    Black rights are the major problem. To avoid full citizenship, "rights" are subdivided into acceptable and unacceptable units. Natural rights, not being enslaved, being allowed to seek work and being secure in your person are acceptable because they enshrined in The Declaration of Independence. Political rights, being able to vote, serve on a jury or testify in court are questionable. The majority of Northern States say no to these rights. A few liberals accept "more intelligent Negros" as possible candidates for political rights. Social rights, being able to mix with whites as equals are not considered. Lincoln spends a good deal of his time answering Democratic attacks in this area.
    This is a history of Lincoln's journey from Wig to Republican, from gradual to immediate emancipation from colonization to political rights. America move along with Lincoln, one sometimes ahead of the other but both leading and encouraging the other. It is not an easy journey nor is it a quick one.
    Eric Forner is an excellent author and historian. This well-written book is informative and easy read. Forner is careful to maintain a balanced approach and never descends into bashing, Lincoln, America or the South. This should be a classic book on Lincoln and required reading.

    11 out of 12 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 5, 2013

    Super good biogiefy

    Abadam hamlicon is amazing and so cool I so remmond this book

    2 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 8, 2013

    Do not want

    Do not like

    0 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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