Just after publishing
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
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.
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.)
A well orchestrated examination of Lincoln’s changing views of slavery, bringing unforeseeable twists and a fresh sense of improbability to a familiar story.
The 2011 Pulitzer Prize Committee
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.”
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)
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.
"[A] searching portrait." Publishers Weekly
Moving and rewarding. . . . A master historian at work.
David W. Blight - San Francisco Chronicle
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 - The New York Times Book Review
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 - New York Review of Books
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
The New York Times Book Review
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
Moving and rewarding. . . . A master historian at work.” David W. Blight