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VINE VOICEon November 21, 2010
Eric Foner's "The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery" is the finst study I have ever seen of Lincoln and the central question that America faced in the middle of the 19th century: what to do about slavery? Foner's book traces in great detail Lincoln's evolving public responses on what to do about slavery (and rce) from the 1830s until the eve of his death in 1865. And I do specify "public responses" because in private Lincoln played his cards very close to the vest, and it is extremely difficult to determine exactly how far his true inner feelings varied at any particular time from what he said or wrote for public knowledge. Obviously, his opinions modified with time; the Lincoln of April, 1865, was not wholly the same man as the Lincoln of mid-1861, just as that man differed from the Lincoln of 1860 or 1858 or 1854. The line between consciously forming and leading public opinion on the subject versus being led by external events is not readily discerned in every case, but Foner does as thorough a job of analysis as we are ever likely to see.

"The Fiery Trial" demands close attention, as the narrative thread winds and twists among the myriad complex issues presented by slavery and its attendent racism. In the end, the story does become one of change, how one extraordinary man traveled from the ordinary deep, casual racism of the time and place of his birth to a position that impelled him in the end to embrace a notion of equality that not only forbade slavery but demanded even-handed treatment before the law and even expanded to include that simple justice required extension of the right to vote. It was a long journey, and Lincoln was neither the perfect saint of later myth, nor the racist demon featured in so much recent revisionist history, but instead was a complex, real man who grew in stature to meet the greatest challenge of his era.
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on February 9, 2011
Eric Foner is a great American historian. His book on Reconstruction remains the standard and definitive work. This volume is the definitive study of Lincoln's evolving attitude toward slavery.

Foner sets out the story in chronological order. He strikes a fine balance between the competing demands of completeness and concision and does so with both sound scholarship and narrative flair. To say this book reads well is an understatement.

Of course we read that Lincoln grew up in border areas and had limited and somewhat ambivalent dealings with blacks. He talked about blacks in language that makes us cringe. He could be patronizing and yet he was increasingly aware. And his initial stance on slavery, which originally owed much to his "beau ideal," Henry Clay, seems in retrospect hopelessly naive. For many years, he favored a combination of gradual emancipation rather than outright abolition, compensation of slave-owners, and colonization of slaves in another nation rather than integration here. Bizarre as colonization seems to us now, among opponents of slavery it was for decades considered the only realistic option once slaves were emancipated. Even in the North, it was all but unthinkable that blacks could be integrated and enjoy social, legal and political equality.

It is widely understood that Lincoln's attitude toward blacks and slavery evolved, as did his insight into how to govern a divided nation in the midst of a war that almost daily threatened to arrive at his very doorstep. No president has ever had to respond so quickly to such immense domestic crises or to maintain his footing as he tried to win a war, keep states in the union, maintain the long view with respect to eventual reunification, preserve relations with foreign powers, contend with a nest of rivals in his own cabinet, address military advances and concomitant political changes, and through it all, develop a nuanced and principled position on slavery and the role of black people in society as well as in the Union army.

Lincoln could be startlingly candid. One of the most famous instances of his candor is the observation that he had not controlled events: events had controlled him. But his responses to the constantly shifting course of events and to the manifold ramifications of every development were almost unerring. We who already know the script may be inclined to discount how tricky and complex this process was for Lincoln. But Foner will not let us be complacent. Revealing how deftly Lincoln met each change of circumstance, and not merely explaining Lincoln's evolving perspective on slavery, is the real contribution of Foner's superb volume.

As the war progressed, it became clear to those who saw slavery up close for the first time that it was far more abhorrent than they had ever imagined. And as slaves rushed to Union lines, Union commanders often improvised to find ways to deal with their arrival and their status. For an agonizingly long time, Lincoln officially supported the laws that permitted slavery. At least in the earlier phases of the war, he revoked unauthorized actions taken by his subordinates against slavery, as when he relieved John C. Fremont of duty for ostentatiously ordering that slaves in Missouri be freed. But increasingly Lincoln also looked the other way when his officers assisted slaves who had fled their masters and appeared at Union army camps seeking sanctuary. General Benjamin Butler, a mediocre general but a shrewd lawyer, solved the problem neatly by declaring that such slaves were "contraband." While the term seems demeaning, it was adopted with delight by those whose freedom it protected.

Among northern opponents of slavery, Lincoln was often regarded as dithering. They even tried to nominate Fremont to oppose him in 1864. Nevertheless, events ultimately worked in Lincoln's favor. He succeeded in keeping border states in the union. And the success of federal arms in reasserting control over contested land and the eventual recognition that the army needed black soldiers (together with the courage and valor black troops displayed in combat) did much to convince Lincoln and other Americans that slavery was simply going to be ended without the need to compensate slave-owners, that blacks deserved their freedom, and that they truly wanted to remain in the United States, as it was their home. Gradualism, compensation, and colonization thus became "a creed outworn."

The North's military momentum gave reconstruction a highly progressive cast early on. As Union victory became inevitable, the permanently altered view of blacks and slavery made it plain that no state could be reunited unless it abandoned slavery. Moreover, some of the southern and border states that were adopting new governments not only embraced emancipation but also public education, minimum wages on federal projects, a progressive income tax, and the end of debtors' prisons. From the ashes of slavery arose nascent progressivism.

It is one of the great tragedies of history that this pragmatic yet principled president was murdered just as the war ended, since his approach to reconstruction would certainly have been far more intelligent and competent than that of his singularly inept and rebarbative successor. Lincoln knew there were profound challenges ahead, but in the few days he lived following Lee's surrender, he knew the adulation of black people whose freedom he had won and even enjoyed a few moments of real happiness. His generous spirit emerges in the account of how he asked that a band in a crowd outside the White House play "Dixie" because he felt it was one of our best tunes, and the North had captured it fairly.

Many histories of the Civil War are compelling reading. But the account of Lincoln's development in this crucial area is an amazing one and demands not only our admiration of this remarkable man, but also of the historian who has so keenly perceived and superbly told his true story.
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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 Whig 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 Foner 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.
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on December 28, 2010
This book tells it like it really happened. It doesn't misquote or leave out very very important messages Lincoln conveyed. Like his impression of the Dred Scott case, and the Kansas-Nebraska act. I love these people that quote Thomas DiLorenzo as a great writer. DiLorenzo and Bennett neither one has one thing good to say about Lincoln. I admit all the Lincoln worship has gone way overboard, and it is good to get another perspective. If you do decide to read someone like Thomas DiLorenzo, you need to buy the book that rejects his flaws - Lincoln Vindicated. In fact what I liked so much about Eric Foners book, is that he shatters the myths that people like Bennett and DiLorenzo have tried to convince people of during the last few decades, and he shatters them without bashing one of these guys. He presents a stong word for word case of what Lincoln really said at the time, not what people thought he meant a hundred years later. He does not sugar coat anything. I learned quite a few new things from reading this book. Mr. Foner does not leave out negative details - he looks at the good and the bad. Several things Lincoln stood up for I had no idea, and a few times he shocked me at what seemed to be a slap in the face against civil rights. As you read the book you will become aware of the border states population, and why he walked a tightrope not to make the border states mad enough to leave. He honestly believed If Kentucky joined the confederates, then so would the other border states, and that would have cause massive problems - He probably would have lost the war or the election of 1864. I have always read and heard, Lincoln Changed his views on Slavery and Civil Rights - this book shows this to be very true. He was becoming more liberal in his views on race up until the last speech he gave. Lincoln started to clearly start to speak out on slavery beginning with the death of his beau Henry Clay. If Lincoln had stated the things he said in 1865, back in 1860, he would have never been elected President. This book shows that to be true. It also shows that unlike Lincoln, President Johnson didn't stand up to the plate or move forward - he withdrew unlike Lincoln. Anyway the book goes into all kinds of detail. Very readable and honest.
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Eric Foner's The Fiery Trial, is a deservedly acclaimed examination of Abraham Lincoln's attitudes toward slavery. Perhaps even more importantly, by contextualizing the debate in Illinois, circa 1850-1860, the first half of the book show the reader and student of history how Lincoln was both ahead of and behind the times. Foner's Lincoln is a shrewd, decent and honorable man. But one not above putting interest before principle when he agrees to defend (unsuccessfully) a slave-owners attempt to get his "property" returned from Illinois. And one, like so many of his time, who was prone to a casual racism that is comfortable with the use of demeaning racial epithets and degrading racial humor.

Despite these drawbacks Lincoln by 1858 evolved into a solid opponent of our "peculiar" institution and one of the few politicians in the country who presents himself as something less than a radical abolitionist but more than a simple free-soil republican. If there is a flaw in Foner's book it was here that I wished there was more discussion about the extraordinary accomplishment of Abolitionists. In a short ten year period they moved the question of slavery from the back-burner of American politics to the forefront of American consciousness. Foner notes that so urgent did the question of slavery seem at the time that the 1858 senatorial contest between Lincoln and Douglas was a single-issue contest, with slavery and race practically the sole concern.

Even half a chapter examining the radicalism of the Sumners, Sewards, Cases, Giddingses and Chases--the fire brands who affected this extraordinary shift--would have been extremely helpful. The occasional comparison to Seward seemed insufficient. There is a brief but important discussion of how the efforts of slavery's advocates--Pierce, Buchanan, Taney & Co., seriously misjudged the temperature of the nation and foolishly overreached. Lincoln, nicely positioned between radical Sumner and reactionary Buchanan is the, when you think about it, not-so-surprising candidate of the new and burgeoning Republican party.

Foner does an excellent job of linking the Party's growth and Lincoln's development as an anti-slavery man. The great abolitionists of the day may have been generations ahead of their time. However, what was needed was at that time was a cool head that could serve as a beacon to the middle course--one a majority (not merely the saints or the sinners) could rally around. In that regard, Lincoln was superb. Never backing down from his position but never provoking secession, Lincoln lets the South stumble toward Civil War understanding that the North was not ready to go to war to abolish slavery, but would fight to sustain the Union.

His gradual, some would say snail's pace towards publicly condemning slaveholders and the institution occasionally infuriated radicals but in retrospect seems sound. Surprising to me and important to evaluating Lincoln, is our 16th president's strange obsession with re-colonization and the outrageous claim that the country wouldn't be at war if there weren't any slaves. As though they had asked to be enslaved. A classic and embarrassing instance of blaming the victim. Here, Foner excels and never lets Lincoln the myth interfere with assessing Lincoln the reality. As Lincoln engaged with more and more African Americans his opinions evolved but clearly Reconstruction would have been considerably different and perhaps more moderate had he lived. Certainly he would have been more respected and politically adept than Andrew Johnson.

When first rating this book I gave it four stars. I wished there was more about the abolitionists. Rereading my own review perhaps it should be five. Eric Foner has written his own book about Lincoln, Slavery and Race, not mine. And his is really pretty great.
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on February 7, 2013
The Boston Globe is right; Eric Foner's The Fiery Trial indeed brings "historiographic finality" to questions surrounding Abraham Lincoln's views on race and slavery. That said, there's not a whole lot of historiographic debate with scholars happening on its pages, and Foner admits as much at the outset. I guess the reader simply has to trust that Foner's decades of scholarly work on the antebellum, Civil War, and reconstruction eras gives him a firm grasp on the arguments, and thus well-suits him to deliver a definitive account. In the end, it does seem as if he's put the crucial debate on Lincoln to rest.

But perhaps more importantly, Foner steps outside of the scholarly realm and engages and deconstructs the Lincoln myth for the lay reader. His clear, straightforward, and linear presentation of Lincoln's thoughts, feelings, and political actions (as well as others', in relation to Lincoln) gets to the heart of an important historical question: Who exactly was Abraham Lincoln and how did he really feel about race and slavery? Foner's convincing case helps his reader understand how Lincoln came to be known as "Great Emancipator," and whether or not he earned the honorific by his own merit.

Throughout the book, Foner knocks Lincoln off his throne, so to speak, and avoids a traditional historiographic gaffe by "reading the evidence forward." In the process, his analysis provides stark revelations about Lincoln's racism and conservatism, deconstructs the man in his own context, and forces the reader to grapple with Lincoln's reified status as a massive historical figure. Admittedly, this is the first book I'd ever read about Lincoln. And up until the concluding chapters, I, as a son of the "Land of Lincoln," felt as if I'd been sold a bag of proverbial goods. I couldn't believe Foner's Abe was the Lincoln I'd been conditioned to revere. At the same time though, as I progressed toward Foner's conclusion, I felt deep empathy for Lincoln and realized just how fallibly human he was, and how extraordinarily difficult it was for him to navigate America's political terrain and lead during a time of social, psychological, and economic upheaval - not to mention civil war.

As his views changed regarding slavery (and perhaps race), Lincoln's actions revealed that he was indeed, as he so famously said, changed by events more than he changed them himself. But, at the same time, while Foner shows us that Abe was indeed no radical, in hindsight we see that his wartime decisions set the nation on a long, hard-fought revolutionary path toward justice and equality. Moreover, Lincoln, in concert with a Republican-dominated Congress, forever changed the relationship between the government and the governed in the United States. Historiographically, Foner does well to provide a clear view on the latter. He demonstrates that Lincoln's presidency was the pivot point towards a vast expansion of Federal power.

What's perhaps most interesting about Foner's Lincoln is a complex mix of conservatism and radicalism that made Lincoln what he truly was - a moderate. But as his ignorance confronted new realities, as his world expanded and he came to know African-Americans, Lincoln's faith in reason and relative open-mindedness forced him to change significantly near the end of his life. Ever the pragmatist and shrewd political operator, Lincoln said, "You cannot be blind to the signs of the times." Notwithstanding his moderate, at times conservative nature - rested deep inside a man who came of age inside of slavery's borderlands - Lincoln indeed practiced what he preached. Despite his shortcomings, political bungling, racism, and, at times, obtuseness, he acted radically and decisively as commander-in-chief during the throes of domestic revolution and war. And even when things looked bleak for the Union, given his convictions on what he would deem "the American promise," Lincoln doubled-down and displayed extraordinary courage and character in the face of extreme adversity.

So, in the end, perhaps Abraham Lincoln deserves to be called America's greatest president. After all, the measure of a man is not only determined by how he deals with adversity, but also how willing (and able) he is to adapt and change for the benefit of others. On Lincoln, Eric Foner may indeed be correct: "Growth [was] the essence of his greatness."
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on January 29, 2011
I've always loved Abraham Lincoln and have been reading about him since I was 8 years old. From my earliest days I've known that he was central in keeping the Union together in the darkest days of our country and this essentially ended slavery. I've also known that his view of African Americans was complicated.

This book was perfect for me. Eric Foner provides an understanding of President Lincoln as a complicated man: he opposed slavery because he believed nobody should trade his gifts to make someone else rich. At the same time he never believed that we as a nation would accept blacks and whites as equals in the same society.

The best part of this book was the understanding that Lincoln came to understand that slavery was so evil as to trump anything else. His early beliefs that former slaves would return to Africa soon came to an end as he acknowledged that this was unworkable. The heroism of President Lincoln was that he was determined to free the slaves regardless of anything else. Just as Moses died before the Israelites came into the Promised Land, Abraham Lincoln died at the brink of Reconstruction.

This book shows that Abraham Lincoln is a national saint, and that we would have done much better if he had been President during Reconstruction.
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on January 5, 2011
I am not a history student. What I liked about the book, besides it being a very engaging read, is that the emphasis was on Lincoln, the man who kept growing, even in his later years. He changed many of his views about slavery and race relations as he allowed himself to be exposed to new experiences. The book seemed to present 'both sides' of Lincoln - a necessity for the theme of how extraordinary it was for a person in his years and position to keep developing.
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on December 13, 2011
Eric Foner always keeps me on the edge of my seat. His discussion of the "Colonization Movement" and how it was discredited alone is worth the price of purchase. The valor of African-American soldiers fighting for union and for their freedom earned the respect of even initially reluctant fellow citizens. The awakening of Lincoln to the political rights of black Americans--not just freedom from bondage, and the rights of life and liberty, but also to the pursuit of happiness, is a riveting tale. In another book, an anthology he edited, Foner quotes DuBois on Lincoln. Du Bois remarked that, though staunchly anti-slavery, Lincoln started out with many of the prejudices of his time. The story of Lincoln's transformation, of his growing humanity, is a story I am sharing with my middle school students. This theme is but one aspect of this wonderful book. I got mine at Amazon, but the library is cool, too!
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on October 28, 2014
There are more books about President Lincoln than any other person to lead our nation. Man, I've read stuff about his chronic depression, the guy's influential writing style, how he used religious symbolism to sway the public, a detailed dissection of the Gettysburg Address ('Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America' by Garry Wills is outstanding,) and even how he suffered from constipation throughout his life. It is difficult not to feel morally superior after reading Mr. Foner's book about an age that allowed slavery, people to sue others for saying you practiced miscegenation, and mob rule being a common form of justice. Destroying a person's home or place of business or, hell, even killing people who said or printed unpopular things isn't exactly embracing the whole Constitution's Freedom-of-Speech thingy. Present-day pundit a-holes say plenty of outrageous stuff, but we're not stringing up their murdered corpses to the nearest flag pole. I leave those wonderful thoughts exclusively for my dreams.

What Mr. Foner does so well in 'The Fiery Trial' is explain not only how President Lincoln's attitudes about slavery and African-Americans evolved over his life, but that he was not always at the forefront of dealing with the "most peculiar institution." Sometimes, good ole Abe led the charge, other times Republican Congressmen were at the forefront, and sometimes the Great Emancipator was reacting to unexpected events. But, as the author correctly states, our 16th President's capacity for growth was the essence of his greatness. He held many popular beliefs of the mid-1800s such as blacks were innately inferior to whites and colonization of all African-Americans to another continent was the best option once they were emancipated.

The book avoids delving into the war battles and remains focused on showing Abraham Lincoln as all too human. Starting from his birth in 1809, it traces his mindset on slavery throughout his life including the Missouri Compromise, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, his debates with Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas, and the Civil War. The reader will see that Not-So-Honest Abe was a political animal who tailored things to meet his objectives just like all great politicians. You may also come to recognize that all sitting presidents have citizens who adore them, are indifferent, or think he's the biggest nincompoop to hold elective office. Lincoln's critics (and there were many both in the North as well as the South) were just as nasty as politicians and pundits of today. Welcome to democracy, people. Mr. Foner separates the man from the myths and shows much to admire about President Lincoln. It is a highly entertaining, balanced, and topnotch historical work. Personally, I think President Lincoln lucked-out in being assassinated and not having to deal with the hellacious complexities of Reconstruction.
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