Tag Archives: abolition

A Review of “The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln And American Slavery”

Eric Foner

Understanding the intellectual processes of Eric Foner has always been a problematic exercise for me. He is one of the most respected and honored historians in the United States: student of my idol Richard Hofstadter;  one of only two persons to serve as president of the Organization of American Historians, American Historical Association, and Society of American Historians; and one of perhaps a half-dozen historians to win both the Bancroft Prize (the “Academy Award,” if you will, of professional historians in the scholarly academy who acknowledge the best book of history published during a given year) and the Pulitzer Price for non-fiction in the same year.  Recognition like that isn’t exactly the historian’s equivalent of a free prize in every package of cereal.  Yet, perhaps one of the surest signs of brilliance is inconsistency. He readily recognizes the unique qualities of American freedom but possessed little more than the expected academic liberal’s knee-jerk reaction to the U.S. war in Iraq.  For example, he rejects American exceptionalism but readily concedes  that “in every index of power — military, economic, cultural, scientific — the United States far exceeds any other country,” an exceptional status unlike any other except Rome’s. (I have found that many scholars are very comfortable with the idea of American exceptionalism when it is applied to the idea of how uniquely wrong or bad the U.S. is.)  It’s silly of me to accuse him of ideological faults when I obviously have my own ideological underpinnings.  But, outside of his neo-Marxist interests in “people’s history” he has landed on both sides of the fence when examining a historical issue more times than not. My goodness, the man had a hand in revising the Disney Hall of Presidents at Walt Disney World.

But Foner stands out because of his long-standing respect, admiration, yet intense scrutiny of Abraham Lincoln. For 50 years, Lincoln has been one of the biggest heroes in the American pantheon to take down a notch.  I won’t take time to write a histriographical essay on Lincoln revisionism, but I urge readers to consult Thomas L. Krannawitter’s Vindicating Lincoln: Defending the Politics of Our Greatest President to get some sense of the mud that has been slung at the marble statue called Abraham Lincoln. However, I have to give the late, great Howard Zinn honorable mention.  In his A People’s History of the United States, Zinn described Lincoln as man who only became interested in the question of slavery when it was politically expedient to do so, and he was motivated to end slavery only when it would be done under the control of white business elites.

However, Foner recognizes something very human and very relevant about Lincoln: The man changed during his lifetime, and he changed with the times. In Foner’s latest book The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln And American Slavery, he explains that Lincoln always said slavery was unjust and there is no proof anywhere that he thought otherwise. The crux of the matter is the obvious question: If slavery is unjust, what do you do about it? Lincoln, a man fascinated with politics and the pursuit of office for much of his adult life, absolutely examined the political issues around slavery, proposed policies, and had a view of what good policies toward the elimination of slavery would be.  That doesn’t mean that Lincoln knew exactly how abolition would take place, or what kind of abolition the American people would stomach. In 19th century America, who did? We tend to think of abolition as a monolithic political movement. It was not. William Lloyd Garrison and his followers were the radicals who called for the secession of the North from the South and the destruction of the U.S. Constitution as a policy that would end slavery. John Brown wanted military uprisings. Various northern Whigs, then Republicans,  floated policy ideas centered on containment. Not surprisingly, Lincoln was heavily influenced by his beaux ideal, the Great Conciliator Henry Clay who supported the colonization movement from his earliest days in Kentucky politics. Foner does a superb job of examining Lincoln in the light of the various strains of abolitionism, the support each garnered, and the practical questions of whether the legislative branch would be willing to support anything that eliminated slavery rather than limited it.

But Foner is at his best when he sees Lincoln aroused by the events of the 1850s, a period I will always call the Decade of the Impending Crisis thanks to my professor in those matters. From the Peoria Speech until the war, Lincoln embraces colonization, sticks with the idea of limiting the expansion of slavery (one of Henry Clay’s signature achievement is the Missouri Compromise), and sees political abolition as the route for the nation. However, Foner’s examination of the Emancipation Proclamation, proclaims that it is a radical document (that’s an opinion far removed from Hofstadter’s assessment of the proclamation) that is among the most important presidential decisions in U.S. history. In addition, Foner examines how Lincoln did two things that changed the nation forever: He withdrew any comment regarding compensation for the freeing of slaves and placed slaves in a position to seize their own freedom as soldiers in the Union Army.  Throughout his lifetime, Lincoln had seen nothing but the clashes that occurred in inter-racial society. Now, he would as president begin the nation’s quest for an inter-racial society that treated black Americans as human beings.  Not a surprising result from a man who said publically that all of his political thoughts stemmed from the Declaration of Independence.  Foner’s book is my pleasant surprise during my summer review of the latest titles I can find in U.S. history.



Filed under Book reviews

How Lincoln Changed His Mind About Slavery In A Month

From the New York Times, an article from their continuing coverage of the 150th anniversary of the U.S. Civil War about the crucial month of July 1862. Politically, President Lincoln had rejected efforts by Army commanders and Congress to make the war a fight to abolish slavery. The article explains how that all began to change. 

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July 23, 2012 · 8:07 am

“I would unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong”: Frederick Douglass and America’s Salvation

Frederick Douglass

There is one notable American whose deep belief in the principles of the Declaration of Independence is often overshadowed by today’s Presidents’ Day celebration. February 20 is the date of the death of Frederick Douglass (c. 1818-1895), a nineteenth-century orator, abolitionist, diplomat, and writer who was the most powerful for voice for equality between the races in Antebellum and Civil War America.
Born a slave, as a child he realized that literacy carried power and benefits in society. He asked the wife of one of his owners, Mrs. Sophia Auld, to teach him to read. When he learned the alphabet under her tutelage and could spell a few short words, his master forbade any further instruction. He continued on his own and taught himself to read using The Columbian Orator, a book of speeches and dialogues so popular that in remained in print throughout the 1800s. This book had a lasting impact on the young man. In it he read the speeches of William Pitt, George Washington, Cicero and others, and poems in the book which praised patriotism, courage, education, temperance, and freedom. Decades later, Douglass met Abraham Lincoln (who had also benefited from the book) and they both discussed the impression it had made on their intellectual development.
Douglass escaped slavery in 1838, travelling north until he eventually settled in New Bedford, Massachusetts to work in shipyards. However, his obvious intelligence and oratorical gifts led to him giving speeches for local abolition societies. He was such a fine speaker, and equally fine writer, that many considered him a fraud – evidence of the contemporary racist idea that blacks were the intellectual inferiors of whites. He went on to edit an abolitionist newspaper, which became one of the mostly widely read anti-slavery publications in the nation.
Of all men, Frederick Douglass had the least cause to believe in a nation that had deprived him of the natural right to liberty. Despite his background as an enslaved American who had lived under Southern concepts of liberty that justified human chattel, Douglass used the Declaration as the inspiration for perhaps the greatest anti-slavery speech given before the Civil War. Douglas delivered the speech “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” on July 5, 1852, before a packed audience at an anti-slavery meeting in Rochester, New York. Tempers were high and disgust with the United States widespread among the audience, which was mostly sympathetic whites aligned with William Lloyd Garrison’s American Anti-Slavery Society. Garrison had declared that both the Founders and the U.S. Constitution were racist, and had even recently argued that the North should secede from the South. Douglass rejected this view, declaring that the American Revolution and the ideas espoused in the Declaration were admirable, uniting the nation:

Fellow Citizens, I am not wanting in respect for the fathers of this republic. The signers of the Declaration of Independence were brave men. They were great men, too, great enough to give frame to a great age. It does not often happen to a nation to raise, at one time, such a number of truly great men. The point from which I am compelled to view them is not, certainly, the most favorable; and yet I cannot contemplate their great deeds with less than admiration. They were statesmen, patriots and heroes, and for the good they did, and the principles they contended for, I will unite with you to honor their memory.

If the principles they contended for united all Americans (black and white, slave and free) then there was unfinished business that should be based on those American principles, including the self-evident truth that all men are created equal.
Would you have me argue that man is entitled to liberty? That he is the rightful owner of his own body? You have already declared it. Must I argue the wrongfulness of slavery? Is that a question for republicans? Is it to be settled by the rules of logic and argumentation, as a matter beset with great difficulty, involving a doubtful application of the principle of justice, hard to be understood? How should I look to-day in the presence of Americans, dividing and subdividing a discourse, to show that men have a natural right to freedom, speaking of it relatively and positively, negatively and affirmatively? To do so, would be to make myself ridiculous, and to offer an insult to your understanding. There is not a man beneath the canopy of heaven that does not know that slavery is wrong for him.

If logic would not work, shame did – the speech was a rousing success.
Douglass is one of this nation’s greatest citizens. His autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave is a testament of human freedom and deep faith in the hope of better things to come for him and his race. After the U.S. Civil War, he held numerous public offices including U.S. Marshal and counsel-general to the nation of Haiti. In 1888 during the Republican National Convention, he was also the first black American to receive a nominating convention vote as a presidential candidate from a major party. He remained a tireless opponent of racism and bigotry, whether toward blacks, American Indians, immigrants, or women. “I would unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong,” he once said. Frederick Douglass deserves more recognition from a nation that finally realized the promise “all men are created equal” is truly the national creed.


Filed under Commentary, History of the Declaration of Independence, Uncategorized