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.