Why The Fiery Trial, on Lincoln's Changing Views of Slavery, Deserves Its Pulitzer

Eric Foner, author of The Fiery Trial, won the Pulitzer yesterday, something so incredibly well-deserved it would have been a crime against the genre of non-fiction if it hadn’t happened. The Fiery Trial transformed my ideas about what was important about that war. I can’t recommend it more highly for anyone even remotely interested either in the period or for insight into some of the main reasons this country is moving in such ominous directions today - and what to do about it.

The Fiery Trial is a “biography” of Lincoln’s changing views on slavery, on what Lincoln believed, how he and other Americans acted, and on how the momentous events of the Civil War caused both Lincoln and the Union to become ever more focused and committed to the most radical of radical ideas of the time: not only the freeing of all black men, women, and children “held to labor” but also the conferring upon them of equal rights as citizens of the United States, including the right to vote (for men; unfortunately, women’s suffrage would have to wait for the future). In part, Foner’s book seems to be a response to various revisionist historians of Lincoln and the period, for example Lerone Bennett’s Forced Into Glory which argued that Lincoln was in fact little different either in attitude or actions than other racists of that time (and now). Foner does not directly answer Bennett’s charge that Lincoln was a white supremacist; instead, he tells us, in meticulously fascinating detail, what Lincoln wrote, what he said, and what he did. Foner also describes, in equally absorbing detail, the (usually deplorable) racial attitudes of the United States in the first half of the 19th Century. It becomes quite clear that Lincoln’s fairly mainstream views changed in many ways, both significant and subtle, during the years before he became president and then changed dramatically as his presidency unfolded. Foner’s object is not to exonerate Lincoln of the charge of racism and indeed, the Lincoln that emerges from his book is sometimes dismayingly, inexcusably, on the wrong side of the issue, both rhetorically and politically. Indeed, the character of Foner’s Lincoln is exceedingly complex, much darker and far less consistent than the hagiographies. This Lincoln sometimes becomes deeply irritated, even angry when abolitionists bother him with what he considers trivial issues - such as what to do about the education of young freed slaves. And, of course, there is his twin obsessions with “gradual emancipation” - an oxymoron if ever there was one - and "colonization," which five minutes of serious thought would easily make clear to anyone that it could never happen, or at least not without a bloodbath that would make an “ethnic cleansing” seem downright antiseptic by comparison.

Foner’s emphasis is on Lincoln’s capacity to change, not only by focusing his mind more carefully on the legal and political issues of the time - and the Lincoln that we encounter in these pages is a true master of both - but also on a personal analysis of what his moral positions imply in terms of political action. Whether Foner intended it or not, I sensed that his Lincoln moved from being an essentially political man, who identified slavery as a major issue upon which he could build a career, to a moral leader who believed that he had a central role - but not a supreme role, in the sense of a dictator - to play in the task of freeing America’s enslaved blacks. The “gradual emancipation” Lincoln urged on the country was in fact his own, a gradual freeing of himself to act in increasing accord with the most “radical” abolitionists, but to do so always with extreme care. If this view of Lincoln is accurate, and for whatever little it’s worth, I think it is, it is still quite possible to brand Lincoln as a white supremacist, or a reactionary, or a ditherer, or many other things. The question is whether those charges are useful in understanding the unbelievably complex situation a man of Lincoln’s milieu faced back then, the options he considered practical, and the character of "the “animal himself” who Foner at the end of the book contrasts with his odious, thoroughly racist successor, Andrew Johnson.

The standard response to Bennett’s charge that Lincoln was a racist who reluctantly was forced into abolitionism - which Bennett asserts was the only moral position to take towards the evil of slavery - goes something like this: “That all may be true, but no abolitionist would have been elected in 1860. Lincoln, whatever his faults, did far more than any abolitionist could dream of doing, simply because his views, as disgraceful and wrong as they seem to us now, made him electable.”

Foner, carefully, and rather quietly, dismantles this argument. It is clear, after reading Foner’s book, that when he was elected, Lincoln was nothing remotely close to a stealth abolitionist. He was a career politician who, while surely sincere in his hatred of slavery, was not interested in abolishing it. He was focused primarily on two things: preserving the Union which meant, among other things, not extending slavery to the territories; and a career in politics in the upper echelons of the newly formed Republican party. In fact, Foner argues, the slaves, via their actions to free themselves; the military commanders who, under tremendous pressure, often hastily freed the slaves they encountered; and the abolitionists in their daily politicking in Washington and in the Northern press, created a cultural/political climate that all but forced Lincoln to probe far more carefully into the consequences of his somewhat jerry-rigged, contradictory, and essentially conventional moral opposition to slavery. It is to Lincoln’s credit that he proceeded to clarify, refine, and alter his ideas. Also, Lincoln was forced to consider equally carefully what he could and couldn’t do both within the political climate and, ultimately, within the United States’s legal framework. What emerges is a dynamic and surprisingly unpredictable picture of Lincoln acting within and on events, sometimes incredibly badly, often amazingly well. It makes for a very exciting read.

It would be a mistake to ignore Foner’s clear intent here, ie, his recasting of the relationship between a radical movement and a moderate/conservative president. Without saying so directly his obvious point is that if today’s “radicals” - who, like the radicals of the 1850’s, are not radical at all but merely sensible liberals - wish to transform the country and increase rather than restrict the growth of freedom, the potential is there. But it will require ceaseless agitation of our most “radical” positions - single payer, for example, which of course is hardly radical - in order to move the discourse in the direction we want. There is little to be gained in the current situation from the kinds of compromises we’ve recently seen because, as in Lincoln’s time, the crucial actions that move the country towards progressive goals lies at least as much in the activity of those who steer the political discourse as in the president. (It is eerie, by the way, to meet in Lincoln’s time many of the same arguments and same smears that are being deployed today - against Massachusetts, for example.)

This is certainly not a new notion, but to see it so clearly being played out within the context of Lincoln and the Civil War is one of the great pleasure of this remarkable, essential, instant classic of American history. I’m no expert as I’ve only read some 15 or 20 books on Lincoln and the Civil War in my life. But I can safely say that there few books out there that I’ve encountered on any subject that are so rich in detail and yet remain so thrilling, so pleasurable, and finally so profoundly transformative of the meanings of events I thought I understood fairly well but now realize hold far more potential for study and focused action than I thought.

I can’t urge you strongly enough to read The Fiery Trial.


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