The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln And American Slavery Hardcover – Oct 12 2010
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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
Starred Review. Original and compelling….In the vast library on Lincoln, Foner’s book stands out as the most sensible and sensitive reading of Lincoln’s lifetime involvement with slavery and the most insightful assessment of Lincoln’s—and indeed America’s—imperative to move toward freedom lest it be lost. An essential work for all Americans. — Library Journal
About the Author
Eric Foner is the preeminent historian of his generation, highly respected by historians of every stripe—whether they specialize in political history or social history. His books have won the top awards in the profession, and he has been president of both major history organizations: the American Historical Association and the Organization of American Historians. He has worked on every detail of Give Me Liberty!, which displays all of his trademark strengths as a scholar, teacher, and writer. A specialist on the Civil War/Reconstruction period, he regularly teaches the nineteenth-century survey at Columbia University, where he is DeWitt Clinton Professor of History. In 2011, Foner's The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery won the Pulitzer Prize in History, the Bancroft Prize, and the Lincoln Prize.
Top Customer Reviews
Lincoln’s development occurred in the body politic in which he lived. That body affected Lincoln and was shaped by him. Author Eric Foner delves into evidence of the reasons for the positions Lincoln adopted along the way. He studies how the Central Illinois incubator of Lincoln’s career shaped his early views, both from the air he breathed and votes he sought. He explores the origins of the premise that whites and blacks could not coexist in one country and how that premise made emigration of freedmen a necessary part of any emancipation scheme. He goes on to explore how the shifting winds of the war blew emigration off the table and deprived the south of its real chance of emerging from the War with its peculiar institution intact. Lincoln’s agonizing over the legality of the Emancipation Proclamation is shown as reflecting uncertain future of slavery in a post-war nation.
I think that this book does an excellent job in depicting the multiple facets that made slavery and its eradication such a complicated dilemma for the men who struggled with it. Foner’s writing style holds the readers interest through the anecdotal stories and in depth analysis. “The Fiery Trial” is an aid in understanding this core issue of our great national schism.
This book, however, is written as a popular history book. It is not written in the fashionable narrative style that so many authors use today. It is well written and well-researched, but it will not flow like a novel, if that is what you are looking for. However, it is extremely informative and well worth the effort of reading. I would definitely recommend if you have an interest in American history and race relations. I think this book should be essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the unique history that has brought the United States to where it is today.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
"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.
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.
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.
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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