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The Fiery Trial

BOOK: The Fiery Trial
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Other Books by Eric Foner

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A House Divided: America in the Age of Lincoln
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Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery

Eric Foner

W. W. Norton & Company
New York London

Copyright © 2010 by Eric Foner

All rights reserved

For information about permission to reproduce selections from this book, write to Permissions, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 500 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10110

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Foner, Eric.
The fiery trial: Abraham Lincoln and American slavery / Eric Foner.—1st ed.
p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references.
ISBN: 978-0-393-08082-7
1. Lincoln, Abraham, 1809–1865—Views on slavery.
2. Slaves—Emancipation—United States. I. Title.
E457.2.F66 2010


W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
500 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10110

W. W. Norton & Company Ltd.
Castle House, 75/76 Wells Street, London W1T 3QT

To Henry Foner

Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history. We of this Congress and this administration, will be remembered in spite of ourselves…. The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation.

1, 1862


his death a century and a half ago, Abraham Lincoln has provided a lens through which we Americans examine ourselves. As an icon embodying the society’s core values and myths—self-made man, frontier hero, liberator of the slaves—he exerts a unique hold on our historical imagination. Lincoln has been described as a consummate moralist and a shrewd political operator, a lifelong foe of slavery and an inveterate racist. Politicians from conservatives to communists, civil rights activists to segregationists, and members of almost every Protestant denomination as well as nonbelievers, have claimed him as their own. As early as 1870, the
Memorial Lincoln Bibliography
listing books, eulogies, sermons, and ephemera ran to 175 pages.
Today the Lincoln literature comprises many thousands of works. In the last decade, his psychology, marriage, law career, political practices, literary style, racial attitudes, and every one of his major speeches have been subjected to minute examination. There are even books about the myths and hoaxes surrounding Lincoln.

In a way we have found it too easy to understand Lincoln. We think we know him, because in looking at Lincoln we are really discovering ourselves. Hence, he seems perennially relevant; he is always our contemporary. And, of course, issues of Lincoln’s era such as the enduring legacy of slavery, the nature of presidential leadership, the relationship between morality and politics, and the definition of American nationality and citizenship remain as urgent today as when he lived. In his own time, however, people found Lincoln in many ways enigmatic. A self-controlled, intensely private man, he seldom disclosed his innermost thoughts, even to close friends. David Davis, who knew Lincoln well, described him as “the most reticent, secretive man I ever saw or expect to see.” Lincoln could be gregarious and outgoing, but he did not reveal himself to others. “No man can tell by any conversation with the president (and he is very free in
) whether he means what he says, or designs only to extract ideas,” wrote one government employee who spoke with Lincoln frequently during the Civil War.

Lincoln jotted down notes and private musings on public issues, but he kept no diary and wrote few personal letters. Records of the law cases in which Lincoln participated have recently become available in digital form, but
The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln
runs to a mere eight volumes plus two thin supplements and consists mostly of speeches and wartime directives. By contrast, the
Papers of Thomas Jefferson
consists of forty volumes to date and has only reached the first year of Jefferson’s presidency. To fill in the gaps in the historical record, many writers rely on recollections of Lincoln’s words related long after they were spoken and often of dubious reliability. Once Lincoln died, of course, such memories were filtered through his apotheosis as the Great Emancipator. For this reason, I have preferred in the chapters that follow to cite Lincoln’s words as recalled by others only if they were recorded at the time they were spoken. Later recollections are clearly identified as such.

In some ways, the private Lincoln will forever remain elusive; to plumb his thoughts we must rely on his actions and his public letters and addresses. Fortunately, Lincoln not only had a command of the English language matched, among presidents, only by Jefferson but also was a deliberate and meticulous writer who chose his words with extreme care.
Like any politician, he said things for strategic reasons. Moreover, his views changed over time. Yet at each point in his career his public statements revealed a consistency that allows us to take him at his word.

This book traces the evolution of Lincoln’s ideas and policies about slavery from his early life through his career in the Illinois legislature in the 1830s, his term in Congress in the 1840s, his emergence as a leader of the new Republican party in the 1850s, and his presidency during the Civil War. It is intended to be both less and more than another biography. The chronology of Lincoln’s life has been traced in numerous works from the brief to the multivolume, and there is no need to tell the story again. (Those who wish to consult a chronology focusing on Lincoln, slavery, and emancipation will find one at the end of this book.) Many aspects of his career, including his marriage and law practice and the military course of the Civil War over which he presided, do not appear here except to the extent that they illuminate his relationship with slavery. But what follows is also more than a biography because my aim is to situate Lincoln within what Charles Sumner, the most outspoken foe of slavery in the U.S. Senate, called the “antislavery enterprise.” This social and political movement encompassed a wide variety of outlooks and practices. At one extreme, it included abolitionists who worked outside the party system and advocated an immediate end to slavery and the incorporation of the freed slaves as equal members of society. It also included those who adhered to what Sumner called “strictly constitutional endeavors,”
including steps to prevent the westward expansion of slavery and, in some cases, plans for gradual emancipation with monetary compensation to slaveowners and the “colonization” of the freedpeople outside the United States. At various times, Lincoln occupied different places on this spectrum.

Too much recent work on Lincoln is self-referential; it explains his ideas and actions primarily in terms of his own character, psychology, legal training, or a political philosophy that remained constant throughout his life. My intent is to return Lincoln to his historical setting, tracing the evolution of his ideas in the context of the broad antislavery impulse and the unprecedented crisis the United States confronted during his adult life. Of course, the events and decisions discussed in this book appear in numerous biographies of Lincoln and histories of the Civil War. But I believe that casting a bright, concentrated light on Lincoln and the politics of slavery—with politics defined in the broadest sense, not simply as elections and office-holding but the shaping of opinion within the extended public sphere—can illuminate his life and his era in new ways. Given the size of the Lincoln literature, differences of interpretation exist on almost every issue discussed in this book. However, I have generally chosen to tell the story as I see it without engaging in debates with other historians, which would result in a much longer, and extremely tedious, narrative.

Like other presidents, Lincoln had to reach accommodations with a Congress whose members believed they had a role to play in shaping public policy. As a shrewd and experienced party leader both before and during his presidency, he had to be sensitive to all strands of political opinion. I am particularly interested, however, in Lincoln’s complex relationship with abolitionists, who strove to awaken the nation to the moral imperative of confronting the problem of slavery, and Radical Republicans, who represented the abolitionist sensibility within the political system. Too often, Lincoln is presented as a singular model of prudence and pragmatism while other critics of slavery are relegated to the fringe, caricatured as self-righteous fanatics with no sense of practical politics.
I believe that this displays a misunderstanding of how politics operates in a democratic society.

Lincoln was strongly antislavery, but he was not an abolitionist or a Radical Republican and never claimed to be one. He made a sharp distinction between his frequently reiterated personal wish that “all men everywhere could be free”
and his official duties as a legislator, congressman, and president in a legal and constitutional system that recognized the South’s right to property in slaves. Even after issuing the Emancipation Proclamation he continued to declare his preference for gradual abolition. While his racial views changed during the Civil War, he never became a principled egalitarian in the manner of abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass and Wendell Phillips or Radical Republicans like Charles Sumner.

In locating Lincoln within the broad spectrum of antislavery thought, I have paid close attention to his writings and speeches, delineating not only what he said but also what he did not say. Unlike Radicals, for example, Lincoln rarely spoke of the physical brutality of slavery. Unlike conservatives in the Republican party, he forthrightly condemned slavery on moral as well as political and economic grounds. Lincoln consistently sought to locate the lowest common denominator of antislavery sentiment, the bases of agreement within the antislavery public. But Lincoln was well aware of the abolitionists’ significance in creating public sentiment hostile to slavery. Despite their many differences on goals and tactics, he came to see himself as engaged, with them, in a common antislavery cause.

Lincoln, many recent scholars have argued, acted within the narrow limits of the possible, as established by northern public opinion. Public opinion, however, is never static; the interactions of enlightened political leaders, engaged social movements, and day-to-day experiences (such as the flight of slaves to Union lines or the encounters Union soldiers had with slavery) can change the nature of public debate and, in so doing, the boundaries of what is, in fact, practical. As the
Chicago Tribune
noted at the end of the Civil War, in crisis situations beliefs once “pronounced impractical radicalism” suddenly become “practical statesmanship.” In his celebrated 1919 essay, “The Profession and Vocation of Politics,” Max Weber defended the social utility of the politician’s calling and identified three qualities required for success: devotion to a cause; a sense of responsibility; and judgment, or being attuned to the consequences of one’s actions. These usefully define Lincoln’s own qualities as a politician. Yet Weber concluded by noting the symbiotic relationship between political action and moral agitation. “What is possible,” he wrote, “would not have been achieved, if, in this world, people had not repeatedly reached for the impossible.”

Abolitionists and Radicals play an important part in this book not because Lincoln was an abolitionist but because their agitation helped to establish the context within which politicians like Lincoln operated. On issue after issue in the 1850s and during the Civil War—the necessity of northern political unity to halt the expansion of slavery; opposition to compromise on this question during the secession crisis; emancipation in the District of Columbia; general emancipation under the Constitution’s war power; the arming of black soldiers; amending the Constitution to abolish slavery; extending the right to vote to at least some blacks—Lincoln came to occupy positions first staked out by abolitionists and Radical Republicans.

In approaching the subject of Lincoln’s views and policies regarding slavery and race, we should first bear in mind that the hallmark of Lincoln’s greatness was his capacity for growth. It is fruitless to identify a single quotation, speech, or letter as the real or quintessential Lincoln. At the time of his death, he occupied a very different position with regard to slavery and the place of blacks in American society than earlier in his life. To be sure, the idea of Lincoln’s “growth” has itself become a cliché. The current “consensus view” of Lincoln, one historian recently noted, is of a man who “never seems to stop growing.”
This view is preferable to seeing Lincoln as born with a pen in his hand ready to sign the Emancipation Proclamation or as entering the White House with a fixed determination to preside over the end of slavery and waiting for the northern public to catch up with him. (It is also preferable to another approach, in which Lincoln is seen as a man with no deep convictions of his own, whose shifting policies and outlook arose entirely from forces outside his control.) The problem is that we tend too often to read Lincoln’s growth backward, as an unproblematic trajectory toward a predetermined end. This enables scholars to ignore or downplay aspects of Lincoln’s beliefs with which they are uncomfortable—his long association with the idea of colonization, for example—while fastening on that which is most admirable at each stage of his career, especially his deep hatred of slavery. But I think there is value in tracing Lincoln’s growth, as it were, forward, as it unfolded, with sideways and even backward steps along the way and with the future always unknown.

Much of Lincoln’s career can fruitfully be seen as a search for a reconciliation of means and ends, an attempt to identify a viable mode of antislavery action in a political and constitutional system that erected seemingly impregnable barriers to effective steps toward abolition. For most of his career, Lincoln had no real idea how to rid the United States of slavery, although he announced many times his desire to see it end. But in this he was no different from virtually every other antislavery American of his era. No one before the war anticipated its outbreak or what Lincoln, in his second inaugural, would call its “astounding” result, the emancipation of the slaves. As late as 1858, the
Chicago Tribune
, a strong voice of antislavery radicalism, stated flatly that “no man living” would witness the death of American slavery.

I admire Lincoln very much. But simply to anoint him as “a model of greatness for succeeding generations to follow”
or to see the task of the scholar as mounting a defense of Lincoln against his critics, then and now, does both Lincoln and the influences on him a disservice. If Lincoln achieved greatness, he grew into it. Not every individual possesses the capacity for growth; some, like Lincoln’s successor as president, Andrew Johnson, seem to shrink, not grow, in the face of crisis. But to rise to the occasion requires not only an inner compass but also a willingness to listen to criticism, to seek out new ideas. Lincoln’s career was a process of moral and political education and deepening antislavery conviction. He started out as a local politician in central Illinois, became a statewide public figure, and finally a national or at least a northern statesman. As his stage expanded, so did his experience. He came into contact with new people, new ideas, and a totally unprecedented situation, and was able to make the most of these encounters. He had to take into account the actions of groups with which he had previously had virtually no contact. Most notable among these groups were the slaves themselves, who seized the opportunity offered by the Civil War to strike for their freedom and who overwhelmingly rejected Lincoln’s hope that many of them would agree to emigrate to some other country. Their actions forced the questions of slavery and the future place of blacks in American society onto the wartime agenda.

BOOK: The Fiery Trial
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