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Clif's Book World

Adventures from reading books captured within short reviews.

The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery - Eric Foner This book is a study of American slavery and the political events that shaped Lincoln's attitude toward it. Conventional wisdom would indicate that Abraham Lincoln, known as the Great Emancipator, would also be an advocate of equal rights and racial integration. It turns out that the historical reality is a bit more complicated than that. The journey from the antebellum years, through the Civil War and into the Reconstruction era witnessed a long slow shift of public opinion in the midst of a wide spectrum of extremes in public sentiment on issues related to slavery, race relations and civil rights. The greatness of Lincoln becomes apparent in his ability to perform the almost impossible task of steering a moderate course through this treacherous time, doing his best to keep the extremes at the table in an environment where it appeared that almost nobody was happy with his reluctance to support their extreme. Along the way it is apparent that Lincoln learned from his experiences and that his views changed as the world around him changed.

Most people in the early 19th Century considered the abolitionists to be the radial fringe. The antebellum northern states were surprisingly racist when viewed from today's standards. Northern sentiment was mostly anti-slavery, but also anti-negro. They distinguished between natural rights, social rights, and legal rights. The consensus seemed to be that freed Negroes deserved natural rights which meant they should benefit from the fruits of their labor. But they didn't believe that freed blacks should have social rights to live among whites, nor should they have the right to vote. Examples that illustrate this attitude include an Illinois law the required any freed black to post a $1,000 bond before they were allowed to live in the state. Another example is the Federal Government refusing to issue passports to freed blacks on the basis that Negroes weren't citizens. Also, as late as the end of the Civil War, only six of the northern states allowed freed blacks to vote.

Abraham Lincoln grew up in southern Illinois and, as can be expected of a man from this community, picked up many of the commonly held stereotypes of African Americans. Lincoln probably never had an extended conversation with a black person before he became President. He repeatedly said he hated slavery, but neither he nor most Americans of the time had any idea of how to go about ending the "peculiar" institution. Almost everyone agreed that it would take at least an generation (or perhaps a 100 years) to bring it to an end. Many northerners, including Lincoln, believed that formers slaves would need to return to a tropical climate since obviously they couldn't stay in a white man's country. The irony here is that few American negroes were interested in these colonization schemes. A higher percentage of American slaves were native born than the white population. Freed slaves were less likely to wish for a return to Africa than whites were willing to return to Europe. Nevertheless, Lincoln continued to be interested in various colonization plans even after members of his cabinet explained that it was logistically impossible.

The following quotation from the book describes a meeting between Lincoln and a group of African Americans during the Civil War where some of the things Lincoln said turned out to be somewhat prophetic of the direction history would actually take for the next 150 years:
" "You and we are different races," Lincoln told them. Because of white prejudice, "even when you cease to be slaves, you are yet far removed from being placed on an equality with the white race . . . It is better for us both, therefore, to be separated." Lincoln offered a powerful indictment of slavery: "Your race are suffering in my judgment, the greatest wrong inflicted on any people." But he refused to issue a similar condemnation of racism, although he also declined to associate himself with it. Blacks, he said, could never "be placed on a equality with the white race" in the United States; whether this "is right or wrong I need not discuss." "

If the Union army had been able to defeat the Confederacy within the first year of the war, slavery would have probably been allowed to continue in the south with the stipulation that slavery was not be allowed to spread into the new territories. But things did not go well for the north in the first couple years of the war. So it became apparent the it would be a "hard war" -- war not simply of army against army but of society against society. It became a war of attrition. The North became desperate for more troops so it finally began to allow freed slaves and freedmen to serve in the army. Attitudes changed dramatically in the North when it became apparent that they were making significant contributions to the fighting of the war. By the end of the Civil War about 10 percent of the Northern army was black.

It can be argued that if Sherman's army had not been able to occupy Atlanta before the date of the presidential election that Lincoln would not have been reelected. The North's attitude toward the war changed completely with the fall of Atlanta which was a major rail hub. The South had been cut it two, and it was clear that the Confederacy had lost its means to supply its armies.

This book explains that Lincoln's plans for reconstruction were not finalized by the time of his death, so it is not possible to predict what he would have done had he not been assassinated. However, the author says he is positive that Lincoln would not have become as estranged and alienated from Congress as his successor Andrew Johnson was. He says that Lincoln was probably the most skilled politician of all time, and was succeeded by the least skilled (i.e. worst) President in American history.

The following is taken from the NY Times review:
"Lincoln once declared that he couldn’t control events; they controlled him. More cogently than any previous historian, Foner examines the political events that shaped Lincoln and ultimately brought out his true greatness."

Perhaps events did indeed have an impact on Lincoln's actions. However, in my opinion, if ever there is a case where one individual influenced the direction of the future, it is Lincoln and the skill with which he responded to events.

The following is a review of this book from PageADay's Book Lover's Calendar for February 11 & 12, 2012:
The Fiery Trial, the definitive account of emancipation from a celebrated history professor at Columbia, also embodies a thrilling and wholly new approach. Eric Foner teases out the tangled knot of race and politics in 19th-century America to illustrate how Lincoln calibrated his politics to achieve his goal: the freedom of four million slaves and their recognition as American citizens. Foner was awarded the Presidential Award for Outstanding Teaching in 2006. His 2002 book, Reconstruction, won the Los Angeles Times, Bancroft, and Francis Parkman book prizes.