The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery

 by Eric Foner, W.W. Norton & Co.

Looking for flaws in an Eric Foner book is like looking for flaws in the Hope Diamond; it’s a fool’s errand. Better to get comfortable and let a real pro transport you—in this instance, into the heart and mind of Abraham Lincoln as he wrestled with the political, legal and moral implications of slavery and emancipation.

Foner’s analysis of Lincoln’s metamorphosis from an obscure country lawyer who opposed slavery to a wartime president determined to abolish the South’s “peculiar institution” forever is based on three core concepts: Lincoln’s sharp legal mind and firm grasp of constitutional law; his mastery of the art of the politically possible and sensitivity to ebb and flow of public opinion; and his innate ability to learn and grow. The compelling story of how Lincoln evolved from advocating gradual compensated emancipation and relocation back to Africa to a champion of emancipation and civil rights for blacks is at the heart of Foner’s study.

The summer of 1862 saw a dramatic shift in Northern thinking about the conflict. Within this context, Foner writes, “Congress broke the long logjam on the use of black troops and the confiscation of Confederate property, and Lincoln made the decision for emancipation.” The Emancipation Proclamation “altered the nature of the Civil War, the relationship of the federal government to slavery, and the course of American history.” Whatever its limitations, according to Foner, the proclamation “ensured that northern victory would produce a social transformation in the South and a redefinition of the place of blacks in American life.”

A clear and precise master of prose himself, Foner provides an insightful reading of Lincoln’s speeches and public papers. This allows him to identify the signs of the times critical to Lincoln’s intellectual and moral growth. Moreover, Foner’s breadth of historical knowledge helps him understand that what Lincoln did not say was often as important as what he did.


Originally published in the April 2011 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here