Book Review: The Fiery Trial
The Fiery Trial
Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery
WW Norton 448pp £21
ISBN 978 0393 066180
I have experienced many instances of being obliged by better information, or fuller consideration, to change opinions even on important subjects, which I once thought to be right, but I found to be otherwise.
In The Fiery Trial, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, Eric Foner does precisely what his subtitle promises. For decades there has been controversy over the president’s position on slavery. On one hand we are given Saint Abe, committed to the good and the true, bestowing emancipation. On the other hand Lincoln was capable of egregious statements – in 1862 he told a distinguished group of black leaders: ‘You and we are different races ... you are far removed from being placed on an equality with the white race ... It is better for us both, therefore, to be separated’ – and is pictured as just another white racist. Taking in such remarks, a master historian persuasively traces Lincoln’s crucial route to the ending of slavery.
It is not Foner’s aim to give us a full biography of Lincoln; his eye is on the slavery question alone. As hard as political compromisers tried to sweep the issue under the rug, they failed totally. Slavery was on every tongue, including that of an ambitious lawyer in Illinois’s capital, Springfield. Long before his famous debates with Stephen Douglas in 1858 Lincoln was drawn into the controversies that accrued to the slavery issue. Foner expertly and thoroughly inspects them all.
Lincoln’s first policy initiative came in his single term as a Whig Congressman. In 1849 he offered (but never formally introduced) a plan for ending slavery in the nation’s capital. Calling for the strict return of fugitive slaves to owners, Lincoln was dubbed ‘the Slave-Hound of Illinois’ by abolitionist Wendell Phillips. The plan also called for slave owners to be compensated for the emancipation of their slaves, an idea Lincoln was to espouse until the ending of slavery.
In the White House when the war began Lincoln was determined to keep the slave-holding border states in the Union. To do so the president rescinded orders by army commanders freeing slaves in Missouri and on the Union-held South Carolina Sea Islands. Thus Lincoln began his presidency by again raising the wrath of abolitionists, determined to convince him to make the war to preserve the Union a war for emancipation.
The Fiery Trial makes clear how fond Lincoln was of the quixotic idea of colonising freed slaves in Latin America or Liberia. To find out why this went nowhere he need only have asked the potential colonists. Very few freed people had any thought of leaving what was, for better or worse, home.
In few discussions of the politics of slavery are black political thinkers given the attention Foner pays them. Frederick Douglass’s contributions to the arguments are as often referenced as those of white abolitionists and politicians. On a simpler level is a telling anecdote concerning William H. Johnson, who came to Washington from Springfield as the president’s valet and worked in the Treasury Department. When Johnson died in 1864 Lincoln had him buried at the Arlington National Cemetery with his name on the grave stone and the single word ‘Citizen.’ Lincoln had come a long way.
Like Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln was willing to learn on the job. Had he, as one former slave later said, ‘considered it too humiliating to learn in advanced years, our race would yet have remained [in bondage]’. To the inevitable question would Reconstruction have been different if Lincoln lived to complete his second term, Foner, begins to speculate and then, always the professional historian, carefully restrains himself. But he leaves no doubt that he regards Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson, as lacking ‘all the qualities of greatness that [Lincoln] possessed ... intellectually curious, willing to listen to criticism, attuned to the currents of northern public opinion, and desirous of getting along with Congress.’ In contrast Johnson was ‘self-absorbed, insensitive to the opinions of others, unwilling to compromise, and unalterably racist’. The abolitionist Lydia Maria Child summed it up: ‘It was great good luck to have the people elect a man who was willing to grow.’
William S. McFeely is the author of Portrait: A Life of Thomas Eakins (W.W. Norton & Co., 2008).
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