The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery

Eric Foner, Norton, $29.95 (448p) ISBN 978-0-393-06618-0
A mixture of visionary progressivism and repugnant racism, Abraham Lincoln’s attitude toward slavery is the most troubling aspect of his public life, one that gets a probing assessment in this study. Columbia historian and Bancroft Prize winner Foner (Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men) traces the complexities of Lincoln’s evolving ideas about slavery and African-Americans: while he detested slavery, he also publicly rejected political and social equality for blacks, dragged his feet (critics charged) on emancipating slaves and accepting black recruits into the Union army, and floated schemes for “colonizing” freedmen overseas almost to war’s end. Foner situates this record within a lucid, nuanced discussion of the era’s turbulent racial politics; in his account Lincoln is a canny operator, cautiously navigating the racist attitudes of Northern whites, prodded—and sometimes willing to be prodded—by abolitionists and racial egalitarians pressing faster reforms. But as Foner tells it, Lincoln also embodies a society-wide transformation in consciousness, as the war’s upheavals and the dynamic new roles played by African-Americans made previously unthinkable claims of freedom and equality seem inevitable. Lincoln is no paragon in Foner’s searching portrait, but something more essential—a politician with an open mind and a restless conscience. 16 pages of illus., 3 maps. (Oct.)
Reviewed on: 08/02/2010
Release date: 10/01/2010
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