Eric Foner Thinks Anew About Lincoln and Slavery

Special from The Record

Sept. 28, 2010Bookmark and Share

As one of the nation's most prominent historians, Eric Foner has fulfilled a Columbia tradition of making history relevant to our own time, especially for audiences beyond the academy. While Foner retains a scholarly skepticism of facile comparisons between past and current events, he has consistently worked to make history part of our contemporary culture. Now he is about to publish his 22nd book, this one on a topic about which some might have thought there was little left to say: Abraham Lincoln and slavery. But it turns out that, despite Foner's own extensive scholarship on the 16th president's tumultuous epoch, the specific focus of The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery (W.W. Norton) remained fresh for him.

"I have touched on Lincoln in a number of my books on the pre-Civil War period, the Reconstruction era after the war," he explains. "But I personally have never really written directly about Lincoln and I thought that it was still possible to say something new, despite the voluminous literature that's out there."

Working on the book, Foner says, provided fresh insights about Lincoln's longtime opposition to slavery's westward spread; the role of the issue in the founding of the Republican Party in the 1850s; and, conversely, the frustration of abolitionists with Lincoln's resistance to emancipation in hopes of keeping slave-holding border states in the Union and his support of efforts to encourage blacks to resettle in colonies outside the U.S.

Foner believes that Lincoln's assassination and quick ascension to near saintly status as "the Great Emancipator" obscured a more interesting and human story about the change Lincoln underwent during the course of the war as he developed a greater respect for black people, so many of whom served bravely in the Union Army. What comes through the pages of The Fiery Trial is the sense of a practical, moral man of his time whose mind was open to change and who, only in the last years of his life, came to embrace the idea that former slaves could be full citizens in a reunified nation.

Q. One theme of your book is Lincoln's changing perspective on race. For many years, wasn't he more focused on saving the Union and preventing the spread of slavery than he was in abolishing it?

Lincoln never claimed to be an abolitionist, but he was strongly anti-slavery—there's no question about that. Like most politicians of the time, his position was that the westward expansion of slavery must be stopped. He was not willing to compromise on that. There was this idea that stopping the westward expansion would somehow eventually lead to the end of slavery. Lincoln was also devoted to the Constitution, the Union and the stability of the nation. Balancing those things was a very complicated process in the 20 years running up to the Civil War.

Q. The pre-Civil War period, you point out, was marked by two kinds of development in the United States: westward expansion and the Industrial Revolution. How did this new kind of economy affect the views of Lincoln and his peers?

We know that Lincoln grew up in modest circumstances on a self-sufficient farm. His father held the family together but never accumulated any significant amount of money. But during his own lifetime, Lincoln experienced what we call the market revolution, which benefited Illinois and Lincoln, too. He was a railroad lawyer, and by the time he ran for president, there were railroads crisscrossing Illinois. The state was becoming a major economic center of the United States. Lincoln believed this tremendous economic expansion offered opportunities to people like himself. And he was part of the glorification of Northern society as a place of opportunity, as opposed to what he considered the stagnant, unfair and undemocratic structure of slave society.

Q. People often seem to think of America's history with slavery as happening in a vacuum. What did a young man like Lincoln know about emancipation movements going on in England and elsewhere?

Lincoln was self-educated but widely read, and he was quite aware of the widespread discussions and actions about slavery in the 19th century. In one speech, he talks about Wilberforce and Sharp, the people who led the movement to abolish the slave trade in England. His early plans for getting rid of slavery were influenced by what happened in the British West Indies, where there was gradual emancipation with monetary compensation to the slave owners and some kind of apprenticeship system for the slaves as a transition to freedom. That's what he proposed in the early years of the Civil War to get the process of emancipation going, particularly in border slave states that remained in the Union.

Q. Was Lincoln's strategy of gradual, compensated emancipation in pivotal border states such as Kentucky, Maryland and Delaware politically doomed to fail? Do you see any echo of that dynamic today in President Obama's effort to achieve bipartisan support among the opposition party?

A former graduate student here at Columbia and now a professor, Manisha Sinha, wrote an op-ed piece comparing Lincoln's effort to conciliate the border slave states to Obama's effort to conciliate Republicans. She said Lincoln eventually realized that bipartisanship is a two-way street. You can't be bipartisan if the other side is not interested, and Lincoln eventually realized that border states were not interested in slave emancipation. He put forward various plans, and they were systematically rejected. Eventually, he moved to a completely different plan, which was immediate abolition. The key thing about Lincoln, as I've said, is when one policy didn't work, he was willing to change. He wasn't stubborn; he wasn't stuck to a policy. It was no humiliation to admit that something didn't work and that he'd have to try something else. I think that is one of the hallmarks of his greatness as a leader.

Q. At the same time, dedicated abolitionists criticized Lincoln for not being a strong enough ally to their cause.  Doesn’t that also sound a lot like the frustration felt by Obama's liberal supporters?

Well, of course historians don't like to pose parallels too closely between periods of the past and the present, although we all do it. But, then, as now, both presidents received severe criticism from what you might call the political left, and they resented it to some extent, although I would have to say that Lincoln showed a kind of open-mindedness and willingness to take criticism seriously. Abolitionists went to the White House, Lincoln talked to them, knew what they were saying. He didn't want to speak only to people who agreed with him, and he didn't surround himself with a small range of opinions. I think he realized that in a monumental crisis you must be open to new ideas, which enabled him to change and grow during the Civil War.

Q. In Lincoln’s time those who opposed slavery’s extension and supported the right of black men to serve in the Union Army were scathingly attacked for having a radical social agenda. Given what’s been going on in the public the debate on contemporary issues like illegal immigration and mosque construction in American communities, do we tend to forget that stoking such fears for political purposes isn’t anything new?

Appeals to prejudice, appeals to racism, appeals to ethnocentrism, appeals to anti-immigrant sentiment are very visible in our society today and certainly are not new. Lincoln in the 1850s had to deal with the Know-Nothings, a nativist anti-immigrant movement which he never joined and which he condemned, but he knew that Republicans needed their votes, so he kind of worked with them behind the scenes in some ways as well. The Democratic Party in the Civil War era was deeply racist and used what today would seem completely outrageous racial epithets and racial language to attack the Republicans, to attack Lincoln, and this can yield political dividends at various times. Unfortunately appeals to deep prejudice and can sometimes win you votes.

Q. In a time of fractious politics, newspapers and their editors were also key partisan players. How different was the press then from what we think of as the standard of objective news media in our era?

The 19th Century press was almost 100% partisan. Many newspaper editors were very important figures in the political parties. Henry J. Raymond, the editor of The New York Times, was also the head of the Republican National Committee, so you wouldn’t expect objectivity, so to speak, from his reporting. The top newspapers, The Tribune, The Times did have good correspondents in Washington, DC and war correspondents, and they reported what they saw and sometimes their reports conflicted with the editorial policy of the newspaper, but the newspapers of that time were scurrilous very often, full of abuse of the other party, and Lincoln suffered tremendous abuse from the Democratic press. Two Democratic journalists from The New York World invented this term miscegenation to use in the 1864 presidential campaign so that Democrats could charge the Republicans wanted this sexual intermingling of the races, and that was going to be the result of emancipation. So you’re not going to find an objective, nonpartisan journalistic press in the mid-19th Century.

Q. How can we understand the seeming contradiction that the man who came to be known as the "Great Emancipator" also actively promoted efforts to get former slaves to leave the U.S. and move to colonies in Africa, the Caribbean or South America?

In August 1862, Lincoln had a meeting with a black delegation in which he publicly pushed them toward endorsing the idea of colonization, of organizing among their own people to leave the country. He couldn't really conceptualize the United States as a biracial society of free people until really the last two years of his life. But then he did rethink these questions and moved to a very different position, which I think is much more interesting than to just say, "Well, he's born with all the right views and that's it throughout his whole life." While he ended up as the great emancipator, no question about it, he didn't get there in a straight line.

Q. Ultimately, Lincoln's views about race seemed to have changed in the last two years of his life. What was behind that?

By the end of the Civil War, 200,000 black men had served in the Union Army and Navy. Lincoln believed their contribution was essential to Union victory, and that by fighting, they had staked a claim to citizenship. But there were other things. Before the Civil War, Lincoln had virtually no contact with black people. And since he was not part of the abolitionist movement, he had no interaction before the war with articulate, politically active black men like Frederick Douglass or others. I think that this contact with African Americans of education, of talent, of political awareness broadened Lincoln's views of race. Lincoln also developed a deep, real compassion for the emancipated slaves and was concerned about their fate. We don't know what would have happened if Lincoln had not died in 1865, but he certainly was in a very different place in terms of race when he was assassinated than he had been when he entered the White House, or even a year or so into the Civil War.

Q. Was the Civil War in effect also a social revolution?

The historians Charles and Mary Beard called it the "second American Revolution." They were talking more about economics and the rise of industry, but the abolition of slavery is a revolutionary act, because slavery was the foundation of the society of half the country. Abolishing it meant you're going to have to have a new labor system, a new political system, a new system of race relations. It throws all those things up for grabs. It makes blacks feel for the first time that there really was the possibility of equality in the United States, which really no one had even glimpsed before the Civil War. At Lincoln's second inaugural, it is said that half the crowd was black; this would have been completely impossible before the Civil War. Why would any black person go to the inaugural of James Buchanan or Franklin Pierce?

Q. You allude to the great what-if question on Lincoln. What are your thoughts on how Reconstruction might have gone had he had lived out his second term?

I'm always asked what would have happened if Lincoln had not been killed. Lincoln was succeeded by a man who was his complete opposite. Some people grow in a crisis, as Lincoln did, and some people seem to shrivel away, and that's what happened to Andrew Johnson. He lacked Lincoln's broad-mindedness, he lacked his flexibility, he lacked his compassion for the emancipated slaves, he lacked Lincoln's connection with the Republicans in Congress and Northern public opinion. I think what would have happened is what happened during the war: Lincoln and Congress would have debated and fought, and they would have reached some kind of general policy on Reconstruction. It probably would have looked like what Congress passed over Johnson's vetoes in 1866: civil rights for black people, maybe limited black suffrage and federal protection of the rights of former slaves. It wouldn't have been as radical as Reconstruction would later become. Would it have worked better? Who knows. But the idea long embedded in our history that Andrew Johnson was simply following in Lincoln's footsteps is ludicrous. It is a tragedy that Lincoln was killed, given the man who followed him.

Q. Aside from it being the bicentennial of Lincoln's birth, why is he so relevant today?

Lincoln's life illuminates persistent questions of American history: obviously, the question of race, the role of the government, the role of presidential leadership, of social mobility in our society—all things he experienced in his own life. He seems like the quintessential American in some ways, and that's why I think every generation takes a new look at him. So there's nothing unusual perhaps in me coming along and saying, "Well, there's 10,000 books on Lincoln, but I have something to say—book number 10,001." I don't claim that this is the final word on Lincoln, but I do think that in some ways, Lincoln is always our contemporary.

—Interview by Record Staff

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