By Eric Foner
W.W. Norton & Company, $18.95, 426 pages
Eric Foner won the Pulitzer Prize for his 2010 biography titled The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, and with unmistakable good reason. The Fiery Trial — named for Lincoln’s 1862 proclamation that “the fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation” – examines Abraham Lincoln’s character at a depth not yet considered. Rather than rest easy with a Lincoln whose anti-slavery stance defines his career and life, Foner instead explores a deeper complexity: “Too often, Lincoln is presented as a singular model of prudence and pragmatism while other critics of slavery are relegated to the fringe, caricatured as self-righteous fanatics with no sense of practical politics,” Foner writes. “I believe that this displays a misunderstanding of how politics operates in a democratic society.”
“Lincoln did not enter the White House expecting to preside over the destruction of slavery. A powerful combination of events, as we have seen, propelled him down the road to emancipation and then to a reconsideration of the place blacks would occupy in a post-slavery America. … Yet as the presidency of his successor demonstrated, not all men placed in a similar situation possessed the capacity for growth, the essence of Lincoln’s greatness.”
In attempting to locate Lincoln within a broader realm of antislavery thought, Foner considers not just what Lincoln has written and spoken but also what Lincoln does not say or consider. One hallmark of Lincoln’s greatness was his capacity for growth. How, then, can we pinpoint him with singular quotes, ideologies, or assumptions? Foner asks. In his attempt to question Lincoln’s shortcomings alongside his strengths, Foner writes a biography that raises Civil War considerations to a new level. This book is a must-read for history buffs and students of American culture and heritage.
Reviewed by Jennie A. Harrop