The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery
(2010) by the American history scholar Eric Foner received the 2011 Pulitzer Prize in History. The book is a “narrow” biography
—it doesn’t trace all of Abraham Lincoln’s life, but instead uses his speeches, letters, and other writings to trace the evolution of his thinking and beliefs on the issue of slavery. As Foner explains, the idea of the book is not to engage with previous biographies of Lincoln or to give a comprehensive account of his life, but instead to show that “Lincoln's career was a process of moral and political education and deepening anti-slavery conviction . . . that the hallmark of Lincoln's greatness was his capacity for growth.”
The title of the book comes from a State of the Union address Lincoln made in 1862, where he said of the Civil War, “Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history. We of this Congress and this administration will be remembered in spite of ourselves…The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation.” By tracing Lincoln’s private and public understanding of slavery, its abolition, and the aftereffects of getting rid of the “peculiar institution,” the book describes Lincoln’s own fiery trial as he goes from a man privately deeply morally opposed to slavery to one willing to back that up with dramatic public action.The Fiery Trial
is organized chronologically. Beginning with Lincoln’s time in the Illinois legislature in the 1830s, it goes through his congressional term in the 1840s, discusses his increasing role as the leader of the Republican Party in the 1850s, continues through his presidency during the Civil War, and speculates about what might have happened had he not been assassinated and instead had overseen the Reconstruction. At the same time, Foner paints a vivid picture of the context in which Lincoln’s ideas were changing – the different ways in which the Americans of that time thought about slavery and the possibilities of what would come after.
Although it is clear that Lincoln was privately deeply opposed to slavery, for the vast majority of his political career he was a moderate on the issue. In the nineteenth century, moderation meant embracing the general consensus that the Constitution legalizes and protects the institution of slavery in the original southern slave states. Other commonly held beliefs were that slavery would take about one hundred years to undo and that even though free black people should be able to benefit from the fruit of their labor, they should not have the right to live among whites or to gain suffrage. For example, Illinois, the state where Lincoln practiced law and in which he later represented in Congress, passed a law that any free black person who wanted to settle there had to post a $1000 bond (about $30,000 in today’s money).
As Lincoln rose through the Republican ranks, he used the growing discomfort with slavery as a way of cementing party unity and attracting votes. But this meant finding the lowest common denominator of abolitionist sentiment, rather than subscribing to that then fringe radical idea that free black people should have the same legal rights and privileges as white people. Instead, to bolster his nomination in 1860, Lincoln focused on opposing the expansion of slavery into the Western territory, and arguing against the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision as an unprecedented attack on states’ rights – but he also made sure to stress his belief in not interfering with slave-owning states and not to talk about any possible future civil rights.
There is an argument to be made that if the Union Army had successfully squelched Southern secession within a year, the slave states would have been allowed to continue as they were. But since the conflict went poorly enough for the North that it soon turned into a hard war of attrition, Lincoln was able to use the fact that his government had no coherent slavery policy to coax and massage public opinion into the realization that since slavery began the war, and since it enabled the South to continue fighting, then it must be destroyed. As the book points out, Lincoln’s efforts were helped by the fact on the ground, as more and more escaped slaves joined the Union Army, which toward the end of the war was about ten percent black.
Still, even as he was more and more convinced that slavery simply could not be supported in this country, for a long time, Lincoln still could not fully envision a future in which blacks and whites lived side by side. Even two months before he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, he was telling delegations of freed black people that he thought that the best solution would be for them to accept voluntary colonization of Africa, Haiti, or Colombia. This ostensible solution was an idea that was rejected by some as unethical – and certainly opposed by black people themselves – but it was popular with politicians who were still trying to build some kind of bridges between antislavery and anti-black beliefs in their constituencies.
For Lincoln, this idea only fell away after he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, a document which allowed his inner moral convictions and lack of bigotry to align with what he had witnessed during the war from black troops. It is clear that from this point on he could indeed imagine a future in which the citizenry consisted of black and white people on an equal legal footing with each other. The book ends with Foner’s speculation that much of the disenfranchisement and segregation of black people may have been avoided if Lincoln had not been assassinated.
As is obvious from its Pulitzer, Foner’s book has received much praise. The tenor of the commentary is best summed up by David W. Blight in the San Francisco Chronicle
, who wrote that The Fiery Trial
is “a distinctive and valuable book, showing persuasively that we should not understand Lincoln from the myth-glazed outcome reading backward, but from the beginning, through one transformative event after another, looking forward.”